2nd June 2012: Fairfax, Quality Media, & Journalist Strikes

Fairfax Media Share Price 28th May - 1st June 2012


New Matilda‘s Ben Eltham on Fairfax journalist strikes:


No matter how much the journalists protest about “quality”, the hard facts remain. Fairfax’s newspapers will have to be slimmed down even more quickly than they already are, while new revenue sources in the digital space will have to be conjured up. Under Greg Hywood, there seems every sign that at last management “gets” this, and is moving aggressively to implement the necessary changes.

This is the unmistakeable logic behind the decision to remove 66 sub-editors from newspapers in Newcastle and Woollongong, to be replaced by staff in New Zealand, where presumably they will work for less. Call it outsourcing, call it offshoring — call it common sense. Hywood and his team are doing what most listed corporations would do when faced with a high-cost part of their business with rapidly declining revenues. They’re slashing costs. They’re looking for ways to deliver the same product more cheaply.


Offshoring sub-editorial jobs has been on the cards for a decade. John Hagel III and John Seely Brown’s book The Only Sustainable Edge (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005) situated offshoring as a cost-cutting option amidst the “accelerated capability building” that would underpin sustainable competitive advantage. For Hagel III and Brown, offshoring helped firms to engage in “dynamic specialization”: “the commitment to eliminate resources and activities that no longer differentiate the firm and to concentrate on accelerating growth from the capabilities that truly distinguish the firm in the marketplace” (p. 54, emphasis added). This argument resonated with a broader debate about disruptive innovation and also with the 2003-07 growth of emerging markets and exchange traded funds for international investors.


Eltham’s arguments also do not contradict a 2009 study that I co-wrote with Barry Saunders on journalists as ‘investigators’ and ‘quality media’ reputation. Saunders and I studied a cohort of 20 journalists who differentiated themselves with investigative skills from other domains. For example, Bethany McLean who broke the Enron scandal had Wall Street investment bank experience. Media outlets like The New Yorker and The New York Times built their ‘quality media’ reputation also through fact-checking, editorial, and legal processes, and through a Classical Hollywood-style star system of journalists. NYT journalists are often featured on PBS Frontline documentaries, for instance. Finally, our study coincided with a debate about philanthropic foundations and grant-making as a funding model for quality journalism.


Fairfax has not followed the study’s advice.


Neither have the striking Fairfax journalists.


Regrettably, many of New Matilda‘s readers also missed Eltham’s insights about Fairfax’s market valuation. It’s vital to understand the role of structural economic factors, debt/equity ratios, and labour market bargaining in assessing the possible futures of newspapers. Institutional investors also influence Fairfax’s management. Fred Hilmer’s memoir The Fairfax Experience: What The Management Texts Didn’t Teach Me (Milton: John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2007) reveals that he spent almost half his day at Fairfax dealing with financial issues and meeting with institutional investors. The same week as the Fairfax journalists’ strike, investor Gina Rinehart continued her bid to control Fairfax’s board. Rinehart’s tactics reflect Carl Icahn‘s ‘activist investor’ strategy (presentation). However, these insights are often taught more in mergers and acquisitions courses than in journalism school.


Fairfax’s share price was range-bound on 30th and 31st May before dropping on 1st June. It’s difficult to show that the Fairfax journalist strike was a causal factor that convinced investors to sell Fairfax’s stock. The strike may have created an opportunity for short-sellers and event arbitrageurs. Macroeconomic uncertainty in China, India and the United States broadly affected the Australian financial markets. The month’s end also meant portfolio rebalancing by fund managers.


What could striking Fairfax journalists do? Visit SalaryTutor.com. Read The Lean Startup and The Startup of You. Develop a personal competitive advantage, and several back-up plans. You will face a more lean newsroom environment.

18th February 2012: Design Patterns & Counter-Terrorism Studies

Design Patterns


UX designer Barry Saunders writes:


It occurred to me that unless you’re maintaining a massive software project or training new designers, maintaining a pattern library and keeping track of copious UX design resources is often just busywork. That material is more useful when it’s in your subconscious, not in your documents folder.


I first encountered the design patterns literature in 2006 whilst researching agile software development for the Smart Internet Technology CRC. Some of this work informed an internally circulated analysis (PDF) of Clayton Christensen‘s disruptive innovation framework. I did Scrum training, interviewed a few experts, and read Christopher Alexander, Gregory Bateson, and Ward Cunningham on pattern languages. The CRC never published any of this work.


