Monday, September 30


Breaking Bad offered lessons on life and storytelling.

Trust is fleeting. Does anyone ever know who they can trust? Trust entails imagining what others say and think about you. Imagine the worst and then how they might describe you to others, whether they will will stop to listen or interrupt what they're doing to lend a hand.

What’s left unsaid can shape opinions as much as what’s said.

Any individual character has the potential for surprise. Do not make the mistake of dismissing others. They can guess what you’re thinking and will react. 

You can’t escape family. The bonds may vary, and the attachments will annoy, even enrage others who don’t have similar bonds.

Characters are invincible when they are calm and stop caring.

The ordinary can be extraordinary, and it’s up to you not to overlook it.

Your life is a story and, believe me, you want to shape the telling with the choices you make every day. Stories can go awry when choices are no longer made, when characters stop living deliberately and let events slide out of control. Confidence can slip into panic and resignation and back again. Yet characters who practice observation, patience, secrets, and other forms of cautious deliberation, their stories are suspenseful and no less meaningful.  

Photo of Bryan Cranston as Walter White, courtesy of AMC's Breaking Bad and Wikimedia.

Wednesday, September 11

How we read news

Anyone who loves newspapers hopes that Jeff Bezos can innovate and revive interest in the Washington Post, the newspaper industry and daily habits of reading news. Yet the motivation behind the purchase could be to protect the status quo of the internet rather than innovate. 

You see, it's in the interest of internet titans to protect newspapers. The loss of newspapers as a trusted source of news would eventually weaken most search engines, blogs, investment guidance and many other online offerings. Internet readers who devour news expect articles and opinion essays to be grounded in fact and research.

The news industry has ignored the demand side of the business and customer trends. Pricing models for digital news rely on old habits and not new ones. Newspapers like The New York Times continue to fund news reporting with targeted ads and digital subscriptions that offer access to the entire newspaper for a lump sum. 

But that's not how we read anymore, at least on the internet. Few internet users limit their reading to a single newspaper anymore. Few limit the activity to a half hour in the morning or evening, scanning headlines and then methodically reading most articles. Instead, we scan headlines throughout the day, bouncing about from newspaper to newspaper. And digital news services deliver indices based on our careers, political leanings, and geographic location - and we proceed to read a story from Hong Kong, then one from New York or London, before moving on to India. 

A digital subscription for the New York Times runs about 3.75 per week, or about 53 cents per day (and includes a Smartphone App - annoying for subscribers who don't own smartphones; internet customershave come to expect custom-tailored services and products, and refuse to pay for unwanted "extras," but that's another story ...)  Like many readers, I also want to read stories from the Washington Post, Asia Sentinel, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, New Haven Register, Telegraph, Daily Sentinel, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Der Spiegel, the Guardian and many more. Of course, the cost of so many subscriptions - offering so few options would add up. Few readers will purchase more than several subscriptions, and a news hound who purchased three subscriptions would feel uninformed.

In the meantime, most newspapers offer a selection of articles for free, and adequate summaries can be found on blogs. And many sites are a source of free opinion essays like Project Syndicate, YaleGlobal Online, Reuters, Bloomberg and more.  Publishers of the New York Times and other newspapers aren't clueless and recognize all this - they should also realize that most subscription offers are absolute turn-offs. Circulation analysts should know, too, how many articles readers actually click, the length of time spent per article, along with traffic sources. I'd guess that plenty of entry and exit sites are other newspapers. Finally, newspaper subscription sites that offer special prices for the first 12 weeks and do not explain long-term pricing are not encouraging or expecting customer loyalty.

If anything, newspapers should find ways to reward loyal, long-time customers rather than gouge them. 

Newspapers must develop pricing models based on customer perceptions of value. Publishers could charge a small fee for each story, perhaps a penny or two, perhaps more for must-read stories. And eventually publishers might even charge a small fee for scanning all headlines. For the most loyal readers, publishers could offer package deals, say 20 articles a month, again for a small fee. Smart publishers would cap the weekly fee at $5 or so, giving those willing to pay that much complete access. 

Yes, each reader will likely read a few articles, but more readers overall will click. With more tailored pricing models, title and content would become more powerful. The number of popular journalists would become more concentrated as some stories are irresistible and many readers would pay.

In setting prices, newspaper publishers focus too much on supply and not enough on customer demand. "The theory of price says that the point at which the benefit gained from those who demand the entity meets the seller's marginal costs is the most optimal market price for the good/service."  John Naughton of the Observer touches on this basic economic principal and transaction costs in an article that remembers economist Ronald Coase: 

"If the costs of making an exchange are greater than the gains which that exchange would bring," Coase wrote, "that exchange would not take place and the greater production that would flow from specialisation would not be realised. In this way, transaction costs affect not only contractual arrangements, but also what goods and services are produced. Not to include transaction costs in the theory leaves many aspects of the workings of the economic system unexplained, including the emergence of the firm, but much else besides."

- An online newspaper could distribute work from individual journalists or beats as blogs. Front pages and section content of newspapers are in constant flux, updated minute by minute, defeating the notion of a single newspaper edition. Deadlines come with every passing minute.

-  Editors may invite more readers to contribute articles and opinions, earn and interact – much like Kindle Publishing Platform.

- Advertisers could be given more choice on ad placement, not just with sections but specific articles or journalists. The publisher could also pass along detailed metrics on reader behavior. Online ad sales must offer paying customers more for their money.

- Expect more partnerships. Newspapers already collaborate with Reuters or Associated Press. They could also could collaborate and bundle online delivery services, similar to the distribution of cable television shows.

