April 30, 2009


Mike Palecek interviewed your editor for his site, the New American Dream. Click here and then scroll down to New American Dream Interview to find it. Here's an except:

NAD: Why have you done all this?

SAM SMITH: So what else was I meant to do?

NAD: Why are you so interested?

SAM SMITH: My college roommates used to make fun of me because I would run out the door whenever I heard a nearby fire engine. I guess it must be genetic. . .

NAD: Was there a "moment" you can recall that made you want to do something about it?

SAM SMITH: I don't know if there was a moment. The better question would be: was there ever not a moment? From junior high on I was more of a fan of journalists like Ed Murrow and Elmer Davis than I was of sports figures.

NAD: What's it like to do what you do?

SAM SMITH: I love it. I feel like every morning I get to go fishing. . . only for news rather than for trout.

NAD: Is there a God?

SAM SMITH: I'm a Seventh Day Agnostic.

I don't think it matters because if there is a god I can't imagine him being worth worshipping if he holds it against people for not knowing whether he exists or not.

That would be a pretty rotten attitude — sort of like favoring the likes of Sarah Palin and Rick Warren. Who needs a god like that?

On the other hand, if it helps people to believe in God or things on key chains, that's fine.

It only becomes a problem when they want to punish others for failing to live up to their misinterpretation of some sacred book and start wars and things like that.

I'm an existentialist and believe our existence is defined by what we do and say. You can't blame it on God.

April 27, 2009


Sam Smith

Ten days ago your editor came down with the first serious case of the flu or a cold or an allergy or god knows what since the Internet hit the big times. I did what I always do now when I'm trying to find something out: I hit the Big G. But unlike buying a new car, finding out local recycling laws, or checking the films at the E Street Theater, the Internet totally failed me.

True, it wasn't all the Internet's fault. The media has a strange approach to illness - obsessed with its possible fatalities but largely indifferent to less important matters such as symptoms and best cures. To the extent that modern medicine has discovered the Internet, it is still remarkably skewed towards preachy little statements that don't help the patient much. Especially when he's coughing.

As best as I can figure, this current unpleasantness had its roots in my granddaughter's group nursery and was lovingly transmitted to pops and omah about ten days ago. This would put it well in advance of the swine flu epidemic and would rank it amongst the most normal of respiratory mishaps. Certainly my doctor and my wife's thought so. We were part of the flu and allergy background noise of the season.

But once the swine flu crisis descended, things changed. On those surprisingly rare occasions when the media even bothered to mention the symptoms, it became ever harder to distinguish them from my own. CNN even claimed I had every symptom of swine flu. Which gave me one more reason to watch MSNBC.

There is something to be learned here. When one is ill, one has little taste for beautiful graphics or pompous and puerile prescriptions or suggestions of a worthy but, at the moment, unattainable life style. One wants cures, brands of cures, and useful warning signs that things are getting worse. One basic question, for example, went totally unanswered as far as I could find: when do you call your doctor?

All this could be accomplished on a simple spread sheet that helped one distinguish between the types of misery one might be enduring, what things might help it, when to get truly worried, and what to do then. The origins, history or geography of the illness is of little concern. There is, after all, only case that really matters. Yours.

As it was, nine days in I had to rely on an NPR correspondent. After all who in the world has a greater interest in not sounding awful? She explained to me something I had missed thanks to my rare contact with these problems and to the fact that I could find it nowhere on the Net. Water is not only important because of dehydration, but it actually soothes those tiny objects in the bottom of your throat that make you sound like a vertical Mt Vesuvius erupting every few minutes - proving once again that if you really want to know about something, go to someone for whom the answer truly matters.

April 13, 2009


Sam Smith

Watching Tom Curley on the Charlie Rose Show, I began to feel really sorry for him. The horrible things that were happening to his company, the threat to his business model, the vicious dogs yapping at his legs. He was a sad, dreary and bitter man, the sort of guy who might have a hard time knowing it was a new morning if his alarm didn't tell him.