At the time, I was thinking about doing a PhD in counter-terrorism studies at Monash University. I had an initial chat with Pete Lentini about using pattern languages to model the common strategies in the counter-terrorism literature. I could see how the design patterns could be reused in teaching and intelligence analysis. I spent part of 2007-08 identifying about 60 patterns in the literature (sample patterns: backchannel; deep politics; forbidden knowledge; private universe; Tower of Babel); writing a design patterns template for a repository; and wrote a ‘draft zero’ of 152,000 words (a loose, fragmented collection of notes).


It soon dawned on me that this was potentially a massive project with loads of reading and a repository that itself would be the length of a normal PhD dissertation. I shelved the patterns repository project in 2010 and re-scoped the PhD around strategic culture (proposal PDF). I might revisit the project once I have early career researcher status.

18th February 2012: Tim Weiner’s FBI Book

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner (Penguin)


Legacy of Ashes author Tim Weiner has a new book out: Enemies: A History of the FBI (New York: Penguin USA, 2012). Weiner’s research fits a critical tradition of intelligence studies, and also the ‘journalists as investigators’ model that Barry Saunders and I wrote about in a 2009 conference paper. For me, the academic challenge is: when do I get the time to immerse myself in Weiner’s reportage?

8th December 2011: Follow-up Stories

Roy Christopher mentions a 2009 conference paper (PDF) that Barry Saunders and I wrote on ‘quality media’ reputation.

At Disinformation, daily site traffic in 1999-2003 averaged around 18,000-30,000 unique visitors per weekday with a spike during lunch hour. We got high hits from places like Eugene, Oregon, and the Middle East. The traffic averaged around 40,000-50,000 unique visitors when Richard Metzger hosted Disinfo Nation for Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. Disinformation’s archive captures this 1998-2003 era material, including experiments with event-based coverage that I wrote-up in 2002 for Swinburne University’s strategic foresight program (PDF). However, by 2006, people wanted more YouTube-like video content rather than articles or dossiers. Even 600-word pieces were too long for some people. In 2007, publisher Gary Baddeley moved the site to its current user-generated version. The same year, I did laboratory-based usability training and began to see what Christopher notes about eye patterns and ‘scanning’ sites.

As Christopher observed to me in a 6th December 2011 email: “Disinformation always did a good job of including the extra links, and I think for the era, that was good. I don’t find that people click on a lot of links from my site. I think it’s a bygone era. I said it in one piece: “We don’t surf the web so much as we just sit back and watch the waves.” People just don’t “surf” like they used to.”

This makes me nostalgic for Gopher and the old alt. newsgroups I used to surf in 1993-94.

For longer stories, there’s always Longform.org and my personal archive.

16th April 2010: A Journalist In 30 Minutes

Tonight at a party in Melbourne’s Nicholas Building, collaborator Ben Eltham reflects to an academic on the problems he has had with past journalist graduates. “Some of them were useless,” he quipped. “I can make you a journalist in 30 minutes. Here’s a chair. Here’s a phone. Here’s a story lead. Call someone. Now.”

The academic replied: “Perhaps you hired the wrong graduates?”

Despite a purported industry crisis, journalism is seen by some universities as a ‘hot’ area for potential students who are interested in Web 2.0, citizen journalism, and other topics. It provides a meta-framework to bring a range of academic backgrounds and skills into a cohesive department. If there’s a demonstrable market and student demand, it’s also easier to get courses through Academic Board approval and course quality assurance processes.

Eltham’s quip points to another reality: journalism is a craft or practice that requires a combination of sense-making, situational awareness and action. At some point, you have to go out and Do journalism, like a writer staring at a blank page, or a stockmarket trader placing a trade. For Eltham and myself, this approach perhaps comes from our mutual experiences in the student press and writing/editing for online publications. In 1994 student elections I suggested that student media and journalism departments follow the model at many US universities, where journalism graduates do an internship with the paper.

In contrast, at some of the new university journalism courses are attuned more to a Web 2.0 paradigm. To me, you can learn the basics of Del.icio.us, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress,
wikis, or whichever platform you choose, also in about 30 minutes. Yes, it’s a powerful amplifier or ecosystem, with its own dynamics. Yet it’s not a replacement for core skills, if you have ambitions to research, write, edit and publish original material, instead of reposting or relinking to existing material, via social network sites.

