Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Sep 25

Yes, Investigative Journalism CAN Pay. And Pay Well.

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, New Media Strategery, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers, This week in paid content, Wrongheaded solutions.
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Mediapart in France is profitable because it gives readers what they are willing to pay for.

Imagine that.

mediapart.fr front page

The Mediapart organization makes its living by doing hard-hitting investigative journalism that its audience is willing to support. They also make a point of including lots of video on their pages.

Quick hit here for my students, who are increasingly upset about their job prospects after graduation.

I shared an article from Neiman about the upheaval in the newspaper business in France. Apparently, the same problems that plague the French economy at large are at work, writ small & exceedingly acerbic, at the major newspapers. They are tech-phobic, rely on business models that no longer fully function, and react angrily to anyone threatening the promise of a cushy work situation with guaranteed employment and 1/4 of the year spent on vacation.

Can’t imagine why that can’t cut it in a world increasingly dominated by the internet work ethic of, “If you eat lunch … you ARE lunch.” Somehow, I don’t think this will fit in with a languid afternoon at a sidewalk cafe with a nice burgundy and a baguette slathered with brie. With accordion music wafting in the background.

But about 2/3 of the way down the article, there appeared these grafs, which I am going to excerpt here, although I do urge you to go to the Neiman site & give them some traffic-love, ’cause @petergumbel did a damn good job with this write-up:

Edwy Plenel, for one, is incensed by the conflicts of interest inherent in the French press. But then that’s not entirely surprising, since outrage is Plenel’s mojo.

He has come a long way since his revolutionary youth, which he wrote about in a 2001 memoir. He made his mark as an investigative journalist at Le Monde; one of his most celebrated scoops was uncovering the role of French intelligence in the 1985 sinking in New Zealand of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior. He made the Elysée so nervous that it illegally bugged his phone during the presidency of François Mitterrand. He spent a total of 25 years at Le Monde, including a stint as editor in chief, but he left in 2005 during one of its sporadic crises, after attacks on his management style.

He launched Mediapart as a subscription site in December 2007. Three years later it was at break-even. Today, it’s racing toward 100,000 subscribers, each paying the equivalent of about $12 per month. This year he expects the site to make about $2 million net profit on just over $10 million in revenue. It has a staff of 50, 33 of whom are journalists. It now outsells Libération, which has almost six times as many staff members. [Emphasis mine - dlf]

The secret: a laser focus on exclusive news, especially revelations of high-level political and financial skullduggery. Mediapart’s subscriptions soared in 2010, the year it broke the story about a convoluted political and financial scandal involving France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt. They leaped again in 2013, after it revealed that the then-budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, whose job included fighting tax evasion, himself had an undeclared Swiss bank account and had transferred funds to Singapore. After denying the allegations for months, Cahuzac eventually resigned, acknowledging that he had lied to parliament and to President François Hollande.

Work the numbers, folks. $10 mill in revenue-$2M profil = $8M in expenses. $8M/50 employees = $160K/yr per employee. Figure about 40% of that per-employee allocation is insurance, pension, and building/maintaining the site & gathering news costs, and you still get a salary of $64K/yr on average. For a journalist, that ain’t bad. Plus you’ve got a warchest of $2M that you can throw at a big story, should one come up, and to use to build out the site & extend its reach.

So. There’s a lot going on here. I’ve written in the past about how I disagree with the authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, who called for exactly the kinds of government subsidies for newspapers that are allowing them to continue to try to deny reality, and live in a fantasy-bubble. At the time, I was reacting to what I’ve seen in Latin America, Georgia, Kazakhstan and other places where allowing the government to get its hands on the revenue stream is akin to letting criminals loop a choke-chain around your throat. They can lead you around by it, and if you start getting out of line, all they need to do is give it a quick, sharp yank, and you fall back in line, suitably docile.

I’ve seen that happen. First-hand. In Venezuela, when I was a very young editor.

