Think Tank Disruption and Affirmative Action

Finally stepped out of the ghostwriting/copywriting shadows this week for a couple of new bylined pieces.

First up, for Blog of the Century, a new piece looking at “The Limits of Merit.” The upshot:

One problem with moving from the status quo to a pure merit system is that it would level a giant blow to diversity. But, while the status quo produces more diversity than does a system of pure merit, it turns out not to be much better.

What could actually increase racial diversity at America’s top universities, relative to the current status quo, is shifting to a class-based affirmative action model.

On the navel-gazing side, I argue that explainer journalism might be just as disruptive to think tanks as it looks to be for traditional media. Explainer sites like Vox aren’t good enough to replace a think tank report yet. But no one really thinks that a PDF report is the Platonic form of good wonkery, either. The problem:

Vox is pushing iterations to its site on a near-daily basis. My team at The Century Foundation does well to persuade one fellow per month to release something that’s not a lengthy PDF, an 800-word op-ed, or a long journal article.

Read “Disrupting Wonkcomms” over at the WonkComms blog. Check out “The Limits of Merit” at TCF’s Blog of the Century.

About the NYT Digital Strategy Report

If you follow the digital media world at all, you probably already know that someone leaked a copy of the New York Timesdigital strategy memo to BuzzFeed. It’s long (and blurry—apparently the digital strategy report was printed, then scanned), but definitely worth a read.

I’m still processing the whole thing, but I do have some quick reactions. First, as I mentioned on Twitter, the suggestions put forward have implications for non-media organizations, as well.

A few bits that particularly resonated for me.

Because we are journalists, we tend to look at our competitors through the lens of content rather than strategy. But BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and USA Today are not succeeding simply because of lists, quizzes, celebrity photos and sports coverage. They are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content.

It’s not just journalists who do this. I heard it at least once a day at the Congressional Budget Office. And it’s a not-infrequent comment from researchers at The Century Foundation.

Look, no one is arguing that a deep dive into public private partnerships is going to be as popular as 25 Cats Who Have Given up on Spring. But maybe…just maybe…the reason that HuffPo piece on fast food strikes outperforms the think tank report on which is based is that “Fast Food Failure: How CEO-to-Worker Pay Disparity Undermines the Industry and the Overall Economy” doesn’t exactly scream, “ooh, I want to read that!” The fact that you have to open up a PDF to read the report isn’t helping matters, either. “Fast Food CEOs Make 1,000 Times More Than Their Typical Workers,” on the other hand…that’s something I’ll notice on Facebook.

In the digital world, tagging is a type of structured data–the information that allows things to be searched and sorted and made useful for analysis and innovation. Some of the most successful Internet companies, including Netflix, Facebook and Pandora, have so much structured data…that they have turned the science of surfacing the right piece of content at the right time into the core of thriving businesses.

Everyone forgets about metadata…They think they can just make stuff and then forget about how it is organized in terms of how you describe your content. But all your assets are useless to you unless you have metadata–your archive is full of stuff that is of no value because you can’t find it and don’t know what it’s about.

Be still my nerdy heart. Metadata is what makes digital content so powerful. But the only way it can work is for authors to stop thinking about documents and start thinking about chunks of content. Of course, as the document makes clear, taking metadata seriously means more demands on editors and web producers…and it requires explaining “how crucial this effort is to our long-term success.”

If history is any guide, that last part may well prove more demanding than actually maintaining a good system of metadata.

That’s it for now. Probably more to come later.

The Future of Digital Longform Publishing

I’ve a new piece up over at WonkComms taking a look at the future of longform in the digital world. My basic point: the foundation of the web is fundamentally postmodern (hypertext finishes off any conceit that the Author is in control of the content). But we’re still writing as if the printing press were still king. Here’s a snippet:

My hunch is that the digital world is going to fundamentally change the shape of storytelling itself. Our conventions of modern storytelling have been driven by the limitations of the media in which they originated—first as part of an oral tradition, and later as part of a print tradition.

What both formats have in common is that they require us to consume stories sequentially.

Read the full thing at WonkComms.

Leadership and Collective Action Problems, or Goofy Games with Surprising Implications

I’m not generally all that big on “leadership training.” Back in early 2007, I spent a lot of time prowling around through the business section of the local Barnes & Noble, doing some research for a potential gig ghostwriting a book on leadership.

The project never really came together (thank you, FactCheck.org). But the experience did teach me one lesson. A whole lot books on leadership suck. More to the point, they mostly boil down to Leadership By Acronym (or LBA™). Want to improve as a leader? Just master my 14 simple acronyms and watch your revenue/teamwork/productivity/general awesomeness soar!

My subsequent experiences attending various leadership programs have pretty much confirmed my belief that this stuff is mostly bunk. Or, rather, that it’s mostly an exercise in spinning 80,000 words of some goofy metaphor, most of which just boil down to, “Don’t Be a Dick!

But that’s before I spent last week at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Now don’t get me wrong: there was still plenty of touchy-feely crap. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the parts that involved acronyms were the touchy-feely-est of all.

