Friday, June 28, 2013

More Thoughts on The Oregonian

I fear for The Oregonian, but do not delight in its demise - in fact the exact opposite is true: I think investigative journalism is a incredibly valuable public good and I worry that society is undervaluing it and squandering it as the print journalism business model dies as I have said many times here on this blog.

That said I am very worried about the future of the Oregonian and here are a few reasons why:

One: The move into being a digital first company would inspire a lot more confidence if they hadn't shown over the last decade that they are so completely inept at it.  I realize that a lot of this is the way Advance structured the separate "OregonLive" operation, but the "OregonLive website, even after the extensive overhaul, is one of the worst sites I have ever used for news.  And this, by the way is the sum total of Advance's economies of scale and scope strategy - is identical to the other advance sites, most notably So what makes Advance believe that they can suddenly, by switching focus, become great at it?  They have had more than a decade already with terrible results.

The slow switch to a digital first model has been painful to live through.  Horribly written and seemingly unedited stories pop up on OregonLive as soon as possible only to go through many mutations and eventually end up as the finished product (usually edited successfully, but not always) in the print paper.  On line there may be two or three versions of the story still on OregonLive (but of course if you try to use their search function for them you will find none) and a number of ancillary bits to wade through (let's give them VIDEO!!).  O reporters suddenly pop up on social media and desperately try and get a twitter following so they can show their editors how hip and 21st century they are. [Here is a tip - too late for most I am afraid - follow EVERYBODY and just go and find irrelevant, amusing, pithy stuff on the internets and tweet them all the time]

Two: which leads us to comparative advantage.  If the new business model is to be based on on-line page views and the ad revenue they generate (did I just say that?) readers need to come to the O and not other places.  Why would they do that?  The ONLY valuable asset (now that the printing presses and ops are worthless) the Oregonian has is its name and reputation.  I still turn to the O for the authoritative word, but there is not much of a reason to anymore except that I am old and slow to adapt.  The human capital at the O, upon which its reputation is based, has been completely gutted.  Reporting is a science and art that takes many years to perfect.  Over the years reporters learn how the systems work, learn how to get the information, develop contacts and sources, etc.  The digital age has not been kind to the O in its efforts to shed legacy costs (read: high salaries and pensions) as all the of the new fresh faced journalism school grads they hire quickly have their faces up with there digital byline and a website full of reporters who look like they are writing for the high school paper is not something that enhances the reputation of the O as much as destroys it.

So there is no reason, I am afraid, that folks will turn to the digital O for news when there are so many other sources.  True, maybe there will be no serious competition, for which society will suffer no doubt, but then there also may be too little viewership to support it anyway.  For if the O's business model is successful, there will be competition, but if it is a looser, they will have the market to themselves.

Three: being driven by the eyeballs on pages business model means being driven by more fluff and less serious investigative journalism.  The most read stories as of this morning on OregonLive?:

  1. Bumblebee memorial scheduled for Sunday at Wilsonville Target
  2. Canzano: Trail Blazers pass draft test, but face tricky free agency
  3. Quick: CJ McCollum provides his first assist on his first day with the Trail Blazers
  4. Trail Blazers nab unexpectedly available Allen Crabbe, Jeff Withey in second round
  5. Blazers Insider: Although LaMarcus Aldridge wants out of Portland, don't expect it to happen Thursday
Okay so the sports part of OregonLive might be able to sustain itself...

Perhaps the most ironic thing is that the very week after which all of the changes to the Oregonian were announced, they roll out one of those long-form investigative journalism Pulitzer-fishing pieces that is certainly a relic of the bygone era.  You can almost hear the discussion in the editor's room: "well, hell, he has done all of this work, let's just get the thing published quick before Advance can round-file it."  Hell, Les Zaitz has only 470 twitter followers, there is no room for a reporter with so few twitter followers in the new Oregon...(Joe Rose, master of the new form, has more than 6,700, so maybe commuting news will sustain itself too).  Besides, who the hell cares about Pulitzers anymore?  Not the kiddos looking for Blazer draft news...  So what it really does is serve as a stark reminder of what we have lost.

So what would I do?  I honestly don't know so though this reads like a relentless criticism, it isn't.  I don't have any good answers.  This is more about my worry that this strategy will not work.  Hell, even the New York Times couldn't make open access profitable.  Can an old-style newsroom still exist and what are the implications for a democracy that depends so heavily on the fourth estate if they can't?  