Government subsidies are kinda like this. Nothing really sticks until you try to do something that the person holding the leash doesn’t like.

The solution that Mediapart has come up with here may not last. It may not work everywhere. But it’s something that makes a lot more sense to me than journalism that exists as a kind of state-supported performance art piece. Because I’ve seen that as well: journalists who are completely disconnected from the concerns of their audience, sporting paternalistic, condescending attitudes, producing self-indulgent “investigations” that nobody really reads, and that don’t really threaten the people who give them checks each month.

So when I see that Mediapart is actually making a pretty nice profit, running with a lean staff, and dedicating itself to serving the interests of its audience, it pretty much makes my day, particularly in light of the grim news out of the LA Register, NBC news, and pretty much every other traditional media outlet recently.

Look, I am not hooting and hanging on the rim here, delighting in the travails of people still stuck in jobs at tottering media empires, hanging on for dear life through ownership changes, strategy changes, and promises that melt away like morning dew.

Long-term, market forces are going to prevail. If journalists produce a product that people want, and give them a means by which to support/purchase/share it, then that audience will fight to ensure that this important part of their lives is still there. The very first case study I ever did was centered around that fact. It makes me sad to see so many journalists, who base their entire journalistic ethos on pushing people and institutions to change, to adapt to the times, to leave behind (even if painful) the habits & traditions of the past … ignoring their own best advice.

Liberation may not be a cafe. But it may also not be an outlet for journalism much longer either.

 

 

 

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Aug 18

Why newspapers are losing subscribers: “failure of the last mile”

Posted: under Catching a Falling Knife, Denial of Reality, New Media Strategery, newspaper crisis, Newspapers, Web Tech, Webconomics, Wrongheaded solutions.
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Web-native companies strive to eliminate “transactional friction.” Newspapers? Not so much.

I’ve been a subscriber to the LA Times for as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and I’ve watched as the big beast evolved from a gray morass of 100-inch stories to the biggest (and most profitable) paper in the U.S. in the late 90s. Which has made the last decade and a half so very hard to watch. Still, I’ve stuck by Gray Lady West through some very tough times, and I have many friends who either work there now, or have in the recent past.

grinder throwing sparks

“Frictionless commerce” is what makes iTunes, Amazon, Google AdSense, Craigslist and so many other web titans so successful. It means that you make it as easy as possible for customers to actually buy something from you. (Image credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

As newspapers increasingly set their sights on a “digital first” strategy (despite some notorious recent flameouts), it occurs to me that they are neglecting one of the most crucial, and overlooked departments in the entire organization: circulation. I got unpleasant evidence of this when I attempted to renew my subscription to the Times.


 

First: a lesson in what “failure of the last mile” means: consider what goes into making a successful restaurant. You have to have a prime location. Decorate the exterior. Decorate the interior. Hire a great chef. Hire great kitchen assistant chefs. Come up with an innovative menu, with food that appeals to your core demographic. Procure the freshest ingredients. Ensure that the food prep space is clean and gets an “A” from the city inspectors. Advertise. Market. Give out coupons. Sweet-talk reviewers into coming and writing reviews. Have valet parking. And so much, much more that all leads up to the “last mile” – what the experience is like at the “touch point” where the customer actually engages with the product.

In a nutshell: all this effort in preparation to make a great restaurant counts for nothing if the waiter is snotty to the diners.

I’ve seen this in action again and again with the startups I’ve been involved with. Early on, we faced epic levels of “cart abandonment” when trying to coerce people into making a purchase, because (at the time) people were really, really reticent to type their credit card numbers, expiration dates and security codes into a browser window. Since then, we’ve obviously learned that data theft can pretty much happen anywhere. However, this hurdle was gradually overcome via the efforts of eBay, Amazon, iTunes and PayPal. All of which add layers of security, and money-back guarantees if your card gets hijacked and used to buy pallets of AK-47s in Cote d’Ivoire.

