On spin

Re/code, this morning: “Some Uber passengers said they’re waiting to buy a car because of the ride-hailing app,” was a finding from a new report. “CEO Travis Kalanick has said the company’s real competitor … is the auto industry.” The report was commissioned by Uber.

The auto industry, last week: “New-vehicle sales soared a stunning 16 percent last month to 1.4 million cars and light trucks. … Practically all automakers reported double-digit percentage increases.”

We tell the story we want to tell.

On charitable priorities

Franklin & Marshall College is my alma mater. When I was in school, I basically did two things on campus, academics aside: I was editor of the newspaper, The College Reporter, and I was a DJ on WFNM-FM.

So I was more than a little surprised and disappointed when friends pointed me to the F&M Spark website, where two rather desperate-sounding fundraising initiatives are currently live. Without $10,000 apiece, the site says, both WFNM and the College Reporter are in danger of ceasing operations, because, it is implied, the school isn’t investing in upgraded equipment for either entity.

I am having a rather hard time with this.

From my desk in New York, it seems both organizations have stayed fairly contemporary. WFNM has a live audio web stream, and the Reporter moved its publication online last year. As an alumnus of both properties I applaud the modernization. Whether they have large audiences or small, they seem to still be a relevant part of the college experience, which I love.

What I don’t love is the implied threats in these fundraising initiatives.

F&M has a $600 million endowment. The school has a target fundraising goal of $4.5 million for this year.

F&M is one of the fifty most expensive higher education institutions in the United States, with an annual cost north of $60,000 for the 2014-2015 academic year.

F&M has run its radio station for nearly 60 years and its newspaper dates to 1881.

Both of these activities are largely self-funded, or at least they used to be. WFNM had underwriting on many of its timeslots, particularly the news; the Reporter sold advertising, and used its revenues to pay for printing and computing costs. Ultimately, though, the college would find funds when the organizations needed additional support.

Am I to believe now that the school is ready to shutter both activities unless it gets direct contributions via online fundraising campaigns (neither of which I heard about from the school, mind you)? Do they mean that little to the campus now? Given the myriad ways in which Franklin & Marshall has expanded since my graduation nearly (gulp) 20 years ago, has there been a collapse of support for the media properties in which scores of students participate, year after year?

Sure, kids can blog and podcast from their dorm rooms nowadays. But without these organized activities, the real-world exposure to in-person collaboration and participation that is critical to the campus experience is lost.

I wrote in this space almost exactly 10 years ago how disappointed I had been with F&M’s direction since my graduation. (I will note here again that I had a terrific undergraduate experience.) The items I highlighted a decade ago don’t seem to have shifted all that much in the ensuing years, and with this latest fundraising request, my disillusionment shifts just a little bit further.

I sincerely hope these overtures in the Spark pages are poorly worded appeals by student activists and not the result of threatening overtures from the administration. And I strongly urge the college to support these institutions, both of which help shape their student participants’ interests, voices and personal growth.

Update: this blog post made its way to the administration at F&M (truly one of the better aspects of having gone to a small college), and the next day, F&M President Dan Porterfield donated to both fundraising campaigns, and tweeted about it. Which is nice enough of him, yet completely misses and thus reinforces the points made above.

Embracing unlimited content, cable TV edition

It is often stated that bundled cable is a poor value to customers, because it forces them to pay for channels they don’t, or won’t, watch. (Analyst Horace Deidu recently suggested that the entire cable television industry is a historical anomaly.) Given the sheer density of options that shows up when one hits the Guide button on a cable box’s remote, this is an easy opinion with which to concur. HBO Now and the rumored Apple TV service reinforce it.

I’ve never really subscribed to that perspective, though. I like having the myriad options at my disposal. And part of that is because, with so much programming now available, I never know where I’m going to turn next. Keeping my options open turns out to be extremely beneficial.

I flipped through the channel lineup of my cable provider, Time Warner Cable, to quantify which of the stations I’ve tuned into in recent memory, including my kids’ shows. My tally:

5 – broadcast networks
29 – basic cable channels
7 – kids’ channels
9 – sports and news channels
11 – premium and movie channels (excluding pay-per-view)

Fairly recent studies have claimed the average American watches 34 hours of TV each week across just 17 channels. My cable boxes are probably on for 20-25 hours, including weekend ballgames and evenings when the TV is on in the background. Yet we’ve managed to tune into 61 different stations with our viewing habits, perhaps more.

