Welcome to this edition of What You Should Read, a collection of 5 interesting articles with my thoughts and analysis.
"A Vision For The Future Of Newspapers - 20 Years Ago"
Potts discusses the broader context and fallout of Robert Kaiser's 1992 memo, which he wrote about the future of digital media as the newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post on the flight home from a conference in Japan , where John Sculley, Apple's CEO, had invited him. The memo is a hugely prophetic account of opportunities lost and taken and those to come. It's a fascinating piece of primary material at the intersection of technology, media and politics. Potts depicts overly cautious newspaper managers, convinced that the print golden goose was immortal and immutable, who failed to fully exploit most of the opportunities presented by the new medium, suggesting they didn't innovate nearly as much as they should have, leaving the field open to upstart competitors until it was too late. One of Kaiser's most accurate prophecies was a dire warning near the beginning of his memo: "We do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured—or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism." Unfortunately, the history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future. There is an interesting comparison between Kaiser's memo, and the New York Times Report from the 2020 Group about the future of the paper, close to 30 years down the road.
“Newsrooms That Move Beyond ‘Objectivity’ Can Build Trust”
By Leonard Downie Jr., The Washington Post
Leonard Downie Jr. is a former executive editor of The Washington Post and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. In this Opinion piece, Downie describes a recent study he has undertaken, which revealed that numerous significant movers and shakers in the industry have now rejected the much-maligned, much-misunderstood concept of "objectivity" as a reporting standard in favor of "moral clarity" in which employees of a fully ethnically and sexually diverse newsroom focus not on pursuing the truth but on telling "their" truth, about social and racial injustice, inequality, climate and everything. As Gerard Baker, a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, wrote in The Times, the piece urges journalists to reject the outdated idea of "objectivity" in reporting. This standard was "dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly white newsrooms and reinforced their view of the world". Downie Jr. also includes some prescriptions for improving coverage, including the need to strive not just for accuracy based on verifiable facts but also for truth, that newsroom staff diversity should reflect the communities being covered, that news media should also be as transparent as possible about their newsgathering decisions and processes and that responsible news organizations need to develop core values by having candid, inclusive and open conversations. I have long been a proponent of the same view, advocating for newsrooms not to shy away from notions of opinion and influence and center a focus on factual truth-telling by acknowledging pre-existing opinions and past experiences that make those reporting the news partial to the conclusions and editorial decisions that have been made, for example, relationships with advertisers and personal relationships with elected officials. This is often done effectively in guest essays on the Opinion pages, with a short introductory passage about the author, and should be more widespread. Too many people are turned away from essential and informative journalism by the suspicion of corruption, an often unfair reputation for lies and biases, and fake news. Bringing backgrounds and decisions into the light would ensure the jury could be out on news outlets and their reporters more fairly and transparently and allow people to see for themselves the influences and ideas of the person they are reading. As Walter Lippmann said, "There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies." It is journalism's responsibility to inform communities of people in the marketplace of ideas and freedom of expression, not just to be content with the deemed ignorance of these same people away from the pages of the liberal media. A crucial part of being accountable while seeking the truth is reporting that truth where it is, as it is, rather than clouding the facts with misguided emphasis on neutrality. News outlets shouldn't shy away from this and confine discussions of the world as it is rather than how events could appear to one side or the other to their often inaccessible and verbose editorial and opinion pieces. Journalists should embrace the truth-telling power of their individuality rather than fear and mask it with the broken premise of objectivity.