So here’s what trying to buy a subscription from the LA Times looks like. You dial a number. There’s a choppy, slow voicemail hell, with choices that really don’t seem to apply to what you want to do. There is no dedicated 800 number for renewing subscriptions – you just get dumped into the bin with people who want to report their paper getting stolen, or who want to turn it off while they go visit the grandkids. So that’s turnoff #1. Even as a dedicated subscriber, I wanted to hang up and just try the website to see if I could get a better experience. Still, I hung in there to see whether things would improve.

It took 3 steps and 2 minutes to get to a place where I could finally start to accomplish what I came for. Unfortunately, rather than talking with a human – I had to manually enter a credit card number over touch-tone. That’s Strike Two, folks. If you’re going to be giving up that kind of info, consumers kinda want to get rewarded with a human voice, particularly if they have any queries about what they’re buying and how much it costs. Which I did.

So I grimly stuck to it, even after entering my financial information, hoping to get someone on the phone to explain the rather complex choices on payment amounts and term of subscription that came on the paper bill I was mailed. Pressing the “0” button just kicked me back into the main menu. Somewhere along the line, as the frustration increased, I heard that I had to “Press 9 to Speak to a Representative.” Only, that kicked me back to the main menu as well.

Finally, I started doing “button mashing” which usually triggers a kickout script in the automated phone-tree software. Call centers have learned that when they have tortured consumers to the point where we start just randomly pushing buttons and screaming with frustrated rage, maybe it’s time for some human intervention.

Sure enough, there was a silent blip as the call was transferred to a call center. Not in India – the costs for call centers have gone up there. No, this one was to the new lowest-cost call center hub – in the Phillippines. The operator was friendly enough, but the problem started when I asked about the payment terms. Under the subscription plan they now offer, the LA Times gives me unlimited web access (which is mostly how I engage with their news product these days no surprise), and charges me about $12 every two months. But looking at the rate card I was mailed, it seemed as though they were trying to incentivize me to subscribe for 6 months or an entire year by offering price breaks for these longer-term commitments.

So sure. Maybe if you let me shave a few bucks off the bill, I’ll pay you the whole amount upfront and let you make some money off the “float” of having my entire wad of subscription money that you can earn interest on. It’s one of the ways that smart companies entice consumers into locking themselves into making a yearlong commitment.

Unfortunately, the call center operator had no earthly idea of the pricing structure for the product she was trying to sell.

After having to verify (for the 3rd time on this now 15-minute call) my phone number, address, name, credit card number, etc., just asking how much I was going to pay flummoxed this person. I was quoted three different prices for the subscription I now have. I corrected the operator a couple of times, and finally after teaching her about the product she was trying to sell, got to the bottom line.

I can pay $12 every two months for the next year. Or I can pay $83 up front to “lock in” the subscription price.

Waitaminute.

Let’s do the math here.

If I pay every two months, that’s six payments a year, right? Simple math: 6 payments x $12 = $72 a year.

And you want me to pay $83 upfront in one lump sum? How does that make financial sense? I’d be paying MORE for a yearlong subscription rather than saving a few bucks.

The operator stammered and then went back to the script of “locking in the subscription price.”  Well, is the price going to go up then? No. I don’t know. Maybe.

By how much? I don’t know. When? I don’t know. But it might. Is there anyone else I can talk to about this? Not right now.

OK, at this point, I hung up. Deconstructing this entire experience, from a webconomics point of view, this is an absolute disaster. The LA Times has made it difficult and frustrating for existing subscribers to attempt to continue to be subscribers. They’ve cut costs in their circ department by outsourcing all the call center jobs to places where ill-trained people stumble over what should be easy points. And finally, their pricing structure makes no sense once you drill down and work the numbers for yourself. And the numbers are completely different on the web, in the mailers, according to the people on the phone. The price just keeps changing!

This makes it impossible for the end-user (i.e. subscriber) to trust the prices that we’re being given. Yeah, it’s only a few bucks, but come on, now. You guys know – or SHOULD KNOW – how consumers react when they start to suspect that someone else is getting a better deal.

