Journalism is Dying Because It’s Not Free

Been a while since I came across a Megan McArdle piece I thought worth passing on, but this one is it.

This past week the axe fell in the newsroom, most notably at BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, but also…

newspaper chain Gannett swung the ax through several of its publications this week, including the Indianapolis Star, the Tennessean and the Arizona Republic.

…Fifteen years have been spent in a fruitless search for a viable business model that will support the kind of journalism the country expects — and, no, conservatives, I’m not talking about “the liberal media.” I’m talking about media organizations that pour resources into informing the public about the everyday, noncontroversial stuff that makes up the bulk of media content.

And why? Because people don’t, as a rule, want to pay for online content. They want to pay to have a thing. An e-book is a thing. A movie is a thing. A copy of a newspaper is a thing. The internet is a medium I access with a device. An online article lacks the same level of thingness.

If I’m browsing, and I click a link, and I hit a paywall, do I subscribe, before I know if the article is worth reading? No. I click away, and go read something that is free. Because anyone can access the internet, and anyone can put something there. That’s what newspapers are competing with. And losing.

A few salient points:

It’s telling that the conservative publications that were supposed to correct the flaws of mainstream media have instead often ended up in a symbiotic relationship with it. Instead of setting up comprehensive reporting operations of their own, they spend much of their time reacting to reporting done by mainstream outlets. Reporting is obscenely expensive, and no one — conservative, liberal or in between — has figured out how to fund it on shrinking advertising dollars.

One might go so far as to say that there isn’t any such thing as conservative media – there is only a conservative critique of media. This is a failure, but also an opportunity for someone on the right willing to build a media empire that pays for itself, that produces it’s own news, that shifts narratives and Overton Windows in the starboard direction. The print/digital version of Fox News doesn’t yet exist.

This of course raises questions about why it doesn’t exist, and what the sam-scratch all those “conservative” think-tanks are spending their money on. I think it’s fair to say that the National Review era of conservative media has passed – it has done it’s work, and it’s time for it to go. The Washington Free Beacon is probably more valuable.

Those links go to reporting subsidized somewhat by digital ads but mostly by print circulations and speculative investments from outside the industry. As the journalism business burns through the last of those subsidies, large swaths of the free Internet are going to be paywalled off, and readers and journalists alike will have to learn to think of news as their parents did: as something you pay for, or do without.

The last sentence underlines the deeper problem: to what extent to I actually need “news”? Am I visibly suffering for not reading the Washington Post’s day-by-day reportage? Am I any less happy for not having a soulless corporation rhetorically manipulating my worldview?

Until I find a news publication I can trust to keep my honestly informed, I have no need to spend money on it. To be ignorant is a misfortune, to be misinformed is a curse.

McArdle: Corruption is not an Indictment of Global Capitalism

In the first place, the countries are hardly exemplars of the free market:

With the notable exception of Iceland, these are not countries I would describe as “capitalist”: Russia, Pakistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Egypt.  They’re countries where kleptocratic government officials amass money not through commerce, but through quasi-legal extortion, or siphoning off the till. This is an activity that has gone on long before capitalism, and probably before there was money.

If capitalism as an ideology means anything except as a buzzword to denounce the free market, it means a government limited in scope and strongly dedicated to the rule of law. Russia is not that. Russia is something else.

This isn’t me pulling a No True Scotsman. This is describing what an ideology is and is not. A government in which a President and his government extort money and distort the market is precisely the opposite of what Adam Smith had in mind. It is a government in which leaders are granted special powers because they are they exemplars of the people and the only guaruntors of justice. The word for that is monarchy, and however much the Presidents of the world where blue suits and hold elections they generally act as monarchs or dictators. That is what the intellectual revolt of the 18th century was tilting against.

This is also fun:

A few weeks back, I was the designated capitalist punching bag on a panel well attended by socialists. A woman in global development stood up and delivered a heartfelt rebuttal to my arguments on the grounds that places like Saudi Arabia had immense and wild excess, while their near neighbors had desperate poverty. This, she said, was something that we needed to fix.

That discussion rapidly went south when I asked her how many troops she wished to commit to this project.

I being to wonder if they really intend to exercise power to fix these things or if they just like talking about all the problems they want to rally us to fix.
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Dealing with Zombie Debt

Megan McArdle, illuminating a very real issue:

Very old debts are very difficult to collect, because they disappear from credit reports after seven years, and after a state’s statute of limitation on debt collections expires, the collector can’t even sue. So these wily collectors either hope that the debtor feels bad about being a deadbeat and wants to clear his good name . . . or that he doesn’t know the law. And when hope fails, collectors frequently resort to less savory tactics such as threatening to sue (legal), threatening to have you arrested (it may be legal to make the threat, but they can’t actually make good on it) or impersonating a law enforcement officer who is going to come arrest you (very, very, very illegal).

