Ronald McDonald rings opening bell on Wall St., then threatens to cut insurance for 30K workers

These two items appeared in rapid succession in my Twitter feed:

screen-shot-2010-03-17-at-12403-pm2 9:26 AM — @CNNLive ‘Ronald McDonald’ rings Wall Street opening bell. Live: http://on.cnn.com/cnndcl2

9:29 AM — @WSJ McDonald’s says it may drop health insurance for nearly 30,000 workers unless a new requirement is waived http://on.wsj.com/acZl03

 

In case you are wondering, you can follow me on Twitter at CurseYouKhan.

 

Image is from Logorama, which won the Oscar last year for best short animation.

penguin-seal

WSJ photo flap is the Official Stupid Non-Controversy of 2010

A spokeswoman for the Wall Street Journal said today its cover art was not intended as innuendo about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s sexual orientation after the paper’s front-page use of an image of Kagan playing softball provoked a mixture of irritation and amusement from gay and lesbian advocates.

wsjkagancover Y’know I always try to read the minutes from the Gay Agenda committee meetings but I must have I missed the one where they announced women playing softball is a code for lesbian. Or maybe it’s just women who play softball well.

Speaking as one of the three people left in the world who still reads the Journal on paper I have to say my reaction to the photo was that it made Ms. Kagan seem really – oh how should I put this … – normal. Just a regular person having fun playing softball. The only thing it made her look like was someone’s kid sister or maybe a co-worker, or maybe both.

Here’s my favorite quote from the Politico story:

"It clearly is an allusion to her being gay. It’s just too easy a punch line," said Cathy Renna, a former spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation who is now a consultant.

The only lesbian punch line I know is this, “A U-Haul.” The joke: “What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” Apparently lesbians move in together quickly. If I were to go by the behavior of my friends who are lesbians I would have to say that this is closer to reporting than to humor.

Ms. Renna continues

"The question from a journalistic perspective is whether it’s a descriptive representation of who she might be as a judge. Have you ever seen a picture of Clarence Thomas bowling?"

No, but I did see some of former Chief Justice Rehnquist appearing as an extra in an opera (true!), does that count?

“The question from a journalistic perspective is whether it’s a descriptive representation of who she might be as a judge.” What would a picture that does this show? Here’s Ms. Kagan at the grocery store weighing a pound of opinion. Here she is in a hard-hat looking constructionist?

Ms. Kagan’s nomination will not be decided by whether or not she is a member of the Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That party. This is really too stupid for anyone to waste their time on. Get back to work getting rid of the Defense of Marriage Act. That actually matters.

Lies, Damned Lies and Black Friday sales figures

firesale-savingsStories about the success of Black Friday/Cyber Monday  are as inevitable as taxes and death but nowhere near as reliable. It goes like this: "Great Black Friday sales numbers mean a big shopping season. Insert somebody’s numbers to support this and then a quote or two from an analyst." Publish, forget, and hope no one notices that they are ALWAYS — even in good economic times — WRONG. In the past these stories have been an embarrassment. Now they are colluding with retailers to overcome the facts in the hopes that somehow shear massive denial will rescue us.

This isn’t whistling past the graveyard, it’s renting a whole symphony orchestra.

Although the actual sales figures would later show a whopping 0.5% increase in sales, here’s the AP’s early report on what should be called Bogus Saturday:

The nation’s shoppers took advantage of deals on toys and TVs with some renewed vigor in stores and online on Black Friday after a year of concentrating their spending on basic necessities. Though the first numbers won’t be available until Saturday, early reports indicated bigger crowds than last year, with people buying more and even throwing in some items for themselves.

“Though the first numbers won’t be available until Saturday”? That’s shorthand for “we’re making this up.”

Stores were encouraged that shoppers appeared to be a little freer with their spending. Best Buy, Sears Holdings Corp. and Mall of America, as well as mall operators Taubman Centers and Simon Property Group, offered signs people were buying more than last year.

“Offered signs”? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

An average of about 1,000 people were in line for midnight openings at Toys R Us stores, CEO Gerald Storch said. After setting aside 100 Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters for each location, Toys R Us came back with several shipments of the hot toy for several of its stores Friday.

