Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Morning Reading -- April 2

I'm tired of posting links and comments on Facebook and Twitter retweets as a way of "sharing" with... heck, who knows?  I don't know the ratio, but one or two responses from every two or three dozen "shares" is a pretty thin ROI (return on investment). At least with my new blog I can go back and find items that caught my attention and scan them later when they get cold. Most, of course, will be obsolete. But at least they won't vanish in the unsearchable quagmires of Facebook and Twitter.


The 'Financial Times' Has a Secret Weapon: Data
At a time when newspapers and magazines are struggling to remain profitable, FT is finding that subscription revenue is more important than advertising.
The FT enjoys a distinguished role in the sphere of financial news publications, namely for its commentary on UK and European markets and businesses, as well, of course, for the salmon pink tint of its print newspaper. Headquartered in London and edited by Lionel Barber, it employs more than 600 journalists worldwide and has an average daily readership of 2.1 million, a little less than theWall Street Journal (though a subscription is about a quarter more expensive).

The paper finished 2012 with a record paid circulation of 602,000, up 28% from five years ago. For the first time, the number of digital subscriptions surpassed print at 316,000 versus 286,000. 
Despite the increase in FT subscriptions — which start at $352 per year for digital-only access — the FT Group is only thinly profitable: Last year, the Group (a division that includes the FT as well as intelligence service Mergermarket and a 50% stake in The Economist Group, among other holdings) reported 11% operating profit on revenues of $568 million. In November, Bloomberg reportedthe division was up sale, but parent company Pearson quickly and repeatedlydenied the report. 
Since advertisers can no longer support them, publishers have looked to readers for revenue growth and profit, sparking the rapid adoption of online paywalls beginning with the New York Times in 2011. The Alliance for Audited Media estimates that nearly half of U.S. newspapers now have some sort of paywall or metered access model. 
The FT was well ahead of this trend, introducing a metered access model in 2007. Today, subscriptions make up more than half of the FT Group's revenue, while advertising only accounts for 39%, down from 52% in 2008. At the FTspecifically, advertising once made up as much as 70% of yearly revenue. This year, the paper expects to generate more money from subscriptions than from advertising. 
"That's a big deal in the transformation of our business model," John Ridding, CEO of the FT, said in a sit-down interview at Pearson's U.S. headquarters last month. Ridding (pictured top) joined the FT from the editorial side, reporting abroad from Paris and Korea before taking on a series of executive positions, including editor and publisher of FT Asia. He was named chief executive of the paper in 2006, assuming the CEO role of the entire FT Group for the first time this month. 
I asked Ridding how the FT was able to increase its subscriber levels by more than a quarter in the last five years. "It's sort of a combination of art and science," he says. "Five or six years ago we started a new media model, charging for access through a metered system. When we started doing that, it was primarily to build a revenue stream online, but probably what was more important over time was the data and customer insight that that gave us. That's what transformed the business," he says. 
Looking through some of the reader data — the FT's data team now numbers more than 30 across three groups — the FT was able to recognize the kinds of patterns readers display before purchasing subscriptions. "We would see the sort of articles they were reading and the frequency they were reading those articles, for instance, and we began to map those," Ridding explains. "People do behave in predictable ways." 

"The FT has been around 125 years, and a lot of the process and structure that has built up over that time no longer reflects the needs of our readers," Ridding observes. "The core of our 'digital first' initiative is really moving resources to front-end digital editing and publishing. We're moving more staff from nighttime to daytime, deploying our energy and resources and at the times our readers want it." 
As part of a move away from this cycle, Lionel Barber, editor of the FT, announced in January that 25 staff positions would be eliminated, and 10 more people would be hired to fill digital roles. In a memo e-mailed to staff, Barber said the FT needs to serve a digital platform first, and a newspaper second. 
That doesn't mean the FT is moving towards becoming a 24/7 wire service. "We're never going to be a wire service, that's not our job, not what makes us different and special," says Ridding. "Nevertheless, I think what people want is to go to any of our channels at any time, and find what the editorial brain thinks is the most significant story at that time." He adds, "Things evolve and change and happen during the business day. We have to be reflecting those changes."
To help deliver on that mission, the FT is planning to release a new online section called "Fast FT," which will provide real-time market commentary around the clock. Ridding emphasizes (again) that it's not a wire service, seeking instead to deliver analysis and context to the news, not just the news itself.
More at the link, but that's the meat of the article. 
Thanks to a Jay Rosen Twitter message for the link.


