the faulty model of newsprint media

At the end of last week, the New York Times Company threatened to close down the Boston Globe unless the employee unions agreed to $20 million in cuts. This comes on the heels of comments by NYT executive editor Bill Keller speaking to an audience at Stanford in which he stated “saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause.” (He clarifies his statement to relate it to the relative level of interest in the survival of the Times, not as a human rights intervention. This doesn’t change the extraordinarily poor choice of comparative terms.) It’s not the only newspaper in trouble within recent memory. The Tribune Company (owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008. The Philadelphia Inquirer filed in late February and the Rocky Mountain News (Denver) closed its doors just shy of 150 years of printing. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dropped the print edition in favor of a web only edition.

While this traditional type of media is reeling financially, I think that newsprint media and technology have reached a crossroads of opportunity. The best example of this opportunity resides in the newspaper subscription service for the Kindle. The device is capable of downloading and updating content (such as newspaper subscriptions) automatically through available technological networks. This means you can wake up in the morning, roll over, hit your alarm, pick up your reader off the nightstand, and have the paper (so to speak) in your hands. In addition, it satisfies a push for greener technologies that will reduce a carbon footprint such as materials (paper and ink) and fuel. This is the sort of technology that the newspapers should be pushing the market to develop: a cheaper media reader (much cheaper than the Kindle’s $360 price tag) that can allow people to subscribe to their web content.

While there are arguments that print media is a victim of the economy or the public’s reading habits, I personally don’t find them compelling enough. The lack of movement towards digital content represents a lack of innovation on the part of the newspaper companies. And it’s not like they didn’t see it coming with the rise of Mobipocket Reader or the Kindle. We are becoming a “fingertip society”, for we expect information to be found at our fingertips when desired. While I cannot deny the pleasurable sensory experience in the feel of newspaper, the smell of the ink, or the crinkles of the sheets when turned, it is the content that is the selling point. A searchable digital format is what people have come to expect in their information experience. While there is much lost from the lack of serendipity browsing in these formats, there are greater gains to be made here in preserving these journalist institutions.

This reasoning also covers readering habits as it relates to how people are perceiving the information around them. Awhile ago (and I can’t remember or find the source now), I remember a  study that indicated that leisure reading is down across all age groups. However, this is an incomplete analysis for it fails to mention that the number of information mediums has gone up. Whether it is the web, text, video, or peer to peer referral, the increase in the types of media and means for people to get information has pushed newsprint media from being one of a few to one of many choices. In part with the aforementioned instant access that society has come to expect, this makes the current newspaper format a dinosaur of the information age. It does make me sad to say that I believe newsprint is on its way out; I have tons of memories of reading the comics with my father or the things I’ve discovered by thumbing through a section. But I cannot deny the financial situation nor the information trends which are moving away from it.

They are late off the starting block, but traditional news media can catch up. The technology is here or a few innovation generations away from where it needs to be for newspapers to fully take advantage of it. I will hope that there is some companies left to take advantage of it.

(Posted at LISNews)

a brand new day for gay marriage

Earlier this week, the Iowa State Supreme Court ruled by unanimous decision that a statute which recognized marriage as being only between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. In their decision, the Court held that the statute was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the Iowa State Constitution.

As one might imagine, there are a significant number of heads exploding since this decision was published. In looking at the language of the actual decision, there are some important aspects that jump out at me. First, for the decision to be unanimous is a huge legal indication as to how important the resulting opinion is as the Court is speaking with one voice. (Most people would say that this is a very obvious observation, but I’m not sure how to make my statement sound rational with a dozen or so exclamation points behind it.) Without a dissent, there is nothing for the opponents of same sex marriage to pick quotes from for future briefs in other states; and judging from the opinion as written, there will not be much for anti gay marriage advocates to choose from. Second, in reading the Background Facts and Proceedings (pg7), take a look at the language used to describe the same sex couples. The writing tone and language descriptors used are ones that humanize the case and bring emotionally evocative language to the opinion. This morphs the opinion from the dry context of legal concepts, an abstract exercise in technicalities, to the main street level where we see these couples as the friends and neighbors, as community contributors, and as regular folks with the same dreams and aspirations as everyone else. Third, in the culmination of dismantling of the legal arguments against same sex marriage, the opinion finishes with a very strong statement:

We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification. There is no material fact, genuinely in dispute, that can affect this determination.