I’ve written at length over the years about the migration from an ad-supported revenue model to a subscription-based model (AKA “paywalls”). The jury’s still out on how well this is going to work out for the newspaper industry; yes, the New York Times, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are often cited as success stories (although detractors point to weaknesses in their underlying dynamics). News organizations across the board are looking to ways that they can support themselves by charging subscriptions to access their material.

This only works when that transaction is quick, easy and painless.

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Apr 06

Institutionalized piracy in Russia – Russia’s Facebook (vKontakte) sued by music labels

Posted: under Content Pirates, Denial of Reality, music, New Media and Politics, New Media Strategery, Webconomics, Wrongheaded solutions.

Russian ISPs openly brag about how much pirated content they have – it’s their market differentiator

Years ago, working in Russia, back when the whole “Content Pirates” project was just the mere glimmering of an instinct, I was talking with the local techies about how the web works in Russia. At the time, we were trying to implement an internet-centric business model for a publishing company, and were coming up against massive cultural differences in how to make money off of content.

Pavel Durov's profile on vKontakte

This profile for vKontakte founder Pavel Durov is particularly ironic, since he just bailed out of the company, citing intense pressure from Kremlin-backed investors. The site has 143 million users worldwide, 88 million in Russia. They generate about $170 million a year in revenues, mostly from advertising. And the site is rife with pirated works.

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Sep 24

Apple’s iOS EULA: All Your Content R Belong to Us!!

Posted: under Digital Migration, New Media Strategery, Wrongheaded solutions.
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Every time I read through one of these EULAs, it just keeps getting worse and worse.

I upgraded the iPad to iOS6, because I wanted to test it out, and I’m not ready yet to turn the Maps feature on my iPhone into a hot, steaming mess. But part of the whole upgrading regimen is, as is depressingly familiar to Apple users, having to agree to a new, dense and even more piracious End User Licensing Agreement (aka those damn “I Agree” screens that 99.9% of the population never actually reads, but just clicks on to make them go away).

apple's abusive privacy agreement for iCloud

I can’t believe the language in these things. The privacy policy has obviously been re-worked to try to put it in words that an actual human being would use – which kinda makes things even more insidious. They make an outrageous statement about how Apple is going to spy on you, and then they offer up a carefully worded explanation that makes you kinda go, “Hm. Well, I guess I can see that … that’s not so bad…”

So here, as a service to any of you who might be interested in just what rights you irrevocably, permanently, idiotically, signed away without ever actually bothering to check, are some choice bits from the EULA that is now part of your iPhone/iPad/iPod:

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Dec 15

“Filter Bubbles” and the Raison d’Etre for This Here Blog

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Denial of Reality, Digital Migration, New Media and Politics, New Media Strategery, Wrongheaded solutions.
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Eli Pariser’s TED talk on the dangers of allowing someone else to choose what you see/hear/feel

If I were a weaker man, I’d just fold up my tent and move on.

However, upon closer inspection, I find myself saying “Yahbut …” a lot throughout this FUD screed.

Pariser has an entire web site devoted to this concept, called, The Filter Bubble. 

To all this sturm und drang, I can only respond by calling upon the wisdom of the Great Philosopher, Sgt. Hulka:

Lighten up, Francis.

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Nov 20

Wrongheaded Solutions: eBooks (… on a little plastic card to be inserted in the e-reader)

Posted: under Denial of Reality, Digital Migration, Platform obsession, Wrongheaded solutions.

Norwegian company Norli Libris  introduces nonsensical “eBook” publishing model

Quick Hit: Saw this on BoingBoing, followed it over to Applied Abstractions, and just couldn’t resist commenting on it, for 1) the benefit of my international students, who might wonder WTF is up with this and 2) to keep me from yanking out my own hair by the fistful. The idea is that consumers will have to buy digital books not as downloadable files, but on cards called Digi Short, which will be inserted into the back of customized (i.e. DRM’d to death) Kibano Digi Readers.