And Mr. Storch is certainly an unbiased observer with no vested interest in the outcome of this story. Fortunately Mr. Storch’s “facts” were backed up by none other than Macy’s CEO Terry J. Lundgren. Lundgren said more than 5,000 people were at Macy’s Herald Square store in New York early Friday, slightly more than last year. (WHERE DO THESE NUMBERS COME FROM? Is there someone whose job it is to count the number of people in line? )

Having passed off the above as news, the AP then goes to a person-on-the-street for further uninformed opinion.

Dondrae May, a manager at a Best Buy in Framingham, Mass., said shoppers started lining up at 4 p.m. Thursday — 13 hours before opening. He said shoppers were filling their baskets with more items than a year ago, when they were shellshocked after the financial meltdown.

Everyone repeat after me: The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. The plural of anecdote is NOT data….

At least Bloomberg had the decency to make it clear the adjective for the sales figure was alleged, not proven.

Retailers reported “strong” shopper traffic on Black Friday as discounts on televisions, toys and computers drew budget-conscious crowds across the U.S., the National Retail Federation said.

Although Bloomberg also cites a retail CEO (Best Buy) as saying sales are better, they don’t pass off his opinion as anything but that. (BTW, Storch & Dunn’s questionable numbers are also quoted in the Bloomberg story and in the Wall Street Journal. Some PR agency is earning its commission!)

That said, Bloomberg does pass along this piece of genius seemingly without pausing to ask where these statistics come from:

“There’s a little more traffic than last year across the board, maybe 10 percent,” Bill Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers Inc., a U.S. real estate investment trust with 24 malls, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Thank G-d for the Wall Street Journal which had the common decency to run a story poking holes in all these predictions.

Black Friday’s predictive powers are limited. Although the day after Thanksgiving was the No. 1 shopping day in terms of sales last year, when economic turmoil made it a retail free-for-all, it typically is eclipsed by the last Saturday before Christmas. Similarly, "Cyber Monday," the Monday after Thanksgiving, hasn’t been the top day for online sales since the term was created five years ago.

The silver lining: “Amid Higher Unemployment, Fewer Workplace Injuries”

One more reason I love the Wall Street Journal.

The Labor Department’s report of occupational injuries and illnesses that required days away from work mimicked the shifts the recession caused in the labor market in 2008. Hard-hit sectors, such as construction and retail, reported fewer injury and illness cases. Older workers experienced more injuries as their labor force participation rose. And incidents among younger workers fell as fewer remained employed.

Twitter valued at $1 Billion say people with a vested interest in Twitter

Hysterical story in today’s journal headlined: Twitter’s Value Is Set at $1 Billion

The lede:

Twitter Inc. is nearing a deal for as much as $100 million in new funding that would buy the fast-growing Internet-messaging company more time to figure out its business model, according to people familiar with the situation.

But the punch line comes in the 3rd graph:

The investors are valuing Twitter – which has yet to generate more than a trickle of revenues – at more than $1 billion, according to people familiar with the plan. That’s more than triple the valuation Twitter received during its last round of capital raising in February, underscoring how quickly the company has grown.

twitter_fail_whale So let me see if I understand, the companies who are giving $100M to Twitter say Twitter is worth more than 10 times that amount. Hmmm. Well they are certainly an unbiased source.

By the way, CollateralDamage.biz is worth more than $10 million so you should want to buy it while the price is still this low, say people familiar with my bank account.

So we now know it takes about 10 years to forget the lessons of a bubble burst. Remember the .com bubble?

Anyone?

Bueller?

Companies with no way to generate actual money were suddenly worth absurd amounts because … well … because. As far as I can tell Twitter’s business model is to be bought by Google. To date Twitter has proven to be a very popular supplementary application. People use Twitter and all there other methods of communicating. It isn’t supplanting either email or blogs AND (this is big) it is NOT popular with the teens to 20s demographic, which means it doesn’t have a future.

UPDATE!

This just got added to the WSJ site:

SAN FRANCISCO (Dow Jones)–Micro-blogging service Twitter Inc. said Friday it had closed a "significant round of funding," a deal that will give the wildly-popular startup more time to develop a business model.” Twtter said investors included Insight Venture Partners, T. Rowe Price (TROW), Institutional Venture Partners, Spark Capital and Benchmark Capital.

There’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere, right guys? Hey, anyone seen my Kozmo.com messenger bag?

Kozmo!

If the Wall Street Journal Is So Smart, How Come They Agree With Me?

Me:

Second, housing starts are at a nine month high! Great, just when a huge amount of housing stock is about to be dumped on the market, aka, more foreclosures.

