Miami Nice

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Jun 162012

As someone who has evolved into a Catholic Libertarian, I have not been a fan of The Nation for a very long time.  But as a Knicks fan whose disdain for the Miami Heat itself also goes back a long time, I nonetheless have nothing but admiration for Dave Zirin’s clarion call for fans of good will to pull together and root for the Heat.  Zirin does this not by trashing the silky Kevin Durant or extolling the brute artistry of LeBron James.  Instead, Zirin points out that Seattle is being punished for its courageous stance in refusing to play the extortion games of the NBA, and paid the price by losing the Sonics.  It’s a sordid tale – read the whole thing.

 Posted by at 4:29 pm
Dec 052007

Here is a development that seems like a logical progression in onslaught against all middlemen  – bands going after scalpers. We can probably expect producers of content to get testier at middlemen profiting from their efforts.

There are problems, though, for bands in their efforts to go after scalpers and middlemen services such as StubHub. Resellers of concert tickets have long been making a fortune, and have created a two-tiered concert system – the rich and well-connected paying what the market will bear by going to middlemen, and “true fans” (the younger and those with expendable time) paying in time by waiting on line or online for their face-price tickets. Because the young generally have more time than money, they dominate the second group. Bands can eliminate this two-tiered system most effectively by hiking prices to market rate. The dominant belief is that letting the market decide might work for Streisand and her fans who tend to be older and quite wealthy, but won’t work for bands with young followers and less disposable income. This dominant belief is wrong.

Letting market forces dictate ticket prices would certainly prove more lucrative for bands today who derive ever-increasing revenue from live shows as opposed to record sales. Enforcement against middlemen does not actually eliminate black market demand, but instead forces it into venues like Craig’s List, a bizarre online bazaar of shadowy and often dishonest characters hawking everything from clothing and furniture to scalped tickets and prostitution. Caveat emptor. Letting the market dictate prices would largely eliminate this black market, along with the counterfeiting that goes along with black market pricing. The fear that the wealthy are going to scoop up all the tickets is real but probably unfounded for most bands. After all, how many investment bankers are going to swamp the next Severe Torture show? The economics for a band with wide, cross-cultural and generation appeal (think U2), might be different, though. A market system would presumably drive prices into the stratosphere, and with wealthier and older crowds, U2 might need a different mix of enforcement and market to achieve the right profit-demographic mix.

The real winners of this new effort? The lawyers. Because music industry lawyers are seeking to enforce the fine print on the back of tickets giving them the right to dictate resale terms, ” (A) lot of lawyers are going to make a lot of money,” says the article.

Nov 222007

Fascinating article about virtual mobs and internet vigilante justice.

Lori Drew, a mother, goes online and creates a fake MySpace account, pretending to be a teenage boy. She does this specifically to befriend Megan Meier (her daughter’s friend and daughter of a neighbor) in order to get information about her own daughter. Somewhere along the line, Drew turns on young Ms. Meier and berates her. Ms. Meier – tragically fragile – then commits suicide. The dead girl’s father finds out about his bullying neighbor’s apparent role in his daughter’s death, and in a spasm of righteous rage, destroys the Drew’s foosball table. The Drews then press police charges against the grief-stricken father. Internet vigilante Sarah Wells finds out, does some research, and organizes a virtual mob whose fury has real world consequences – enough so that police have increased their patrols around the Drews’ residence.

The facts here seem pretty egregious, but the key word is “seem.” Mobs are not particularly known to be careful fact-finders nor dispassionate dispensers of justice. Are we entering an age of virtual witch trials and online cultural justice when the real world fails to mete out subjectively appropriate punishment? And with the anonymity of the internet, do mobs have even less of a sense of fair play?

Aside from the obvious internet cultural issues stand some fascinating legal issues. There is a tort law concept known as the “eggshell skull,” where those committing torts are responsible for all consequences flowing from the injurious acts, even if the victim suffers from unusually high damages from the acts. Did Drew have reason to know how emotionally fragile Ms. Meier was? Was the bullying pervasive and outrageous? It would seem that Papa Meier could have a cause of action against Drew, but what about free speech?

And check out the end of the article – in an ironic twist, Sarah Wells is tabbed a “vigilante” by a counter-vigilante, who posts personal information of Wells on the internet. Great read.

Nov 212007

With Thanksgiving approaching and some students already heading out of town, Columbia Journalism School paraded a series of professors in front of an auditorium of students this afternoon to entice and inform students regarding their upcoming choices for spring semester. Each professor got a few minutes to detail their classes and make a personal pitch for the assembled students to select their courses.

Most Columbia Journalism students are fulltimers in for one year only, so institutional memory of the possibilities can be found in one of only a few places – class evaluations whose written contents are specifically withheld by the administration, the hard-to-pin part-timers, and the occasional unguarded faculty member, whose motivations can range from angelic to Machiavellian. And with only this semester to choose before graduation, a group of us poured over tonight’s handouts in the dark corners of a local beer & burger joint to weigh our options. Some thoughts:

1. In addition to completing a Master’s Project, each student is required to take one six credit seminar, one six credit workshop, and one three credit elective. Tough choices all around. My New Media Master’s Project seems to lock me into a New Media Workshop – not a bad thing, but the overcrowding and on-the-fly feel to the New Media courseload has left feelings of unease among some of the concentrators, particularly with so many tried-and-true Workshop offerings for the taking.

2. Courses are selected on a balloting system – select your top three choices for each category and you will assuredly get one of your three. But with some courses historically tougher to get into than others, gamesmanship opportunities abound! For example, let’s say I want to take “Sports Journalism” with Sandy Padwe as my elective. If my heart is set here, I can select two popular courses that don’t interest me, propelling me into the course I want. Perhaps students have already been subconsciously doing this for years – there might be professors who owe their popularity to game theory! And of course, I could get stuck with my third choice.