Or maybe I am all wrong - maybe we don't need the MSM in this new digital world.  Maybe blogs, press releases and the occasional look in from wire services is enough.  I doubt it.

So here is hoping that the new digital Oregonian will be a success and that we can still count on one place where real, original, investigative reporting thrives.  If not we will all be the poorer for it.

[UPDATE: Here is an interesting perspective from New Orleans]

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On Inequality, Mobility and the United States

Being here in Brazil brings issues of income inequality to the forefront as Brazil, despite significant progress on this front remains one of the worlds most unequal societies.  The US, among rich countries has always been one of the most unequal, but that has been partly by choice - we forgo a strong government involvement in altering the distribution in the belief that this makes entrepreneurship more robust and leads to better overall growth.  But a pillar of this philosophy has always been the Horatio Alger factor: that in this society only your individual smarts, work-ethic and daring-do determine how high you can rise.  This is akin to saying that there is high income mobility in the US - that kids from poor parents have a good chance to become much wealthier than their parents.

Unfortunately this is only true in anecdotes and is becoming less and less true as the US economy morphs into a much more unequal distribution of the vast wealth it creates.  The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution has put out an excellent primer on the topic and here are the graphs that speak thousands of words.

This first is a alarming illustration of the increasing inequality of the US economy since 1975.  In a wealthy and growing economy such as the US, should we not expect that the poorest children are doing better over time?  This is a key metric of development in other parts of the world...

This one illustrates how low is our social mobility - born poor: you tend to stay poor, born rich: you tend to stay rich. Why? It is not genetics...

This next one rebuts the myth that it is all inherited genetics - smart rich parents have smart kids who get rich thanks to their own smarts and not the socio-economic position of their parents.

No, in fact, the amount invested the the future success of kids is rapidly increasing along with inequality.  Especially as the public sector dis-invests in education, these enrichment activities are being privatized and this is likely contributing to the increasing income inequality and the decreasing mobility:

And these investments matter - the academic achievement of rich kids relative to poor kids is increasing rapidly.

To paraphrase Rawls: the true test of a just society is on into which you would be willing to be placed at random.  Would you take your chances in the US?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Picture of the Day: Jobs -- Recovery, What Recovery?

Today for my attempt to disguise real content with multicolored graphs stolen from other places, I give you this nice little depressing picture.  It shows very effectively just how slow the recovery has been and just how far we still have to go.  

There are signs of life in the US and Oregon for sure, but nothing that portends a hotting up of the recovery - Europe needs probably a decade to sort itself out, growth has slowed in Brazil and China is showing itself ready to finally curtail the rather reckless debt acquisition of its banks.  

Add to that the perhaps immature pivot to austerity that the US is making and we are probably going to be living with unemployment in the 6-7% range for the next 5 years or more.  

Graph from The Wall Street Journal.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Requiem for a Daily

The almost inevitable has happened - The Oregonian will cease to exist as a daily newspaper becoming more    focused on digital content and finding a way to make it pay.

I say inevitable because once Advance Publications (which owns the O) cut the New Orleans Times-Picayune to a three-times-a-week product you just knew the writing was on the wall at the O.

I say almost because since that happened a competing paper has started and in response the T-P has decided to fill in the daily delivery gaps with a printed product just for newsstands.

Plus the T-Ps strategy has been an omnishambles - totally and completely unrecognizable as anything remotely associated with smarts and business savvy.

David Carr in the New York Times suggested, when the Times-Picayune decided to produce another printed newsstand-only edition to fill in the gaps it left with the delivered paper, that print journalism is still where it is at.  I suspect that this is more wishful thinking than sober analysis.  What the recent history of the T-P suggested to me is that traditional print newspaper businesses are ill-equipped to deal with the future, or perhaps more precisely Newhouse's Advance Publications is ill-equipped.  Unfortunately, the O is owned by Advance.

I had a dream, which is now fantasy but to which I hold dearly, that Advance would crumble and that someone, perhaps Robert Pamplin, would snap up the O and save it.

In the meantime we have the OregonLive website - recently revamped and a total mess.   Full disclosure, this  blog is a part of the Oregonian News Network (okay, maybe not for long after this) for which I receive absolutely all.  I said yes primarily because I am happy to support anything that might just possibly help keep the O afloat.  Because I have said many times in this blog that I think investigative journalism (which takes real hard legwork and should not be mistaken for blogging) is a public good of which we far underestimate the worth.