- The Post may distribute Kindles or other devices to subscribers at a low fee, which would increase dependence on the hardware and expand the market for other services from companies like Amazon. The company's model has foreshadowed such connections, suggested analyst Ben Bajarin in Tech.pinions before the purchase, “Namely, how hardware as an extension of a service may represent the ideal way to consume said service.” 

The best content online depends on newspapers and their journalists. Most stories in broadcasting start out from a newspaper report, and the most informed analysis in television discussions and blogs often relies on the solid, original reporting provided by print publications. Regular, organized delivery of information informs cultural, government, business and social trends, too, often percolating from grassroots reporting. Strong communities are well informed with the help of strong, independent newspapers that are in the business of observing communities, making decisions about what to cover, and pushing readers to venture into new territory and react and think on their own. People who read their local newspapers are smarter consumers. 

The online titans - and citizens - cannot afford for newspapers to go down.

The 1891 painting of Woman Reading a Newspaper, courtesy of Norman Garstin and Wikimedia Commons.Garstin was born in Ireland and raised by grandparents. "He first set out to be an engineer, then an architect, and then sought his fortune prospecting for diamonds in South Africa n the company of Cecil Rhodes," notes the bio from Penlee House Gallery and Museum. 

Susan Froetschel is a journalist and author of the novel Fear of Beauty. 

Monday, September 2


Dutch-Iranian filmmaker Bahram Sadeghi called the National Security Agency for assistance in tracking down an email that had been accidentally deleted, as described by Brian Fung in the Washington Post. The first NSA staffer was professional, going beyond the call of duty, patiently explaining that the agency could not help.

"We're not going to be able to retrieve something that you deleted. That's not what we do." He then goes on to explain that he was born in Iran, and perhaps is "a person of interest for NSA."  She insisted that is not what NSA does, and repeatedly asked for the caller's name and server. When Sadeghi requests additional assistance, the next NSA staffer is stern, no-nonsense and quickly disconnects the prank call.

Expect other pranksters, comedians or the loose-knit members of Anonymous to soon pile on with ridiculous calls and emails. Jokers claiming to be Iranian, Pakistani or Ohioan will include phrases designed to capture attention, with the hopes of overwhelming the surveillance machine. A small group working non-stop for a few hours, could send out thousands of notes to other email users with a cryptic phrase along the lines, "The attack begins 5 pm Friday..," referring to a marketing campaign, party or some other event. While it might be regarded as sedition for citizens to thwart their own nation's security apparatus, in a global world of communications, those opposed to surveillance could organize - US citizens prank-calling Britain's M16 or GCHQ or China's MSS just as a Dutch-Iranian filmmaker reached out to the NSA.

Recipients of calls or emails would have to be friends or acquaintances, at least in the United States. For example, the terms of agreement for most ISP accounts prohibit spam. "Federal law says that some spam may be lawful," according to attorney Timothy Walton on Internet Law Radio.  "Congress, in passing the CAN-Spam Act [of 2003], said that it is lawful to send spam if it does not run afoul of the specifics of the law, which generally means that it’s not deceptive, false or misleading." Successful suits by the internet service providers or the FTC could impose penalties per message sent, though the law is not widely enforced.

We can expect the NSA debacle to lead to new enforcement, language, secretive behaviors and efforts to maintain privacy of email addresses, along the lines of do-not-email lists, such as the US Do-Not-Call Registry, started in 2003 and already used by many telephone customers or unlisted numbers. Businesses will emerge to provide - or claim to provide - the desired phone numbers or emails.  

Federal law in the United States allows recording of phone calls and other electronic communications with the consent of at least one party to the call, according to a fact sheet on "Wiretapping and Eavesdropping on Telephone Calls" from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Telephone company and employers can listen to and record your calls as well. "To stay within the law, you may wish to refrain from taping calls you make, but be aware that in certain situations others may be recording your conversations with them," the fact sheet advises.

Who's at risk for illegal wiretapping?  According to the fact sheet, those who are "in a position where others might benefit from listening" to the calls: high-stakes corporate, political or legal organizers or planners.

The Can-Spam Act of 2003 and Do Not Call Registry offer guidelines on sending behavior compliance but neglect receiver compliance. In July of 2003, I described the public frustration with telemarketing calls and spam in an opinion essay for the Hartford Courant, "Running Rings Around Telemarketers":  

One day, after our family dinner was interrupted by the third telemarketing call, I recognized an opportunity. At first, I let my voice catch, telling the telemarketer that I was unemployed and losing my home But I quickly realized the need for a better line after the eager salesman assured me that my credit was still in good standing....

'Every telemarketer has their favorite story about the tough customer, the funny customer,' says Tim Searcy, executive director of the American Telemarketers Association.... Searcy also says that telemarketers are trained to handle difficult calls with a polite farewell and an end to the connection.

I was cut from the list of companies selling long-distance telephone services, after callers asked to speak to the decison-maker of the household and I explained that our decision-maker was Bimp, the cat. My offer to translate was politely declined.

At the time, I wrote that consumers can't depend on lists and laws to protect them. Lists are ignored and laws are broken.

Many are determined to prove that mass surveillance is pointless and a waste of money. As Chris Chambers warns in the Guardian, "a warning: indiscriminate intelligence-gathering presents a grave risk to our mental health, productivity, social cohesion, and ultimately our future."

Citizens irritated about telemarketing or surveillance will find ways to needle the unwanted callers, spammers or listeners with uncivil language or acts of civil disobedience.