Monday, December 06, 2004

Catch-Up Day

I was a blogging laggard last week, and so it's time to make up for lost ground. So here we go...

Newsweeklies Struggle for Relevance. With the imminent retirement of two out of three of the longtime TV network anchors, the focus has been on how the telenetworks are becoming increasingly irrelevant. But I think an equally interesting, though far less-examined, phenomenon is how the major weekly news mags are dealing with those same forces of more competition and declining relevance. For decades, there were three dominant networks AND the same number of newsweeklies--Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report. The latter mag has pretty well fallen by the wayside--for all practical purposes, I think it essentially ceased to be a factor after its failed experiment with letting a serious editor, Jim Fallows, try to revive it into something worth reading. Since he was let go in 1998, it's mostly fallen off the journalism radar screen, except for its splashy annual college rankings and some lingering attention paid to its owner Mort Zuckerman and its conservative columnist John Leo (a poor man's George Will). But Time and Newsweek continue to scrap it out, running eerily similar cover stories and photos most weeks. This week, they're evidently hoping to catch the Red State spiritual zeitgeist in the run-up to Christmas, though with a twist that they probably hope allows them to retain a morsel of Blue State respectability: they're both fact-checking the Biblical story of Jesus' birth in cover stories, concluding (stop the presses!) that the literal story is interwoven with some myth. I ask you: Do we really need two magazines to do this kind of stuff?

Here's a big moment for For the first time ever, the online retailer is selling more consumer electronics than books. Which must be sweet news indeed for its visionary founder, Jeff Bezos, who has stubbornly insisted for a decade, through both extreme highs and lows in his stock price that he wasn't concerned about how the stock was doing but was instead intent on building what amounted to the Wal-Mart of the web. Once millions of shoppers were comfortable with the system, selection and service he offered, he reasoned, there's no limit on what he might sell them. Which appears to finally be proving true. Good for him for sticking it out over the long haul.

Pekar the Pack Rat. A few months ago, I finally did the unthinkable. After years of inertly muttering assent to my wife's pleas to go through the giant piles of magazines I've accumulated and throw out what I no longer need, I finally went ahead and did it. Of course, only hardened magazine lovers can appreciate that the choice of which magazines you'll "need" is a meaningless distinction. And of course writers always have the built-in excuse that you never know what factoids you'll need to consult later for some as-yet-unimagined article. Anyway, it was with a mournful attitude that I began going through them, making decisions that amounted to a kind of Sophie's Choice, deciding which of your offspring to save from death. Should I keep those GQ's from the early and mid-'90s with the brilliant reporting and writing as a sad reminder of what it once was before it chased the so-called "lad mags" downmarket? How in hell can I possibly pitch that New Republic from the late '80s with its cover piece by the future right-wing hit man Fred Barnes (now of the Weekly Standard and Fox News)? I see from this piece that Cleveland's most famous former file clerk, Harvey Pekar, hasn't yet succumbed to his wife's entreaties for domestic tidiness. And so his piles grow ever larger. Good luck with your struggle, Harv. As a fellow clutter addict, I can tell you there is life after one pares his piles. But there's no getting around the fact that it's likely to be a slightly more vanilla existence...

Le Monde Gets Behind Blogs in Big Way. For the most part, U.S. newspapers are still mired in tired, hyperdefensive debates about how blogging will never replace, much less supplement, mainstream journalism. Meanwhile, France's most distinguished paper, Le Monde (which bore that famous headline "We are all Americans" after 9/11) is offering to set its readers up with their own blogs. No word yet if John Kerry, alleged by the Republicans to be secretly French, will take them up on the offer.

