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It was an interesting week. As news of the debate over the possible bailout of the United States' struggling automakers captured the headlines and largely dictated the mood in the major financial markets around the world, newspaper titan Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy and the Pulitzer Prize Board decided to fully embrace online journalism.
In these tough economic times, a lot of industries are hurting. The newspaper industry is probably hurting just as much as the American automobile industry in many respects. Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy this week and the New York Times isn't in the greatest of shape but that news was largely overshadowed by talk of a bailout that would prevent GM, Chrysler and Ford from meeting the same fate as the Tribune Co. (at least for a few months).
With newspapers providing many of the jobs available to the best writers in the world, two writers are asking, 'What about us?'
In an article that will be published in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, writer Paul Greenberg suggests that to deal with the "overcapacity" that "has been something generally acknowledged across the writing industry for at least 10 years," suggests a program modeled after the Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which paid farmers to grow fewer crops.
Under Greenberg's 'plan', if writers were offered the cash equivalent of the average writers' annual income ($38,000), it would cost a "paltry" $10.5 billion to "dramatically reduce the book overcapacity."
If that isn't enough, half of the 185,000 writers in America could be offered $400,000, the amount the National Endowment for the Arts says an average writer earns in 10 years. That would cost $37bn, a bargain given that was the US government’s down payment on its bailout of AIG.
Of course, Greenberg is certainly suggesting his bailout with a bit of humour. But another writer, Mark Pinsky, seems a bit more serious.
He writes in The New Republic:
"Any federal effort to put back to work the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work in the nation's hard-hit industrial, construction, airline, and financial sectors should consider displaced news media workers--including those newly laid off from the publishing industry--as well."
He notes that from 1935 to 1939, the government operated a Federal Writers Project that employed "more than 6,000 out-of-work reporters, photographers, editors, critics, writers, and creative craftsmen and -women."
He adds that American culture gained some priceless assets as well.
And what would such a program accomplish today (besides subsidizing jobs)?
"This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion."
Pinsky admits that there are problems with such an idea but concludes:
"...providing some way to provide young journalists a way to get started, or displaced media workers a way to transition to new occupations, or to retirement, might help--and serve the nation in the process."
The troubles facing newspapers is saddening. As I've argued before, institutions like newspapers are currently the only entities capable of producing the news in the fashion that we've become accustomed to. Blogs aren't in a position to fill the void.
Most unfortunate is the fact that newspapers provide a great product that consumers still demand; the economics of their businesses simply don't work today.
But the fact that some within the industry are even mentioning the 'B-word' evidences the moral hazard the United States government has created with its bailout binge. It's difficult for struggling workers in any industry to not ask the question, 'Where's my bailout?'
Unfortunately, no government has enough money to subsidize a job for every one of its citizens and there are very real limits to national debts (and the printing press) even though you wouldn't know that looking at the way many governments have managed their finances the past several decades.
In reality, the most fundamentally sound economies are the ones in which the government isn't the largest employer and in which private industry is responsible for managing its own affairs. As much as I love newspapers and as much as I value the contributions writers make to society, they're going to have to sink or swim on their own.
For better or worse, one thing is for sure - there will be no bailout for writers.
Given the fact that government intervention (and malfeasance) in the financial markets was a leading contributor to the global financial crisis, you can be sure that politicians aren't going to spend a dime helping the very writers who would eventually study, dissect and analyze this story and write the history of one of the global economy's saddest times.
The press is referred to in the United States as 'The Fourth Estate' (although the saying is actually attributed to Edmund Burke's reference to the press gallery of the House of Commons) and I'm pretty sure that the American Congress is eager to find a way to live with three.
The Pulitzer Prize Board has decided that in 2009 it will permit "entries made up entirely of online content to be submitted in all 14 Pulitzer journalism categories." The announcement was symbolic since it came the same week that The Tribune filed for bankruptcy.
According to AFP:
"The Board said that online or print entries should come from US newspapers or news organizations that publish at least weekly and are 'primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories.'"
That obviously leaves out most tech blogs but the move does make sense. More and more newspapers and news organizations are investing heavily in their online efforts and this trend will only grow stronger.
Steve Jobs is often referred to a technology 'visionary' and he does reasonably deserve the time.
But being a 'visionary' doesn't mean that you see everything. Such appears to be the case when it comes to Jobs' position on the "nascent" market for netbooks - mini notebook computers that typically cost well under $500.
According to PC Advisor, Jobs stated last week that "there's, as best as we can tell, not a lot of them getting sold."
This is a curious statement given that Gartner and DisplaySearch indicate that 5.6mn netbooks were sold last quarter. For comparison, PC Advisor points out that Apple shipped 4.7mn in the same period.
In October Jobs told investors on a conference call that "we choose not to be in certain segments of the market" and noted that "we don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that."
Fair enough, but when Jobs states that netbooks aren't selling and the market is "nascent" when the sales figures indicate otherwise, you have to wonder just where Jobs is getting his information from.
Instead of looking at ways to take advantage of the Apple brand in a market that is currently being led by companies like Acer and Toshiba, Jobs seems to think that the iPhone is a viable alternative to a netbook, stating:
"One of our entrants into that category, if you will, is the iPhone for browsing the Internet and doing email and all the other things that a netbook lets you do."
But in the real world, the iPhone is not a substitute for a netbook. While there may be some theoretical overlap between the iPhone market and the netbook market, the netbook market is clearly larger for obvious reasons.
That Jobs would not realize this is surprising, although given the fact that Apple has never had to compete on price and has such a loyal following, I'm sure it could release a netbook in late 2009 costing $600 and I'm sure there'd be a market for it.
To be sure, Steve Jobs will maintain his 'visionary' title even if he misses the rise of new markets such as the one for netbooks.
Whoever said miracles don't exist might want to rethink that statement. Google's Chrome browser is 'beta' no longer. That's right, the company's threat to Microsoft Windows is now officially a legitimate product. And it took less than a year, a blink of an eye in Google years (GMail has been in beta since the beginning of time).
Of course, the bigger question is - who cares? The 'beta' label is truly meaningless in today's internet because it has been used so casually by companies like Google. You can find plenty of mature products that are in 'beta' yet you can find plenty of buggy products that look like 'alphas' but are presented as being ready for mainstream action.
In the case of Chrome, the real issue is that not many people are using it. According to Google, Chrome has 10 million active users but in the browser market, that's not saying much.
Chrome is still nowhere near to being a threat to Firefox or Internet Explorer and given that Chrome almost certainly received the press that it's going to receive when it launched, it's hard to see Chrome becoming an important wildcard for Google anytime soon.