We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law. Faithfulness to that duty requires us to hold Iowa’s
marriage statute, Iowa Code section 595.2, violates the Iowa Constitution. To decide otherwise would be an abdication of our
constitutional duty. If gay and lesbian people must submit to different treatment without an exceedingly persuasive justification, they are deprived of the benefits of the principle of equal protection upon which the rule of law is founded. Iowa Code section 595.2 denies gay and lesbian people the equal protection of the law promised by the Iowa Constitution.

(Emphasis mine)

To me, the highlighted line feels like a silver bullet to political objection to same sex marriage. The Iowa Court, in examining the testimony of various experts and amicus briefs submitted on behalf of the County, found their studies, reasoning, and rationale to be legally uncompelling. These are the same sorts of legal arguments that will be presented to other state courts; for the Iowa Supreme Court to set them aside so decisively and completely will lead the way in another case briefs. This opinion is a spear head into the bulk of anti gay marriage legal rhetoric and should be wielded as such. Lastly, as indicated by other observers, this is a case coming from the social conservative heartland. Even some of the justices are appointees by Republican governors (Ternus and Cady), including the justice who wrote the opinion of the court (Cady) . Some may argue that this is a conservative decision as it was based on the narrow interpretation of the Iowa Constitution; others may say that the statute was so poorly considered and written that the justices had no other choice but to uphold the lower court ruling. However, I think it represents a significant conservative step in taking the stand that the government has no interest in regulating those who wish to obtain spousal rights for their relationship. The religious tenets and dogmas cannot hold such sway in “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” They have a place in our personal lives, a basis for voting for candidates (perhaps), not a primer for legislation in a land of many beliefs and creeds.

As can be expected, there are social conservatives who are calling for an amendment to the Iowa Constitution. The “activist judges” charge has already been fired off by State Rep. Steve King in calling for a state constitutional amendment. (I would call upon Mr. King to educate himself as to the difference between a law and a constitutional amendment. I would start his education by informing him that a constitutional amendment trumps a law every time; that’s why there are things such as constitutional amendments. Ignorance of these distinctions and others does not bode well for confidence in future legislation writing.) Amending the Iowa Constitution is an onerous process, apparently, as it requires the approval of two consecutive state legislatures and a public on the issue. The Democratically controlled state legislature has indicated that it is not likely to take up the issue. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight crunches the numbers with the conclusion that a measure, on a long enough time line (2012 and on), would likely to be defeated by the Iowa voter. The Daily Beast has an excellent collection of different conservative reactions and their possible future actions as gay marriage starts turning mainstream. And, as can be imagined, this will make the Republican Caucuses in 2012 a very interesting event to watch.

As indicated in my bio, I live in New Jersey. New Jersey is one of the first states to support the creation of a civil union. I’ve written about how I feel about the role of government in the institution of marriage. What really turned the gay marriage issue around for me was a same sex couple I grew to be friends with. When the debates earlier in the decade were first stirred up, I was against gay marriage but for civil unions. As time went on and the debate roiled, I came to realize one thing: I could not bring myself to say to them that I was against the idea of them getting married. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even form the words outside of their presence. Who was I, I thought, to legally limit their love? These are two gentlemen who care about each other and I could not imagine one not being able to decide or care for the other in a catastrophe. That was my awakening to greater things: that if I could not comfortably tell someone that I was denying them a right, that I really wasn’t against the concept in the first place.

In other news, as previously mentioned in this blog, the Vermont state legislature is moving towards overcoming the same sex marriage law veto.

another chip away at the Patriot Act

Four members of the House of Representatives have introduced legislation to reign in the power granted by the Patriot Act to the investigative tool known as the National Security Letter (NSL). The National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 would return the issuing requirements of NSLs to pre-9/11 requirements. This has been hailed by the ACLU at the same time as they have launched their own website calling for reform of the Patriot Act.

For those who might not recall, libraries and library systems have been long wary of the enhanced powers of NSLs. It came to a full conflict in the case of Library Connection v Gonzales in which a library consortium challenged both the gag order and the records sought. It ended with the government withdrawing the NSL and lifting the gag order. You can read more about it here.