I had this happen to me about seven years ago: some clown with a very suspicious accent demanding that I pay a debt they claimed I owed the phone company at my last apartment in Pennsylvania. I knew it was preposterous, because when I moved from Pennsylvania I made a determined effort to clear all debts that I had compiled, and even put a note in my Quicken of the “last phone bill” I paid. These fools cared not one wit: They had bought debt that had my name attached to it, they didn’t know any more about it than that, and they were going to call me and harass me over the phone until I gave in.

They did not know who they were dealing with. I told them to go ahead and sue me countless times. They called back. I dealt with them politely. They called back. I told them to perform acts physically impossible and morally heinous. They called back. What they refused to do was provide one solitary piece of evidence that I owed anybody anything.

Finally, I contacted my local Federal Trade Commission office. The gentleman there pointed me in the direction of a piece of legal boiler plate demanding validation of the debt and cessation of contact until debt was validated. I sent it via certified mail so they could not deny they had received it. The next time they called I told them I had sent that letter and would not say anything further on the phone.

A few days later I received a note from them claiming they had passed the imaginary debt on to some other set of sharpies who never contacted me.

Don’t let the bastards bully you.

Why Government Bureaucracies are Un-Fixable

Megan McArdle gets the nature of the problem, in a very sensible article on the VA.

  1. You can’t fire government bureaucrats – especially not en masse, so matter what you do, old patterns re-emerge.
  2. Every “reform” just adds a new set of directives and rules without trimming or significantly changing the old ones.

What that means in plain English is that when you put reforms in place, you can’t just rip out the stuff that’s not working and do something different. What you’re actually reforming is the process, and because many of the current elements of the process are functionally mandated by other government rules, or court rulings, or bits of legislation that your reform effort didn’t amend, you have to layer your reform on top of the system you wanted to reform, rather than in place of it. Many of your reforms simply stack another layer of bureaucracy on top of the bureaucracy that was already causing problems. This is a problem that CEOs don’t face, unless they’re in some heavily regulated business such as banking or oil refining.

Most important, it is easier to change some parts of the system than others, and much easier to give something than to take something away. So it was relatively easy for Barack Obama to tell the VA that they had to do more to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems to have been very hard to change the claims process to make it move faster or to hire more staff to help things move more quickly. The result was an even bigger backlog — and, since the reforms commanded the staff to move more patients, more quickly, the temptation to “juke the stats” to make the waiting lists appear shorter than they were.

So, while fully intending to make the VA work better, the Administration made it even worse.  And to a certain extent, this isn’t Obama’s fault. It’s not a question of having people who care more or are smarter – this is how bureaucracy functions. George W. Bush made a serious effort to make the VA work better, too. It did not.

So if every good-faith effort to fix a bureaucratic system just makes the thing more complex and counterproductive (Hi, No Child Left Behind!), what is to be done?

bureaucracy-cartoon

Megan McArdle Discovers the Problem with A Government-Instituted Health Exchange:

Politicians were making decisions about it:

So no, this is not a good project undone by Republican “sabotage,” as I saw suggested on Twitter this morning. It’s a potentially good IT project undone by system design and deadlines chosen for political reasons, rather than feasibility. What we’ve been through in the last week, I’d argue, is the inevitable result.

bygeorge

 

This is a fair recitation of Patrick’s Iron Law of Politics #1: What is done by politicians is done for political reasons to achieve a political end. Judging anything politicians do on any standard other than political expediency – moral rectitude, or economic success – is an exercise in folly.  It doesn’t surprise me to see McArdle, who’s an astute observer, discover this truth.

The speed with which she loses it, on the other hand…

That does not mean that it will never work. We shouldn’t rule that out — there are nightmare stories of databases in Britain’s National Health Service and Canada’s criminal justice system, which had to be junked after going wildly over budget. But while I assume that’s possible in this case, I don’t think it’s very likely. This system is the linchpin of President Barack Obama’s biggest legislative achievement. The administration is going to try very hard to make it work over the next few months, and I assume that at some point — in a few weeks, or a few months — it will succeed.