Apparently, the one advantage would be that said “books” would thus be exempt from VAT in Norway, although the list price will be the same as a download.

Nut graf:

The Norwegian publishing and bookselling industry, an astonishingly
backward group of companies when it comes to anything digital, yesterday
introduced a new concept for e-books that, even for them, is rather
harebrained. They want to sell e-book tablets where you can buy books
not as downloads (well, you can do that, too) but as files loaded on
small plastic memory cards, to be inserted into the reader [article in Norwegian].
This preserves their business model (though they can probably stop
using trucks and start using bicycles for distribution). According to
their not very convincing market analysis, this is aimed at the segment
of the book buying market who do not want to download books from the net
(but, for some reason, seem to want to read books electronically.)

This is such an awful, awful, CueCat-level thinking approach to digital distribution. The whole point of having a mobile device like the iPad or Kindle or Nook is so that you can do instant purchases & consumption of content. You walk past a poster advertising the new blockbuster action movie, now available as a Blu-Ray or for download – you know you’re going to have an hour to kill on the commuter train on the way home, and you missed the movie in theaters, to you decide to splurge. Out comes the tablet, button is pushed, movie is set to download in the background as you continue walking to the train station/subway/hovercraft depot.

Hint: You want to ENCOURAGE your customers to make impulse buys of your content, rather than make it tougher for them & thus allow time for second thoughts to creep in.

Making the public buy, collect, sort & carry with them little plastic cards with books on them? Good God. It displays the desperate attempt to keep the content all within the walled garden; if we can’t sell dead-tree editions or shiny little discs (goes the thinking), well, maybe if we just shrink it all down to credit-card size, we can keep people having to pay us for physical objects. And as long as the Big Publishing controls distribution, pricing & availability of a physical object, well then, all the old rules still apply.

Only they don’t.

The old rules haven’t applied for some time now.

People will not carry around little cards with books as data on them, slotting them in and out of a tablet reader. And even if (via some alien mind-control ray that bathes the Earth in Luddite Stupidity) they do, a thriving business will soon spring up, dealing in the blank pieces of plastic that can then be filled with the data.

The media business is no longer, and never will again be about, the control of big belching factories that churn out physical copies of stuff that gets trucked from A to B and then put on shelves. It’s about paying attention to every other step that used to lead up to that point. You know, all the stuff that newspapers and TV stations and movie studios and record companies ignored, and is the reason so many of them are in trouble.

That is, concentrating on creating something wonderful. Useful. Delightful.

Cool.

It makes me sad to see that so many companies are still thinking in terms of how to defeat the digital revolutions, rather than on how we can use the web to do so many totally new, amazing art forms.

UPDATE: The initial reports (see the fact that this was a “Quick Hit”) seemed to indicate that it was Digi.no that was doing this. It turns out that it is a company named Norli Libris, whose attempt at rolling the clock back has elicited comment from other bloggers, as well as the mighty EnGadget. I thus fixed the attribution & links at the top of this post, and added a graf explaining more about Norli Libris.  Thanks to @sigvald for pointing this out via Twitter (and to Google Translate for helping me decipher the Norwegian story on this.)

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Aug 07

CNN International segment on Murdoch, phone-hacking & tabloid tactics

Posted: under New Marketing, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers, television, Webconomics, Wrongheaded solutions.

The good folks at CNN asked me to appear on Backstory” to talk about the News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal.

I tried to oblige them with some insights onto why this kind of scandal keeps happening, and why. You can see the results of the interview in the segment below:

More on why the news business keeps getting hit with privacy scandals like this, and why it won’t stop after the jump…

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Sep 14

From Zell to Eisner as Tribune Chief: Is This Supposed to be an Improvement?

Posted: under newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Wrongheaded solutions.

The Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers used to represent the sinewy, beating heart of American journalism. Then they got run into the ground, bought up by Tribune dorks who were more interested in playing out their boyhood “I wanna play right field for the Cubs!” fantasies, and then sold to the “grave dancer,” Sam Zell.