The debate about Islamic headscarves which gripped France in 2004 has been reignited by a controversial court ruling.
President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, has backed cross-party moves for further curbs on headscarves.
Muslims have reacted with dismay to demands for a new law, which followed a ruling by France's highest court of appeal last month.
France has the largest number of Muslims in western Europe - estimated at between five and six million.
The racket with standardized test scores
Washington Post op-ed by Eugene Robinson. All the gory details of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal and it's national policy implications.
It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform — requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students’ standardized test scores — is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket. 
I mean that literally. Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta public schools, was indicted on racketeering charges Friday for an alleged cheating scheme that won her more than $500,000 in performance bonuses. Hall, who retired two years ago, is also accused of theft, conspiracy and making false statements. She has denied any wrongdoing. 
Also facing criminal charges are 34 teachers and principals who allegedly participated in the cheating, which involved simply erasing students’ wrong answers on test papers and filling in the correct answers. 
In 2009, the American Association of School Administrators named Hall “National Superintendent of the Year” for improvement in student achievement that seemed, in retrospect, much too good to be true. On Georgia’s standardized competency test, students in some of Atlanta’s troubled neighborhoods appeared to vault past their counterparts in the wealthy suburbs. 
For educators who worked for Hall, bonuses and promotions were based on test scores. “Principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated,” according to the indictment. 
But there was a sure-fire way to meet those targets: After a day of testing, teachers allegedly were told to gather the students’ test sheets and change the answers. Suddenly a failing school would become a model of education reform. The principal and teachers would get bonuses. Hall would get accolades, plus a much bigger bonus. And students — duped into thinking they had mastered material that they hadn’t even begun to grasp — would get the shaft. 
State education officials became suspicious. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote probing stories. There seemed to be no way to legitimately explain the dramatic improvement in test scores at some schools in such a short time, or the statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets. But there was no proof. 
Sonny Perdue was Georgia’s governor at the time, and in August 2010 he ordered a blue-ribbon investigation. Hall resigned shortly before the release of the investigators’ report, which alleged that 178 teachers and principals cheated over nearly a decade — and that Hall either knew or should have known. Those findings laid the foundation for Friday’s grand jury indictment. 
My Post colleague Valerie Strauss, a veteran education reporter and columnist, wrote Friday that while there have been “dozens” of alleged cheating episodes around the country, only Atlanta’s has been aggressively and thoroughly investigated. “We don’t really know” how extensive the problem is, Strauss wrote, but “what we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.” 
In the District of Columbia, for example, there are unanswered questions about an anomalous pattern of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets during the reign of famed schools reformer Michelle Rhee, who starred in the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” and graced the cover of Time magazine. 
Our schools desperately need to be fixed. But creating a situation in which teachers are more likely than students to cheat cannot be the right path. 
Standardized achievement tests are a vital tool, but treating test scores the way a corporation might treat sales targets is wrong. Students are not widgets. I totally reject the idea that students from underprivileged neighborhoods cannot learn. Of course they can. But how does it help these students to have their performance on a one-size-fits-all standardized test determine their teachers’ compensation and job security? The clear incentive is for the teacher to focus on test scores rather than actual teaching. 
Not every school system will become so mired in an alleged pattern of wrongdoing that officials can be charged under a racketeering statute of the kind usually used to prosecute mobsters. But even absent cheating, the blind obsession with test scores implies that teachers are interchangeable implements of information transfer, rather than caring professionals who know their students as individuals. It reduces students to the leavings of a No. 2 pencil. 
School reform cannot be something that ostensibly smart, ostentatiously tough “superstar” superintendents do to a school system and the people who depend on it. Reform has to be something that is done with a community of teachers, students and parents — with honesty and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned humility.
This issue relates obliquely with the question of charter schools, whether they be totally handed over to some "private" entity or some hybrid public-private arrangement.  The purpose of education is not to make everybody as smart as everybody else, but to give everybody the resources they need to be responsible, constructive members of society.
Plenty of stupid people are really good citizens. They report to work and do a good job every day. They pay their bills. They are responsible parents and neighbors. And they form long lines at places where they need to stand patiently with others to buy their groceries, renew their drivers licenses or vote. America is not a technocracy. Nor would it be a better place if it were.
And I despise the term meritocracy. It's one of the snobbiest words in our vocabulary.
The metric of grades is just as mean-spirited and misplaced as the metric of wealth. And I think we all know examples of people of modest wealth, with good hearts, leading responsible lives whom we would be pleased to have as neighbors.

