Sunday, July 10

The Economics of Bitter Medicine

In We're Not in Watergate Anymore, Frank Rich lowers the boom on the infotainment economy:
At Time, Norman Pearlstine -- a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, no less -- described his decision to turn over Matt Cooper's files to the feds as his own, made on the merits and without consulting any higher-ups at Time Warner. That's no doubt the truth, but a corporate mentality needn't be imposed by direct fiat; it's a virus that metastasizes in the bureaucratic bloodstream. I doubt anyone at Time Warner ever orders an editor to promote a schlocky Warner Brothers movie either. (Entertainment Weekly did two covers in one month on "The Matrix Reloaded.")

Time Warner seems to have far too much money on the table in Washington to exercise absolute editorial freedom when covering the government; at this moment it's awaiting an F.C.C. review of its joint acquisition (with Comcast) of the bankrupt cable company Adelphia. 'Is this a journalistic company or an entertainment company?' David Halberstam asked after the Pearlstine decision. We have the answer now. What high-level source would risk talking to Time about governmental corruption after this cave-in? What top investigative reporter would choose to work there?

Pearlstine's explanations (follow the link above) are not as craven as you're given to think, but I am coming around to Frank's point of view. I mean, in our little world of B2B publishing, much maligned, the same value proposition holds true: You need to tell your readers what they need to know, not what they want to hear and not want they want to read and believe about themselves. Without getting into stuff we're working on, even we at our little rag have an interest in whether the government's regulatory actions make sense, whether they're transparent, whether they do what they're supposed to do. We have to be able to say what people in business are too afraid to say, if we find it to be true: This program for combatting, oh, I don't know, bearer bond forgery in the service of international white slavery, is a complete JOKE. The same goes for covering the foul-ups of companies that might be both readers and advertisers. It's not about raking muck, it's about saying "Look what happened when Generic LLC crossed the line and let some bozos do whatever the hell they wanted so long as they were adding to the bottom line. We think you might want to avoid doing the same thing."

Infotainment figures that people would rather have their comfortable assumptions massaged. Journalism is a bet that people would rather know the facts, ugly and upsetting as they might be. Integrity is value added and is the result of some pretty intensive QA processes, so we figure you will want to pay for it for that reason. Maybe this is even more true in the B2B field: It may be true that you will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the general public, but that's gotta be less true of people in business, even if there are some vivid examples of people at the top (Ken Lay) who seem stupider than most. People devote their lives to their jobs and really believe what they are doing is valuable, and they will go to the press if they think the shareholders are getting screwed or they are getting pressured to ship an inferior widget and call it ice cream. Some folks will come to you with an agenda, so you have to be careful, but on the whole, you are looking to present the facts as completely as possible.

The equivalent to the "infotainment" plague in our little niche industry is what some call "business porn." High-falutin claims for technology platforms that play up to the fantasies of people in power of achieving the competitive edge or the secure enterprise IT infrastructure with the push of a button, for example. Those people need as much reality as they can get, and the fact is that most of them, despite the spectacular exceptions, have evolved BS detectors. You better make sure that there's no whiff of bovine excrement about your brand or you're screwed. Business porn is alluring and you can deploy it to good effect in the short term, saleswise, but the long view says building the value franchise depends on staying out of that game. Case in point, IMHO: the WSJ editorial pages. That ideological flavor will go out of fashion someday and people will remember and wonder whether the newsroom wasn't tainted by those who turned over the megaphone to propagandists.

I don't believe it is, but IMHO, you're better off sticking to the pragmatic point of view. In the best of all possible worlds, business is about doing and producing useful things that people appreciate enough that they will pay for it. That earns you money that allows you to live comfortably so you can focus entirely on your work, reward the people who backed your idea, and go on producing more and better useful stuff that helps people out.

Forget whether global capitalism is the spawn of Satan or the bringer of the kingdom of heaven. That's all theological wankery. It's all about basic human relations: If I make you happy, you will reward me. So who's doing a good job at that? Who's not? Why?

To answer those questions, you need to get people to talk frankly about their work, and they sometimes have to skirt the internal message control mechanisms to do it. Like the time the CIO of this major online brokerage told me, "You know, unfortunately, retail investment still is pretty much the same as gambling." It was off the record, but it was great to be able to relate to the guy on that level and talk turkey about building real trust with customers as part of a business plan.

So we have the same concerns as the hotshots serving that vague but noble abstraction, the "public interest." The yuppie scum that read us are part of that public, after all, and you know, I personally see more and more areas where ordinary people might see eye to eye with the much-maligned corporate lobbies in certain respects. If there's one thing the CEO and the welfare mother could commiserate about while stuck in an elevator together, it's that the damn gummint wastes a ton of money and doesn't give you very good service in return. Both of them have to fill out piles of pointless forms and wait forever to get the simplest thing done.

Getting past all the press releases and bombast, there actually is something more than just self-serving yada yada in the old saw that "excessive regulation prevents us from creating jobs." I always think back to this film we saw in Anthro when I was doing a few credits at the U. of Utah back in the 1980s: "Ongka's Big Moka, about a tribal economy based on intertribal competitive gift-giving among economic rainmakers called "big men."

The moka is held finally. In it, 600 pigs, $10,000 Australian dollars, 12 cassowaries, 8 cows and a motorbike are given. The truck has been brought back, washed and decorated with flowers and is 'given' again in the moka. In his speech at the moka, Ongka says, "Now that I have given you these things, I have won . . . I have knocked you down by giving so much."

In headhunter land, this kind of ritual commerce keeps the peace and makes life interesting and mythically and dramatically rich. It's a good case study for the PR people, and you actually see it in advertising a lot these days: "Our products benefit the world," "We're so successful we could open-source our code. Our competitors are too chicken to, afraid their margins are too thin. What a buncha losers!" You hear it on the other side, too: "The U.S. is stingy with Africa," "the U.S. produces all the hydrocarbon emissions but won't pay to abate the problem." It's "let them eat cake" all over again: the most notorious PR gaffe in history. And look how at that enterprise's shares fared in the market of public opinion.

Boy, did I digress! Moral of the story: Our profession is plagued by cynicism. The folks at Time just added to the epidemic by appearing to err on the wrong side of an apparent conflict of interest. My personal feeling is that they're gonna pay for that. I'd cancel my subscription to Time, but I got the thing for free somehow, so I guess I'll just have to carry on not reading the increasingly infotainment-laden piece of junk.

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