I wasn’t a librarian in 2001 when the original Patriot Act was passed. I do remember talking about the chilling effect that it had on the average library record in my graduate courses. (I recall reading about some library systems in California shredding every type of record that they didn’t need to run the system, but I can’t find that article for linking.) I remember thinking that it was a real shame to put the library in an untenable position of trying to remain in compliance with the law and protecting the privacy of the patrons. While most will see themselves as defenders of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry (and embrace the radical militant librarian moniker), I would argue that we should have never allowed ourselves to get to that point in the first place. (Perhaps the political activism of today will ensure any such future endeavors.)  However, hindsight being what it is, I certainly commend my fellow librarians for their steps to preserve some of the freedoms that make this country great.

(Cross posted to LISNews)

the marijuanablogs

Since President Obama appeared on an internet based town hall earlier last week, my RSS reader has been exploding mentioning the implications of his answer to question of marijuana legalization. (Since the questions were submitted and voted upon, let’s set aside the idea for the purposes of this discussion that the voting system was gamed by marijuana advocates.) In the end, the President said he did not favor legalization of marijuana as a means of stimulating the economy. A strict interpretation would say that he did not turn down the possibility since he limited his answer to marijuana legalization as a economy stimulant. (Thus avoiding the first time marijuana stimulated anything more than the snack food economy or carpentry. Oh, and the press noticed this as well.) In pairing this answer with the New York State Assembly repealing the Rockefeller laws, it brings up a questioning of the concept of how we deal with drugs and drug offenders in this country.

This reminds me of a classic Bill Hicks sketch about alcohol versus marijuana.

“You’re at a ballgame, you’re at a  concert, someone’s really violent, aggressive, and obnoxious.  Are they drunk or are they smoking pot?”

In reading the collected accounts at Andrew Sullivan, I cannot help but wonder that, if you were to exchange the terminology of pot smoking for booze drinking in the user stories, would anyone raise an eyebrow by their tales of use? None whatsoever. Now, this might be more revealing of how our society views these different vices, but it really sends up some flags for me. Why should the destructive traits of alcohol be set aside so readily? Why don’t we examine the pros and cons of marijuana in an open forum?

For full disclosure, I have never tried it and have no real interest to. Over the years I have friends who smoke it recreationally and lead very normal lives of gainful employment, dating, and other normal social relationships. I will concede that any drug can be abused, whether it is marijuana or a narcotic or an over the counter cold medication. There is a belief that certain drugs can lead to harder drug that are worse habits and extremely unhealthy, which I can understand but find somewhat incomplete in terms of cause and effect. I think that it is more of a case of personality, social perceptions, and old fashioned curiosity that enables people to make the jump to these more debilitating addictions. (I’d love to see some more studies on this.)

I do see marijuana as a separate entity in comparison to the larger context of the war on drugs. The war on drugs, sadly, is a bureaucratic monstrosity offering empirical proof that the road to Hell is paved with both good intentions and taxpayer dollars. Let there be no doubt that there are some extremely nasty drugs out there and these drugs cause some serious societal damage. However, our current approach to drug enforcement, drug user treatment, and the criminal justice system absolutely stinks. We need a serious reevaluation on how to tackle this issue before we throw another few billion dollars down the crapper (the irony of this drug enforcement evasion tactic metaphor should not be lost on this discussion topic). We are not doing any favors to our southern sovereign neighbors, nor the American penal system, nor our minority populations. I would not advocate an end to the war, just the closing of certain fronts and a new approach to the strategy of enforcement.

I fear that the marijuana legalization debate will get the same reception that advocates for a discussion of a lower drinking received. Rather than examine the merits of each argument, we’ll be assailed by sensationalist media and anti-drug advocates pushing specious reasoning such as “Anyone who favors marijuana legalization just wants to get high without being hassled, and anyone who favors drug decriminalization generally is or wants to be a drug user.” And we lose more than an examination of the issue, we lose people to a faulty system, resources to an inefficient policy, and another serious issue lost to a short attention span public at the feet of a 24/7 news cycle media. The pure distillery of news information to literally minute segments is maddening with complicated issues like this one, but I digress.

Personally, any real discussion about marijuana decriminalization should start with moving it from the Schedule 1 list to the Schedule 2 list. I don’t forsee full decrmininalization in the near future, but a gradual relaxing of the prohibtion over time. I think, with each generation, we slowly stop focusing on the glass or pipe in front of us and look at the person behind it. It always boils down to a people issue and we need to start treating it like one.