3. I really wanted to take “Covering Religion”, but my New Media Master’s Project got in the way. The class takes a fully funded trip overseas each spring, one which overlaps with the Master’s Project deadline. Last year the class visited India, while this year they plan to go to Ireland. Pretty sweet deal, but I probably would have taken the class without the trip, alas.

4. With MIT already offering online courses, when is Columbia Journalism School going to put its money where its mouth is and offer students (and maybe more importantly, alum) the opportunity to take courses online?  Several visiting graduates expressed no small amounts of envy when shown the current New Media curricula, and past students would certainly benefit from Flash training or other New Media skills easily taught online.

Nov 212007

It had to happen sooner or later, but the ease of content distribution has impacted the pornography industry.

Pornographic movies are presumably easy to produce and write, so the porno industry is now being hit from both ends – battling a growing army of free content providers while simultaneously fending off the standard piracy threat so pervasive with other forms of online content.  Presumably, consumers of smut will want to pay for “quality” branding as a means of wading through unappealing amateur content.  If porn actors are like rock stars, the branding could include live appearances or, more likely, increased emphasis on endorsements for the stars.  In this case (as is the case in music labels and newspapers), it is the middle-man in the content production chain who faces the most pressure from internet market forces.

(Hat Tip: Drudge)

Oct 302007

Walter Hussman, Publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and scourge of free content, appeared at a luncheon on Thursday at Columbia Journalism School to push his argument that newspapers should not be in the business of giving away free content. Hussman contended that the decline in newspaper circulation has in large part been due to the media strategy of newspapers giving away their content for free. Consumers, being rational, got their news without needing to spend additional money.

Buttressing his argument with statistics from his experience of charging for content with the Democrat-Gazette, Hussman compares the success of newspapers who charge for content versus those who do not. The numbers are compelling. Expounding on his earlier column in The Wall Street Journal, Hussman made a strong case that newspapers would fail to offset revenue lost in declining print circulation with revenue generated from online visitors. Citing the Inland Cost and Revenue Study, Hussman claimed that newspapers generate between $500 and $900 in revenue per subscriber per year, versus $5 to $10 per unique visitor per year.

These numbers tell only part of the story. Hussman then compared circulation figures for the Democrat-Gazette with the Columbus Dispatch. The Columbus Dispatch and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette are the sole mainstream dailies in their respective markets, both of which are similarly-sized state capitals. The difference between the two newspapers? The Dispatch switched to a free content model on Jan. 1, 2006. In its first six months of offering free content, the Columbus Dispatch’s daily circulation declined 5.8%, compared with a loss of 0.4% daily for the Democrat-Gazette. This comparison reflects national trends for newspapers that have decided to offer their content for free. Under Hussman’s analysis, it is difficult to see why any newspaper would offer its content for free.

However, there are real world problems with Hussman’s analysis. Most notably, Hussman’s strategy seems to require either establishing a dominant market position on local news gathering (i.e., the Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock), or serving a compelling product to a niche with disposable income (i.e., The Wall Street Journal to financiers). No less a robust content provider than The New York Times felt compelled to abandon its subscription model, hemmed in by the reality that it is neither a commanding local voice nor a provider of exquisite niche content. The evidence cited by Hussman suggests two possible strategies for newspapers going forward: first, to leverage local market power on news by charging for local content, which is difficult for larger publications with a national focus to replicate successfully. Under this model, national news offered on web sites would be posted for free, as such news is easily found elsewhere. Second, if local market power is not lucrative or too difficult to attain (such as in New York City), then obtaining a special niche or specialty would be the preferred strategy, perhaps with a component of local news. If local news is niche content that people will pay for, then large city dailies without dominant market positions might consider purchasing the smaller neighborhood newspapers, establishing neighborhood dominance to leverage for paid readership. Without establishing some kind of dominant market power, a newspaper in a multi-daily metropolis would find itself compelled to offer free online content, as any price charged would be immediately undercut by its competition. And web content does earn some money for the newspaper. Just not nearly enough.

Hussman’s arguments harken back to the early days of the dotcom boom, when the conventional wisdom was to spend money to obtain dominant online market positions. Once obtained and with hard-earned goodwill, the dotcom would finally be able to earn a return on all of the capital initially invested. The logic worked out well for some (ebay and Amazon), but failed more often than not. With control of the local Little Rock market and comparatively strong circulation, Hussman has found that it is good to be the last man standing.

Oct 252007

Besting Google in the process.

Critics of the leviathans Microsoft and Google might have a difficult time in determining who they should have rooted for in the battle to win a stake in Facebook: the semi-monopolistic Microsoft, so long considered the bane of smaller and more innovative companies, or Google, the dominant and innovative search engine giant that has been cited as having an “entrenched hostility to privacy” by Privacy International?

(Hat tip: Matthias).

Oct 232007

As if to prove my point (in a sense), the USA Today published a news article today describing how police officers in various locales are using volunteer citizens to help enforce speed limit bans.

Obviously, this kind of assistance helps enforce speed limits, and may help save lives. However, that technology is allowing for more perfect law enforcement and an enforcement rate far higher than conceivable when speed limits were passed. Such perfect enforcement distorts the original balance of enforcement rates, mortality rates, economic impacts, and convenience considered when the speed limits were passed. Perhaps maximum speed limits need to be reconsidered as a result.

More importantly, if such practices give private citizens the notion that helping police in something mundane like highway safety is their duty, then their prying into the lives of their neighbors is a modest natural progression of that mindset, eating away at our notions of privacy.