Category: PowerBlog Ramblings

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 30, 2009

From the question of performance-enhancing drugs to antitrust issues in the BCS, government involvement in professional sports is a common occurrence nowadays. Then-President-elect Obama said that he would favor a playoff system for Division I college football and that he would “throw” his weight around a little bit in pursuit of that agenda. Congress recently announced plans to take up the question of antitrust issues with the BCS.

The powerful influence of professional sports on today’s culture raises complex questions about the intersection between business and government, as well as education and moral formation. Perhaps nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the midst of March Madness.

It is timely then that tomorrow the Acton Institute’s Rome office hosts a talk by Fr. Kevin Lixey, LC, head of the Church and Sport Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Fr. Lixey’s talk is titled, “Fighting the good fight: The promise and peril of sports as a training ground for virtue,” and is introduced in this way:

2000 years ago, St. Paul wrote “athletes are disciplined in every way.” But in nearly every country and every popular sport, the news reports as much scandal as inspiration. Can sports still foster human virtues? Or has the desire to win at all costs, please the crowds and increase profits destroyed the nobility of athletic competition? In this year dedicated to St. Paul, would he still use sports as an example for Christians?

So this week’s PowerBlog Ramblings topic takes up Fr. Lixey’s question: “Can sports still foster human virtues?”

It is our pleasure to welcome guest ramblings on the PowerBlog, and we are happy to feature this contribution from Jonathan Petersen, former Sr. Dir. of Corporate & Internet Communications at Zondervan. His 22 years at the international book and Bible publisher included directing public relations, corporate communications, and marketing strategy for general retail stores, direct mail, and the Internet. Prior to Zondervan, he was founding religion news editor and anchor for United Press International Radio Network. A member of the Online News Association, he can be reached at www.JonathanPetersen.com.

Who knew back in 1969 when ARPANET was created by the military as the precursor to the Internet to decentralize communication in the event of war on domestic soil, that it would eventually lead to revolutionizing and toppling entire societal institutions and upending business models that withstood onslaughts for 100 years? Among the hardest hit are traditional print- and broadcast-centric media. They’re now having to reinvent themselves or risk collapse in light of the ever advancing digital tsunami. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age cogently summarizes the current media scenario in his article “Apocalypse Now” (warning: strong language).

The stunning effects on journalism can be traced to 1997 when RSS debuted and 1998 when blogs entered the Web fray, allowing anyone to publish and syndicate any content they wanted for everyone to read anywhere. In 1999, the same year citizen journalism was taking root online, the book The Cluetrain Manifesto succinctly observed, “A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” How true.

For more than a century, journalism operated the same way: a news event occurred, an “official” reporter wrote about it, an editor reshaped it, a headline writer contributed to it, a designer/producer fit the story into a prefabricated and limiting format, and it was all distributed to consumers at a predetermined time for consumption the way the “professionals” proscribed. Today, in only 10 years, that model has been ripped apart: anyone can now manufacture and globally distribute news and we can select what news we want to read however and whenever we want to read it. This is good if you believe in freedom of speech. But it’s not so good if you demand consistently high editorial standards and desire quality reporting. Since the editorial filter is non-existent in citizen journalism, every reader must exercise discernment to know what to accept as fact and what to jettison as fiction.

Print newspapers are closing their doors for lack of sustainability and seasoned reporters are being forced to ply their trade in new digital ways. With all that journalistic professionalism unleashed, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, perhaps “citizen journalism” will become more institutionalized in its own way in the age of new media.

In the midst of declining revenues, increased competition from digital sources of information, and new costs associated with distribution, a number of print magazines have launched in recent months. This is noteworthy, in part because it attests to a disruption in the narrative of digital progress that sees print as an obsolete medium.

The New York Post reported that magazine advertising revenues were down 21.5% in the first quarter of 2009 (compared with Q12008). Here’s a rundown of some notable publications that have launched within the past year or so, right in the thick of this downturn:

