Question

Been a while since I blogged, or did so here at least. Might be a while again and this one’ll be quick. Reading Nick Kristof’s piece in the NYT this morning, in which he expresses support for teachers but characterizes their demands as basically unreasonable and wonders whatever will become of the children, I thought back to a much better post on the Economix blog from a day or two ago.
In that post, Catherine Rampell reports two facts that interested me:

1) The U.S. spends more money on education than other OECD countries (7.3% of GDP for us and an average of 6.2% for the other countries).

2) Teachers in the U.S. make less than their counterparts in similar countries, relative to the pay that they could receive that would fit their education level, despite working longer hours.

Rampell concludes the post by asking whether it’s worth it for teachers to choose a lower-paying profession, which is a good question.

But the one that sprung to my mind is: if we’re spending lotsa money on education (see 1) and we aren’t paying our teachers as competitively as other countries (see 2), then… where’s all that money going?

Caveat emptor

Nice feature article in the NYT during the weekend about tuition costs at both nonprofit and for-profit colleges. It’s  subject that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. This jumped out to me:

College marketing firms encourage school officials to focus on the value of the education rather than the cost. For example, an article on the cover of Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost,’ ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.”

Simple, direct language is the best way to help people understand something. Look at those two constructs and think about which one best helps people understand their future at college. It’s the not the marketing buzzwords. So, then, if the clearest, most concise language isn’t the language being used, the the first priority of these organizations isn’t giving potential students an honest reading of their situation. That’s revealing.

And, yes, I am aware that college is still the best route to a more financially secure future. And, no, there is no college “bubble.” This is just about the marketing, which calls to mind used car salesmen more than anything else.

The Hangover

I’ll take a break from my harrumphing and tut-tutting and tsk-tsking of the PR blogosphere for not writing about exactly what I’d like them to write about to share this:

Susan G. Komen for the Cure may have popularized the color pink as a universal symbol of breast cancer fund-raising. But these days, many of the breast cancer foundation’s local affiliates are singing the blues

Registered attendance or donations have declined by more than 25 percent at some of the group’s recent Race for the Cure events, according to interviews with officials at 10 of the national nonprofit’s local affiliates.

Although the group’s race season is just getting started, the early returns indicate that local affiliates, a mainstay of Komen’s fund-raising operations, are struggling to recover after a public outcry in February forced the national Komen association to rescind a controversial decision that would have curbed financing for breast health programs by Planned Parenthood.

So, Komen is still experiencing some serious trouble in the wake of l’affair Planned Parenthood. From a few grafs down in the article, this jumped out to me, too:

But the very strengths that enabled Komen to become the world’s most prominent breast cancer nonprofit played a role in its recent stumble, corporate governance experts said. Nancy G. Brinker, the group’s charismatic founder and chief executive, built Komen into a pink powerhouse, thanks to an army of dedicated local volunteers and donors. Yet when the national headquarters decided to make a policy change that would have prevented affiliates from financing Planned Parenthood programs, it left those local chapters out of the loop, according to interviews with Komen affiliate officials.

“To a certain extent, we did not feel we were controlling our own destiny, which was unfortunate,” said David Egan, the co-executive director of the Komen Minnesota affiliate.

Likewise, corporate governance experts say, the insider culture at Komen’s headquarters, with national executives and board members deeply loyal to Ms. Brinker, discouraged independent efforts.

“They are too insular,” said Daniel Borochoff, the president of CharityWatch, a watchdog group that rates nonprofit organizations.

I have my fun, every so often, taking potshots at PR people who are paid enormously well to advise organizations to do things that I think are screamingly basic. Stuff like empowering people on all levels in your organization, soliciting honest advice from stakeholders both internal and external and issuing timely, unrestricted apologies when the situation calls for it.

From the beginning of this snafu, it was clear that some people were kept in the dark about cutting off Planned Parenthood. So, the above advice, even if I’ve heard it a gazillion times, is still worth repeating again. The Komen episode underlines that there is one large, spectacularly funded organization that hasn’t heard this advice or has no interest in taking it. And, of course, it isn’t just one organization. No doubt there are many, many more.

The Paper of Record

Bill Keller can spend 1300 words making an argument. It takes one Google search and about 10 seconds to make him look like an idiot.

Gonna be a loooong year.

It’s the Masters, not the Mistress!

