Playing It Small





President Obama is an extremely bright guy. He does a lot well. Deeply analytical. Strategically intelligent. Unfailingly patient. And yet in the midst of what could be a defining moment for American politics Obama his conspicuously quiet. For all we know he could be playing the game perfectly, but he’s playing it small.

Now any Obama apologist could make any number of caveats for Obama here about the futility of the partisan political culture in Washington, the diminished prestige of the office of President of The United States of America, the larger forces of global finance that have redefined the once proud role of Head-of-State as just another middling cog in the “government” department of the machine that is our international banks…

Many of these excuses would sound convincing and on point. But the fact remains that they are excuses. Every great president has faced ugly conditions and transcended them not by the details of policy but by the force of his personality.

Remember this guy?
(Video of the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner)

I think this was the last time we saw Obama show some of the personality that got him elected in office. And this was at a private event only broadcast by CSPAN. As president he’s always a little too controlled. A little too polite. Always playing the long game. And, frustratingly for those of us who are rooting for him to make this country a better place, playing it small.

In doing so it seems to the casual observer like Obama has let the opposition define his presidency. Times are tough. Obama faces some significant challenges to implementing the change he promised when campaigning in 2007. But by always giving credit to his opposition and always playing it smart, strategic, and small, Obama is shortchanging himself as a leader and the American people he serves. An adviser to the president should employ the always-careful discipline that Obama exemplifies. But a president must occasionally transcend mere politics in order to lead.

There is no book in the Harvard library that can tell him how to do it. Transcendence is something Mr. Obama will have to learn on the job, in America’s darkest moments, or he won’t get another four years to learn it.

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My Point of View on the Future of Media: What’s it Worth to You?







Media has changed in so many ways over the past fifteen years as the internet has blossomed into maturity before our eyes. The rise of the internet has broken business models of legacy media like print publishing and television by creating a free-for-all atmosphere online that makes information, quite literally, “free for all.”

The debate over pay walls and subscription services rages on. Will people pay? Should you create a free website with lots of ads that demean your layout just to try to break even on the pennies you get from your internet ads? Or should you craft a brilliant website with only a few ad partners and weave them into the layout as you would in print? Should you then put that brilliant well-laid out website behind a pay wall where it will get fewer eyeballs? Or do you lose a bunch of casual eyeballs in order to create a defined and committed audience to shop to advertisers?

Earlier this year The New York Times started a soft pay wall on their website meant to introduce the idea of a barrier without drastically reducing viewership. Many people see this as the begining of the “pay-wall creep” wherein the walls start off very soft and low, but as time goes on the viewing restrictions become greater and the price-points for online access of varying degrees (single article view, monthly web-only subscription, yearly web and print subscription) adjust until a market finally begins to take shape. I believe we will see this happen over the next ten years thanks in large part to the leadership of the Times.

But people won’t be paying for information in a strict sense.

Here’s why: there will always be reposts and summary stories ripping off original pieces, there will always be the ability to copy the text of a news article into your email and send it to all your friends. There will always be a way to get the information you seek without paying for it.

Information is free and will continue to be free. That’s the nature of information. So why do I think publishing will survive and thrive in the internet age?

Publishing has never been about information. Publishing is about point of view.

* * *

As information escalates to the point of overload (as if we weren’t there already), point of view takes on increasing significance.

I could open my email right now and there’s dozens of people emailing me all different non-essential things: funny videos, links to thought provoking articles, pictures of a trip from a friend. But I’ve got a limited amount of time to devote to this stuff. So I’m going to look at the stuff from the people I care about and whose point of view I respect. I prioritize based on source.

The theory for the rise of social media rests on this exact same idea. You’ll follow your friends for news in the future because you respect their points of view. Information communities will be built around individual points of view linking to publications which represent a larger, more polished and more published point of view.

I say “more published” because there are varying degrees of publication, and I think this is the heart of the matter. If you think about it there has been a surplus of information and plenty of paper to go around for a long long time. The internet didn’t change the rules on that, it just lowered the barriers to entry. Now anyone can “publish” their point of view. But an article by a lone blogger doesn’t carry the weight of an article published by a news outlet.

The widespread availability of cheap copying machines in the 70‘s and 80’s lowered barriers to entry in print media in a similar way. Home produced Zines for niche interest groups could, for the first time, be run off and distributed with only a small investment.