Them:

Recovery Obstacle: So Many Houses

They have to get better reporters over there.

Shanty towns and bank runs: recession may be the optimist’s outcome

Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still
Have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance

Last March, the BBC ran a story about shanty towns springing up in the US.

At the time BoingBoing and those few others who saw it asked why we were learning about this from the UK media and not from the US media. Now, a scant six months later, the US press has paused from parsing porcine lipstick and noticed.

The relatively tony city of Santa Barbara has given over a parking lot to people who sleep in cars and vans. The city of Fresno, Calif., is trying to manage several proliferating tent cities, including an encampment where people have made shelters out of scrap wood. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, homeless advocacy groups have paired with nonprofits or faith-based groups to manage tent cities as outdoor shelters. Other cities where tent cities have either appeared or expanded include include Chattanooga, Tenn., San Diego, and Columbus, Ohio.

We’ve already had a bank run in the classic sense and one updated for today’s world: Yesterday’s announcement that Putnam was liquidating a “$12bn prime money market fund because of a spike in redemption requests from clients.” Just because they have the money to cover this — as it appears they eventually will — doesn’t make it any less of a run.

Today the early headlines say Stocks soar at opening after gov’t rescue plan. Forgive me for thinking the markets are indulging in some irrational exuberance. We’ve seen this sort of response before. This is from the Wall Street Journal on March 19:

Stocks and commodities plummeted on Wednesday as the euphoria that carried equity markets to massive gains a day earlier gave way to nervousness that the broader U.S. economy hasn’t yet escaped the dangers of the credit crisis.

At some point we are going to see a huge impact from the Fed’s determination to once again deal with another issue by printing more money. Some commentators say this will simply mean an explosion in the size of the national debt. I wish that was all. The current crisis was created by pumping increasing amounts of money and credit into the economy, it is beyond me to understand why doing more of this will help fix it.  You know what they call it when you keep repeating the same behavior and expect different results, right?

I am not smart enough to determine if we are about to hit a period of inflation or deflation but I know something is going to happen and will keep happening until all the difference between the amount loaned and the actual value of assets comes into balance. (If you’re a debtor start rooting for deflation — it means any money you do use to pay off a debt will be worth less than the money you originally borrowed. A net gain, if not a happy one.)

As the year has gone along, I’ve tagged a number of items under Recession? What Recession? I can’t say they make for happy reading:

In March, when the BBC ran that shanty town story, it still seemed possible to have a reasonable disagreement over whether or not we were in a recession. Now the D word is in play. Soon we will be hearing that we are not in a depression and that we are trying to avert one. That is becoming the economic equivalent of promising to have the troops home by Christmas. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s a lot worse than anyone is willing to say.

The leading indicator of the “we are not in a Depression” meme came last week when Alan Greenspan — who is mostly responsible for the crisis — tried to put lipstick on this pig by saying, “First of all, let’s recognize that this is a once-in-a-half-century, probably once-in-a-century type of event.” Given that the Mississippi river keeps getting hit by floods that were once described as “once in a century” events, this is not a heartening phrase. Another troubling indicator is that the folks who decided what’s in the Dow Jones Industrial Average have replaced the now defunct AIG with Kraft. I suspect the real problem with leaving AIG is that it would have made the Dow actually reflect the economy.

Someone once asked Tom Lehrer why he stopped writing those wonderful, witty songs about the news. Having turned out anthems on topics from pollution to nuclear proliferation, Lehrer said he had begun to feel like a citizen of Pompeii being asked to say funny things about lava. Without having matched Mr. Lehrer’s accomplishments, I can certainly empathize. I have been saying for the last seven years that the real problem with the Bush administration is that it took all the fun out of being able to say “I told you so.” Unlike Mr. L, I refuse to leave the scene — especially when we are in such a target rich environment.

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight and music
And love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

While many people have recorded this song — but not Roxxy Music, for some reason — I still prefer the original by Fred Astaire. It’s on the soundtrack to Follow The Fleet. A happy little musical by Irving Berlin that was made into a movie in 1936.

When helium balloons are outlawed, only outlaws will have helium balloons

California state Sen. Jack Scott doesn’t want your kids to have fun at their birthday parties! OK, so that’s not really the point of his bill to ban foil helium balloons but that sure is a better lead than he wants to prevent power outages caused when the damn things fly into power lines. There were 800 of those last year in the Golden State.

However — and I’m stealing the pun from the WSJournal here — he didn’t expect the issue to blow up in his face.