Hoo boy. The Masters is once again hearing it for the fact that they won’t let no light-headed, faint-hearted wimmenfolk into their little club. And who could really blame them? See how the ladies are complaining that they can’t join? Proof positive that any female members would just get all whiny and emotional and start talking about their feelings! Check and mate.

Nah, but seriously. This is the sort of issue that I’m flagging now because it’s sure to pop up on the marketing and PR sites that I read (many of which I do like and will add to my blogroll when I get around to it). It’s certain to be accompanied by questions of how the Masters should handle this and what their strategy should be for not trying to alienate women who appreciate golf and whether advertisers for the tournament should blah blah blah.

Y’know how Mr. Payne and his friends can remedy this bad publicity right easily? Allow women to join Augusta National. That, dear readers reader person who read the first paragraph and didn’t bother to finish, is all they need to do. It only takes one sentence to say it! And the Gray Lady ain’t covering herself in glory on this one, either (see also).

UPDATE: Feature article right now. It’s front and center on the website.

Kewl

I like this idea a lot. The NYT is using some of their money to play around with a feature that allows you to zero in on a story and then follow along subsequent articles on similar topics. From Nieman:

The task (or, more accurately, one of the tasks) for beta620, the Times experimental projects group, is to find a better way to make the newspaper’s information more readily available — both to readers and to the Times itself. Their latest stab at the problem is something they’re calling Deep Dive, a project that aims to give readers a richer, more nuanced understanding of stories.

Deep Dive uses the Times’ massive cache of metadata from stories to go, as the name suggests, deeper into a news event by pulling together related articles. So instead of performing a search yourself within the Times and weeding out off-topic results, Deep Dive would provides readers a collection of stories relating to a topic, based on whatever person, place, event or topic of their choosing. So let’s say you’re interested in protests in Yemen, with Deep Dive you could use an article from nytimes.com as a seed and let the system collect a history of previous items relating to news from the region.

Cool stuff. Sorta makes me think about a Twitter-like structure for consuming news, where you can subscribe to different topic streams and follow along. For what it’s worth, if the NYT were to segment their reporting, so that I could directly donate to a part of the organization that followed union activity, environmental reporting, financial malfeasance cases and other stuff that piques my interest, I’d pony up. And as long as I knew that money was in no way going towards the salaries and travel charges of Tom Friedman, Bobo, Gail Collins and the rest of the clowns, I’d be happy to do so.

NYT paywall

Jeff Jarvis has an excellent post about the New York Times, its paywall and the concept of an engagement-based revenue system. I’m not going to excerpt the post because it isn’t a long one and you should read it in full.

Done then? OK. One other thing that occurred to me while contemplating his idea of rewarding engagement is that such a system would provide few incentives to first-time and causal readers, the sort that would have to pay (comparatively) more for less involvement. But maybe Jarvis sees their engagement as a losing proposition anyway because they aren’t engaged and are therefore unlikely to be so in the future. Either way, I think this is a fascinating idea.

The post also got me thinking, though, about my feelings on the NYT paywall, because Jarvis mentions that the Times is soon going to have a way to weed out those deviants who dodge the cyberblock (I am one of those deviants). I’m sure our community of tech people will find away around this new addition, but nevertheless, this all got me considering what I’d do if push came to shove and I had to either pay for the NYT or not use it. And I don’t think I’ve written down my thoughts on the paywall in Shadowy Silk land yet.

So, here goes: I’m deeply ambivalent about the New York Times paywall. And I don’t mean the dumb improper use of “ambivalent” for which people who don’t know the word’s actual meaning use the term (it does not mean the same thing as indifferent). I have extremely strong, opposite reactions to the concept of paying for the New York Times.

The good: The New York Times, for all its financial troubles, is one of the few news organizations left with the budget to sustain solid foreign bureaus. In addition to that, the Times employs Dexter Filkins and C.J. Chivers, two reporters whose work I find informative and enjoyable. I’ve read books by both of these men and I’ve found those quite worthwhile, too.

Due to its size, The NYT also has the resources to do good reporting. Michael Winerip does good work on education, David Leonhardt does good work on the financial sector and there are many other journalists at the newspaper who do excellent reporting. The Times’ platform, which is enormous, especially factoring in the digital reach, allows writers to set some sort of agenda for the day in news and when this agenda-setting power is used for good, that’s quite important. The NYT’s size allows it to focus on issues that other publications don’t have the capacity to cover and that’s worth keeping in mind.