But home-produced zines didn’t bring down publishing.

The digital age is not fundamentally different.

Point of view is still the stock and trade of media companies. People look to those with a strong established point of view to tell them what to think, and they always will.

* * *

The old adage is that media sell audiences to advertisers. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it, and the reason so many of the old guard have struggled to hang on in the digital age. These old media organizations don’t remember what it’s like to have competition. People forget that every major city in America used to have multiple major metropolitan newspapers, and what distinguished them was not the information they contained but the point of view they offered on that information. Often a city’s readership would be divided along party lines (much the same way MSNBC and FOX viewers are today).

Then they started buying eachother until almost every last city was down to just one serious newspaper and one subway rag. When that consolidation happened those newspapers forgot what distinguished them; not that one folded book-style with splashy front-page photos and the other folded lengthwise with serious editorials, but that they were an organization built by and around prominent people who sought to advance a particular point of view.

To say that media sell audiences to advertising is to look at the business from only one side. What media must also do effectively, in order to have those audiences, is sell a point of view to a group of people.

So, what’s your point of view worth?

If you’re losing subscribers every year it might be time to consider the value of your point of view in a competitive market.

Or, you know, we could keep blaming that darned internet.

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Find Something Else To Measure

I’ve been immersed in Umair Haque’s (@umairh) world of thought for a little while now, a thinker I would describe as a revolutionary economist. Umair doesn’t shy away from questioning the underpinnings of the current economic system and he’s put forth some really theoretically appealing stuff, even if it is often years away from being legitimately adopted and practiced by corporations.

It’s a well-established maxim of business that you get the results you measure for. What Haque shows us in repeated examples from his “New Capitalist Manifesto” is that corporations have been single-mindedly operating on ONE measurement for so long it has overrun any of the other motivations for running a business (and erased the memory of those other motivations as well).

Businesses measure for profit and growth. That’s what the current economic system is set up to reward and what we get as a result is businesses built for great looking balance sheets, often at the expense of customers, employees, and the community (unless of course those customers, employees, and communities can find a way to impact the bottom line, in which case those businesses are all ears).

I argue that since we get what we measure we should start to seriously measure employee and customer satisfaction. The measure of a great company should be it’s overall effect on its employees, customers, and the community, not a narrow-minded approach to eternally growing profits at the expense of all else.

Some companies do measure customer satisfaction, companies like Zappos and 1-800-CONTACTS have been built around this customer satisfaction philosophy, and they’re doing pretty well.

We are now in the early stages of emerging out of the dark ages of consumer capitalism (the era in which businesses were primarily interested in fostering human insecurities in order to spur consumption to drive up demand) and into the age of value creation.

But profit continues to be the overriding motivation for most businesses because Wall Street, the engine of all business investment in this country, still only measures profits.

If the age of Value Creation is going to truly emerge as the main business narrative of the 21st century, business people and the Wall Street infrastructure are going to need to find something else to measure.

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The 4 Types of Thinkers

Taxonomies of types are a dime a dozen, inside and outside the HR/psych world, but this one struck me as especially helpful for organizations, especially a small business, where working together and playing to your strengths is an absolute necessity.

Your organization already has these four types of thinkers, but in most organizations the assignment of roles is hapless and inefficient. This is because a priori assumptions about the perceived value of roles are made by everyone involved with little or no attention to individual strengths and the development of a serious crafted approach to each work style.

The Four Types: (which one are you?)

The Designer
The Builder
The Librarian
The Salesman

The strengths of each of these should be obvious by the name.

The Designer excels at high-thinking design, not just of a physical or visual nature, but the creation of elegant systems to solve everyday human and business problems. The strength of the Designer is his ability to see a solution.

The Builder excels at execution. Designers are great at conception, but Builders are great at the follow-through. The Builder’s mind is happiest when engaged in on-the-ground doing toward a goal.

The Librarian excels at organization. In every field , in every business, there is a wealth of information and material that needs to be organized and stored in an accessible way. There is an art to this all its own, and the librarian intuitively takes in, organizes, and makes the system inviting to all who use it.

Finally there is the Salesman. The Salesman is the point of contact with the outside world, the clients and customers. The Salesman excels at human relations and public relations.

