Cold war 2.0 will be a race for semiconductors, not arms

This morning’s Observer column:

Computers need chips. But what that increasingly means is that nearly everything needs chips. How come? Because computers are embedded in almost every device we use. And not just in things that we regard as electronic. One of the things we learned during the pandemic was that cars and tractors need chips – simply because their engine-control units are basically small, purpose-built computers. Once Covid-19 hit car sales, semiconductor manufacturers switched their production lines to serve other – much bigger – customers. And then, as things started to return to normal in 2021, car manufacturers discovered that they had slipped to the back of the semiconductor queue – and their production lines ground to a halt. Similarly for microwave cookers, washing machines and refrigerators.

In the decades when the west was still high on the globalisation drug, the fact that things upon which we relied were manufactured elsewhere didn’t seem to bother us…

Read on

What now for the WashPo?

I guess that most normal people, upon learning that Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post, will just shrug and move on. For folks in the universe that I inhabit, in contrast, it’s a really intriguing development. This is the first time that someone who really understands the digital world has acquired a leading newspaper. So this story is not just about the future of a single US paper. It may have useful lessons for the entire industry. The shrewdest comments on the development that I’ve seen so far come from the Reuters columnist, Jack Shafer. Here’s an extract:

In acquiring the Washington Post, Bezos enters a business that is not radically different from the ones he already owns. Reporters and editors like to think their literary arts are central to newspapering. But it’s better to think of a newspaper as a coordination problem that manufacturing and distribution solves daily: Copy, art, and advertising is beamed from newsroom to printing plant, bundled newspapers flow from the plant to trucks, are transferred to carriers, and are delivered to your front door. Nobody knows more about deadline deliveries and distribution than Bezos’s Amazon, which has spoiled several nations with its reliable service. I can’t imagine what plans Bezos has for the print edition of the paper—if I did, I’d be worth $25.2 billion—but I’m confident that he will maximize the value of the existing Post delivery system in novel ways. It would not surprise me to see him use the Post network of trucks and carriers to enter the local delivery business as a pilot project. Obviously, he’s learned a lot from same-day delivery he could share with the paper.

Although most of us think of Amazon as a retailer, the computer sector has long regarded it as a tech company, competing with IBM, Microsoft, Google, and others as a seller of “cloud” computing power through its Amazon Web Services subsidiary. It’s also a computer devices company, via its Kindle readers. The sort of computer resources and ingenuity Bezos can bring to the Post—or more properly the—rival that of almost every other regional purveyor of news, entertainment, communications, and advertising. Any competing web property, cable systems, mobile phone system, or broadcasting operation in the Washington area should be on notice: Bezos means to use this foothold to go after the most lucrative parts of your businesses in the one of the richest corners of the country. He’ll spend you to death.

LATER: Another good piece — this time from Emily Bell. Excerpt:

At the end of a week that saw the Boston Globe sold for $70m by the New York Times Company, to Red Sox owner John W Henry, it seems that the lock gates transferring newspapers from a gilded past, through an unsustainable present, to to an unknown future have creaked open. Newspapers are now restored to their former status as playthings of the rich, rather than market-driven profit centers.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the transmission of west coast wealth to the crisis-torn content economy of old-fashioned east coast influence factories. The cultural divide between the thought processes of the engineering-oriented Silicon Valley and the words-based elites of the East, in politics and media, is vast. The low esteem in which each holds the other is often breathtaking to observe.

It was a “no contest” contest, an unfair fight, in which the new economy of the west coast understood how to build relationships with people, sell them what they wanted, charm the stock market – and do it at a scale and speed that could not be matched by analogue businesses.

This is what Bezos has been best at, and his enforcement of a cost-cutting regime has found Amazon on the wrong end of newspaper articles about its workplace practices. Bezos is more personally successful in Silicon Valley than most of his peers, with a fortune of $28bn, but from a background that has brushed more with the world outside Palo Alto. He was a Princeton computer science graduate rather than a Stanford PhD; he worked on Wall Street for a while before heading west and founding Amazon; he has made his vast fortune by shipping books, and tangible objects, atoms rather than bits and bytes. And he has successfully monetised the act of charging people for words on electronic devices, through the Kindle.

STILL LATER: A really good sceptical piece from John Cassidy of the New Yorker:

I have a nagging, if possibly unfounded, suspicion that his primary motivation in buying the Post is to protect Amazon’s interests in the political battle, which is sure to come, over the company’s monopolistic tendencies. Why do I suspect that? In part, because I am a skeptic. But also because it’s just about the only explanation that makes sense.