Washington Monthly Rolls On. Some longtime fans of America's greatest overachieving, underfunded little political magazine, D.C.-based Washington Monthly, might have worried that it would never survive the retirement of its founder, the cantankerous former JFK aide Charlie Peters. He built a legend for hiring squads of young journalists for peanuts, proudly watching as they later became stars in the upper reaches of the profession (fittingly, the offices at Dupont Circle were, and perhaps still are, near America's best muckraker, Sy Hersch). His alumni group reads like a who's who of serious long-form journalism in America: former TNR editor and Slate founder Michael Kinsley (newly installed as editorial page editor of the L.A. Times), Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, historian Taylor Branch, Fortune's Joe Nocera, environmental contrarian Greg Easterbrook, Slate's Tim Noah and Columbia J-School dean Nick Lemann, among many others. Anyway, despite the fact that he turned over the reins (though he still writes his "Tilting at Windmills" column), it seems the magazine is doing just fine recently. Not long ago, it converted its website to a fine blog, thus far a unique development among print mags. And this sparkling December cover profile of Bob Novak, whom I've mentioned recently, shows the print companion continues to perform solidly as well. Take a bow, Charlie Peters, and keep tilting away...

Your Tax Dollars at Work. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the wasteful federal spending that is sneakily stuffed into bills through last-minute horse-trading, including the silly $300,000-plus earmarked for supposed educational programming for the Rock Hall (to my knowledge, no local mainstream media outlet has yet picked up on that little tidbit). But of course the real outrage is larger, deeper and more structural. Bush, Jr. came into office grandly talking about taking a razor to wasteful farm subsidies, which are indeed scandalous. But since his 2000 campaign, there's been scarce followup. Meanwhile, the rip-off of the U.S. Treasury continues. This online database, from the generally reliable enviro lobbying group Environmental Working Group, tracks all the dollars in stunning detail. It shows, for instance, that federal subsidies to just one state (Ohio) for just one commodity (corn) totaled just over $1.7 billion between 1995-2003. And remember: some of these subsidies are for price supports. Which means the government pays farmers not to plant various crops, so as to maintain high prices for other farmers. Read through some of this and weep. Only make sure you haven't just eaten, cause it may just induce vomiting.

Cleveland's Own Thundertech. I've occasionally mentioned in these pages one of the region's best young entrepreneurs, my friend Jason Therrien of the web-development shop Thundertech. He's been a real leader of the town's youthful change agents, talking up the benefits of the Creative Corridor here and playing a key role in getting probably the best of the local young professionals groups off the ground here. And after a recent move from Payne Avenue and E. 40th to larger Midtown Corridor studios, the thriving company may soon outgrow that space as well (but he tells me they'll probably be able to tear down some walls for future expansions). These days, the former Inside Business cover boy is hopeful that Thundertech (named for a time when he was a tad heavier and running over defensive linemen as a JCU running back) will get its second bit of national attention (he was already quoted this month in Ad Age). Thundertech has made it past the first round of cuts for Fast Company Mag's annual Fast 50 competition. You can read his submission here on the magazine's website. If you know him and/or his shop's fine work, please consider leaving a comment on the page, as I plan to do soon.

Finally, this latest bit of Bush Administration idiocy. I wrote recently about the concerns over the falling U.S. dollar, and how having a Treasury Secretary who is an economically unsophisticated former railroad president (John Snow) with little or no credibility on Wall Street or in the bond market is only making matters worse. So what does this band of incompetents do? In recent days, they've begun leaking news that they do indeed want Snow out, only to be replaced, apparently, by someone who has even less of a background for the job: current White House chief of staff Andy Card. His chief credentials consist of being a longtime Bush family retainer and an auto industry lobbyist during the Clinton years. Now, that will calm the financial markets. The ever-astute New Yorker economics writer John Cassidy said it best last week: "Ultimately, the value of a currency is an international verdict on the honesty and competence of the government that issued it. President Bush may have recovered in the domestic polls, but in the currency markets his ratings are still falling." And you, along with your children and your children's children, will pay for it. That is, of course, if you haven't already been bankrupted by those payments to farmers who agree not to plant their crops.


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