MonthNovember 2008

An economic theory of what journalists do

Fascinating post on why journalists do what they do: it’s all about the economy of getting what they want for the minimum outlay.

According to the paper Journalists and the information-attention markets: Towards an economic theory of journalism by Susanne Fengler & Stephan Russ-Mohl,

“Journalists can be described as rational actors seeking to promote their own interests, reacting to material and non-material incentives and rewards, calculating risks and benefits,” it says. “They seek to maximise attention for their work, they try to minimise costs of investigation and research and to use their sources to their greatest professional benefit, and so forth.”

(Unfortunately, it’s paid-for. So we’ll trust Paul to have got it right.)

Yup, that pretty much sums it up. And it creates blind spots:

“While most agents in all the principal-agent relationships involved in the flow of news processing may, in general, be committed to telling the truth, all of them have incentives to either exaggerate or to withhold some of the truth to their ‘principals’ in order to look better and more professional. The ‘blind spots’ of media coverage are not merely accidental. They are, most frequently, the result of self-interested behaviour.

“If withholding chunks of relevant information can be seen as highly probable, iterative behaviour of all actors involved in news processing, this may add up to a cumulative effect.”

As Paul Bradshaw notes,

In the meantime, this is an essential piece of reading, including an overview of how economic factors have shaped journalism over the past 150 years – helping it move towards from a partisan to an objective format (for mass audiences and unoffended advertisers), influencing content, and providing an “indirect information subsidy” in the shape of public relations. Oh, and don’t miss the footnotes, too.

Survivors: how not to do an all-round media experience (updated)

You may have noticed that Terry Nation’s 1970s apocalyptic series Survivors (I never saw it) is now back, remade, on BBC1. The premise of the modern series isn’t bad: everyone gets a version of flu with a particularly high mortality rate. (It sounds like the chicken flu piece I wrote for The Register back in 2005.) But that’s not all! No, we live in a multimedia, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-and-fridge-with-web-access world! Update: turns out all the below is wrong. @wearesurvivors on Twitter is not by the BBC or the production company. So ignore it all. I won’t do a strikeout, but from here stop reading except for the purposes of being a searchbot. Honestly. You think you’ve found something adding value…

So they set up a Twitter account – @wearesurvivors. (Hilariously, it’s following I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Hey, perhaps they’re still alive in Oz, eh?) Actually they set up two – there’s also SurvivorSW17. (Someone still alive in Tooting? How quaint.) Gotta love who SurvivorSW17 is following. And the idea that although in Manchester social order has broken down amidst a 99.9% fatality rate, in Tooting the internet is still working – and you can still log in to Twitter. And that’s not all! The @wearesurvivors crew say they’ve set up a wiki at! Hurrah! We can tell the world, um, something, and the interwebs are still working. So the wiki is here. I couldn’t bear the fact that it had misspelled “virulent” (virulant? I ask you). So I changed it. Look at this version if you want to see how it looked before I mucked it up in my sub-editorly way. (Undo it if you like. It’s a wiki.) You can see when they installed it, apparently: Monday November 24, at 9.30pm, apparently by someone using a Be account. But they couldn’t even get that right. They had the wrong names for the people – they started being “Jeff, Helen, Adam, Jason & Mike (The Bunker 3 5)” and then became, nine minutes later, “Jeff, Helen, Adam, Jason & Martin ([ The Bunker 3 5]).” Bad stuff, production company. And why do I think it’s the production company? Because even if you thought Survivors was a fab program, why would you make up a scenario like that? The Twitter accounts, similarly, are some sort of orthogonal plot to what’s on screen, so I don’t think it’s random people, or even fans. And they also (briefly) pointed to their “company” – Yeah, that’s it over there. …which is just the same thing. They haven’t even figured out which frequencies they’ll be doing it on. They’ve just left some filler copy. The Blair Witch Project, and that film’s carefully-seeded grassroots promotion, it ain’t. One can only hope that the money not spent on the viral social media marketing stuff wasn’t hacked off the scriptwriters’ pay. Someone’s going to tell me that they’ve got a Facebook group now. Wonder what the status updates would read?