Tom Curley is CEO of the Associated Press and the terrible things he was confronting included Google, news aggregators, blogs, and online journals like, well, like mine.

I kept trying to connect his misery to reality but I couldn't get out of my mind how many people come to our site each week because they've asked some question and Google has given them one of our links as a possible answer. Or how many times reporters and bloggers have sent us stories with the request or hint that we give them a virtual boost.

I got into this internet business 14 years ago when there were only 20,000 websites worldwide. Now there are more than 150 million. No one used the term aggregator back then. That was a couple of years before the Drudge Report went on the web and it was before the Washington Post had recovered from its first Internet failure.

One of the things I liked about the web was how it encouraged both competition and cooperation, not unlike the way those who do business on the water or in small communities work. They understand that part of progress involves helping others, which Americans generally accepted until the corporate greedsters took things over in the 1980s.

When Matt Drudge went online in 1997, I became fascinated by his use of links to other stories. I had initially seen the web just as a place to put all the stuff we didn't have room for in our print version, but Drudge encouraged another approach. After we started running news clips and links, our readership doubled in each of the next four years.

Part of Drudge's cleverness was that he had created a place where others wanted to be featured. What drives his audience is not his personal conservative views, but an understanding that his site is one of the best places to go for breaking news. Journalists understood this, hence the number of stories based on advance notice of a hot piece to which the reporters wanted to drive readers and impress their bosses. In at least one case, it seems one or more reporters had another objective: to get their publication to stop suppressing a story. Which is how the Monica Lewinsky story, which Newsweek was withholding, finally broke. The AP's Curley may not understand this, but plenty of good journalists have.

Yet I also realized that some publications would not understand the Internet and would not want to be linked. Our rule was simple: we would never link to or mention them again. In 14 years and more than 30 million article views, we have had exactly five such complaints. And when the AP began making threatening noises some months ago, although not specifically against us, we sent them into oblivion as well, despite the fact that their legal position thumbs its nose at the laws of fair use.

The fact is we don't need them all that much. As the song goes, "Got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now." Here are a few good reasons:

- The AP isn't all that good a news source for a journal with a section called Undernews. It doesn't break many interesting stories or shed new light on them. It is more like a daily Wikipedia of what's happening. Quite useful but far from indispensable.

- Many AP stories are based on press releases or testimony or public speeches that are easily found elsewhere. One of our new hobbies has become to find alternative sources for AP stories. It's not that hard at all.

- You can not copyright facts or history. If Karl Rove tells the AP that Joe Biden is "a liar," the only way it can claim copyright over those words are if Rove sold the rights to his comments to AP, which would be a big story in itself. If 35 people die when a bridge collapses, that fact does not belong to AP even if it reports it first.

- It is therefore relatively easy to simply present facts and quotes in new language without the slightest copyright infringement. All you have to do is to be able to type fast.

- The Review started as an alternative journal in 1964 with no conventional material, and certainly none from AP. A few years later we are joined by over 400 underground papers in the U.S. We still didn't need the AP; we just shared with each other. And in the process we changed America, including helping foster the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, women's and gay movements. Not even the Internet can make such a claim, and certainly not AP.

The fact is that the archaic media is just not as important as it thinks it is. And where it should be important, such as covering our imperial wars objectively, it has allowed itself to become an embedded mouthpiece of the government.

While it is true that we are small enough that the AP doesn't need us either, the same can't be said of Google as Jeff Jarvis, writing of the recent Newspaper Association of America meeting, put it:

"Yesterday, you delivered a foot-stomping little hissy fit over Google and aggregators. How dare they link to you and not pay you? . . . Beware what you wish for. You’d lose a third of your traffic overnight. If other aggregators and bloggers and Facebook all decided to follow suit, you’d lose half your traffic. On most of your sites, only 20 percent of the audience in a day ever sees your homepage and its careful packaging; 4 of 5 readers instead come in through search and links. In the link economy - instead of the outmoded content economy in which you operate - Google and aggregators and bloggers are bringing value to you; they should be charging you for the value they bring. "

Shane Richmond in London's Telegraph phrased it well: "Should plumbers complain if they can't make enough money from the business they get from the Yellow Pages?"