Part of that is because today’s channels have done a very good job of finding niche content and making it discoverable. It would be hard for a single network to identify, produce and broadcast “Mad Men,” “Pawn Stars,” “Episodes,” “Paw Patrol” and “Flip or Flop,” let alone figure out the proper market segment to target with that slate. Yet I have found my way to all of those shows (well, “Paw Patrol” wasn’t exactly my idea, but still). On TV, the paradox of choice is instead a boon to casual viewers like me.

Should the cable industry move toward pay-per-stream pricing, the serendipity of discovery will undoubtedly drop. Anecdotally, I can confirm this with my own viewing habits: I resisted a Showtime subscription for years, only opting in when I had multiple shows I wanted to watch. Meanwhile, I’ve never had a Netflix account, despite the provider’s increasing array of what I hear are great shows. I haven’t gotten around to signing up, and without an Internet-enabled TV in my bedroom, I remain rather content to flip to “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” reruns on nights when not much else is on.

Ironically, cable television is being disrupted and fragmented at the same time as its media counterpart, the music industry, is consolidating around flat-rate pricing. Of course, if cable TV cost the same $10/month that Spotify and Rdio do, the conversation around television would be a lot different.

Costs aside, all those stations streaming into my home, non-stop, prove useful and enjoyable. The business model that’s about to be disrupted is not broken; it’s simply overpriced and unsexy. And while I have my Amazon Prime streaming video and my Apple TV in the living room, I’ll be keeping my cable TV subscription for awhile yet.

Why I became a Wikipedia contributor (and why you should, too)

Wikipedia is a part of everyday life for most everyone who uses the web. I personally cross-reference or poke around Wikipedia almost every day—93 times in the past 30 days alone, per my browser history. Millions of people are similar to me, if not more so.

Having become something of an institution, Wikipedia now faces a long-term struggle for its fiscal and editorial health. Most immediate is the need for cash flow. Wikipedia’s frequent pledge drives on its website do a good job of highlighting the organization’s monetary needs (and plenty of readers, thankfully, are listening).

More easily overlooked is its slowly dwindling volunteer workforce, the thousands of people who keep Wikipedia updated and objective.

Active editors on Wikipedia, from The EconomistWikipedia is only as strong as its contributors and editors, a team that peaked several years ago. The Economist did a great deep-dive into Wikipedia’s state of affairs this spring. It pointed out that the number of English-language editors on the site has dropped steadily for nearly a decade, to 30,000 volunteers this year, down from 50,000 in its heyday. That sounds like a big staff, but with nearly two billion pages to curate, and an almost entirely unpaid team, the math quickly gets sour.

Right around the time of the Economist article, I found myself disgruntled at yet another article speaking in the present tense about 2011. So, after a decade of lurking and leeching, I signed up for a Wikipedia account. And when I see a line like, “The band is slated to appear on the first week of Jimmy Fallon’s new talk show,” my annoyance now turns to utility, as I am empowered to fix that sentence, and a tiny bit responsible, too. As a longtime writer, editor and grammar hound it’s a no-brainer for me to pitch in.

I’ve only updated a handful of articles thus far, but I am quick to hit the Edit button when I see outdated or inaccurate text, most recently this morning, updating the status of a canceled program. Making updates to Wikipedia is easy, it’s satisfying, and it ensures that the site will continue to be a useful resource.

Wikipedia, of course, has been running on this model since its inception. But too many people, like me, take the labor behind the site for granted. My own contribution ultimately will be small, but it will be a contribution nonetheless.

Please consider doing the same. Even occasional edits help keep the world’s encyclopedia appropriately encyclopedic.

Progress

At Columbia University, the Columbia Daily Spectator has decided to stop printing a daily physical edition, opting for a weekly paper and daily postings online.