Told you so (finance), told you so (more finance), didn’t tell you so (Wikipedia)


Peter Schiff, the man who told them it was all going to end in tears. Here in a series of clips where he’s telling them so, and they wouldn’t listen, dating back to 2006.

Next: BusinessWeek, which is one of only four magazines I read each week (since you ask: the New Yorker, New Scientist, the Economist), which was the first – that I’ve known of – to point to all the toxic mortgages and their possible effects. And this was back in September 2006.

That’s Nightmare Mortgages:

The option adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) might be the riskiest and most complicated home loan product ever created. With its temptingly low minimum payments, the option ARM brought a whole new group of buyers into the housing market, extending the boom longer than it could have otherwise lasted, especially in the hottest markets. Suddenly, almost anyone could afford a home — or so they thought. The option ARM’s low payments are only temporary. And the less a borrower chooses to pay now, the more is tacked onto the balance.

The bill is coming due. Many of the option ARMs taken out in 2004 and 2005 are resetting at much higher payment schedules — often to the astonishment of people who thought the low installments were fixed for at least five years. And because home prices have leveled off, borrowers can’t count on rising equity to bail them out. What’s more, steep penalties prevent them from refinancing. The most diligent home buyers asked enough questions to know that option ARMs can be fraught with risk. But others, caught up in real estate mania, ignored or failed to appreciate the risk.

There was plenty more going on behind the scenes they didn’t know about, either: that their broker was paid more to sell option ARMs than other mortgages; that their lender is allowed to claim the full monthly payment as revenue on its books even when borrowers choose to pay much less; that the loan’s interest rates and up-front fees might not have been set by their bank but rather by a hedge fund; and that they’ll soon be confronted with the choice of coughing up higher payments or coughing up their home. The option ARM is “like the neutron bomb,” says George McCarthy, a housing economist at New York’s Ford Foundation. “It’s going to kill all the people but leave the houses standing.”

You’ll recall I’ve written about the hangover from ARMs before. That’s some bill. And BusinessWeek wrote about Ralph Cioffi – now on bail, I believe.

Finally, don’t trust Wikipedia for your pharmaceutical advice:

Entries were often missing important information, for example the fact that the anti-inflammatory drug Arthrotec (diclofenac and misoprostol) can cause pregnant women to miscarry, or that St. John’s wort can interfere with the action of the HIV drug Prezista (darunavir).

Twitter is down. Gmail isn’t working. At this rate..

..I’ll have to go and use Facebook. It just seems like every so often, Gmail (or possibly Apple Mail) just decides it’s had enough. This often happens at around the same time that the overload of Flash ads from the million tabs I’ve got open in my browser decide to gang up on the CPU and swallow it. And of course NetNewsWire also thinks it’s a good time to take 102% (two CPU cores, so 200% available) of available cycles.

Basically, can’t get anything done that involves the web. Which is really frustrating.

Then it all eases up again – usually without having to restart everything. At which point email floods in. And there’s always too much email. And huge amounts of it are crap. I really, really need a smart program that can sift through that stuff and find the useful stuff.

But the lack of Twitter is amazingly frustrating. This must be what mental cold turkey feels like.

No, not serious about Facebook. Too slow and boring.

Alex the cartoon, (tax-) free at last

More sheer genius from Peattie and Taylor of Alex fame (and, one hopes, fortune):

Point to note: this is now appearing, as well as on the Daily Telegraph’s site, at their own site – Not sure what the implications are in terms of rights, nor indeed for the Tele, which of course would surely want to keep it in its space. But on alexcartoon you can buy “products” (t-shirts? Jewel-encrusted BlackBerries? Secretaries who’ll remember your spouse’s birthday? I haven’t looked) and, of course, email cartoons to people.

The danger to them is that it looks like it would be quite simple to scrape the site, grab all the cartoons and print a book of them. (Don’t put it past someone.) Whereas the Telegraph has made it near to impossible first to find the cartoon, and secondly to find it at the same URL consistently. That does have the advantage of putting off the copyright thieves.

On, and today’s is even more brutal.

Dear lazyweb, diagnose my knee problem: bursitis? Tendinitis? Ligament? What?