==►  Fidelity has it's rewards. 

And this is why I follow Jamie Dupree. Bless his heart, he gets paid by WSB and has a blog at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, both of which stay in business catering to one of the country's most retrograde Conservative audiences.
And here is a journalist who has been toiling away for years -- decades, even -- bending over backward to be truly non-partisan. When everybody else has gone home for drinks and a movie, he's sometimes grinding away, looking at the tedious language of Congressional bills even before they have make it out of committee.
 And he has the added challenge of interacting with the likes of Herman Cain and Neal Bootz on live radio without making them appear stupid. The man must be a saint. 


The Tame Geese -- A parable by Søren Kierkegaard
(by Søren Kierkegaard, from A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall, p. 433)
Suppose it was so that the geese could talk — then they had so arranged it that they also could have their religious worship, their divine service. 
Every Sunday they came together, and once of the ganders preached. 
The essential content of the sermon was: what a lofty destiny the geese had, what a high goal the Creator (and every time this word was mentioned the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed the head) had set before the geese; by the aid of wings they could fly away to distant regions, blessed climes, where properly they were at home, for here they were only strangers.
So it was every Sunday. And as soon as the assembly broke up each waddled home to his own affairs. And then the next Sunday again to divine worship and then again home — and that was the end of it. 
That was the end of it. For though the discourse sounded so lofty on Sunday, the geese on Monday were ready to recount to one another what befell a goose that had wanted to make serious use of the wings the Creator had given him, designed for the high goal that was proposed to him — what befell him, what a terrible death he encountered. This the geese could talk about knowingly among themselves. But, naturally, to speak about it on Sundays was unseemly; for, said they, it would then become evident that our divine worship is really only making a fool of God and of ourselves. 
Among the geese there were, however, some individuals which seemed suffering and grew thin. About them it was currently said among the geese: There you see what it leads to when flying is taken seriously. For because their hearts are occupied with the thought of wanting to fly, therefore they become thin, do not thrive, do not have the grace of God as we have who therefore become plump and delicate. 
And so the next Sunday they went again to divine worship, and the old gander preached about the high goal the Creator (here again the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed the head) had set before the geese, whereto the wings were designed. 
So with the divine worship of Christendom…
And a commentary...
Why didn't the geese fly?

After hearing and understanding such a powerful message about the opportunities available to them, they seemed to ignore it. They didn't fly home. The message made no impact on their lives. They continued to do what they had always done. They waddled home.

Why, when there were so many good reasons to change, didn't the geese fly?

It seems a part of the human condition that we don't always do what we know we should. We don't always act in our own best interest, even when we know better. In fact, we sometimes even deliberately do things that we know we are going to end up paying for in the long run. We might call this phenomenon theAmazing Action Anomaly. That is, people most often know what it is they should be doing but usually choose to ignore or act in contradiction to either their strongest instincts or to reality. Although, it makes no sense, we continue to waddle.

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