We also have the revolving door of recently minted journalism school grads that the O has become and coverage of most issues has become transparently superficial as a result.  This is not the talented and hard-working new reporters fault, just the simple result of the fact that the job, done well, requires experience, knowledge and contacts - something you build up over decades at a paper.

I do think we are in a period of transition, just like music and  movies and that journalism will end up more digital than paper, but we haven't yet figured out how real investigative journalism is going to survive.  I think it might just take a real dearth of investigative journalism for people to realize what they have missed.  But we can't leave journalism to run as a charity, there has to be real public support of it.  We do it for radio and TV because it is clear that the market will not support enough of it, so let's do it for journalism in general.

The only silver lining for this old-school daily print newspaper and coffee sipping middle aged man in Portland, Oregon is that you can get the New York Times delivered to your door seven days a week for $16.  I'll keep my O subscription for now but I am skeptical of what the future holds - there is barely enough investigative journalism now, what will the new newsroom look like?

In the meantime, I am deeply saddened for those reporters who are on their way out: they have made positive and significant contributions to the state of Oregon, the city of Portland and to my like and for that I thank them all.  

Notes from the South: Protests

Another night another impressive turnout across Brazil including, here in São Paulo, a massive demonstration on Avenida Paulista three blocks from my apartment.

Though there was more violence and vandalism elsewhere, São Paulo was generally very peaceful.  The interesting evolution was the arrival of a number of competing political party activists that showed up in T-shirts and carrying flags and started fighting between themselves.  Equally interesting is the anger at the Workers Party folks that showed up the crowd jeered them and called them "oportunistas" and "mensaleiros". Traditionally the populist party, they now represent the entrenched politicians and have been badly tarnished by the Mensalão, a massive corruption scandal that has reached up into the highest echelons of Lula's government.  (Lula himself has escaped indictment largely - my cynical friends say - due to his talent at filtering all of the proceeds of his corruption to family members, never directly to him).  

The best english language coverage I have read has been the spot-on reporting of the New York Times who captures the amorphous spirit of the demonstrations perfectly and the Guardian who downplay the vandalism and violence.  It should be noted that there is anger directed at mainstream media (especially TV) here who folks believe are part of the corruption and cronyism and who have, in their view, unfairly focused on violence and vandalism.  I am not sure about the last - TV news has always been about fires and car crashes rather than context - this is the same with the protests.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Updates and Notes from the Social Uprising in Brasil

The sign reads "Not for pennies but for rights!"
A few random updates and notes about the protests here in São Paulo.

First, the protesters won the concession they were originally seeking: bus, metro and train fares are returning to R$ 3.00 from R$3.20.  (Divide by 2 to get US$ equivalent)  However the protests will continue all over SP (and Brasil) today as the movement has quickly spread to become much broader.  The group that started the whole thing, Movimento Passe Livre, is now moving on to demand free transit (as is the raison d'etre of the movement whose name is 'free pass').  Though the protests have morphed to include all sorts of gripes about current social conditions, Passe Livre is still the focal point and the group that organizes the initial protests - i.e. sets up time and dates with local police.

Second, one interesting aspect of these protests is that normally you might be expecting that they call for the government to get out.  But the government is the Worker's Party (PT) and has traditionally been the party of the poor and working class and who stand for exactly these issues.  Even more interesting is that it was the PT that started Passe Livre in the first place (or so I have been told).  Many of these social groups are established to put political pressure on government to help out an opposition party and such was the case with Passe Livre - their demand helped the cause of the PT as they were trying to gain national power (which they did, Lula and Dilma are both PT).  So the protesters are demanding changes and are angry at government but can't quite get themselves to demand the PT get out (or at least as far as I can tell).  The state governor here is not PT so the protesters have one head to call for.

Third, I wrote yesterday that the R$0.20 fare increase seems like a little but it is a lot for the poor and working class and, even more, is a powerful symbol of balancing budgets on the backs of the poor.  But São Paulo is such an gigantic city that the repeal of the R$0.20 fare increase leaves a R$ 325,000,000 for the rest of the year.  So roughly the R$0.20 fare increase yields R$700,000,000 a year to the government coffers.

