Archive for September, 2008

An Open Letter to The New York Times

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

In an earlier post I talked about the impending demise of print media and offered a probably not-incredibly-useful proposal for improving the quality of new hires into the industry.

Here’s another idea, which I’m convinced could actually add a revenue stream for circulation-lacking papers like The New York Times. And with the demise of The New York Sun this week just another in a long line of portents, it’s time for them to listen.

During a car ride to the city the other day, my cousin Jarema was talking about how she wished she could read the newspaper every day, but she didn’t have the time. And she described how, in addition to listening to music, she loves using her iPod to listen to audiobooks while she works (as a painter for an art collective). If only she could listen to the newspaper on her iPod!

Well, why can’t she?

The Times needs subscription revenue, but readers are flocking to the website instead. The paper tried a pay-for-view scheme for some web content, but with the abundance of free news online there’s no reason to pay.

Meanwhile, many people (like me) love the content from the Times but just can’t read every article. We like the actual paper for the variety, depth, and quality of its coverage. In contrast, the local and even national TV news and news radio lack this quality and depth, and lack the user-side control of clicking around on the Times Online.

Add to that the efficiency of using iPods for purposes other than music. For instance, I download History Channel documentaries and listen to them while I walk around.

So what’s the prescription? The Times should team up with Apple to offer a daily download of the paper, divided into tracks for each article. It shouldn’t be too difficult to have a few voice artists record the articles every night; use one artist for the dozen or so articles in each section — a Diane Sawyer type for International News; a Ray Romano sound-alike for Sports; for the Metro Section, Fran Drescher (she might be available for this, right?).

I don’t subscribe to the print version of the paper because I move around too much, it’s too bulky, and there’s not enough value added over the online version. But I’d subscribe to the audio downloadable paper for sure. Just as I get an email whenever there’s a new Mad Men episode available for download, I’d have an email in my inbox every morning with a one-click link to the audio of the day’s paper. A minute later, I’d have my iPod earbuds in, on my way to the elevator, hearing the day’s headline article read to me.

Maybe I’d skip articles on telecom mergers or soccer matches, but I’d get a much wider variety of news than when I click around the articles that pop out on me on the website.

Another benefit: people love to dissociate payment from their purchases — it adds utility. It’s why we convert money into chips when we go into a casino: we suffer the expense once and then we don’t have to think about it. Paying for a subscription to the Times on iTunes would be quick and painless, making us more likely to expend money we wouldn’t in increments of $1.50 over 365 days.

Bottom line: with minimal effort and expense, the paper can make a whole new generation into Times subscribers. By making our currently unproductive time productive — letting us hear the Times while walking the streets — they’ll add value to their reporting that makes it worthwhile for us to spend money on the news. New revenue abounds.

Update (10/1/08): So it turns out that a company called Audible, bought by Amazon in January for $300 million, offers an “Audio Digest” version of the Times for like $13/mo. So someone over at the Times is recording an abridged version of the paper every night. They’re just not making it easily available — nor marketing it aggressively — to the iPod generation. To get it, one has to go to audible.com and find it, then create an account, download it, and import to iTunes. And let’s face it: nothing with the word “Digest” in its name is being marketed to millennials. This Digest should be made a lot sexier and be made easily available through the iTunes Store. Of course, it’s also worth noting that you can subscribe to some New York Times podcasts, but nothing akin to what I describe above.

Climate Change and The Winner’s Curse

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Over the last few years, most mainstream doubt about the existence of climate change has been quelled — just think about Al Gore, Nobel Prize Laureate — and only the most strident of zealots resist the coalescing consensus that the activities of man are adversely affecting our environment.

As a result, I was surprised and intrigued to hear from a friend over dinner recently that her boyfriend — a Harvard business school student who holds numerous science degrees, including a master’s from Cambridge — is resistant to the forecasting that appears in major scientific publications like Science and Nature.

No one’s accusing these publications of being anything less than rigorously peer-reviewed bastions of scientific research, so why disbelieve them?