And yet, despite those occasional lapses into If Aristotle Ran General Motors land, I left the course with some real insights about myself and how my personality traits impact my work.

One that particularly stuck with me—and yes, now we finally come to the subject of the post—came to me in one of those well, duh moments. It started inauspiciously enough. The class all went outside to do one of those goofy teamwork games (I think they called it “hover stick.” Don’t be fooled. The name was the dumbest thing about it.)

The object of “hover stick” is for a group of 12 people to lower a long piece of PVC pipe to the ground. The catch? The pipe has to rest on top of everyone’s index fingers, and the group has to lower it to the ground without anyone’s finger losing contact with the pipe.

Those of you with even the most basic understanding of collective action problems will see the issue immediately.

I don’t want to be the one whose fingers come off the pipe. So I’ll keep exerting just a tiny bit of pressure to make sure I don’t disengage. But everyone else will do exactly the same thing. So the pipe keeps going up rather than coming back down.

Now CCL wanted us to take some lesson about communication styles from this. (I could tell you exactly the point, but that’d require getting out my notes, and that seems like a lot of work. So.)

The lesson I took was a bit different. See, the real problem is that individual incentives run in one direction, while the team goal runs in the opposite direction.

Work is often like that, too. The team benefits from producing the best possible product (or the biggest profit margin, or the largest set of sales, or what have you.) But the individual benefits from standing out in some way, from being the person who owned the product or who had the highest individual sales. But these incentives can easily lead your star performer to cut out other collaborators who might make the product better even while they dilute “ownership” or to poach sales from someone else in the office rather than create new clients.

And that’s where a real leader has to step in. A good manager has to try to align individual goals with the needs of the organization. A leader has to act as a hand on top of the PVC pipe, pushing down so that everyone else’s slight up still goes in the right direction.

Of course, that’s really easy to say. In practice, it takes a lot of hard work, a bit of insight, and probably a touch of luck. Which is to say that leading takes a lot more than an acronym. But don’t tell anyone. I just need to write another 79,322 words to finish up Leadership By Acronyms: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Leadership I Learned from Reading a Directory of Government Agencies.

Newspapers and Universities

Are universities headed down the same path as newspapers? That’s the prediction Matt Yglesias offered a couple of days ago on his blog. Here’s Matt:

I was reading John Gravois on “The College For-Profits Should Fear” in the Washington Monthly and Paul Campos’ continuing jeremiads about legal education (and this) and I more and more have the feeling that American universities are headed for a newspaper-style, technologically-induced giant collapse at some point in the not-to-distant future.

Matt goes on to outline some similarities. News reporting can be done more efficiently via the Internet. Similarly, so can finding lots of facts about the world. The internet allows anyone with sufficient interest and talent to play the role of journalist. Ditto for teaching. The internet reduces the marginal cost of bringing news to an additional eyeball to zero. Ditto for a video lecture. And so on.

The comment section is filled with protestations of the “But a university education isn’t about communicating facts; it’s about teaching students how to think effectively. You can’t get that from reading Wikipedia!” sort. And that’s all true. But is that really so different from the “Newspapers provide objective and impartial filtering of facts. You can’t get that from bloggers” sort of claim that old media types make about the new media world that is fast replacing them? I’m not so sure.

Here’s my $0.02 on the matter, based solely on my own (admittedly brief and increasingly distant) stint as an academic.

Teaching is a skill. But by-and-large, it’s not a skill that graduate programs spend much time attempting to impart to graduate students. And at top universities, teaching is not a skill that gets much in the way of recognition. An increasingly crowded job market means that the only way to land a job (never mind getting tenure) is to publish, publish, publish. Even at my decidedly off-brand university, I maintained an article per semester, completed manuscript before tenure review pace.

I was lucky, though. My university still valued teaching; the individual recognized as the university’s outstanding teacher each year was the opening convocation speaker each fall. Rumor has it, though, that at some Name Brand Universities, getting a reputation as a great teacher can actually hinder one’s quest for tenure. Listening to my friends describe the professors at their large undergraduate universities leads me to think that there’s at least some truth to the rumor. (My own undergraduate experience was decidedly different, but then my largest intro class had only about 35 students in it.)

So where am I going with all of this?

The fact is that there are some really great teachers out there. And every once in a while, there is a really great teacher who is also one of the top researchers in her/his field. Once upon a time, classes with great teacher/researchers were limited to a relatively small group of students. But now there is really no reason why that needs to be true. Lectures can stream to millions of students simultaneously. Archives of those lectures can reach millions more. Students can write essays, post those essays on their blogs, and have their arguments evaluated by an army of motivated volunteers (“motivated volunteer” being more-or-less a synonym for “graduate student” anyway.)

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the cost curve of a university education is unsustainable. And unsustainable trends are, well, unsustainable. At some point, prices for college education are going to crash, and when they do, a lot of local colleges and universities are going to find themselves going the way of local newspapers. Those that survive are going to be in one of two classes: Brand Name Universities that subsidize the traditional college experience for a select few by offering an online product to the masses, and Small Local Universities that eliminates everything that is not teaching classes.