The real point of all this is not to add yet another taxonomy to the way people work and think, but to advocate for a real conscious evaluation of strengths and corresponding division of labor along these lines.

The issue is that most people and organizations aren’t honest about their strengths and division of labor. Most people want to be one thing or another and most organizations worship one kind or another at the expense of developing a well-rounded division of labor and a real team atmosphere.

Many who read this (a high-minded blog if there ever was one) will consider themselves Designers. And we live in a society which in some sense glorifies Designers out of proportion with their influence. So with all the aspiring designers who is left over to build, organize, and sell?

Here’s a question, what are most CEO’s?

While most founders may be Designers at heart, most CEO’s are Builders.

My point with this? Worship of Designers hurts organizations by dis-incentivizing the development of the other strengths required for a well-rounded team.

Next most people want to be the Salesman. This is because in our culture salesman-worship is right up there with designer worship. For a number of psychological/social/cultural reasons related the Salesman archetype is elevated in organizations beyond its fair share. Again, at the expense of developing a well-rounded team atmosphere.

All of this is at the expense of the Builders and the Librarians whose work suffers from a lack of respect. As that lack of respect is perpetuated through the organization’s culture the bright people who may be organizationally inclined or deliberate action oriented steer themselves away from their strengths and toward the roles they perceive as having higher value. As a result in America things are getting less and less organized, and less and less carried out and built to completion. There is a serious need to bring back the respect that these types of thinkers deserve and incentivize properly within the organization for people to move up in any of the 4 tracks, provided the person excels at what they do.

When an organization begins to define roles and respect them as distinct strengths that add to the whole rather than differences that divide the prospects for organizational growth and individual fulfillment increase exponentially.

Everybody is good at one of these ways of thinking. Find them and respect them for what they do and your organization will prosper.

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What Journalism Was

I just finished Tim Wu’s incredible new book “The Master Switch,” go read it if you care about media at all – this is the best nonfiction book I’ve read this year. When you see the structural reality of media through his eyes you will reach media enlightenment.

Which brings me to my idea today about “What Journalism Was”

Is anyone else out there wondering why news sucks and people are getting dumber and dumber about the social and political world going on around them?

Are you toying with the idea that the reporting now seems suspiciously bad and wondering “Hey is it only me that notices this, what the hell is going on? Well nobody seems to be complaining or fighting to stop it… am I just that cranky old guy who complains about the news now?”

Well… yes, but you’ve also got a point.

The reason for this phenomenon is a lack of quality in journalism, which begets a lack of public informedness, which begets more lazy journalism, which in turn lowers the public intellect devoted to the sort of thing like wondering about the quality of our journalism (the first thing to go, actually because it doesn’t appear in the eyes of management-thinkers to add anything to the product)

Quality? So what exactly does that mean?

Quality journalists are part presenter, part poet. Quality journalists are leaders of thought. They attempt to advance broader understanding of complex social issues to the educated populace by translating comprehensive understanding into lucid readable prose.

Quality journalism goes beyond mere statement of fact within the context of popular opinion, it goes to the heart of the journalist’s point of view. An original interpretation of reality is proffered, and readers are invited to take it or leave it.

OK so that last paragraph reads like a Plato’s Cave description of the Form of a Journalist but that’s exactly my point. The Platonic ideal is being forgotten. Sure we’ll fall short, but guys have you turned on TV news lately? No one is even trying. In print you do a little better with The New York Times and a few others carrying on the grand tradition, but the striving for that ideal of what journalism could be is sadly endangered. I blame Television (though credit is due to Jon Stewart for doing the absolute most with the medium).

Speaking of Plato’s Cave, in the allegory the chained man is dragged out of the cave into the sunlight to see things as they really are instead of the shadows he had previously thought them to be. The guy doing the dragging? That’s part of the missing job description for the modern journalist. Real journalists seek to enlighten a broader audience for the betterment of the populace. Lofty, I know, but worthwhile. How much of that do you see on any given night on Fox News? Did I mention I blame Television?

We need to face the facts that our journalism has become inept, not for any fault of the journalists themselves, but because of a structural flaw in our government-media relations.

The title of this article is “What Journalism Lost”

And who knows how broad an author can go with that topic. But in this case I’m going to nail it down to one very specific now-little-known position at every news organization: The Ombudsman.