“Risk-Averse Rishi Sunak Is About To Get Radical”
By Katy Balls, The Times
Having made it to a century in office, Rishi Sunak can claim at least one victory over his predecessor Liz Truss, who bowed out after just forty-four catastrophic days in power, lasting infamously less time, believe it or not, than a head of lettuce. With a general election looming, Sunak is now looking to set out a vision for delivery to win back voters lost in wave after wave of crippling scandal, corruption and devastating errors in the economy. Everyone in Westminster is consumed by discussion of whether the current conditions most represent 1992, where John Major won a Conservative electoral victory against all odds when every indicator suggested a Labor capitalization on unfavorability, or 1997, where Tony Blair’s New Labor delivered an unbelievable landslide and 13 years of subsequent Tory opposition wilderness. Numerous pieces have been written in the last week about the significance of this milestone. I particularly enjoyed this piece by Katy Balls, the political editor of The Spectator, in The Times. Balls writes, “The prime minister is preparing to take on his critics over two divisive issues: the Northern Ireland protocol and immigration. ‘The cashmere jumper is coming off,’ says one government ally — a reference to Sunak’s penchant for luxury knitwear.” Therein lies the crux of the issue. Can Rishi Sunak, an immensely wealthy man, lead an establishment party deeply entrenched in a heady fog of being-in-power-too-long syndrome through a devastating cost-of-living crisis to recover its reputation and compete with a Labor party that, though much improved, seems to favor consolidation over innovation and continues to fail to lay out a vision even close to the enthrall with which Blair took power. Sunak falls behind Keir Starmer on every polling measure, from the best to run the economy to the best prime minister. However, despite Labour’s 20-point lead, Starmer is not Blair, and he continues to look more like a man creeping up on power than one striding purposefully towards it. Labour MPs privately concede that their poll lead describes flight from the Conservatives more than attraction to an opposition platform that few could articulate in bullet points. The challenge for Sunak, though, seems impossible. Rafael Behr notes in The Guardian, “He (Starmer) doesn’t have to make pulses race as long as he doesn’t make stomachs turn or skin crawl, which has been a problem with his recent predecessors.” Behr writes about “an opposition state of mind,” prescribing his nifty turn of phrase to the current iteration of the Tory party. He says, “But there is a more gradual transition to opposition as a state of mind – an exhaustion of the will to govern and a dissolution of discipline into factional rancor. That journey precedes an election defeat but also makes one more likely. MPs lose hope of victory. The leader runs out of inducements to loyalty. Attempts to show strength fail, advertising weakness instead. Voters smell decay and recoil from the source.” As Polly Toynbee searingly put it, “He (Sunak) is held captive by the caucuses and cabals he must balance, and backers he must reward, stymied by contradictory imperatives of his fissiparous backbenches while he dithers over sackings, blown by the winds for lack of direction.” She picks out inflation, the NHS, strikes and recession as having plunged the United Kingdom, and his first 100 days, into a “permacrisis.”
"Tech’s Biggest Companies Discover Austerity, To The Relief Of Investors"
By Tripp Mickle, Karen Weise and Nico Grant, New York Times.
The world’s biggest tech companies, many household names, have recently unanimously announced anticlimactic annual accounts. As this piece notes, “It was the worst year that the tech industry had experienced on Wall Street since the financial crisis of 2008. Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and Meta lost a combined $3.9 trillion in market value,” suggesting they have adopted a new strategy: “Now chastened, many tech companies have begun the year by championing a new and unfamiliar business strategy: austerity.” Wired has reported that elite college graduates are beginning to look elsewhere, seriously hampering the talent pipeline, and one wonders: what lies ahead for these industrial behemoths? However, it’s important to note that while it has been a tough few months for Big Tech, the industry’s troubles shouldn’t be overstated: Apple, for example, reached users of over 2 billion active devices in 2022, a billion more than in 2016. The giants still dominate. And as Matt Yglesias wrote on his blog Slow Burning, recent mass staff layoffs get a lot of attention but are best thought of as a return to typical pre-pandemic rates. Meta’s seemingly indomitable Mark Zuckerberg christened 2023 “the year of efficiency” recently, and this order of business seems to have pleased investors. It appears prescient, therefore, to not write these guys off just yet, however much the doom and gloom atmosphere around the industry tempts us to want to.