  • Bible Study Magazine, published by Logos Research Systems, appears six times per year. The magazine is a complement to Logos’ powerful Libronix software, which is geared toward engagement with biblical, linguistic, and theological resources in digital form. As the magazine’s name indicates, the focus is on providing resources and guidance for engagement with the biblical text. This is a most worthy pursuit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “We must once again get to know the Scriptures as the reformers and our forebears knew them. We must not shy away from the work and the time required for this task.” Bible Study Magazine is a great place to start.
  • We’ve had a guest contribution from an associate editor of a promising publication published by Cardus. As the publication of a non-profit, Comment represents one avenue for the survival of print media, in the sense that it is not dependent solely on breaking even for survival. It is underwritten and subsidized as part of the larger mission of Cardus. The folks behind Comment have done a good job using the power of both print and digital media (including social networking) to promote and disseminate their product.
  • The Purpose Driven Connection is another non-profit print publication that is connected to a larger digital world. Rick Warren’s ministry launched PDC this year in part as a way to connect people to the larger Purpose Driven website. But the magazine itself is full of features, including a mix of new and repurposed content.
  • My own denomination, the CRC, has an office which launched a new web publication called Justice Seekers. The layout mimics a traditional print publication, and the email notice about the magazine also noted that it is available in print, although for a number of reasons it seems clear that digital delivery is the main concern.
  • Townhall.com also recently put out a new print publication, which represents a move from the digital back to print, Townhall magazine.

Each of these projects represents in its own way the possibilities for ongoing usefulness of the print medium, whether as a complement or a secondary alternative to some kind of digital offering. All of the above except for Bible Study Magazine are offered by some kind of non-profit, and this may represent a signal about the future of print media.

Indeed, non-profits still have an option for print delivery that’s unavailable to traditional publishers, and that’s an alternative pricing structure for USPS delivery. This can lead to a significant advantage, as in the past rates have gone up for regular publishers while decreasing for non-profits. The differentiation of rates is one way politically to provide a competitive advantage for non-profit print publications.

Blog author: awilkinson
posted by on Thursday, March 26, 2009

It is our pleasure to welcome guest ramblings on the PowerBlog, and we are happy to feature this contribution from Alissa Wilkinson, who is editor of The Curator, associate editor of Comment, and on staff at International Arts Movement. She is finishing a M.A. in Humanities & Social Thought at New York University. She frequently contributes writing on culture and film to a number of publications, including Paste and Christianity Today.

In response to the question, “What form will journalism take in the age of new media?”, I have to consider two of my nearly-daily activities.

First, I work as an editor on two publications which are enabled by or adapting to the new media age. My work on Comment, an opinion journal published by the North American think tank Cardus, is predicated on both the internet and print. We publish a weekly online edition and a quarterly print journal, and we’ve been experimenting with social media such as Facebook as a way to advertise. My other magazine, The Curator, has no budget at all, which meant we had no choice but to start as an online journal. Our contributors – some quite well-versed in their field – work for free at present, and we publish weekly on the web.

The lesson I’ve learned there is that new media forces journalism to be either hyperlocal or (like my work) broad-based in its appeal, since visitors may be browsing the magazine down the hall or on the other side of the world. And as my friends and I have watched some more well-funded publications like Culture11 go under, we’ve remarked that publishing online with no budget has its benefits; you can’t really go under for lack of funds. And small magazines have never really made any money, have they?

Second, I purchased a Kindle a few weeks ago and have slowly come to believe that this little device may just save journalism completely. According to a recent article in Business Insider, it costs the New York Times about twice as much to print and deliver the newspaper as it would to send each of its subscribers a Kindle. Though it costs about the same to subscribe to magazines on the Kindle as it does in print (The New Yorker is $40 per year for the print edition, and $36 for the Kindle edition), because you’re paying $3 monthly instead of a lump sum, it feels like less. And the overhead for the magazine is obviously much less, since everything is delivered wirelessly.

For sheer efficiency and lack of overhead, the Kindle wins out: for flexibility, online publishing just works.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In response to the question, “What form will journalism take in the age of new media?”, a quick thought, speculative and devoid of adequate substantiation.

I’ve heard a lot of worrying about what will take the place of newspapers and news magazines as their decline continues. My worrying runs in a different direction. I have complete faith that what the market demands the market will supply. I don’t pretend to know exactly what form it will take, but I’m confident that there will develop profitable ventures in journalism that exhibit or even improve upon the standards set by the newspapers of the last couple centuries.

That is, if there is demand for such information. As I see newspapers failing, I’m concerned not that the press will stop serving its indispensable purpose in a free society; I’m concerned instead about what it might indicate about the American public’s interest in matters of public import such as politics, religion, and economics.

The demise of newspapers would cause me no great concern except for the fact that the trend occurs in the context of reports that our educational system fails to guarantee basic literacy among a disturbingly large portion of our population, that the average number of books Americans read is declining, and that high percentages of us rely on late-night comedy as our primary source of political information.