I’m not all that up on ombudsman law, and I’m not the structural genius Tim Wu is at figuring out how the ombudsman was marginalized in modern news industry (Tim, if you’re out there man maybe that could be your next book, hit me up at CultureWharf@gmail.com we’ll cowrite) but every news outlet is supposed to have one and they’re supposed to be an independent citizen agent for news quality control. Unlike today they are supposed to actually do stuff and matter.

Old newspapers used to subscribe much more to the aforementioned Platonic ideals of public interest, but as news became more corporate and more televised and more about the business of delivering juicy audiences to advertisers those ideals got left behind.

How could the lone ombudsman compete with that?

News, with all its potential conflicts and power to influence, is like its own branch of government. It was once proudly called “The Fourth Estate.”

News without an ombudsman is like a legislative branch without an executive and judicial. A police force without internal affairs. Unchecked powers.

What would happen if we radically empowered the ombudsman?

Only for the web-savvy idealists in the group:

I’ve done a lot of searching on this topic and can find very little information about the role of ombudsman or much related to the marginalization of ombudsmen. I figure that means I can crack into the search results in this area with a few good links, below is a little of what I’ve found but if anyone has any ideas on how to make this article a higher match for searching any combination of the terms Newspaper Ombudsman Marginalized I could really use the tech help. Thanks.

http://www.editorsweblog.org/newsrooms_and_journalism/2008/09/us_newspapers_dropping_ombudsmen_left_an.php

http://thephoenix.com/BLOGS/medialog/archive/2005/07/21/The-Globe-s-New-Ombuddy.aspx

http://scrippsiij.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-is-newspaper-ombudsman.html

http://www.newsombudsmen.org/jacoby.html

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Did Napster Cause The Great Recession?

Shopping in a real life music store today I was struck by how pleasantly anachronistic the whole experience was for me. It got me thinking. Here was a physical place in which money was exchanged for music, the music was carried out with a sense of physical ownership which lent itself to identification, identification which happened over the coming weeks and months as the CD was placed in and out of the tray and music flowed through the listener and was absorbed, in the various ways music is, into the psyche of the listener, in order to flow back out into the world in various acts of subtle and not-so-subtle inspired self-creation.

Wait, what?

If self-creation is the engine of economic growth, and music is the fuel for that engine, the logic is purely syllogistic. Let’s review:

Rise of Napster –> Decline of Music –> Decline of Self-Creation –> Decline of Economy

Now that’s a pretty bold claim, but does anybody here dispute that the rise of Napster caused the decline of the music publishing business? And does anyone here see any reason to dispute the claim that music has throughout history proven the capacity to inspire masses of people to question or alter certain attitudes, beliefs, desires, and tastes? Of course not. Unless you think mass culture in the twenties went unaffected by the introduction of a little thing being played in tiny all-black clubs called Jazz music. And all those parents trying to protect their teens from the corrupting influence of rock and roll in the sixties? They probably just hated the sound of guitar and drums together. No, music has power. It affects the behavior of a society more than almost anything else (drugs, religion and economics excepted). And as such music has been the primary currency of culture throughout the 20th century.

Music can be the fuel for a million tiny individual altered choices. Those little choices: “this pair of shoes over that one,” “this drink over that drink,” all the way on up to “this way of being over that way of being,” these altered choices are the units of self-creation. Now, self-creation can be inspired by many things, but anyone who has ever lived through being a teenager would probably agree that music is as influential as anything in that process.

Weaker music means weaker self-creation. As Jay-Z puts it in “Death of Autotune:”

I know we facing a recession
But the music y’all making going make it the great depression

Maybe the fault isn’t with the lazy Autotuned rappers Jay is so unimpressed with (they are, however, a symptom), but a revolution in listening, identification, inspiration, action, and culture that altered the subtle psychology of music and self.

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How Long Until Someone Starts a Good LoFi Phone Movement?

Text only, minimalist design.

A clean simple functional OS.

A challenge to the notion that you need a million apps, a touch screen and an expensive data plan.

Text based browser, text based email.

The Minimalist’s Phone.

Because if you’re not by a computer you can probably do it on the phone.

… And if you can’t do it on the phone you can pull out your iPad.

Consider the movement started.

NOTES:
I always thought this was the direction Blackberry should have gone, but now it seems like a new company embodying more 21st century values would be better suited to the challenge.

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