Zell’s many, many misdeeds, missteps and misstatements these past three years are probably filling many venemous former Timesmen’s memoirs even as I type. But while the wheels of corporate justice grind slow … well, in those cases in current America, where the wheels grind at all … where there are even regulators and prosecutors employed & willing to throw a shoulder to the wheels … OK, enough with that by-now-Abu Ghraib’d metaphor.  The point is that the more we learn about the circumstances under which Zell was allowed to buy the Tribune Corp & the LA Times, the more shady, unethical and perhaps even criminal the deal smells.

Now that the Tribune creditors seem to have grown a pair, and are starting to openly murmur about where all their money might have gone – in stark contrast to so many investors who have complacently plodded through the zigzagging pens of modern American Capitalism towards where the Bernie Madoffs, Angelo Mozilos & Magnetars of this world wield their blood-soaked financial sledgehammers – the word is out that Zell has reached the end of the plank.

So now what?

The villagers gathered around the moat look at each other blankly, their torches sputtering, pitchforks starting to droop. There is muttering in the ranks, a strange sense of deflation. What to do now that the monster has abandoned them?

Perhaps some new savior will arise. One who can lead them out of the bottomless cycle of self-asphyxiation and learned helplessness. A man who has “vision,” and who (with just the right sort of spineless boot-licking understanding board of directors) can restore the kingdom to its past glory. Maybe … maybe … yes. Yes! That’s it!

This shall be the image of serious news-gathering and investigative reporting in America.

We’ve earned it.

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Mar 27

Saviors Rejected: How GM Refused to Change, and What Newspapers Can Learn From Their Example

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, Newspaper Deathwatch, Uncategorized, Webconomics, Wrongheaded solutions.
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GM’s NUMMI plant in Fremont was the solution to their crisis.      So why did they ignore its lessons?


I strongly urge you to listen to this great piece from This American Life about the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont.

They don't make 'em like this any more. Even so, the rear bumper had to be reattached.

It’s about how the U.S. auto industry could have saved itself by actually paying attention to the way its business was eroding, and listening to the people who came back from Japan and transformed the Fremont plant from a place that was “like a prison … with sex, drugs and alcohol freely indulged in during the working day … where the workers maliciously sabotaged cars, and the managers didn’t care, as long as they got their bonuses for churning out pure numbers…”

…into a place where the workers actually looked forward to coming to work each day, and where the quality of the cars they turned out was so high, that even now, 22 years later, many of those cars are still on the road. NUMMI stands for “New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.” and there is an excellent Wikipedia entry about it, if you want to get a little more background.

The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry, and the reason papers are in the same place as the auto industry. Let’s take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed the pooch:

1. Starting in the 80s and going through the 90s, sales declined, as customers were turned off by the shoddy quality of the product


In the auto industry:
anyone who drove a U.S.-made car in the 80s knows what I’m talking about. Everything about the cars sucked. The seats were uncomfortable to sit in, the controls made no sense and were hard to deal with.  I drove a lot of rental cars in that era, and I can’t tell you how many times the A/C control knob came off in my hand. Or the windshield wiper knob was installed upside-down. In one case, the bolt holding the steering column up on a Chevy Cavalier came loose and the steering wheel dropped into my lap. Which is minor, compared to the engines seizing and misfiring, the electrical system shorting out, the windows not rolling up (or down), the doors sagging on their hinges…

In the newspaper industry: the buyouts and mergers started by the relaxation of the cross-ownership rule, caused many papers to skeletonize their staffs, and run big colorful graphics in the papers. And lots more wire copy. I worked at the Arizona Republic during this era, and I saw what they were doing on “Zone Editions.”  We had the same cruddy stories for Mesa, as we did Tempe, as we did Scottsdale. They were feature stories about things like a guy with a trained parrot that would whistle and dance. We’d run it one week in the Mesa zone, and then the next week, I’d see it in the queue again for Scottsdale. Mostly, the Zone Editions were there to snarf up the advertisers in those areas, and make sure that no competition sprang up to challenge the big paper. “It doesn’t pay NOT to advertise,” was the slogan, and it was true, because of the package deals the Republic was able to offer, sucking the oxygen out of the local markets.  Most papers had a monopoly position in their markets, and could pretty much be assured of making a profit, no matter what they did. Meanwhile, the readers were starting to notice that their newspapers were lacking … how shall we say this … news.