In sum, I don’t doubt our ability to produce high quality journalism, but I increasingly wonder, who will read it?

In response to the question, “What form will journalism take in the age of new media?” I came across this Reuters story highlighting a proposal to allow newspapers to file for nonprofit status. The legislation was put forward by Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin, (D-Md.) and he suggests the nonprofit action could be a possible solution for smaller community minded newspapers.

I’ll let somebody with more expertise regarding print journalism take a crack at the deeper consequences of such an action, but it seems to me that it wouldn’t assist with what should be the main goal of media, securing a free and independent press. At least many of the arguments put forward for saving papers is tied to the notion that they serve in the capacity as a civic watchdog over government. Obviously you can’t serve that goal as effectively with a tax-exempt status.

Nonprofits are having to sort through their own serious financial struggles as well, so the financial benefits may not be much of a saving force in the end. I am sure there are a lot of papers that are surviving and thriving in the free market even now and their credibility will look even better when put up against a paper dependent on government recognition for their status.

Here is a story from Real Clear Politics which alludes to a greater fear, at least when it comes to even more federal involvement in the private sector, and that is “the legislation is a starting point for discussions already under way on ideas to help the industry.”

Last week I wrote that “The ethical standards connected with journalism as a profession have arisen out of centuries-long practice and reflection,” and that “To abandon these standards in the rush to new media would impoverish public discourse to the detriment of us all.” (I develop some related points at length in an accompanying blog post).

I also asserted that “Professional journalism must be present for a free society to flourish, and it is in the pursuit of this calling that Christian reflection and practice over the last two centuries has a critical role to play.” Any discussion about Christian engagement with journalistic culture would be remiss without mention of the World Journalism Institute at the King’s College in New York, whose mission “is to recruit, equip, place and encourage journalists who are Christians in the mainstream newsrooms of America.” (Acton research fellow Anthony Bradley is the Francis Schaeffer Chair of Cultural Apologetics at WJI.) The King’s College also publishes Patrol, “a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.”

This week’s PowerBlog Ramblings question is: “What form will journalism take in the age of new media?”

No, not that Friedman. In a wide-ranging lecture for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Policy earlier this year, George Friedman touched on American policy with regard to trade. He says of the United States,

it has the potential to reshape patterns of international trade if it chooses. The United States throughout the 20th century, the second half in particular, has operated under the principle of a free-trade regime in which its Navy was primarily used to facilitate international trade. It did not seek to develop any special advantage from that, save those sanctions and blockades that we occasionally imposed for immediate political purpose.

He concludes, however, “there is no reason to believe, with that enormous power, in the 21st century that the United States won’t choose to reshape international trade if it finds itself under extreme economic or political pressure.”

In pointing out the possibility for the United States to pursue trade policy that is at odds with “the principle of a free-trade regime,” Friedman also notes the definition of so-called “soft” power: “Power that isn’t exercised.”

As a side note, one way of construing this definition of soft power correlates quite nicely with the reception of the traditional scholastic distinction between absolute and ordained power, potentia absoluta et ordinata. With regard to God’s power, the older, traditional view of the distinction held that the absolute power of God referred to the contingency of the created order, insofar as God could have created, willed, and concurred in things differently (i.e. a different world order). Things could have been different based on a different divine ordering or decree.

This older view did not hold that the absolute power of God was an active reality in this created order but rather a hypothetical possibility standing behind the creation of this world. But in the high to late middle ages another version of the distinction arose, which argued that the absolute power of God exists as an active possibility residing in and with the current created order. This “operationalized” view of the absolute power of God held that God not only could have made things differently, but also that he has an active power that can overrule or act outside of what he has ordained. (We should note that this “absolute power,” when applied to magistrates, is that to which Lord Acton refers in his famous quote appearing as the subhead of this blog.)

A brief illustration might serve to communicate the difference in these two views of absolute power. Under the former conception, the “absolute power” of the United States government would refer to those powers that could have been granted by the Constitution but for whatever reason were not. Bracketing the possibility of changing the Constitution, these powers are no longer real possibilities. Under the revisionist and operationalized conception, the Constitution would describe the way things normally or ordinarily work, but the President or Congress could act “absolutely” without regard to the constraints of the Constitutional order.