This from Sarah Lacey of Business Week: "Old Media's indignation is akin to a parent who tries to punish a kid by taking away the Glenn Miller records. Let's be honest: The traditional media is threatening to cut off access to an asset that's declining in value, and in many cases, no longer brings in profits. Think about that. What exactly is the "or else" here? Or else, we won't take your free traffic, and we'll just watch our subscriber rolls dwindle and ad revenue shrink all alone? . . .

"It's not just that Old Media is wrong, it's that they've played this sad hand so badly. They spent years nakedly trying to get more and more traffic from search, portals, and aggregators, and now they suddenly strike a victim pose once they realized their business models are broken beyond repair. . .

"There's always been a lot of pride associated with the Old Media world. There had to be -- we didn't make much money, we worked long hours, we had to ask uncomfortable questions and report things people didn't want reported. And then there's that endless stream of deadlines. But this week is the first time I can think of that I'm embarrassed for my profession. Once you're reduced to legal threats and whining, you're one step away from admitting total defeat. Just ask the music industry. What's next, suing our own readers for clicking on Google links?"

Danny Sullivan wrote of a complaint by the Guardian which is also on the warpath against Google:

"Gosh, it was about a year ago I sat at a panel at the Guardian, designed for its reporters, and talked about ways they could (and they wanted) to generate traffic from search engines. Doing keyword research, looking for trends, all that. And Google was by far -- by far -- the biggest referral of traffic the Guardian got. If I recall, it sent something like 3 million visitors to the Guardian per day.

"Seriously, the Tribune and the New York Times saddled themselves with debt, and that problem is somehow Google's fault? The Guardian's had a decade to figure out how to earn off the internet, and it complains to the UK government that it can't succeed?"

That AP and the Guardian don't understand this is just sign of the degree to which business is run these days by those who don't play well with others.

They don't understand that how much of success - business, political or social - is based on symbiosis and viral activity. Consider the Internet, the Obama campaign, or a thriving downtown district with a mix of business, entertainment and service all dependent on others in the same 'hood.

Instead these media run to their lawyers as an alternative to creativity and new ideas.

This seldom works because lawyers are not natural lodes of creativity and new ideas. They can put you behind a wall but that's seldom a good way to find new customers.

Arianna Huffiington summed up the situation well:

"Take online video. Not that long ago, content providers were committed to the idea of requiring viewers to come to their site to view their content -- and railed against anyone who dared show even a short clip.

"But content hoarding -- the walled garden -- didn't work. And instead of sticking their finger in the dike, trying to hold back the flow of innovation, smart companies began providing embeddable players that allowed their best stuff to be posted all over the web, accompanied by links and ads that helped generate additional traffic and revenue.

"Or go to any college, as I often do, and ask a group of students how many of them, during the campaign, saw Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. It's usually 100 percent. Then ask how many saw it on Saturday Night Live. It's usually no more than one or two. Yes, SNL could have said tune in to NBC Saturday Night at 11:30 or don't see it at all. But Lorne Michaels and Jeff Zucker obviously don't want to go the way of Rick Wagoner and his Detroit buddies."

Or consider the fact that I didn't see the aforementioned Tom Curley video clip thanks to AP or because I watch Charlie Rose, but thanks to Huffington Post, whose boss was the other guest on the show. Huffington Post ran the clip even though it clearly disagreed with it. On the Internet even your foes can help you.

Speaking of Huffington Post and the AP, it is perhaps instructive to see what's been happening to their page views according to Alexa, with HP first and AP below it:

There is another problem with the blame-it-on-the web approach, which is that the stats don't back it up. For example, Forbes reported last year that "in 2007, Internet advertising accounted for 7% of the industry's total revenue, up from 5.4% in 2006, according to the Newspaper Association of America." And writing in the Neiman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld finds that, contrary to the popular impression, "whether you look at page views or time spent reading, only around 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online."