Fourth, some foreign newspaper have tried to push the story of frustration over the squandered opportunity of the economic boom (which has cooled of completely here).  But this is unfair - the government has made remarkable progress on many fronts.  They have massively expanded Bolsa Familia, the government transfer to poor households which also incentivizes kids going to school.  They have invested in social services like schools and public health and there are now twice as many university students in Brasil than there were just 12 years ago.  So the progress Brasil has made in many indices of human development is impressive, but that Brasil still lags so far behind other countries demonstrates the sheer depth of the problem. (The New York Times has the best English language article I have read on the protests, by the way)

Finally, though the protest have been largely peaceful (save for a bunch of localized vandalism by kids more intent in using the moment as an excuse to smash and steal stuff) it does completely mess up transit in the city that already has massive transit problems on normal days.  My kids school has cancelled after school activities today due to the planned protest (much to my son's despair - Thursday is futebol day!) and we had to cancel an after school playdate because getting from one neighborhood to the next is too hard. Needless to say, the protests do not enjoy the full support of my kids!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Of Ten Cents and 14 Billion Dollars

Why the fuss over a ten cent bus fare hike?

Consider that while the government cannot find money to avoid a ten cent bus fare hike, significantly raising the cost of living for the poor and working class of São Paulo, they have no problem finding 14 billion Dollars to spend on the World Cup.

And it is not just the sheer magnitude of that number but the combination of graft, corruption, incompetence and so on ensures that this is probably about twice what they needed to spend.  Add to that they fact that the World Cup is going to me a upper middle to upper class event.  Most tickets are far too expensive for the working class.

And while Brazil's growth has been fantastic over the last decade, Brazil still has woefully inadequate public education and health infrastructure.  As I mentioned previously Brazil still lags far far behind Argentina in education metrics and Argentina has been a basket case for the last 20 years while Brazil is a BRIC!  They can and should do better.  

So it is not just the ten cents in itself (which is significant), but the symbolism of the ten cent fare hike amidst all of the other decisions by the government about where to spend money.  Added to that is a high tax rate that, with ridiculously high leakage in the form of graft and corruption, yields a unacceptably low return in the form of basic public services and infrastructure.  

The serious demonstrators have a lot of legitimate points.  You should also understand that the current violence and destruction that you see on TV are a small fringe of young men and boys who delight in taking this opportunity to smash stuff up (including, conveniently, shop windows after which they can take stuff).  I'll leave it to the sociologists to decide whether this rage and destructive urge is the obvious artifact of a desperately unequal society that has a lot of young men without much hope of a life without financial struggle.  Regardless, wanton destruction is ridiculous and only serves to delegitimize the greater struggle.  Sadly.

The image above is from Avenida Paulista, three blocks from my apartment, and the center for the more peaceful protests.  I would have no problem taking my kids there to join in (save for the fact that they are fast asleep long before they arrive). 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Economist's Notebook: The World Cup and its Discontents

Here in Brazil, folks are taking a host of grievances to the street.  The popular unrest is growing quickly and, save for some young hooligans who seem to delight in taking advantage of a good protest to smash and burn things, it is largely a peaceful and thoughtful protest.

In São Paulo it started with a ten cent increase in the cost of a bus or metro ride.  Small change to be sure but the contrast between the working class being asked for a little more in an incredibly expensive city while at the same time the government seems to have almost endless capacity to build stadiums for the world cup is stark.  At first the protests were small and filled with vandalism.  Subsequent protests were violently cracked down upon by police who were told to prevent vandalism.  Now the protests have grown from just a complaint about the bus fare and people are joining in with a litany of complaints: health care and education being the top two as far as I can tell.  The protest last night swelled and became massive but mostly peaceful.

Protests in other cities, most notably Rio, were less peaceful.

The timing of the protests are a combination of the timing of the transit fare increase in SP and the start of the FIFA Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm up.  The anger at the amount of money spent building and rebuilding stadia and other related projects for a one-month event while poverty, inequality and serious deficiencies in social services has come to a head with this event.  Smart protesters know also that their protests will get world attention while the Confed. Cup is going on which will put more pressure on the government to respond.

My wife, Kristina, a teacher, was able to go to a São Paulo public school in a good neighborhood.  One of the first things that struck here was that the neighborhood is wealthy so those kids all go to private school and the kids who attend the local public school are the kids of the domestic employees of the neighborhood.  Weird and totally Brazilian. But the other thing that she learned was the predictably bad infrastructure, overworked teachers, and lack of support.  Teachers in SP have to work two jobs to make ends meet.  Education is delivered twice a day here: there is a morning and afternoon session so that they can get more out of the already inadequate infrastructure.  Most teachers Kristina met were talented, enthusiastic and dedicated, but totally worn out by having two jobs (usually in different schools so that they have to dash from one to the other).  So it is natural then that people are asking about government priorities when there seems to be an endless supply of funds.