We might also note that this definition of soft power is one that defines “power” essentially as coercion, with the “softness” of the power being the implied threat rather than the “hardness” of actual use. Friedman’s kind of soft power is that which gives nuclear deterrence its only viability. As American ethicist Paul Ramsey has written,

The actuality of deterrence depends upon a credible belief, mutually shared, that one might use a nuclear weapon. If the government of one of the great powers were persuaded by the churches never to be willing to use any nuclear weapon under any circumstances, and this were known, there would be instantly no deterrence and therefore no practical problem of finding a way out. Likewise, the morality of deterrence depends upon it not being wholly immoral for a government ever to use an atomic weapon under any circumstances.

(Towards the end of the video a questioner rightly challenges Friedman’s definition of soft power, noting in its original context it didn’t necessarily depend on the implied threat of coercive force.)

Friedman notes that soft power, “what you could do that you don’t do,” doesn’t corrupt, but instead “gives you the opportunity to be gracious, friendly, and pleasant.” For Friedman, America’s gracious continuation of free-trade policy represents a clear case of soft power.

There’s a real sense in which he’s right, but only to the extent that America would suffer relatively less economically than other nations through the pursuit of isolationist policies. As Spengler notes in the context of the current global crisis, “Although Russia has taken on water in the crisis, its position relative to its former satellites has actually strengthened.” Friedman’s assumptions about the trump card that America holds in the possibility of reversing free-trade policies assumes that the economic power of the United States would in a similar way be relatively strengthened, and that the economic consequences will disproportionately affect America’s trading partners. But has America’s relative economic strength actually improved already in the midst of the global economic crisis?

In a recent STRATFOR report Lauren Goodrich and Peter Zeihan concludes that

while Russia’s financial sector may be getting torn apart, the state does not really count on that sector for domestic cohesion or stability, or for projecting power abroad. Russia knows it lacks a good track record financially, so it depends on — and has shored up where it can — six other pillars to maintain its (self-proclaimed) place as a major international player. The current financial crisis would crush the last five pillars for any other state, but in Russia, it has only served to strengthen these bases. Over the past few years, there was a certain window of opportunity for Russia to resurge while Washington was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This window has been kept open longer by the West’s lack of worry over the Russian resurgence given the financial crisis. But others closer to the Russian border understand that Moscow has many tools more potent than finance with which to continue reasserting itself.

Besides the US, Friedman opines that Japan, Turkey, and Poland (because it “faces Russia”) will be the major players in the 21st century. But with regard to the fallout of the economic crisis, Spengler summarizes convincingly, “There are no winners, but losing the least is the next best thing to winning. If America turns inward, even an economically damaged Russia will loom larger in the world.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 27, 2009

Free trade seems to get all the blame when things go wrong and none of the credit when things go right. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of global economics: it gets no respect. Certainly in this worldwide economic downturn globalism is going to take its bumps and bruises. And as trouble abroad comes to roost at home (and vice versa) more then ever the lesson is going to be how truly interdependent we all are.

In the short term there will certainly be increased popular sentiment that’s antagonistic toward expansion of liberalized trade policies. A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans showed that 47% view trade as a “threat to the economy from foreign imports” while 44% held that it is “an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports.” These numbers closely resemble the figures from the poll during the last major recession in 1992 (48% and 44% respectively).

ForeignTrade2009

While globalism will be in retreat for the short term, the beneficiary won’t necessarily be the localism so beloved by “crunchy” conservatives. The move will instead be toward a greater “regionalism,” of the kind fostered by continental and geographic “free trade zones.” In addition to the free trade deal announced today between Oceanic and Southeast Asian nations, you can expect NAFTA to get a close review in coming months.

But in the long term, the prospects for continued globalization are as good as ever. The Internet in particular has created a kind of “grassroots” globalism, that connects people in all kinds of social, economic, and cultural ways that were not possible a decade ago. More than ever we’ve come to know that our “neighbor” is not just the one we live in proximity to spatially, but those to whom we are connected virtually and spiritually.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 23, 2009

From the scuffle over “Buy American” provisions in the most recent federal stimulus package, to concerns about declining exports in countries like China, to high-profile meetings of politicians and economists, it seems like anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise.

Advocates of isolationism, protectionism, and localism have decried the increasingly integrated global economy for years. But the sharpness of criticisms of globalization has sharpened in the context of the global economic downturn. Reflecting on the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Adrian Hamilton concluded that “the political leaders of the world are going to have to start again to reforge an international consensus on trade and regulation. The internationalism of tomorrow — today indeed — will have to be recreated out of national concerns and a degree of national protection.”

This week’s PowerBlog Ramblings question is: “In what ways, if any, is globalism in retreat?”

Ramble on…