Further, the problem blamed on the Internet actually started well before the internet began to flower. The NY Times' circulation, for example, peaked in 1993 and has been falling ever since. Google didn't even start until 1996.

In 1989, the same year that the World Wide Web began, I was invited to a community meeting to discuss the Washington Post, called by its publisher Don Graham. I couldn't make it, so instead wrote up a few comments in the Review such including:


What are we doing as we sit glazing our fingers with your ink? At one level we believe we are educating ourselves. But at another, and very important level, we are developing an impression of the day and of our city that will affect our mood, our conversation and our actions for the hours to come.

And how does the Post serve us at this critical juncture? What sort of day and city does it prepare us for? Basically it says to the reader: you are about to go out in a city which has a wealth of problems that you can't solve, pleasures which you're not important enough to enjoy, and people who, when they are not just being dull, are deceitful, avaricious or mean. . .

The Post seems at times almost maniacally determined to drain the life out of the city. What remains is a bureaucratic memo on the last 24 hours from the perspective of that small minority of people who wield power in this town.

So if I had been able to come to your meeting I would have accused you of being a wet blanket on my mornings and, by consequence, on the rest of the day. To my mind, this is as serious a charge as one can make against a daily newspaper.

I think this is so not because Post writers and editors are inherently dull, indifferent, or lack humor or emotion. Many, I have found, consider themselves more prisoners than collaborators. I think the problem stems from the fashion in which the Post attempts to rule, benignly and with noblesse oblige, from its monopoly position. Its methods, as I understand them, are not strikingly different from those of McDonald's, that is to say they depend in no small part on quality control. This control, aimed at preventing bad things from happening, has the inevitable result of preventing a lot of good things from happening as well. You end up with a product not unlike Muzak, in which both the low and high pitches are removed leaving the listener with the bland middle range.


As it turns out, not only is the Post in financial trouble but Muzak has filed for bankruptcy.

Seventeen years later I tried again to help out the Post:


- Newspapers early surrendered the image battle to TV when, in fact, TV only shows images for a few seconds at which point they are gone forever. Newspapers should go back to the approach to photos that made Life Magazine so appealing: images that made you stop and look either because of the quality of the photo or because of the story that a series of photos told. When, for example, was the last time you let a photographer edit your page design?

- Dump the Pulitzer porn such as your recent series on black men. That dreary combination of abstractions, stats and not all that interesting stories makes for poor journalism, especially over breakfast. Besides, you can't make up for years of ignoring the problems of black men with an occasional series even if it does win a prize.

- Put news on your front page. I define news as something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership.

- The one exception to filling the front page with news would be a story or two that are just interesting, which is to say ones about which readers will ask their friends, "Did you see that story about. . ?"

- Use the "holy shit" principle of news editing. If your reaction to a story is "holy shit" and the story is true, many of your readers are going to feel the same way.

- Run more and shorter stories. You can get the edge over both the Internet and TV through quantity rather than just style of news. And the more names the better.

- Run more local stories, more stories affecting different ethnic groups, and more stories about sports people play rather than just watch.

- Go back to pyramid style reporting or at least get to the point within the first paragraph or two.

- Stop burying stories that affect ordinary readers in the business and real estate sections and put them in the front of the paper where they belong.

- Run more stories that affect ordinary readers. Handle your news from the viewpoint of your readers rather than from that of your advertisers, sources, or journalistic staff - few of whom live in some the toughest yet newsworthy parts of town.

- Have a labor section as well as a business section. After all, you have more employees than employers in your circulation area.

- Slash the number of stupid, spinning, or sophistic quotations from official sources used in your paper.


In the end, I suspect, it was the pretensions of what was once a trade but turned into a power-partying profession that has done a lot of the damage to the conventional media.

Richard Harwood once remarked of the journalism in which he began his career: "We were perceived as a lower form of life, amoral, half-literate hacks in cheap suits. Thus I was assigned to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Nashville in the late 1940s and, with other reporters, was given lunch at a card table set up in a hallway to protect the dining room from contamination."