Last month, at a pro-balloon rally in a Pasadena park, protesters cheered as a group of children pounced on an effigy of Mr. Scott — made entirely of balloons. … Wedding planners, party organizers and balloon artists all rallied to the cause. The industry body, the Balloon Council, set up a Web site — www.savetheballoons.com — that urges people to contact their state representatives. Members began a grass-roots campaign to garner support.

There’s an industry group for this, who knew? What’s their magazine called, The Gas Bag?

You really should read the whole story. It’s filled (and not in a puff piece sort of way — ouch) with gems like this:

Others complained that balloon-sellers were an easy mark for legislators. “To them, we’re just the balloon people. We’ve got the big noses and the floppy shoes,” said Treb Heining, a balloon artist who began his career at 15 selling balloons at Disneyland and has since created installations for the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. “We’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the professional-events services.”

Bravo to writer Amy Kaufman and the WSJ for this. Not only does the WSJ consistently produce some of the best serious journalism there is, they also produce some of the best intentionally funny journalism.

More of what I’ve been up to

Finally made it into the Wall Street Journal.

The trend towards niche networks makes sense because many adults don’t just want to meet new people for the sake of meeting new people the way teenagers do – they want to meet people they have something in common with, Constantine von Hoffman, a social media consultant for Spoke.com, a lead-generation Web site, tells the Business Technology Blog. Social networking can help with that. “Everything has its obsessive types,” says von Hoffman. And that’s the energy that corporate social-networking initiatives should be trying to tap into, both for their customers and their employees.

The Joys of Journalism, part II

Oh Cindy ain’t you noticed
That several of your friends have moved on
And the street outside is just a little too quiet
And your local papers run out of news
I’m not persuading you or disengaging you
But Cindy you and me we gotta move

Cindy Incidentally by Ian McLagan, Ron Wood, Rod Stewart

Having announced my lay off from Brandweek on the blog, it is only now fitting that I announce my new job on the blog — because the blog got me the job. Starting July 30th, I will be the person responsible for social media at Spoke.com. Another title: blogmeister.

Except for a brief stint as a bartender, this is my first non-journalism job since graduating from college and I couldn’t be happier. Not only do I like the job I’m going to (it’s a really neat company) but it’s a relief to be out of journalism.

Being a journalist these days is like playing baseball for the Cubs. Sure sometimes you get a hot streak but you know that no matter how well you do your job you’re playing for an organization that really doesn’t know what the fuck it’s doing. I am tired of working at places that are still trying to adjust to the internet era. I’m tired of telling people that paper isn’t the primary means of exchanging information anymore. Print is still an essential and important medium — it’s just not the most important one. You’d think, given the amount of ink and electrons spilled on the topic, that this message would have gotten through. Yet this basic issue is still being debated in many, many corners of my for-now-former profession.

While this by itself is troubling, even more troubling is the difficulty journalism as a whole is having adjusting to the fact that they don’t get to dictate the story any more. By and large the management of journalism and the way journalists think about what they do is still mired in the top-down mentality and utter lack of transparency of the print era. Journalism — as in what you produce — hasn’t changed. A good, well-reported story is still a good, well-reported story.

But journalists want that story to come out of a magic black box that no one else gets to look into.

This isn’t an irrational behavior. It stems from the fact that a journalist’s job is frequently to listen to people tell them that bullshit is beautiful. If the journalist then runs a story saying that, “Oh, actually bullshit is just bullshit,” then someone is going to get mad at them for saying that. That person, company or organization is going to want to explain why the story is all wrong. Sometimes that person or whatever will know less about the story than the reporter does. Or he/she/it will have a very specific reason for wanting another take on the story to be aired.

A good reporter gathers as much and as many facts as possible before deadline, takes a deep breath, steps back from all the facts he/she has gathered and then tries to make sense of them. Do this long enough and you start to be able to spot patterns of behavior that you then apply to other stories. These are the priceless instincts it takes years to develop. That is what separates a professional journalist from a citizen/reporter. It is easier to fool the latter. All reporters and editors sometimes follow those instincts too closely. They fail to apply the same skepticism to their own beliefs and actions that they apply to others. Do that too long and you become a cynic. Cynicism is the inability to remember that there’s a chance you might be wrong, that you’re judgment is not and never will be 100% accurate. Unfortunately cynicism is as endemic to journalism as black-lung is to miners.