OK, I have queried Google and the places it points me to extensively, and now it’s over to you physiotherapists, chiropractors and other readers on the lazyweb. I mean, if I can’t crowdsource a diagnosis for my knee, then what the hell use is the intertubes?

(Everyone else may find this utterly boring, and self-indulgent. Which it is. You’re completely let off reading. It’s an experiment, OK?)

OK, so here is the history. Because I broke my finger (don’t ask) I wasn’t able to play squash – my favoured form of exercise – so I went on a running machine. First time for an hour (no trouble) and then three days later for half an hour (no trouble) and then a week after the first one for another half an hour, on quite a tough program. I don’t recall any knee pain after any of them.

Possible data point: the day after the last run, I played a game with the youngest of the children – who weighs 10kg+ – in which I crossed my legs and he’d bounce on the foot. So that would be putting a lot of strain over the knee attached to the foot. And as it happens that’s the knee that hurts. But that was two weeks ago.

Symptoms: If I crouch down, bending both knees, the affected knee (right) starts to feel as though something is being squashed – like trying to compress a cushion. And it becomes really painful; I can’t crouch all the way. I can’t pull the lower part of the leg back to touch the upper part (which I can on the left): there’s too much tightness across the top of the leg, on the quadriceps as it comes over the knee.

It doesn’t hurt to straighten my leg; doesn’t hurt to twist my lower leg. If I hold my leg up and bend it, I feel tension on the outside of the knee. If I stand and then gradually crouch, I feel a tension from the top of the inside of the knee diagonally down to the bottom of the outside of the knee. And the muscles on the outside of the knee are enlarged; in fact the whole of the front of the knee seems a bit enlarged. The swelling isn’t obvious except in comparison to the OK knee; then it is.

It doesn’t stop me moving around; I’m just aware of it, particularly when I’m going up stairs; don’t notice it going down. But it’s there, almost all the time.

And that’s about it. My guesses are, in order
-ligament strain: because my knee was bent and turned when child3 was bouncing on it, I’ve strained the ligaments on the outside there. It just seems like a long time to heal.
-bursitis. Might explain the apparent swelling, but the precise location of the feeling of stress doesn’t seem to fit the cause.
-tendinitis: inflamed from running? Possible, but I’ve never had it before.

OK, do your worst. What’s wrong? I’ve tried taking ibuprofen, which has little effect.

Oh, and I plan to play squash competitively tomorrow (having tried it out on my own this afternoon; no pain, just a little tightness, which actually eased when I played. Aches afterwards but not much of it.) The clock is ticking!

(Perhaps a new category needed: self-indulgent wibble.)

It would be nice if the press release didn’t contradict itself within two paragraphs

Excited press release arrives in inbox.

Tens of thousands of teenagers set to invest in shares it says.

This, I feel instantly, is Not True. First, teenagers don’t care about shares. They care about who they might have sex with next, and whether they’ll be hot, and where it’ll be.

Second, teenagers don’t have the money to invest in shares.

Third, teenagers who might be interested in shares and know enough about them to do things with them will have noticed that the stock markets are impossible to pick at the moment. Up! Down! Sideways! Up and then down!

So let’s continue reading.

Financial education charity, the ifs School of Finance, today confirmed that record numbers of 14-19 year olds will take part in the 2008-9 ifs Student Investor competition.

Well (leaving aside the Unnecessary Comma of Evil) that seems unequivocal. Could it be that I was wrong with points one, two and three? Let’s continue reading on.

Thousands of school and college students across the UK will invest a fantasy £100,000 in the stock market over a four month period when the online trading competition starts later this month

Oh. Right. Fantasy money. Not real money.

The competition has proved more popular than at anytime in its fourteen year history with more than 30,000 teenagers expected to take part when the competition starts on Monday 24 November.

Apart from the fact that the grammar in this press release is just diabolical – are they ignoring the wavy green lines? – that’s quite a lot of teenagers. But as to whether it’ll turn any of them into hedge fund supremos – well, I don’t think so. And the headline is a lie. They’re not “investing” in shares. They’re playing with fantasy money. It’s like saying “thousands of teenagers to manage football teams” when you run a Fantasy Football site. It’s a lie.

And people wonder why journalists find PR stuff annoying? It’s because it wastes our cognitive effort on junk like this.