Archive for July, 2008

July 31, 2008

Cartoon for July 31

Even as the war in Afghanistan becomes more deadly, Obama pledges to send more troops.

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July 30, 2008

THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: NEWS DOES NOT WANT TO BE FREE

Three Cures for Ailing Newspapers

“I feel I’m being catapulted into another world, a world I don’t really understand,” Denis Finley told the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Finley, editor of the Virginian-Pilot, isn’t the only newspaper executive who can’t come up with a plan for the future. “Only 5 percent of [newspaper editors and publishers],” finds Pew’s latest analysis of the nation’s 1217 daily newspapers, “said they were very confident of their ability to predict what their newsrooms would look like five years from now.”

Newspapers are in trouble. More people read them than ever, but most of them read them online, for free. Unfortunately online advertising rates are too low to make up for declining print circulation. A reader of The New York Times‘ print edition generates about 170 times as much revenue as someone who surfs NYTimes.com. (This is because print readers spend 47 minutes with the paper. Online browsers visit the paper’s website a mere seven minutes–some of which they might not even be sitting in front of their computers.)

Newspaper executives don’t know what to do. Papers are closing foreign bureaus and laying off thousands of reporters. No matter how many employees they fire, however, they can’t slash or burn their way to profitability–there just isn’t enough budget to cut in a future where income has dropped to 1/170th.

“Newspapers,” writes San Jose State University business professor Joel West, “face two structural problems and have been unable to fix either one.” One is the Web in general, which offers advertisers more, finely targeted access to readers. The other is news on the Web, which is free on sites like Google and Yahoo (which compile AP and other wire service stories), as well as the newspaper websites themselves.

“OK,” argues West, “The New York Times or the big city daily has better news, but how much better? If it’s $20/month (or even $10 or merely requires a login) will readers bother? Most won’t. As with other commodities, better loses to ‘good enough.'”

But it doesn’t have to. If publishers take three audacious but absolutely essential steps, the print newspaper industry can save itself. All three of my suggestions are predicated on the simplest principle of capitalism: scarcity increases demand.

Newspapers have made news free and plentiful, which is why they’re going broke.

First: newspapers should go offline. If the last decade has proven anything, it’s that you can’t charge for a product–in this case, news–that you give away. So stop! All the members of the Newspaper Association of America should shut down their websites. At the very least, papers ought to charge online readers twice as much as for print subscriptions–searchability must be worth something. Want news? Buy a “dead tree” newspaper.

Second, copyright every article in the newspaper.

“The majority of bloggers and Internet addicts, like the endless rows of talking heads on television, do not report,” notes the invaluable Chris Hedges. “They are largely parasites who cling to traditional news outlets…They rarely pick up the phone, much less go out and find a story. Nearly all reporting–I would guess at least 80 percent–is done by newspapers and the wire services. Take that away and we have a huge black hole.” And a lot of unfulfilled demand one can charge for.

Newsgathering requires extensive infrastructure. Beat reporters, freelancers, editors, stringers, fact-checkers, and travel cost a lot of money. (A week in rural Afghanistan costs at least $10,000.) Why shouldn’t newspapers–the main newsgathering organizations in the United States–be compensated for those expenses?

Every newspaper article should enjoy an individual, aggressively enforced, copyright. Radio and TV outlets that currently lift their news reports out of newspapers–without forking over a cent–would have to hire reporters or pay papers a royalty. Paying newspapers for usage, even at a high rate, would probably be cheaper.

Step three on the road back to fiscal viability: cut off the wire services. Nowadays an article written for a local paper can get picked up by a wire service, which sells it for a ridiculously low reprint fee to other papers and websites like Google. At bare minimum, newspapers that originate stories ought to require wires to charge would-be reprinters the thousands of dollars each piece is worth. Better yet, don’t post them in the first place.

There are a couple of problems with my prescription. First, my suggestions only work if every paper follows them. Aside from the cat-herding organizational hurdles, accusations of collusion and price-fixing might bring down the wrath of government officials assigned to enforcing anti-trust laws. Second and perhaps more daunting, the “information wants to be free” mantra, once the cry of wacko libertarians, has become state religion.

“Free” doesn’t mean anything, and it obviously hasn’t worked. But it’s hard to purge a brain of a meme, no matter how moronic.

COPYRIGHT 2008 TED RALL

July 28, 2008

Cartoon for July 28

Help is on the way!

July 26, 2008

Cartoon for July 26

More and more, it feels like the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

July 26, 2008

The Truth is Still Out There
posted by Susan Stark

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here as a guest blogger, but I just wanted to remind everyone to go see the new “X-Files” movie coming out.

Many of the critics are panning the movie, because what they are describing is that it’s more about Mulder and Scully than any supernatural plot.

But it’s a tad unfair to criticize Chris Carter, the creator of the series, for not putting enough supernatural in the movie. The Bush presidency has been nothing but one eight-year long X-File, and it’s hard for Mr. Carter to top that. You have to remember that the “X-Files” was basically a 90s series.