2. The workers felt ignored and belittled, so they began to act out, and a “give a shit” attitude took over

In the auto industry: the line workers had no power to offer suggestions, and indeed, were punished for speaking up. All that mattered was churning out enough cars to meet the quotas, no matter how shitty the quality. Resentfulness led to workers intentionally sabotaging cars, which led to even greater expense down the line, when the shitty cars had to be fixed by workers who really didn’t understand what was wrong with them, and just used the “bigger hammer” method to make cross-threaded bolts hold, or quarterpanels stick onto the chassis.

In the news industry: a kind of rebellious fatalism took hold in newsrooms, both in print and TV. The reporters knew the bosses really didn’t give a shit about the news, they just wanted something that would get good ratings and not get them sued. Every TV producer I have ever met would, with little encouragement, go off about the corporate “suits” that were putting the vise on the newsrooms to “pop a number.” Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of O.J. Simpson, and more of things like the erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored. Newsrooms have always been “simmering cesspools of cynicism,” but this morphed into outright nihilism and rage.

3. A temporary bubble allowed the industry to rack up easy profits and postpone change

In the auto industry: The Bush-Cheney “let’s consume as much oil as we can” faction pushed through a tax break in the early ’00s that meant that people who leased a “light truck over 6,000 pounds” could write off the cost of the car.  Free SUVs for Everyone! What this did was support the Big Three, despite their declining market share, because they were making so damn much money off producing big fat gas-guzzling SUVs and selling them for massive mark-ups.  The SUV was actually pretty cheap to make – but Detroit was able to charge about $10-$20,000 more for them. And, of course, when the tax break ran out — and gas prices skyrocketed — the end of the free cars on the taxpayer’s dime era left GM without a viable product to sell, as consumers looked for more efficient cars.

In the newspaper industry: the subprime mortgage/real-estate boom created a huge advertising windfall for newspapers. The Homes section of the LA Times was often larger than the rest of the newspaper combined.  Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtors who were so awash in free money that they didn’t care what the cost was. Of course, the rest of the classified business was absolutely cratering at this time.  When the real-estate market imploded, and advertisers abandoned newspapers, looking for more efficient ways to sell their products, newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell. 

4. The industry blamed the people who were honestly pointing out the flaws

In the auto industry: the Detroit execs blamed Consumer Reports for pointing out that the cars they were inflicting on the American people were utterly without redeeming community value. They claimed that the Dirty F’n Hippies at Consumer Reports were biased towards the Japanese, were anti-American traitors, and were unfairly criticizing patriotic Americans. The U.S. cars were better, if only people would realize that.  The industry was in complete denial about how the auto-buying public had turned against it, after years of enduring an abusive and exploitative relationship, and how even Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who fondly remembered their high school days when they got their first muscle cars, were fed up with cars that broke down or rolled over, killing their families.

In the newspaper industry:
the newsrooms blamed the internet. They still blame the internet. They see the competition on the internet as being anti-American, that the public was deluded by web-based hucksters, and that imposing paywalls would make people realize how much they really needed to pay for news. No matter that the readers and advertisers have made their preferences clear – they must be MADE to come back and obey.

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Nov 29

Who Am I Really? Kaiser Permanente’s Curious Confusion

Posted: under Digital Migration, Wrongheaded solutions.

Online KP.org password sign-up confuses me with other people with the same name, asks for data on people I haven’t seen for years.