My friend said her boyfriend felt that lots of good, legitimate research is done on climate change, but the publications — and the media at large — focus on the extreme, the provocative, and so it’s the most pessimistic views that end up in their pages.

This makes perfect sense: the research on the rate and reach of climate change, even if it’s all done by good scientists using sound data-collection and analysis, is likely to result in findings that fall along a distribution. But while the truth of the matter is likely found in considering the distribution as a whole, the findings on the ends are going to be the ones that stick out to journal editors as the most interesting to prospective readers.

It’s a case of the classic economic phenomenon known as The Winner’s Curse.

Let’s say there’s an auction of a good with an objective but unknown value (think fields for oil drilling, not a painting that each prospective buyer will value differently). Each buyer will estimate the value differently. Maybe they’ll each hire someone to professionally survey and appraise the good. The real value is probably around the mean estimate, but it’s the buyer with the high estimate who will buy the good, thinking the others suckers for passing on such a valuable purchase. But that buyer will almost certainly have over-valued the good. In an auction like this, you don’t want to be the winner.

Similarly, science journals are buying the articles that most highly estimate the costs of climate change — but they might be overpaying.

Infomercials and Attack Ads

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

What do infomercials and many political attack ads have in common?

They both change the way we think even though they employ words and imagery we all know to be blatantly false.

Last week, Saturday Night Live did a fake commercial based on my favorite infomercial convention: making simple everyday tasks, from peeling a potato to doing a sit-up, look Sisyphean. In the SNL commercial, Kristen Wiig just CANNOT get a jar open! In trying, she ends up accidentally killing her husband, burying him, lying to the cops, getting arrested, being convicted, then getting chased by dogs after breaking out of jail. “There’s got to be a better way!” she cries. Then in a clear color shot, she uses the “jar glove” to easily remove the lid. “Jar glove. The better way!”

Infomercials all seem to use this tactic: in black and white dramatizations, we watch unfortunate people with contorted faces flail this way and that in a desperate attempt to get the knife to move straight or to get their chests to meet their knees. We all know that these tasks are not this hard. We know these dramatizations are absurd. And yet they do seem to make those Tater Mitts and Ab Lounges more attractive.

George Orwell described the “schizophrenia” of “holding simultaneously two beliefs which cancel out.” And though we’re not schizophrenic when we watch infomercials, we do seem to inhabit a double consciousness, knowing that our lives are not the black and white ordeals we see onscreen but still feeling that they could be easier.

And we inhabit this same double consciousness when seeing, hearing, or reading malicious political attacks.

Two months ago, John McCain said that Barack Obama would “rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” This is a statement that no reasonable person, even a McCain supporter, would believe. Add to this other scurrilous rumors — Obama is secretly a practicing Muslim; he was childhood friends with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — that are either conspiratorially unbelievable or quickly, easily falsified. Yet these clearly false attacks persist — probably because they are effective. We’ll likely see even more attacks like this in next six weeks; Fact Check is a good place to keep track.

Why are they effective? As John Bullock writes in his article “The enduring importance of false political beliefs”:

Much work on political persuasion maintains that people are influenced by information that they believe and not by information that they don’t. By this view, false beliefs have no power if they are known to be false…But findings from social psychology suggest that this view requires modification: sometimes, false beliefs influence people’s attitudes even after they are understood to be false.

Negative associations change our attitudes, even if these associations are as transparent as false rumors or impossible sit-ups.

The producers of infomercials know it’s true. Clearly, so do politicians.

It’s intriguing that simple lying might be as effective as aggressively spinning the truth. The conventional wisdom is that bullshit is much more invidious than bold-faced lies, being harder to refute. The manipulation of words and images, subtly misleading statements (like President Bush mentioning Iraq and 9/11 together, giving the impression that Iraq was somehow involved in the terrorist attacks), the framing of issues, etc., are supposed to be the most dangerous form of political maneuvering. But maybe the conventional wisdom is wrong.