For the past fifteen years, Internet companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have been rightly lionized as triumphs of American entrepreneurship. As the Web matures, though, they are gradually coming to be viewed in a different light, as quasi-monopolies that need at least a modicum of oversight. Because of the presence of network effects and other sources of increasing returns to scale, there is a natural tendency for successful online companies to increase market share and, eventually, to dominate a specific market. Google dominates search and, through You Tube, it also dominates online video. Facebook dominates social networking and, through Instagram, microblogging. And Amazon dominates online retailing.

Any monopoly position in the market comes with the capacity for abuse. And behind Bezos’s public image as a smiling geek there is a ruthless business strategist. In the book market, Amazon has followed the classic monopolist’s script of cutting prices to build up its market share and eliminate competition. Now that its competitors are struggling or gone, there is some evidence Amazon is raising prices, although the company denies this. In other areas, too, the online retailer has thrown its weight around like an old-fashioned monopolist. As Amazon expanded across the country, it has sought to avoid collecting and paying sales taxes on the goods that it sells, thus preserving an unfair price advantage over brick-and-mortar competitors. (For more on this, see the recent cover story in Fortune “AMAZON’S (NOT SO SECRET) WAR ON TAXES.”)

At this stage, one of the main threats to the fortunes of companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook comes not from potential competitors but, rather, from the political authorities that are gradually awakening to their market power. Google’s search business has faced antitrust investigations in the United States and Europe. The Justice Department’s competition arm is moving to regulate Apple’s iTunes store. And Facebook and other online companies are facing questions about how they protect the privacy of their users.

So far, Amazon has gotten off easy.

The problem with taking the tabloids

Amid the furore surrounding the Leveson Inquiry, one aspect of the affair is curiously absent: the role of the great British public in all of this. To illustrate this, consider the paradox that at a time when an increasing number of Sun journalists have been arrested on suspicion of making or facilitating corrupt payments to public officials, Rupert Murdoch launches the Sunday Sun to replace the late lamented News of the World — and it sells 3m copies on its launch day. So three million of our fellow-citizens went out and, of their own volition, paid good money to buy the thing.

And that, it seems to me, lies at the root of the problem. The underlying cause of the malfeasance at the Sun and other tabloid papers is that the tabloid market is an intensely competitive one. That’s why journalism in Britain can never be a ’profession’ — with all that implies in terms of standards, ethics and professional sanctions: it’s a trade grafted onto businesses operating in a fiercely competitive market. So journalists on tabloid newspapers are under intense pressure to come with ’stories’ that will give their paper a competitive edge.

But sleazy journalism wouldn’t give them such an edge if readers exercised some kind of moral or ethical judgement when choosing newspapers to buy. So the responsibility ultimately rests with consumers of the British tabloid product. If they genuinely abhorred the kinds of journalistic practices now being unearthed by Leveson, then the incentives to break or bend the law would be dramatically reduced. Bad behaviour would be punished. But what happens instead is that bad behaviour is rewarded — by increased circulation. (***See footnote)

So the great mystery is why consumers of journalistic products seem to be ethically neutered. I had a disturbing insight into this many years ago when visiting some friends of a friend. The couple in question were lovely, decent, unpretentious people in their mid-sixties from a working-class background. I noticed that they were readers of the Daily Express and asked if they were regular subscribers. They were. So, I asked, did it bother them that the paper they read every day was owned by a pornographer?

What was astonishing (to me) is that they were completely floored by the question — not in the sense that they didn’t have an answer, but in the sense that the question seemed, literally, meaningless to them. The idea that there might be an ethical dimension to their newspaper purchasing habit had clearly never crossed their minds. So there was an awkward silence and the conversation moved on. But as I saw the sales figures for the new Sunday Sun, memories of that conversation came flooding back. And as long as media ’consumption’ takes place in that ethical vacuum, then the problems being unearthed by Leveson will continue to plague us.


*Footnote: As far as I can remember, there has only been one occasion in recent history where bad behaviour was punished by readers — and that was when Liverpool readers boycotted the Sun after its disgraceful allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool football fans during the Hillsborough disaster.

My colleague Andrew Cupples points out that the Sun’s readership in Liverpool has never recovered from the paper’s coverage of the disaster. He pointed me at a Guardian story on the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough, which reads, in part:

The newspaper, which has a circulation of more than 3m nationally, sold just 8,000 copies in the area on the day of the memorial service at Anfield, which was attended by more than 30,000 people.

Inside the newspaper, still known as “The Scum” in Liverpool, “lifelong fan” David Wooding, the Whitehall editor, delivered a poignant tribute to the men, women and children who lost their lives. But for those who gathered at Anfield this week, it was far too little and far too late.