Against the advice of almost everyone I know, I recently switched from Anthem to Kaiser Permanente for our corporate health policy.  I know that it’s not an especially good time to be in the health insurance business, as all their spare profits being converted into fat wads of anonymous cash, being accidentally left under Washington, D.C. restaurant tables that congressmen just happen to be eating at … but I still buy into the conventional wisdom that “you gotta have health insurance.”


One of the features of Kaiser that induced me to make the switch was their supposed web-friendly way of managing your own health care records and doctor appointments.  Well, that and the fact that they are (for California, at least) dirt-cheap.  Anyway, since we here at Artesian Media like to think of ourselves as constantly connected internet smartypants, I figured Kaiser’s high-tech approach might actually be a better fit for our peripatetic lifestyle, plus I was more than a little curious to see what insurance companies consider to be “State of the Art web tools.”

I was impressed by the persistence of the doctors at Kaiser in pushing patients to use all these new web tools that have apparently been developed at great expense. This despite the fact that, as one worker at the big Kaiser mothership on Venice told me, “Without South-Central L.A., this place wouldn’t exist. Since ‘Killer King’ went down, we are the place to go if you are poor and live in Da Hood.”

[BRIEF ASIDE: For readers outside of LA, what she was referring to was the implosion of King-Drew Health Center in Los Angeles, after a series of excellent LA Times investigative reports chronicling how hospital workers mopped around the bodies of dying patients in the emergency room, committed absurd frauds to collect unwarranted disability payments, stole patient's painkillers and got high on the job, sexually harassed co-workers, and basically ran the hospital like a Turkish prison & torture chamber.]

Anyway – I decided to try to sign up at the KP.org site. I entered all my private information (the insurance company really seems to want to be able to figure out every single thing that could help them track you down should you welsh on a bill, but that’s understandable – if unsettling), and then clicked to get my password that would allow me to access my own medical records.

But before I could do that, I had to pass one final gantlet: a series of questions that KP.org says are “accumulated by an outside contractor, and that I should know the answers to.”  A kind of “This is Your Life, David LaFontaine.” 

Despite the Orwellian/Kafkaesque overtones, I figured that this was going to be a cinch of a test to pass. After all, if an outside contractor was culling information from the internet to ask me questions about myself, well, how hard could this be?  I checked over my shoulder to make sure that nobody was looking, in case there were any queries prompted by my accidental (*cough cough*) clicking on certain websites during my wide-ranging research.

Unfortunately, this process shows how flawed it is to attempts to determine identity via robotic online spiders. The first question out of the gate showed me how much trouble I was in – it asked me which institution I had a connection with. Unfortunately, each one of these institutions was based in and around Boston, a city in which I have never lived, but where another David LaFontaine is quite active.  The next question had to do with where my ex-wife was currently living – listing her under a name that she had never (to my knowledge) used.

Once again, a question that has nothing to do with any information that is relevant in my life.  I supposed I could have Googled this, but I only had 75 seconds to answer each one of these questions.

The next screen that came up basically said: FAIL. 

I have now sunk lower than Sarah Palin. I flunked a quiz about my own life.

KP.org insisted that there were no “make-up” exams, and that any kind of password would have to be delivered through snailmail. Which, considering that my issues of The Economist are arriving torn to shreds, checks sent to our vendors are getting pilfered, and we regularly receive mail addressed to people living in completely different cities — is not a comforting thought.

So before we all jump on the bandwagon of “cost savings through modernizing medical records,” by all means do some testing of what exactly it is that we’re migrating towards. If I’ve already entered enough personal information to make it dead easy for any script kiddie to steal my identity and go on a spending spree — why is it that this multimillion dollar site can’t even figure out which David LaFontaine I am, and ask questions that are relevant to me? And BTW – David LaFontaine is not exactly a common name, or one where I run into a lot of confusion. It’s pretty unique.

Imagine all the fun that the John Smith/Jose Perez/Wen Chens of the world are going to face.

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