Monthly Archives: March 2009

Armed with $1.75 Mil, Huffington Fills Vacuum in Investigative Reporting

A few weeks ago after reading a stunning op-ed piece about torture published in the New York Times we were moved to lament how tragic it would be to lose the newspapers and magazines that generate such gems of investigative reporting. There just didn’t seem to be anything remotely comparable being produced in the blogs, even the best of them like Huffington Post. “Investigative journalism is the lantern we shine on the slimy horrors crawling under the rocks of our society. We must- must – find a way to preserve it,” I urged.

Admittedly, that was written more from a pained heart than a clear head. The truth is, magazines and newspapers are being relentlessly driven to desperation by fundamental and inexorable market forces and no plaintive cri de coeur is going to reverse the tide.

Fortunately for us, Arianna Huffington, the website’s founder, is blessed with a clear head. Responding to the crisis in in-depth reportage, she announced that Huffpost in collaboration with The Atlantic Philanthropies and other donors will underwrite the work of a number of investigative reporters to the tune of $1.75 million. Huffington said she and the donors were “concerned that layoffs at newspapers were hurting investigative journalism at a time when the nation’s institutions need to be watched closely.”

She hopes to draw from the ranks of laid-off journalists.The enterprise will be known as the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, according to an Associated Press report. Some 10 staff journalists, coordinating with freelance writers, will focus their efforts initially on the nation’s economy. Some details of the structure and thinking behind the fund are provided in this statement by Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and a senior advisor to the project. And Jeff Jarvis, blogging for The Buzz Machine, beautifully places the project into the media ecosystem, writing:

The future of journalism is not about some single new-fangled product and company taking over from the old-fangled and monopolistic predecessor. News come from a broad ecosystem with many players adding in under many models for many reasons. News organizations will organize news in this diverse new framework, aggregating, curating, organizing. Laid-off journalists are starting blogs, alongside other bloggers. Some people will volunteer, podcasting their school-board meetings, just because they care. When we demand transparency from government as a default, data will become part of the news ecosystem we can all examine. Some of this will be supported by advertising, some by contributions from foundations, some by contributions from individuals, some by volunteer effort. And it will all add up to a new pie, one slice of which will be efforts such as [Huffington Post’s].

The Huffington crossover operation could point the way to a healthy hybrid of traditional and Web reportage. Stories developed by journalists under this plan would undoubtedly be disseminated in print as well as online media, benefiting magazines and newspapers that are hard-pressed to finance long and deep investigations on their own. Look for more signs that the costs of developing those stories will be shared by others as we navigate the crisis in journalism.

Asked about the moribund print media when she appeared on a segment of the popular Morning Joe TV news program, Arianna Huffington said there are “too many autopsies and not enough biopsies.” Her biopsy of investigative journalism shows a lot of healthy tissue, and it’s good to see a bright beam of optimism in this dark time for print media.

RC

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World Braces for April 1 Attack of Zombie Worm

It’s a good idea to read every word of CNET editor Dong Ngo’s update on Conficker, the computer worm that professional worm-watchers speculate will be triggered on April 1. As that happens to be April Fools Day, some readers will not take these Doomsday prophesies seriously. Others have been downloading vermifuge patches like crazy. Sometime between midnight of March 31 and midnight of April 1 we will know. But we don’t know what we will know. It could be nothing, something, or Doomsday called on account of rain. After all, one possibility is that the virus’s designers got spooked and changed the day to, say, April 2. Or Memorial Day. Your guess is as good as Ngo’s.

His blog tells us succinctly everything experts have learned, and links are included to software that may help thwart the demon bug or at least keep it at bay while its mad scientist devisers regroup and restrategize. Here’s Ngo’s summary of the threat confronting us:

Conficker is a very sophisticated worm that took advantage of a security hole mentioned in this Microsoft bulletin. The hole affected all 32-bit and 64-bit Windows operating systems, even those with the latest service packs. The hole allowed the virus to infect the computer without any user interaction via the Internet, local network, or USB thumbdrives. Once infected, it stops the computer’s security services and Windows update service, and disables tools and software designed to remove it. The worm also allows the creator to remotely install other malicious codes on the infected computer.

Consequently, the worm is programed to update itself from domains it randomly generates. By April 1, the amount of domains the worm generates and infects to find updates could grow to 50,000 a day. The owner of the virus only needs to use one of these domains to host the update. This makes it virtually impossible for authorities to track the source of the update.