Perhaps that’s why Eltham and I are also fans of long-form journalism that requires these skills. And, as Barry Saunders and I found, perhaps also why the very best investigative journalists are emerging from other arenas that share this focus on craft and tacit skills — investment banking, intelligence analysis, police detective work — and not necessarily university journalism courses.

You can forward or re-post a message in 30 seconds. You can learn the basics of journalism in 30 minutes. A social media platform can amplify this, and build in recursive audience feedback and reflection cycles. It can take a lifetime however to master and deepen your appreciation of journalism’s craft, sense-making and tacit knowledge.

10th March 2010: Three Chapters in Too Big To Fail

Follow-up emails with internal clients on various projects. Publication Syndicate written feedback.

Cover of

Three chapters into the audiobook edition of Andrew Ross Sorkin‘s book Too Big To Fail (New York: Viking, 2009). Sorkin did over 500 interviews and looked at primary and forensic evidence. Already, this book has loads of succinct, nuanced details of decisions, meetings, and organisational politics. Maybe Sorkin can be on CNBC ‘Squawk on the Street’ as a regular guest co-anchor.

In contrast, Gillian Tett‘s book Fool’s Gold (New York: The Free Press, 2009), which I wrote about here, is focussed on the J.P. Morgan team, its peers, and anthropological visits to securitisation fora.

It will be interesting to contrast how Tett and Sorkin portray decision-makers such as J.P. Morgan banker Jamie Dimon.

Tett and Sorkin’s books on the 2007-09 global financial crisis also illustrate two key points I made in November 2009 academic conference paper and presentation on journalists cowritten with Barry Saunders:

(i) Journalists are adopting methodological practices and innovations from areas outside media, such as anthropology, investment banking and criminology.

(ii) Business and financial journalists will conduct an average 250+ interviews for their investigations, which will take an average 9 months to 2 years to research and write. Some of the most influential investigations will have 300 to 500 interviews, which will include with key decision-makers.

Compare (ii) with many PhDs that can take 4 to 6.5 years to research and write instead of the allotted 3 years, and that may have only 20 to 40 interviews. Sorkin’s journalistic and non-fiction craft leads him to create a strong narrative, to condense the key facts and details, and to use ‘deep background’ interviews to cross-check and verify meeting accounts.

2nd March 2010: Fool’s Gold

‘Pair of hands’ editing and budget development on a research tender.

Finished reading Gillian Tett‘s book Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets, and Unleashed a Catastrophe (New York: The Free Press, 2009). Tett’s social anthropology perspective highlights the role of securitisation and financial innovation in the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Most of her sources appear to be a J.P. Morgan cohort, interviews with J.P. Morgan Chase chief executive officer Jamie Dimon, and industry conferences such as the European Securitisation Forum. Tett believes the J.P. Morgan cohort pioneered collateralised debt obligations in the mid-1990s and that this ‘super-senior debt’ had a pivotal role in the crisis. Fool’s Gold is most interesting when Tett describes the cohort’s original goals and the CDO innovation-to-market process; although Dimon is also portrayed as a savvy corporate philosopher and details-oriented manager.

In response to a Geert Lovink post on blind peer review in academia, Barry Saunders and academic friends tweet this process in an open ecosystem. My take? Many authors will already know who their critics are if there are clear personal agendas rather than constructive suggestions on how to improve an article. Look at the list of associate editors when applying to a ‘target’ journal as they will probably review your work. There are ways to handle ‘rejoinder’ processes – such as to show the internal inconsistencies between positive and negative reviewers. Many academic journals now use a hybrid approach.

In November, Ben Eltham and I wrote a conference paper and presentation on Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis. It’s been read by Australia’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, and been heavily downloaded. Today, Ben received news that University of East London senior lecturer Terri Senft has used our paper in her coursework on digital media culture here. Check out Terri’s personal site, LinkedIn profile, and LiveJournal blog.

Academic Publications 2009

Burns, Alex & Eltham, Ben (2009). ‘Twitter Free Iran: An Evaluation
of Twitter’s Role in Public Diplomacy and Information Operations in
Iran’s 2009 Election Crisis’
. In Papandrea, Franco & Armstrong,
Mark (Eds.). Record of the Communications Policy & Research Forum
. Sydney: Network Insight Institute, pp. 298-310 [PDF pp. 322-334]. Presentation slides here.