Dammit+And+there+it+goes

Her premise, that Obama will definitely get super-serious on this health-care thing now, seems reasonable, because one can argue an actual political need for it. But there isn’t. Fixing ObamaCare might have some political dividends, but it’s far from  the expedient thing to do. The expedient thing to do is what the White House is currently doing, through its surrogates in the palace-guard media: blaming Republicans. An IT project may succeed or fail: getting compliant journalists to bleat denunciations of the wreckers and saboteurs who failed to support the New Order pays out pretty regularly. Government programs don’t need success to survive; they only need a scapegoat:

A Ph.D. economist, Sowell describes the moral narcissism at the root of the liberal worldview — they support bad policies because doing so makes them feel good about themselves. Do these policies actually help the people they’re supposed to help? It doesn’t matter, Sowell explains in Chapter 4, “The Irrelevance of Evidence.”

What matters to liberals is the sense of virtue by proxy they derive by espousing the cause of helpless victims allegedly oppressed by evil greedy Republicans. What matters to liberals is their feeling that they’re “doing something” to advance their own good intentions.

I would have thought that, given how much of McArdle’s piece is devoted to refuting the meme that Republicans sabotaged Obamacare (by not setting up the state exchanges, et al.), that she would have understood that the lackadaisical rollout of Obamacare was going to be followed by an equally lackadaisical repair effort. The longer this mess goes on,  the more Obama can grandstand against the GOP for fighting it. The question of whether the mess should have been enacted into law in the fist place?

Shut-up-they-explained

 

Megan McArdle on the Choices Women Make

Good article, as one expects from McArdle, even when you don’t always agree with her. Never having been to business school, nor any kind of school at Harvard, I can’t dispute anything she discusses here.

But on average, the women I talk to just aren’t nearly as willing to sacrifice close friendships, and family relationships, for the sake of their jobs.

We can say that they shouldn’t have to, of course, but the sad fact is that there are trade-offs in this world. In your 20s you can finesse them — work super hard and also have a roaring social life — because you have boundless energy and no one depending on you. This is the age at which young women write furious articles and Facebook posts denouncing anyone who suggests that women opt-out of high pressure jobs for any reason other than the rankest sexism.

As you age, your body refuses to cooperate with your plan to work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and then hang out with friends. Your parents start to need you more, if only to lift heavy things. And of course, there are kids. You start having to make direct trade-offs, and then suddenly you look up and you haven’t seen your friends for two years and your mother is complaining that you never call. This is the age at which women write furious articles defending their decision to step back from a high-pressure job and/or demanding subsidized childcare, generous paid maternity leave and “family friendly policies,” a vague term that ultimately seems to mean that people who leave at five to pick up the kids should be entitled to the same opportunities and compensation as people who stay until 9 to finish the client presentation. These pleas usually end (or begin) by pointing to the family-friendly utopia of Northern Europe, except that women in Europe do less well at moving into high-test management positions. Whatever the government says, someone who takes several years off work is in fact less valuable to their company than someone who doesn’t.

It would be interesting to know where she got the statistic to back up the claim about women in Europe, but otherwise this rings true. And not because it gets men off the hook; real, actual sexism is still out there. But because it’s a simpler explanation than “systematic conspiracy of harassment.” I’ve been working for a long time, and the vast majority of my bosses have been women. Which is pretty well meaningless to me: the boss is the boss. But it can’t be heresy to point out that women differ from men, they tend to value different things, and this tends, in large groups, to lead to different choices and different results.

Now, if you accept that, that men just value “money” and “success” more than women do, one has to wonder: what’s the plan with all that money and success? What’s it for? Obviously, on some level we all — men and women — vie for status in the tribe. But when you hit that status, what’s next? The men McArdle writes of aren’t going to work from 7 to 11 for the rest of their lives, either. They’re eventually going to want a life, a wife, some kids. They’re just going to put if off later, because they can. Which is kind of a flimsy reason, and perhapss self-defeating. When you’re in your 20’s, and your life is chaos, anyway, kids can actually provide some kind of structure, because structure is what they require. Plus, you’ve got the energy to handle it. If a man waits until his late 30’s or beyond to settle down, he’s going to have a harder time adjusting to it not being about him all the time.

Or, maybe he’ll be ready for it. Trade-offs, trade-offs, trade-offs.

Kermit Gosnell and the Holy of Holies

Abortion is not new. It did not spring fully-formed from the head of the Supreme Court in 1973. It is as old as civilization itself, and the controversy surrounding it is just as old:

“Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at abortion? Where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born. Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?”

That’s St. John Chrysostom, one of the Doctors of the Church, writing in the 4th century AD, damning men for seducing women and abandoning them, forcing abortion upon them (just in case you thought that those old unmarried men had no idea what made babies happen). This argument has been going on for a very long time, and it’s going to keep going on. Nothing that has happened recently is going to change that.