Moving from this dubious trade, a majority of whose practitioners hadn't gone to college, to a profession graced by graduate schools and thence to a status that was part actor and part apparatchik of a rising corporate uber-culture, journalists became ever more prominent and self-referential even as they were losing touch with both their purported constituency and their purported purpose. They became the first group in human history to dramatically improve their socio-economic status simply by writing about themselves, self-casting themselves among the very elite from whom they had once been expected to protect their audience.

So it was not surprising that this crowd met the Internet with contempt. In my 2001 book, Why Bother?, I gave a few early examples:

- Cokie and Steve Roberts wrote a column, headed 'Internet Could Become A Threat To Representative Government,' warning against the direct democracy of the Internet and saying it could threaten the "very existence" of Congress.

- A commentator on Court TV argued that acceptance of government regulation of the Net was the equivalent of growing up.

- Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes called for the removal of undesirable information from the Net. Asked on what grounds, Stahl replied, "That it's wrong, that it's inaccurate, it's irresponsible, that it is spreading fear and suspicion of the government; 10,000 reasons."

- A writer in the Washington Post warned that without gatekeepers of information -- e.g. the Washington Post -- "our media could become even more infested with half-truths and falsehoods."

- On Crossfire, Geraldine Ferraro breathlessly warned that "we've got to get this Internet under control."

And it hasn't changed all that much. The Atlantic reported recently:

"In a poll of prominent members of the national news media, nearly two-thirds say the Internet is hurting journalism more than it is helping. The poll, conducted by The Atlantic and National Journal, asked 43 media insiders whether, on balance, journalism has been helped more or hurt more by the rise of news consumption online. Sixty-five percent said journalism has been hurt more, while 34 percent said it has been helped more."

In short, the archaic media has never liked the Internet, never learned what it was about or how to use it, and now wants to blame it for all their troubles. That's probably not a great business model.

April 09, 2009


Sam Smith

Cultures rise and fall like the stock market, only it takes longer and no one has come up with a really good index to tell you what's happening. My guess is that American culture has been in a bear market since sometime around 1980, with the fiscal bear market only catching up to the larger reality in the last year or so.

These days you can clearly sense the cultural collapse just by watching our inability to deal with the fiscal one. To be sure, our leaders in politics, academia and the media are determined and decisive but then so are a lot of inmates in mental institutions. What's lacking is logic, pragmatism, imagination, and common sense. Instead, they toss out trillions like confetti and call it policy.

And it's been going on a lot longer the current crisis. For example, one of the reasons we got into this mess and can't get out is because we've turned so much of life over to lawyers and MBAs. Practical business people (as opposed to marketers parading as such) seem non-existent in Washington, wise economists are ignored and the simple lessons of history aren't even considered.

Further, our leaders seem tone deaf. There is little consciousness that to get the economy moving, people at every level have to feel it's moving. Things have to happen and they have to be visible. Like new buildings, new businesses, new jobs.

There's a lot of talk about FDR but Roosevelt did it differently. He didn't use a banker or an MBA to get things rolling; he actually used a social worker, Harry Hopkins, who created more new jobs in four months than Obama promises to create (or "save") by 2011.

The Works Progress Administration built or repaired 103 golf courses, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, and 651,087 of highways and roads.

Nothing like that is even contemplated this time around.

Obama, however, is not the cause of the problem; he is merely another product of it. He is just the head guy in a society that has lost the ability to get things done or fixed.

I once wrote a book called The Great American Political Repair Manual. While the title was still under discussion I got a call from my editor who said a couple of her colleagues had problems with it. One thought that because of the word "repair" it might be put in the automobile section of the bookstores. The other said that "repair" sounded too much like work. I replied, "Oh yeah, I forgot. You folks in Manhattan don't repair anything. You just call the super."

The problem today - 12 years later - is that there is no super to call to repair America.

There are two major alternative prognoses for such a time. One is that the stock market analogy is correct and we will indeed rise from our fall. The other is that it's actually much worse: that we are in a state of cultural dysevolution and America will never again be what it once was.