At the Albert pub, squeezed next to the ground, football scarves and Liverpool memorabilia cover the walls and ceiling. The entrance of the pub has a poster mocking the front page of the Sun’s notorious splash, which appeared a few days after the tragedy. The tabloid’s masthead appears to be dripping in blood. “The truth,” it reads. “96 dead. Hillsborough 15th April 1989. Don’t buy the Sun.”

Tommy Doran, who works at the Albert, remembers one regular reading the Sun in a corner of the pub. “I went over to him and said: ‘What’s that?’ and he went: ‘The Sun.’ I just ripped it up into pieces in front of him.” Like many others on Merseyside, Doran will never forgive the decision of then editor Kelvin MacKenzie to lead on 19 April 1989 with a story headlined “The Truth” that was anything but. In it, quoting unnamed police sources and a Tory MP, it claimed drunken Liverpool fans urinated on and picked the pockets of the dead, hampered rescue efforts and attacked policemen.

And the Wikipedia entry about the Hillsborough catastrophe claims that:

Many people in the Liverpool area continue to reject buying The Sun as a matter of principle, and the paper’s sales figures within Merseyside remain very poor. It is the only major newspaper not to have articles published on Liverpool’s official website. As of 2004, the average daily circulation of The Sun in Liverpool was just 12,000 copies a day. Some Liverpudlians refer to the paper as simply: The Scum.

This is interesting, but I suspect it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Form vs function in journalism

Just watched, despairingly, Newsnight on BBC2 grappling with the “death of the newspaper”. The peg for this feeble item was the arrival of the Digger at Luton airport.  He has, it seems, flown the Atlantic in order to reassure his serfs and placemen at the Sun (a newspaper) that he is not going to close it down.** The Newsnight item followed the usual recipe: a short film report followed by a studio ‘discussion’ with three guests: a former tabloid editor, a doughty female hack (Joan Smith) and a young gel in impossibly high heels who is the UK head of the Huffington Post, a parasitic online creation that feeds on proper journalism.

The really annoying thing about the discussion was the way it failed to distinguish between format and function. The thing we need to preserve is not the newspaper (a form which was the product of a technological accident and a particular set of historical circumstances) but the function (provision of free, independent and responsible journalism). Once upon a time, publishing in print was the only way to ensure that the product of the function reached a public audience. But those days may be ending. The organisations traditionally known as “newspapers” need to transform themselves into journalistic outfits that produce a range of outputs, one of which — but only one of which — may be a printed paper.

The other thing that those who run newspapers need to realise is that digital technology implies businesses that earn much lower margins than analogue businesses did. In the old days, newspapers were often licences to print money. (The Digger’s Sun still is.) But in every industry where digital technology has taken hold, margins have shrunk. Could you support a newsroom of 120 journalists — plus all the material and distribution expenses that go with producing a print product — on the revenues that a newspaper website currently earns? Answer: no. But could you support a newsroom with 80 journalists and a purely online offering with the same revenues? Answer: possibly — provided you were prepared to settle for a modest return (say 5%) on investment.

**Later: Murdoch announced that he would be setting up a Sunday Sun — a continuation of the Screws of the World by other means. This was hailed by the mainstream media as a bold, defiant and possibly inspired tactic. I’m not so sure: it’s just possible that the Murdoch brand is now so toxic that the new gamble won’t wash. An alternative reading is that the old guy is finally losing his marbles. If the US laws against corrupt payments are triggered by the most recent developments (the arrest of Sun journalists on suspicion of making such payments to public officials) then the supine directors and shareholders of News International may finally be moved to, er, move.

Lie (back) and think of England

I know nothing about football, but I do know about the mass media and I’ve been studying the feeding frenzy about Fabio Capello, Harry Redknapp and the newly-vacant post of England manager. My conclusion: Redknapp would have to be clinically insane to put himself forward for the job. This has nothing to do with football, and all to do with the British tabloids, which have a standard operating procedure for this kind of stuff. Here’s the algorithm:

1. Inflate — to ludicrous degrees — public expectations about England’s prospects for winning the forthcoming European/World championship (delete as appropriate) .
2. At the same time, intrude on the Manager’s private life by tapping his phone, intercepting his email, harassing his family and friends, etc. etc. (And yah, boo, sucks to Lord Leveson and his ‘inquiry’).
3. Then, when the England squad crashes and burns, turn on the hapless ‘manager’ with a spiteful fury that might have staggered even Shakespeare.
4. Make hysterical calls for the sacking of said Manager.
5. Go to 1.

What Jay Rosen knows

Next month Jay Rosen, a blogger I admire, will have taught journalism at New York University for 25 years. The impending anniversary has prompted a thoughtful blog post on the subject of “What I Think I Know About Journalism”.

It comes down to these four ideas.