“In the Age of A.I., Major In Being Human”
By David Brooks, New York Times
You undoubtedly will have heard by now, but in mildly terrifying news, A.I. chatbots are rapidly reshaping our world. The Microsoft-backed bot, ChatGPT, has become near-ubiquitous and, as Reuters, among others, have reported, has achieved the fastest uptake of any software ever, with over 100 million active users in January 2023. It took TikTok about nine months after its global launch to reach 100 million users and Instagram more than 2 years. In the months since its debut, ChatGPT has become a global phenomenon. The future of education, the internet, and the tech industry feels uncertain. It has sparked a discussion about academic integrity and the suitability of traditional methods of college examination; has been used to write poetry, build apps and conduct makeshift therapy sessions; has been embraced, for better or worse, by news publishers, marketing firms and business leaders and set off a feeding frenzy of investors trying to get in on the next wave of the A.I. boom, remarkably similar to the dot.com boom of years gone by that launched many of today's most prominent players. It is controversial and often inaccurate, but improving every day and undoubtedly the first rung on a fascinating ladder. The various merits of the technology's current and future applications are being discussed and picked over everywhere. But cutting through the noise and excitement, David Brooks' piece highlighting the value of humanity and the best of its unique skills that it has to offer is a valuable and reassuring (not least for humanities majors) sprinkle of common sense on the brink of this new dawn. Brooks writes, "A.I. will probably give us fantastic tools that will help us outsource a lot of our current mental work. At the same time, A.I. will force us humans to double down on those talents and skills that only humans possess. The most important thing about A.I. maybe that it shows us what it can't do, and so reveals who we are and what we have to offer." Evoking college students looking to take classes to prepare them best to compete in this new world, Brooks suggests some skills worth developing that A.I. will not, at least immediately, better us at (fingers crossed, anyway). This list, rather sensibly, includes: A distinct personal voice; presentation skills; a childlike talent for creativity; unusual worldviews and empathy and situational awareness. ChatGPT is unusually slick with language thanks to a training process that included digesting billions of words scraped from the web and other sources. Its ability to generate short essays, literary parodies and even functional computer code has made it a social media sensation. For me, as someone with minimal knowledge of the technology, one of the most interesting things about these A.I. developments is the intricacies and nuances of their flaws, the inherent biases that appear to hold up a mirror to the issues and prejudices of human society, and the world we inhabit that has developed over thousands of years of history and evolution. ChatGPT has been immediately politicized: Republicans blame the software for going too woke. Its generation of answers regarding President Biden and Donald Trump gives credence to this complaint. Democrats urge increased and rapid regulation of the burgeoning industry. OpenAI's chief executive Sam Altman has played down any reports of the technology's growing popularity, suggesting that "It's a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now." In the New York Times, Kevin Roose writes, "Despite its limitations, ChatGPT's success has vaulted OpenAI into the ranks of Silicon Valley power players. The company recently reached a $10 billion deal with Microsoft, which plans to incorporate the start-up's technology into its Bing search engine and other products. Google declared a 'code red' in response to ChatGPT, fast-tracking many of its own A.I. products in an attempt to catch up." Others are more skeptical, as A.I. expert Gary Marcus made clear during the Ezra Klein show. Marcus is a psychology and neural science professor at N.Y.U. who has become one of the leading voices of A.I. skepticism. He's not "anti- A.I."; in fact, he's founded multiple A.I. companies himself. But Marcus is apprehensive about the direction current A.I. research is headed and even calls the release of ChatGPT A.I.'s "Jurassic Park moment." In the podcast, he said, "Because such systems contain literally no mechanisms for checking the truth of what they say, they can easily be automated to generate misinformation at unprecedented scale." Brooks' hope for "the age of A.I." is "that it forces us to more clearly distinguish the knowledge that is useful information from the humanistic knowledge that leaves people wiser and transformed." Here here. It's going to be a hell of a ride.