The arguments for the first prognosis include not only the history of past fiscal crises but the similarity between the time in which we live and those eras that historians call "great awakenings," times of obsession with religion over reality that were followed by things like the American Revolution, the abolition movement, and the progressive politics of the last century.

There seems to be a yin and yang to this: our politicians fail us and so we turn to God, forgetting the part about rendering unto Caesar that which is his business. After awhile, say like right now, it becomes apparent that God isn't going to keep your job for you or pay your cable bill. So there's a drift back to politics.

For example, the past few American decades have been run in part on the premise that gay marriage and abortion are more important than pensions, healthcare or jobs - and that so-called family values, as defined by a bevy of self-appointed priests and pols, are more important that home values.

The fiscal crisis and other reminders of reality have already done a good job of challenging all that. The gay marriage dispute has taken a major turnabout, thanks to some judges and the Vermont legislature. The Reverends Rick Warren and Reverend Jeremiah Wright have both proved more of a liability to Barack Obama than a blessing. The percent of youth in Canada, where it's easier to be honest about such things, claiming no faith at all has risen from 12% in 1984 to 32% today. And a new Rasmussen Poll finds that those Americans under 30 favor capitalism over socialism by only 37% to 33%.

Our president and supposed agent for change reflects none of such changes, but, as in the stock market, it's often the small cap companies that lead the way. As noted here during the campaign, Obama could just be a reverse Carter: instead of paving the way for the rightwing revolution that almost destroyed us, he could be the transition to something much better.

That's the cheery prognosis. On the other hand, what has happened may be permanent just as with the ancient Greeks or the Mayans. Bear in mind that humans are the only species that, with malice aforethought, ignore, disable or destroy the advantages of biological evolution. Thus we have moved from Gutenberg presses to text messages, from Bach to American Idol, and from weapons capable of killing only one at time to those that can explode the whole world. We have moved from survival of the fittest to survival of the Twitterist, and from dependence on DNA to dependence on MBAs.

There is no index, or even scientific theory, to plot the costs of such a course, but if the current crises of economics, ecology and culture are reasonable indicators, it makes biological determinism look pretty good and certainly an improvement over the advice of Tim Geithner, Tom Friedman, Glenn Beck or the Washington Post.

In fact, almost every elite institution - politics, academia, think tanks, the media - has failed us. These institutions have destroyed our national environment, constitution, integrity, reputation and communities.

To reverse what is happening, we must create strong alternative ideas and hardy alternative institutions and communities, a counter culture that rejects the myths of Washington and Wall Street just as, in the 1960s, a generation put the establishment on the defensive or in the closet.

This won't happen easily. The establishment has become far more skillful at defending its turf - using everything from fake town meetings to greater illegal spying. But there's another even more discouraging problem: the acceptance of helplessness by so many of those one might, in other times, have been expected to lead the rebellion against the catatonic confederacy of those in control.

A particularly painful example is the support of the Af-Pak war by those who still boast of their liberalism. This is a war - after Obama adds his most recent announced troops - that will bring us to the same status as we were with Vietnam in mid 1965 when a visible anti-war movement was already underway. Why such silence now? Are liberals on their way to extinction, too?

In any case, we need to act, but independent of those responsible for the mess, those exculpating them, those offering remedies that are mere manipulated shadows of the failure, and those engaged in misleading or misguided organizing on their behalf even if with purportedly noble intent.

There is no salvation to be found in the Democratic Party, in Obama or in more ranting about how bad Rush Limbaugh is. We need a loud and clear agenda - with things like single payer, no more imperial wars, public campaign financing and an economic policy that helps real people and not just bankers and hedge fund hustlers. We need to be at odds with both the criminally egregious and their ineffective or unintentional enablers.

The collapse of American culture was an inside job. Its cure is to be found on the outside, in a counter culture that is clear and worthy in its goals, eclectic in its alliances, and which builds community, recovers integrity and helps us to sing again. If we can't save our culture, we can at least create a new one.