Social media platforms such as Twitter pose new challenges for
decision-makers in an international crisis. We examine Twitter’s role
during Iran’s 2009 election crisis using a comparative analysis of
Twitter investors, US State Department diplomats, citizen activists and
Iranian protesters and paramilitary forces. We code for key events
during the election’s aftermath from 12 June to 5 August 2009, and
evaluate Twitter. Foreign policy, international political economy and
historical sociology frameworks provide a deeper context of how Twitter
was used by different users for defensive information operations and
public diplomacy. Those who believe Twitter and other social network
technologies will enable ordinary people to seize power from repressive
regimes should consider the fate of Iran’s protesters, some of whom
paid for their enthusiastic adoption of Twitter with their lives.

Burns, Alex & Saunders, Barry (2009). ‘Journalists as Investigators
and ‘Quality Media’ Reputation’
. In Papandrea, Franco & Armstrong,
Mark (Eds.). Record of the Communications Policy & Research Forum
. Sydney: Network Insight Institute, pp. 281-297 [PDF pp. 305-321]. Presentation slides here.

The current ‘future of journalism’ debates focus on the crossover (or
lack thereof) of mainstream journalism practices and citizen
journalism, the ‘democratisation’ of journalism, and the ‘crisis in
innovation’ around the ‘death of newspapers’. This paper analyses a
cohort of 20 investigative journalists to understand their skills sets,
training and practices, notably where higher order research skills are
adapted from intelligence, forensic accounting, computer programming,
and law enforcement. We identify areas where different levels of
infrastructure and support are necessary within media institutions, and
suggest how investigative journalism enhances the reputation of
‘quality media’ outlets.

A 2008 academic publication that made the Top 25 downloaded papers of the past year on Victoria University’s institutional repository:

Floyd, Josh, Burns, Alex and Ramos, Jose (2008). A Challenging Conversation on Integral Futures: Embodied Foresight & Trialogues. Journal of Futures Studies, 13(2), 69-86.

Practitioner reflection is vital for knowledge frameworks such as Ken
Wilber’s Integral perspective. Richard Slaughter, Joseph Voros and
others have combined Wilber’s perspective and Futures Studies to create
Integral Futures as a new stance. This paper develops Embodied
Foresight as a new approach about the development of new Integral
Futures methodologies (or meta-methodologies) and practitioners, with a
heightened sensitivity to ethics and specific, local contexts. Three
practitioners conduct a ‘trialogue’ – a three-way deep dialogue – to
discuss issues of theory generation, practitioner development,
meta-methodologies, institutional limits, knowledge systems, and
archetypal pathologies. Personal experiences within the Futures Studies
and Integral communities, and in other initiatory and wisdom traditions
are explored.

Worth Reading

What I’m Reading

Edwin Elton, Martin Gruber and Christopher Blake‘s The Investment Portfolio User’s Manual and Software (2nd ed, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken NJ, 2007).

Personal Research Program

Slate’s Jack Schafer on US ‘save the newspapers’ legislation.

Wired on the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine and New York Times review and excerpt.

University Commercialisation and Research

Big Universities Report Steep Investment Losses: Is this the end of the Swensen model?

The Netflix Prize research dividend as reported by Wired, Slate and The New York Times.

Are you coming to UniGateway’s launch in October for university commercialisation activities?

Tweet Memes

New Yorker video ‘Pecking Order‘ on backyard chickens.

Matt Jones’ presentation on trends in architecture and city anthropology (with thanks to Barry Saunders).

The return of chess grandmasters Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.

Dr Ken Henry’s GFC talk to the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Worth Reading

The Wall Street Journal on the boom in software platforms for open source intelligence in finance, regulatory compliance and intelligence analysis, such as Palantir Technologies.

Search the Global Terrorism Database of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.

Oliver Stone returns to Wall Street with the sequel Money Never Sleeps.

How 9/11 conspiracy theories may have ended Obama’s appointment of ‘green’ expert Van Jones.

Security maven Bruce Schneier on Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen (with thanks to Barry Saunders).

Chronicle of Higher Education on Facebooking your way out of (academic) tenure.