It’s safe to say that the dam is bursting on the Kermit Gosnell story, as it inevitably must have. Nothing as lurid and horrifying as the prosecution alleges could have truly failed to escape the public consciousness, no matter how much certain circles would have preferred it.

I am late to this story, not because I didn’t know about it, and not because I haven’t been reading up on it (Stacy McCain in particular has been all over it from the beginning). I haven’t wanted to write about this for the same reason Megan McArdle didn’t: sheer revulsion and horror. What this bland, grandfatherly-looking man of 72 – a poster-boy for “the banality of evil” if ever one existed – created in his Philadelphia clinic amounts to an infant-sized Auschwitz, a crime against humanity. And even generically pro-life people like myself dont’ want to realize that it exists, for to do so would be to violate a polite taboo.

In ancient Israel, the sanctorum at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem was called the Holy of Holies. As the home of the Ark of the Covenant, it made incarnate the presence of God in Israel. Only one man – the High Priest – on only one day – Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – could ever enter the Holy of Holies. Anyone else (such as the sons of Aaron in Leviticus 10) who entered died. The presence of God was not for the unworthy to look upon.

If modern feminism’s obsession with “reproductive freedom” has something of a religious character (and there are those that say so), then the birth control pill is its Eucharist, and abortion its Holy of Holies. It is Between a Woman and Her Doctor: mere mortals are not supposed to know what goes on. When anti-abortion activists take to the streets with pictures of mutilated fetuses, we are angry at the makers of the pictures, not the makers of the content. This is true even of pro-life people, such as myself. We don’t want to see this. We don’t want to know. Witness Roger Simon:

The trial of Dr. Gosnell is a potential time bomb exploding in the conventional liberal narrative on abortion itself.  This is about the A-word.

No feeling human being can read this story or watch it on TV without being confronted with the obvious conclusion — like it or not — that abortion is murder.

It may be murder with extenuating circumstances (rape, survival of the mother, etc.) but it is murder nonetheless.  Dr. Gosnell — monster though he is — has accidentally shoved that uncomfortable truth in our faces.

Pushing this case front and center in the media would change the national narrative on this subject.  (The current stats are here, via Rasmussen.)

I can give you two guinea pigs to prove this point — my wife Sheryl and me.  We were in the kitchen last night, preparing dinner, when we saw a short report of this story on the countertop TV.

Both lifelong “pro-choice” people, after watching only seconds, we embarked in an immediate discussion of whether it was time to reconsider that view.  (Didn’t human life really begin at the moment of conception?  What other time?) Neither of us was comfortable as a “pro-choice” advocate in the face of these horrifying revelations.  How could we be?

Yes, Dr. Gosnell was exceptional (thank God for that!), but a dead fetus was a dead fetus, even if incinerated in some supposedly humane fashion rather than left crying out in blind agony on the operating room floor, as was reportedly the case with one of Gosnell’s victims. I say blind because this second-trimester fetus did not yet have fully formed eyes. (Think about that one.)

So I don’t think I’m “pro-choice” anymore, but I’m not really “pro-life” either.  I would feel like a hypocrite. I don’t want to pretend to ideals I have serious doubts I would be able to uphold in a real-world situation.  If a woman in my family, or a close friend, were (Heaven forbid) impregnated through rape, I would undoubtedly support her right to abortion.  I might even advocate it.  I also have no idea how I would react if confronted by having to make a choice between the life of a fetus and his/her mother.  Just the thought makes my head spin.

And there it is. We are compromised. We see murder and we pretend not to. We call it something else. We treat it as magic, as though a first-trimester abortion mystically removes the unwanted-abstraction-which-is-not-alive-shut-up, transubstantiates the woman from “pregnant” to “not pregnant” and sends her heroically on her way. The death, the blood, the humanity-reduced-to-laboratory-specimens (I have seen them), we doublethink these messy realities away. And we tell our young (and ourselves, truth be told) that they may fornicate freely, without consequence, because “protection” exists, and if “protection” fails (or they fail “protection”) we have this Serious And Important Issue to Pontificate and Philosophize About, which will unmake the the consequence.

We call this “Love”. We call it “Modern.” We call it “Necessary.” We call it “Woman Retaking her Power from the Patriarchy.” We call it “Free of Medieval Moralizing.” We call it “Rational”. We don’t call it “Infant Girl Decapitated With Scissors.

We don’t want to see it. We don’t want to know.