The solution to cynicism is sun light. When it comes to other people’s businesses, journalists are that sun light. They let the public in on how and why decisions are being made. Reporting may curtail cynicism on the part of the public — who didn’t understand why something was done — and it may curtail the cynical actions of the people being reported on who now know someone is looking at what they’re doing. When it comes to journalism itself, though, we’re still closing the doors and pulling down the shades.

We don’t want to talk about how the assumptions and decisions that go into reporting, writing, editing and publishing a story. That is no longer acceptable to our audience. Our audience, a.k.a. the Whole World, wants to have a conversation. Marketers are just beginning to figure this out. The smart ones are realizing that they no longer can control what is said about their products/brands. (The really smart ones know they never did.) So they are starting to have conversations with consumers. They are listening to what consumers like and dislike. That, more than anything else, is what consumers want: to know that they are being listened to and to have their questions answered. Even when the answer is “No, we’re not going to do that.” The vast majority of people will understand that they are not always going to get their way, if you are able to explain (not tell) why they are not going to get it. This conversation helps you understand what the public expects of you that you were not aware of and it is a great source of insights that you would otherwise have remained ignorant of.

The fundamental difference between journalists and marketers is that journalists have a professional responsibility to tell people things that they don’t want to know. Journalism cannot tailor its product to what the audience thinks it wants. When it does it fails spectacularly (See George Bush Desert Classic, Run up to the) and we all suffer for it. Merely confirming what the audience already believes means losing the audience’s trust. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted is still the best description of journalism’s brand value that I’ve ever come across. This is a great brand value to have. Problem is that no one except some journalists are aware that that’s what it is.

For years my standard comment about the profession I was seemingly born into has been, “We’re in the communication business, therefore we don’t do it very well.” We think everyone else knows what journalism is and how it operates. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a reporter (sometimes me) say, “He asked me why I wrote that headline for the story.” This is followed by a snort of derisive laughter as in, “How dumb can you be?” Well the reason people don’t know that reporters don’t write headlines is because we don’t tell them. We as a profession have made the classic mistake of forgetting that others don’t know the story as well as we do. Reporters and editors know that a wall exists (or should exist) between the business side of a news organization and the news side. That’s one of the reasons we laugh when people suggest otherwise. But the fault is ours, not theirs. If we don’t tell people they’re not going to know. That basic fact applies to journalism itself just as much as it does to the things we cover.

Some places address this by having an ombudsman or some such. While this is a good thing, the idea that one person is the sole liaison between an organization and all its customers is absurd. All reporters, editors, etc., need to do that. Even if they do not answer every question about a specific story they have to regularly discuss (on the interweb via blogs, podcasts, vcasts, wikis, message boards, etc.) how and why they come to the conclusions they come to. Why was this person quoted and not that one? Why was this the first story in the broadcast? When are you going to run that funny picture of Aunt Thelma and the cow that I sent you? Doing this helps to breakdown the wall between “us” and “them.” It is another way of getting out of the newsroom or of letting other people in to it.

The more journalists do this the more non-journalists will understand and appreciate what journalism is and why it matters. That doesn’t mean they will like us. The only times people really like journalism is in the wake of a major, major shit storm like Watergate. Fortunately those don’t come along that often. To paraphrase the great social activist Saul Alinsky, “Don’t worry boys, we’ll weather this storm of approval and come out hated in the end.” That’s the way it should be.

I now understand BP’s claim to be a green oil company

Quoth the Wall Street Journal:

Public, Political Pressure May Rise
As Inquiry Looks Into Possibility
Of Manipulation in Gas, Oil Prices

Federal investigators are examining whether BP manipulated crude-oil and unleaded-gasoline markets, signaling a rise in regulatory scrutiny of the British energy giant, said lawyers and traders close to the case.

See here we all thought that by green they meant concern for the environment. That claim was so ludicrous (see Alaskan oil fields) but now it makes sense: Green = $. And it’s refreshingly honest, too.
If these allegations are true it proves that BP has problems on more than just a moral level. How dumb does a gas/oil company have to be to bother with manipulating markets in THIS economy? Mr. Gild, meet Mr. Lilly. Even by my lax standards this falls under “excessive profit taking.”

Sparklers, snakes & salutes*

*Salutes was what we in RI called the basic small firecracker that you would light up and it would go bang without damaging your hand if you were dumb enough to have it explode on you (refuses to disclose how he knows this but OWWW). What are these called elsewhere in the US?