Another big theme of the protestors is contra-corruption which goes hand-in-hand with football, the CBF,  big construction projects, government...all of the key World Cup talking points.  People here don't trust the government and are skeptical that a ten cent increase is necessary when there is so much corruption and graft.

So it will be interesting to see, over the next week or two, how these protests evolve and whether they return for the World Cup.  It is also a bit of a cautionary tale to any country that accepts ever greater inequality in its midst - Brazil in this regard has come a long way but there is clearly a lot of work still to be done.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Picture of the Day: The Output Gap

US manufacturing still struggling to get back to pre-recession levels.  The long slog continures...

From the Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Soccernomics: News and Notes from Brazil

New Maracanã: From my seats (brag). Notice though, how intimate it feels. Super-nice.
Absent any real content, I give you some random musings on soccer from Brasil.

The New York Times covers the rather difficult path to the World Cup hosts Brasil are having.  The Confederations Cup will go off as planned but in only about half of the stadia to be used for the world cup.  The rest are in different stages of construction with the worst laggard probably the Itaquerão in São Paulo.  

I got to test Brasil's preparedness first hand at the grand re-opening of the fabled Maracanã stadium in Rio as Brasil hosted England in a friendly.  Getting tickets was not easy.  First the web site failed miserably and when I eventually was able to buy tickets I had to repeat the process twice as you were limited to only two.  That part took about two and a half hours.  Oh and I could only do it because I am a registered foreigner - you had to have a Brasilian ID.  One good thing here in Brasil is that the law mandates that kids be allowed to buy tickets to games at half price, so I saved a lot of money that way.  The second bad thing is that you still had to pick up tickets at least a day before the match at a local Rio ticket window.  I chose Gávea and Flamengo's ticket office and wound up waiting for more than an hour just to collect the tickets I had already bought.  Ah Brasil!:

Outside CR Flamengo: this is about 1/3 of the line.
The game day experience, though, was absolutely awesome.  The Stadium had hordes of people to help out, it was beautiful, modern and the sight lines are fantastic. Getting in and out was a snap and they didn't mind if we had food (you listening Merritt?).  The field was immaculate and the soccer was good and bad but in the end four goals was good value for money.  Even the subway, while straining under the sheer weight of all of the fans leaving at once, did admirably.  Kudos and a very good sign for the World Cup. 

Pelé thinks fans should not boo their team (yes, it happened v. England, but not that much and they were not playing that well so...)

To give a contrast to the shiny new Maracanã here is a panorama of the Estadio Pacaembu in São Paulo which was built in 1940 and looks it.  Still, it is pretty nice if totally basic.  We went to watch a desultory 0-0 draw between my adopted São Paulo team, Corinthians, and the lowly Portuguesa team.  Corinthians did not play well:  

Not much fancy abut this place but hot dogs are $2.50, so that is nice...
I read a little article on the struggle and success of Brad Evans at the right back position for the US national team and was struck by this Jurgen Klinsmann quote on playing outside back:  “It is one of the most demanding roles in the modern game” 

Why did it strike me?  Well, one, I recently converted to the position and I feel like it took me two years to master it.  But more so because I distinctly remember former Timbers coach, frustrated by the play of one of the many we put there, saying that exact opposite: that it is the easiest position on the field.  It was a stupid comment then, and is stupid now. But this is not to bash Spencer but to say that perhaps his view of the game needs some updating? 

Finally two interesting notes about watching futebol live in Brasil: Now that big screens are a part of new stadiums, they need to figure out a replay policy.  Right now they don't show any to avoid problems with fans and refs.  I think MLS does this well, avoiding controversial replays in the stadium.  But c'mon, show the goals!?!.  They also don´t typically show the game clock - I guess for the same reason, but it is annoying.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Picture of the Day: Food Stamps

From the Wall Street Journal.  Oregon's SNAP enrollment rate is 21% - one of the highest in the nation.  Wow.  Overall they WSJ reports that there has been an almost 140% increase in SNAP enrollment since 1990.

You may have noticed that content on this blog has dwindled to almost nothing.  And yes, I know, real content has been missing for some time. This is likely to continue for the next few weeks.  Things in Brazil work-wise are really at a boiling point so I am extremely busy and have little time for the blogging.  I am tweeting more regularly, FWIW.

I hope that July will bring a tiny bit more time for the blog, but it remains to be seen.