1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be.

2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

He goes on to expound on these in detail.

Well worth reading in full.

WikiLeaks and the cowardice of American journalism

I know the British press is nothing to write home about, but I’ve never understood why American journalists take themselves so seriously. They, after all, are the ‘professionals’ who missed Enron, the banking catastrophe and the Bush Administration’s ludicrous case for going to war in Iraq. Until recently, they were also the ‘professionals’ who were so impaled on the horns of the ‘balance as bias’ dilemma that many of them missed the global warming issue. So I’ve been cheering this fiery piece by Naomi Wolf about the slippery way US journalists have been willing to hang Julian Assange out to dry.

Here is what readers are not being told: We have ALL handled classified information if we are serious American journalists. I am waiting for more than a handful of other American reporters, editors and news organizations to have the courage — courage that is in abundance in Tahrir Square and on the pages of Al Jazeera, now that we no longer see it on the editorial page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal — to stand up and confirm the obvious. For the assault on Assange to be credible, they would have to come arrest us all. Many of Bob Woodward's bestselling books, which have made him America's highest-paid reporter, are based on classified information — that's why he gets the big bucks. Where are the calls for Woodward's arrest? Indeed Dick Cheney and other highest-level officials in the Bush administration committed the same act as Bradley Manning in this case, when they illegally revealed the classified identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

So why do all these American reporters, who know quite well that they get praise and money for doing what Assange has done, stand in a silence that can only be called cowardly, while a fellow publisher faces threats of extradition, banning, prosecution for spying — which can incur the death penalty — and calls for his assassination?

One could say that the reason for the silence has to do with the sexual misconduct charges in Sweden. But any serious journalist in America knows perfectly well that the two issues must not be conflated. The First Amendment applies to rogues and scoundrels. You don't lose your First Amendment rights because of a sleazy personality, or even for having committed a crime. Felons in jail are protected by the First Amendment. Indeed the most famous First Amendment cases, the ones that are supposed to showcase America's strength and moral power, involve the protection of speech most decent people hate…

Not getting it

It’s comical to watch guys who have been big names in steam media trying to catch on to online media — and getting the tone completely wrong, as with Yawnsley here. They just don’t get it. Irony, elusiveness and understatement are what works here. I know another really good print journalist who sometimes ventures onto Twitter. But he never links to anything he’s written or finds interesting. I’m fond of him and challenged him gently about it when we met at a conference. “Why don’t you link to stuff?”, I said. He looked sheepishly at me. “Because I don’t know how to do it,” he replied. I offered to help, but he hasn’t come back to me. Sigh.

Boxed in

Dave Winer had to read eight speeches by steam media big shots explaining their strategy for dealing with the online world. His typically thoughtful summary of what he found reads:

For Jay’s [Jay Rosen, NYU] class, our assignment is to figure out how these guys are trying to adapt.

Here’s how I visualize how they’re doing it. Imagine a box made of cardboard. It’s big, but it’s light. Pick the box up and move it from one place to another. When it gets to the new spot, it’s still a big cardboard box. It still can contain the same stuff as the box did when it was in the old place.

That’s the transition each of these execs feel they have to make. The stuff in the box are news stories. The box is their editorial structure. The old place is print. The new place is the Internet.

Spot on. But it’s not just media moguls who don’t get it. Academia can be just as obtuse.

Twitterphobia and the mainstream media

Yesterday, the Greater Manchester police service implemented a brilliant idea — to log on Twitter every call they received over a 24-hour period. The Chief Constable, Peter Fahy, explained that he wanted

to use the experiment to demonstrate that only a third of the incidents reported are genuine crimes, with two thirds being ‘social work’ concerning incidents such as alcohol-related disturbances, relationship disputes and mental health issues.

Fahy told The Manchester Evening News, which is aggregating the tweets on its website: “This is not a gimmick. This is a genuine attempt to show people 24 hours of policing work. Crime is only one part but an important part of what we do.”

IMHO, the experiment was a brilliant success. It highlighted the amazing range of things that the police service is called upon to do, and made that point more forcefully than any official speech by a senior officer or Home Secretary could do.

But guess what? Some sections of the UK mainstream media — press and radio — spent the day carping about an alleged “waste” of police resources. Shouldn’t Manchester bobbies be out arresting criminals rather than sitting in an office “tweeting”? (Funny how that word can be used as a sneer. On the ‘Today’ programme, John Humphreys — Britain’s Technophobe-in-Chief — described tweets as “tiny Internet telephone messages”.) In fact, the tweets were done by two members of the Manchester force’s media department. But it’s interesting to see how unacknowledged bias (and technophobic snobbery) infects journalists who would bristle if one called them biased or partisan.