Category Archives: Reviews & Criticism

Mergers bad business says New Yorker writer

Industry e-zine Paid Content celebrates its sixth birthday this week by biting the hand that feeds it. Deals and the rumors of deals are its stock in trade so kudos to the Content-meisters for touting the New Yorker’s skeptical assessment of CBS’s acquisition of CNet. Financial columnist James Surowiecki uses this media deal as a case in point to remind readers that:

corporate marriages only rarely end in bliss—many studies have found that most mergers and acquisitions do little for the acquiring company’s bottom line. A KPMG study of seven hundred mergers found that only seventeen per cent created real value, and that more than half destroyed it. And a McKinsey study of mergers that took place in the nineteen-nineties found that less than a quarter generated excess returns on investment.

Why then does the Wall Street Journal introduce many mergers with details leaked by people close to the deal who violate their legal duties of confidentiality? And when the Journal gets a so-called scoop of this sort does it thank the leaker by soft-pedaling criticism? Or is there some other explanation for fawning coverage of deals that so often go bust?

In a variation on Surowieki’s theme, I once wrote about how publicity helped create a frenzy for initial public offerings (IPOs). I quoted Yale University economist Richard Shiller, who dedicated a chapter of his book, “Irrational Exuberance,” to how the press invented financial euphorias. The article quotes him as saying:

I don’t think there were any bubbles until there were newspapers,” said Shiller, whose research went back to the Dutch tulip bulb craze of the 1630s.

Imagine that. Extra, extra, read all about it! Newspapers invent hype! Hollywood lives for hype. Economists understand that “the (film) distributor earns most of its revenue over the first two or three weeks of the movie’s screen life.” The publicity blitz in advance of a new movie is intended to get viewers into this three-week window. Of course Hollywood thanks the media with generous advertising.

Surowiecki is known for his observation that public — or rather niches within the public — often have greater collective expertise than the so-called experts, which concept is captured in the book title, “Wisdom of the Crowds.” The crowds will need all the wisdom they can muster because mass media often seems intent on selling its audience a bill of goods.

Plundered Prose & Optioned Rights

Nikki Bazar interviews novelist Jonathan Lethem for LA City Beat. In the intro Bazar says Lethem believes “stringent copyright laws . . . (are) suffocating for creative vitality.” Moreover he puts his art behind his words. Bazar writes:

Lethem initiated a project through his website called Promiscuous Materials that offers up his stories and lyrics at no cost for other artists to use and rework. He also recently announced that he will option the film rights to (his new novel) You Don’t Love Me Yet to a filmmaker of his choice in exchange for just 2 percent of the budget. By doing so, Lethem claims, he hopes to spark a re-examination of the typical ways in which art is commodified.

I first read about Lethem in a Poets & Writers (May/June 07) article titled “Creative Copywriting.” The article said Lethem will announce a winner to the film option idea on May 15. Visit Lethem’s web site to read about the movie deal.


Lethem argues for a kindler, gentler copyright in an essay in Harpers titled “The ecstasy of influence.” Artists, he says, have always imitated each other’s works, been influenced by one another overtly and subliminally. “Literature “has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time,” he writes. And now we’ll see if that thought will be coming to a theater near you soon.


Journalism that Matters: That’s the name of a conference scheduled for August 7 and 8 in Washington, D.C. (conference details here). It is the second such gathering of new media innovators and educators. Scan the post-conference wrapup of a similiar event held in Memphis in January 2006. The conference is being organized through the Media Giraffe project. Spend a minute to find out more about the project and make sure to visit its excellent web site.

Style Rulz


Software reduces art to science and turns judgments into point-and-click routines. Desktop publishing and tax preparation are examples of professional skills that have been boiled down and percolated into general practice.

But professionals still have tricks-of the trade that set them apart from amateurs. Author Robert W. Harris shares the secrets of typography and graphic design in a forthcoming book, “The Elements of Visual Style.” I read a preprint issued by Houghton Mifflin which has scheduled publication for May.

The title of this book harken’s back to Strunk & White’s classic, the “Elements of Style.” Whether “Visual Style” will have the shelf life of its namesake remains to be seen. But desktop publishers who read this slim volume will get a good grounding in the essentials of graphic design. I know the subject first hand. In 1980s I ran a small typography and publishing firm that was ultimately clobbered by desktop publishing. Continue reading

Mind-meld media

vulcan mind meld.jpg
Enough already with the blogs-versus-mainstream debate, which erupts yet again over a MediaPost report that summarizes an alleged study* by Lexis-Nexis, the pay-per-view info-warehouse where people can search for articles from leading print publications. The gist of the report is that consumers turn to mass media, not bloggers, for breaking news. Prominent bloggers fumed that the study was self-serving — after all Lexis-Nexis hosts mainstream media content — and completely misses how the blogosphere (or the citizen media movement) is changing the media world.

I agree with the bloggers but fuming at the dunderheads of dead-tree media is not going to change their minds. Instead let me use a metaphor to argue that old and new media may be headed toward a symbiosis that will lead to something better. Let me borrow the concept of the mind-meld from the original Star Trek, the television parable that hinged on the interplay between the bombastic James T. Kirk and his uber-logical Vulcan sidekick, Spock.
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Cruel & Unusual Euphemisms

I had a dream the other night, about how blogging could enliven and reinvigorate newspapers. I want to write it down before the memory fades, because it is my sad sense that modern American journalism has all the firmness of white bread dipped in warm milk. And I imagine that a dose of ‘tude from the web could spice up what has, by and large, grown to be a pretty bland fare.
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Vinyl Dreams

I attended a reception last week at which the hosts provided music chosen by live disc jockeys. When I wandered to the back of the room to see who was playing what I was astonished to see a dual turntable spinning real vinyl record albums. I asked the disc jockey — who turned out to be the creative director for a digital music firm — why the archaic technology? Wouldn’t it be simpler to plug in a playlist loaded onto some MP3 device?
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