I did not get into 90s culture very well. I didn’t care for grunge rock, and I didn’t have enough computer literacy to start a dot-com. But the “X-Files” is a stunning exception. Mulder and Scully were a welcome presence in my home for many years, and it would be inexcusable for me not to go and pay them a visit after six years of not seeing them.

No matter what the critics say.

July 26, 2008

Teevee!

I’m on CNN’s “Not Just Another Cable News Show”, talking about how to deal with getting caught in an adulterous relationship.

Check it out.

July 24, 2008

Cartoon for July 24

Obama’s liberal supporters are wallowing in wishful thinking. Once he gets into office, they tell themselves and everyone else, he’ll burst out as a crazy leftie!

Right.

July 21, 2008

THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: RECESSION, YEAR 8

Bickering Over Terminology Delays Real Action

There’s a debate in the media about the recession. On the right are those who say that the economy has never been better. Not so fast, says the official left: we’ve (just) started a recession.

Phil Gramm, McCain’s former economic advisor, leads the School of Sunny Optimism. “This is a mental recession,” said Gramm. “We may have a recession, we haven’t had one yet. We have sort of become a nation of whiners.” Given his day job, you have to admire his attitude. UBS Investment Bank, which employs Gramm as its vice chairman, was recently forced to write off $38 billion in bad debts because of its exposure to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, wiping out all its profits since 2004.

Economists are mildly pessimistic. In April, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke conceded that a recession was possible. Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, believes that unemployment and other data for the first quarter of 2008 marks the official start of a recession. “It is now very clear that the fat lady has sung for the economic expansion. The country has slipped into a recession,” he said, articulating the mainstream view that we’re about to embark on a bumpy ride.

Recession? We’ve been in a recession since 2000.

Forget the experts. They think telling the grisly truth about the state of the U.S. economy could make things even worse–and they’re probably right. But Americans know the truth.

Every major indicator–jobs, wages and cost of living–has trended downward since the dot-com crash of 2000. Since then it has nearly impossible to sell a home, find a job, or get a raise. Rising inflation is tightening the squeeze. Whoever becomes president next year will inherit an economy beginning its ninth year in a downward spiral.

The official inflation rate of two to three percent is a lie, and it has been for years. Presidents Reagan and Clinton ordered the Bureau of Labor Standards to change the way it calculates the Consumer Price Index. Previously they compared the prices of the same items from one year to the next. Now, in order to cheat senior citizens out of cost-of-living increases on their Social Security payments, the government uses a “substitutions” analysis. “The consumer price index assumes that if prices get too high, consumers will start buying cheaper products,” reports The San Diego Union-Tribune. For instance, if steak gets too expensive, they will switch to ground beef.”

Steve Reed, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Standards, freely concedes that the change makes inflation looks lower than it is. He also admits its motivation: “Even if the CPI was one percentage point higher, it could cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.”

John Williams, an economic consultant who publishes the monthly newsletter “Shadow Government Statistics,” calculates that “inflation is actually running at an annualized rate of 9.95 percent.” Inflation has been rising since 2002.

The U.S. economy must create 150,000 new jobs a month (1.8 million annually) just to keep up with population growth. Anything less represents a net jobs loss.

The Clinton years saw the creation of 236,500 new jobs per month–a net increase of more than 8 million over eight years. As of 2007, the Bush era saw just 70,000 jobs per month–a net loss of more than 7 million. Bush has brought us back to 1992, when his father lost over his own recession.

Among those who still have jobs, they’re not getting raises that keep up with Williams’ inflation rate. Median household income, adjusted for the government’s lowball inflation rate, is down since 2001.

Even white-collar workers, traditionally insulated by advanced degrees, are getting slammed by the eight-year-long recession.

“Wage stagnation, long the bane of blue-collar workers, is now hitting people with bachelor’s degrees for the first time in 30 years,” reported The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “Earnings for workers with four-year degrees fell 5.2 percent from 2000 to 2004 when adjusted for inflation, according to White House economists… [people with master’s and other advanced degrees] have found that their inflation-adjusted wages were essentially flat between 2000 and 2004.” There’s no reason to believe that this trend has reversed.

It takes two consecutive quarterly drops in the GDP, say economists, to make a recession official. But, as with porn, Americans know a recession when they see one. And this one is eight years old.

There are only two real questions. The first is whether Russian president Dmitri Medvedev is right. The U.S., he said recently, is in “essentially a depression.” The second is whether John McCain, Barack Obama, or anyone else is willing to do something meaningful about it.

COPYRIGHT 2008 TED RALL

July 21, 2008

Cartoon for July 21

John McCain made a big fuss about opposing Bush on torture. But then Bush signed one of his infamous “signing statements” promising to ignore the law banning torture. McCain, victim of political expediency and sucking up to Bush, stayed mum.

July 19, 2008

Cartoon for July 19

Disaster looms…but don’t worry. Something will come up. It always has (except when it hasn’t).