Any of that sound familiar?

Another One Bites the Dust

So now Melissa McEwan has followed Amanda Marcotte into the ranks of Former Employees of John Edwards. If you’ve been living in a bubble (or perhaps more accurately, if you’ve been living outside of the bubble that is the blogosphere), you may not have heard that McEwan and Marcotte have been known to say some, well, some unkind things about Catholics. Actually, that’s not really quite accurate. Marcotte has said some really hugely nasty things about Catholics that, while sometimes funny, were pretty much certain to offend the type of Christian who thinks that religion is Really Serious Business and Not An Institution For Fun Or Jokes. You know, your ordinary Christian. (Lighten up people. It’s a joke. Some of my best friends are Christians. Really.) Amanda, as Jonathan Wilde points out, really does have no one to blame but herself.

McEwan, on the other hand, hasn’t really said anything that’s all that bad. Yes, she’s taken some cheap shots at Christians. She talked about Bush’s wingnut Christofascist base,” for example. Now I don’t want to get all Dennis Miller on you here, but frankly this whole whatever-fascist thing really just bugs the crap out of me. “Fascist” has an actual meaning, people. Okay, so there’s lots of dispute about what the term actually means. But there are a finite number of possibilities. It doesn’t just mean whatever you happen to want it to mean, Humpty Dumpty. And you know what? Even with all those possible meanings of “fascist,” wingnut Christians just ain’t gonna count. It bugs the crap out of me when people on the left just stick “fascist” onto everyone to the political right of John Kerry. It’s nearly as annoying as when rightwingers decide that Hillary Clinton is best described as a commie. Hillary Clinton, fercryinoutloud. The Queen of Triangulation. A commie. Sheesh. Look, when you turn “fascist” into a freakin’ epithet, you people rob it of any real usefulness. So let’s just stop calling people fascists now, okay? It doesn’t advance the conversation at all. It’s like writing “Christobastard.” Or inserting “Nazi” into a comment thread. It ends any chance at rational debate. And it pisses people off. So stop it.

Wait, so where was I? Oh, yeah, aside from calling the fringy Christian right fascists (did I mention that I find that habit annoying?), McEwan really hasn’t been all that terribly offensive. Almost every blogger has said something at least that bad at some point. Marcotte is a loose cannon. McEwan is a blogger. Blogging is all about saying things off the cuff in a spur-of-the-moment kind of way. It’s what sets this medium apart from traditional journalism. If McEwan is out, then pretty much any (interesting) blogger will be out, too.

I think that, in fact, McEwan mostly just got caught up in the Marcotte thing. I mean, from the perspective of Donohue, who really is something of a misogynist jerk, Marcotte and McEwan are the same critter anyway. They both blog. They both are liberal. They both went to work for John Edwards, who IMHO, poses the most serious challenge to any Republican candidate in ’08. They’re both atheists. And, even more damningly, they both lack a penis. On Donohue’s…um, somewhat extreme…interpretation of Catholicism, it’s that last one that’s really their most serious flaw.

My two cents is that Marcotte should probably remain a blogger. She’s way good at it. But I read some of her posts at Edwards’ blog. They’re good, but not really great. Amanda Marcotte without the venom is, well, frankly it’s a little boring. McEwan, OTOH, probably shouldn’t have been hounded from her job. But she’s a good blogger, too, so I’m at least glad that I can hang out at Shakespeare’s Sister again.

Ah, Moderation

What should one say, really, about the mild uproar over John Edwards’ hiring of Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan? For those out there who don’t know (all three of you), Marcotte blogs at Pandagon while McEwan blogs at Shakespeare’s Sister. It seems that these two very well-known, funny, insightful and extremely intelligent women bloggers have been known to (gasp!) say some over-the-top things about Christian conservatives. And it seems, too, that a few right-wing bloggers then decided to throw a hissy fit that the Edwards campaign would dare to hire such dangerous, out-of-control threats to all of society.

I could point out that the folks making the complaint happen to be Michelle Malkin (she of, c’mon-internment-camps-weren’t-so-bad fame) and Bill Donohue (of “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular” fame). But everyone else has made this point already.

Or I might point out that rightwingers say all sorts of hateful, crazy, false things and still remain perfectly acceptable within the Republican mainstream (see Limbaugh, Rush; Hannity, Sean; and my personal fav, Coulter, Ann). But again, that’s all been said, too.

So maybe I’ll do something different. I, a good liberal, and Edwards supporter, hereby declare that John Edwards should fire Marcotte and McEwan. We can’t have people saying nasty things about religious conservatives now, can we? So fire them now. Yes, I know that you already came out in support of them, but change your mind and fire them.

Then you can hire me to take their place. Everybody wins. Except of course Marcotte and McEwan. But they blog on sites with lots of readers, so I don’t really feel all that bad for them.

Unless of course they keep their jobs. In which case, ignore all this. And please put my blog on your blogroll. Please.