Lastly (although I may think of more reasons later), the Times is a storied news institution, and although this may surprise anyone who’s read a few of my posts screeching about the media, I think there can be value to that. As much as I love the lefty blogosphere and would love to hardwire their editorial slant into “mainstream” media, there is something to be said, in my mind, about an organization that has the history, pedigree and reach of the NYT. How an institution goes about maintaining that credibility, however, is a different matter.

The bad: the NYT is afflicted, in its news coverage, by many of the problems that ail all news media. Much as PolitiFact must have been keeping an eye on the partisan origins of its lies for the year (see here for a good summary of the issue), the Times too must refrain from seeming too partial to one of the two political parties. And, of course, when one of the two political parties has gone off the deep end and is no longer dealing in good faith (also here), such a commitment stands in the way of honest reporting.

The NYT’s status as a hallowed institution is also one of its major failings because few people takes the Times as seriously as the Times does. This pride sometimes warranted, but so often it is not. The NYT never apologized for its disgraceful “coverage” of the Whitewater “scandal” in the 1990s and pigs will fly when it does so. During the 2000 election, the Times played a leading role in helping George W. Bush get elected. The Times caved on torture enhanced interrogation techniques during GWB’s presidency and also failed to cover itself in glory with regard to the Bush tax cuts.

Furthermore, so often the reporting on political matters focusing on trivial matters at the expense of substance. Some recent gems: a hard-hitting investigation on Mitt Romney’s grooming habits, a piercing look at Mitt Romney’s use of the word “zany” and a in-depth study of how Mitt Romney loves rules (??). This all harks back to what Katherine Boo termed “creeping Dowdism,” which runs rampant at the Times.

The above graf segues me nicely to the next trouble spot: the editorial page. The NYT is supposed to be our liberal bastion, no? The foremost platform for left-of-center thought, yes? Hardly. Although the Times will every so often publish an editorial that sounds like it could’ve been penned by one of the blogosphere’s more unSerious types, the editorial page is a disaster. To wit: Collins (awful), Friedman (awful), Bruni (awful), Cohen (invisible), Kristof (focused on international matters and fine by me), Blow (tribal), Keller (awful), Nocera (fine at times but becoming very Villager friendly), Douthat (awful), Bobo (AWFUL), Down (indsecribably awful). Is all that worth it for Krugman? Well, maybe. Because you can’t price Krugman. But wouldn’t it be better if the NYT didn’t devote more than half of its real estate to blithering idiocy? And, keep in mind, most of the best-known names (Bobo, Dowd, Captain Suck-on-this) are the worst of the bunch.

Aaand the Mustache of Understanding segues me nicely into the final and largest bone that I have to pick: the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I’m not going to rehash or excerpt the disastrous Times coverage in the buildup to the war in detail. I’m not going to bitch and moan about Judy Miller. I’m not going to complain about Joe Wilson and the yellowcake uranium business. All I’m going to say is this: there are so many political issues, so many news stories that are meaningless and transient. Your Casey Anthonys, your balloon boys, all of that stuff dominates headlines for a few days and then (rightfully) dissipates, never to be seen or heard from again. The amount of minutiae that the media focus on 24/7/365 is overwhelming. And none of that stuff really matters.

But on the largest issue of my lifetime (thus far), one whose impact will reverberate for Lord-knows-how-many decades (and that’s not an exaggeration), the New York Times fucked up. Big time. They had an opportunity to speak up against the plans for invasion, to point out the utterly fraudulent nature of the WMD claims and to make a stand on an issue of real consequence. And they didn’t. And we invaded. And 4,000+ American soldiers died. And 100,000 Iraqis died. And millions more Iraqis fled their homes. And we spent more than a trillion dollars. And we tortured people. And all that stuff is real. It won’t fade away like five days’ worth of round-the-clock coverage on Michael Jackson’s funeral.

So, will I pay for the NYT? I was hoping that I’d have it figured out by the time this post was through, but I still don’t know. I can refuse to pay for content that I view every day, which to me seems absurd given how much I value good journalism and given the fact that I’ve got enough money to pony up. Or I can send money to an organization for which, on an institutional level, I have zero respect. If NYT institutes a paywall that really can cut me off, I suppose I’d pay. And I’d send them a letter requesting that they fire Maureen Dowd. Wouldn’t make a difference, but it would make me feel better.