This follows announcements from magazines like New York to reduce their publication schedules, but because it’s a college paper, this one strikes close to home. In 1994-95 I was editor in chief of Franklin & Marshall’s The College Reporter, and I spent many a late night finalizing galleys and eliminating serial commas before driving, often at 3 a.m., from Lancaster, Pa., up to Ephrata, 25 minutes to the northeast, to slide our glue-sticked and blue-penciled newspaper-to-be through a very wide mail slot at the printer, so that the paper could be printed and distributed on time Monday afternoon.

It’s been years since I saw the Reporter at any length. I enjoyed for several years receiving the newspaper mailed to me as editor emeritus, although that policy died out after awhile, and the paper somehow failed several times to establish a proper digital presence. (It seems to finally have an up-to-date website, although the content made me double-check that it wasn’t a parody.) I imagine readership on campus at F&M had a similarly parallel experience. The school will eventually, like Columbia, turn the print edition into an anachronism, and ultimately a dead product. Columbia’s weekly paper won’t last very long either.

I love my printed media. I love carrying The Economist folded lengthwise in my coat pocket onto an airplane; I love flipping through the heft of the New York Times on a weekend morning and perusing its daily sections on the subway; I love reading Car and Driver on the can. But I’m also a digital native, having been online since the 1980s, and I love that, too.

And so does everyone else. The benefits of digital publishing are incontrovertible. The world has already made up its mind, and it’s just waiting for the stragglers to let go of the past. When I bring the Times on my morning commute, I am almost always the only person reading a printed newspaper on the train, and if there’s another paper in my car, it’s a freebie handed out on the subway steps, wire stories and local advertising for the bored. The days of learning the accordion fold are over.

So farewell, Columbia Daily Spectator, and farewell, weekly New York, and farewell, eventually, to the rest of the printed periodicals that have brightened my life for 35 years. You will be missed. And you won’t, too.

An incomplete list of plot twists crammed into the 15-episode first season of ‘Smash’

Hopeful female lead sleeps with director
Director tries to sleep with other hopeful female lead
The better actress wins top billing
The better actress loses top billing to the ingenue
Both actresses lose top billing to Big Name Star
Ingenue returns to bucolic country home, finds inspiration
Big Name Star can’t sing, burns out, quits show
Ingenue steals female lead’s side job
Spurned female lead contemplates suicide
Writer sleeps with male lead
Writer’s marriage breaks up
Writer’s marriage attempts reconciliation
Assistant keeps secrets
Assistant tries to bribe someone
Show loses funding
Show regains funding
Composer finds love
Composer loses love
Composer finds truer love
Ingenue faces pressure from impatient boyfriend
Producer and composer hate each other
Producer and composer find detente
Teenager gets busted on drug charges
Teenager briefly goes missing, but comes back
Everyone gets jealous of the relationship their partners have with the show instead of them

The shifting media landscape

Few visualizations of the transition from old media to new media (to which I’ve long been contributing, as both a digital media veteran and a reader) are as stark as the sales trend of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which ceased print publishing this week (edited for clarity):

Sales of the Britannica peaked in 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States. … Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are bought. … Now print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of the Britannica’s revenue.

Brittanica’s been in print for 244 years. (It has the New York Times and The Economist beat by nearly a century.) But in a relatively brief 22 year span, the print encyclopedia’s distribution dropped by 93% and the share of the publisher’s revenue from those books dropped by 99%.

I continue to read many publications in print form, atop the multitude of web pages I consume. But I suspect it won’t be long before my only practical reading option is a tablet.

Obama’s grand miss

Regular readers of this space know that Ideapad rarely touches on politics. But Drew Westen’s What Happened to Obama? in the New York Times Sunday Review is a must-read. It’s a compelling, gut-wrenching and accurate exposition on how Barack Obama failed at a terrific, and important, opportunity to shape the nation’s future.

With [Obama’s] deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken [“the arc of history”, Obama’s paraphrasing of Dr. Martin Luther King] and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation. … The real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit.

That’s me, the anachronism

For reasons still unclear to me, a six-month print subscription to Newsweek in my name began arriving in my mailbox this week. Awesome.
(I should note that not only is this borderline ridiculous, situationally, but also that in my many years of reading magazines I never liked Newsweek. I grew up in a Time household and I subscribe to The Economist. Newsweek felt fluffy. I wonder if I can gift this comp sub somewhere.)