Microsoft has offered $250,000 as a reward for any information leading to an arrest. If you hanker for your reward, start by booking a flight to Beijing, as speculation has focused on China as the country of origin. It’s hard to understand what benefit there is to China, since it already owns our country. But perhaps there is more mischief to be done.

Do you have the Doomsday Worm? BKIS, a Vietnamese security firm that makes antivirus software, offers a simple way to find out. Dong Ngo writes:

First, make sure your computer is connected to the Internet by going to a Web site such as Google or CNET. Then, if your computer can also successfully go to the Web sites of Microsoft and known security companies, such as Symantec, McAfee, TrendMicro, Sophos, Panda, and you can also run Windows Update successfully, then your computer is clear from Conficker.

On the other hand, if the computer fails to do any of those, it’s likely that it has already been affected. In this case, try to follow these instructions to remove it, or use BKIS’ antivirus software that can be downloaded for free. As a last resort, you can also back up your data and install Windows from scratch, then immediately run Windows Update to install the latest security patches.

Hasta mañana. Or should I say, Hasta la vista, baby? If I don’t post a blog tomorrow, you’ll find me in my office, rocking back and forth, sucking my thumb, gazing numbly at the blue screen of death.

RC

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Consenting Adults

Everybody needs approval, but nobody needs it more than authors: approval of editorial alterations of manuscripts; approval of cover art and copy; approval over reprint, book-club, and foreign licenses; approval of titles, ad texts, and more.

New authors quickly discover that they have very little leverage when it comes to controlling the fate of their books. As they become more and more successful, however, they develop the clout to demand the right to approve many procedures. In fact, a concise biography of a successful author might read something like this:

His first contract gave his publisher total control of everything. When he achieved modest popularity, his publisher gave him consultation rights. After he became very popular, he secured “approval not to be unreasonably withheld.” At length he became a star, and his publisher gave him total control of everything.

Which processes are subject to author consultation or consent? And what kinds of concessions may an author expect from his publisher as he rises to the top of his profession? Are there limits to those concessions? Are there some issues so hot that a publisher would risk losing a superstar before yielding the right of approval?

Click here to read this piece in its entirety.

Richard Curtis

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Publishing Dinosaurs, Bricks and Mortar Around Their Ankles, Meet Tar Pit, With Expected Results

Peter Miller, director of publicity for Bloomsbury and Walker & Company and owner of a used bookstore in Brooklyn, served on a panel at the recent South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Though best known for its cutting edge film and music, the festival has become “an open source forum for new media, where bloggers, tech geeks, activists, designers and marketers meet to trade ideas.” writes Miller. The panel was entitled “New Think for Old Publishers” and attendees were urged to “find out what is going right and what is going wrong with publishing, assess success of recent forays into marketing digitally, and learn how books and blogs can work together.”

In what may be one of the bigger understatements in the history of the Digital Paradigm Shift, Miller reports that “somewhere during the 5–6 p.m. time slot of SXSW Day 3, we apparently went a little off message.”

In fact it was a debacle. It was the Gallipoli of all panels.

The good-natured Miller, having somehow extracted his tail from between his legs, has filed a hysterically funny account with Publishers Weekly. If you can maintain a face as stoical in the reading as Miller’s is in the telling, you have far greater control over your facial muscles than I do.

Miller follows his narrative with a list of Don’ts that all denizens of Old Publishing should memorize before taking their seats at panels attended by anyone younger than twenty.

Read Do As I Say, Not As I Do for a model of book industry graveyard humor.

RC

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Bring 5000 Books on Vacation in your Fujitsu Color Flepia

Publishers Weekly reports that Fujitsu has now weighed into the e-book arena with the Flepia. We say “weighed” but it doesn’t weigh much: it’s Kindle-slim and less than one pound. Far more importantly, its e-ink no-glare screen is in robust color. Its battery holds a charge for forty hours and, says PW‘s Michael Fitzpatrick, “When used with a 4GB SD card, the color e-paper terminal can store the equivalent of 5,000 conventional paper based, 300-pages-long books.”

E-Reads’ Michael Gaudet previewed the Flepia in fall of 2007 and expressed some concerns about the device’s speed and performance. We’ll see if those criticisms have been addressed.

He also worried that technology would come with a high retail price. He was sure right about that – when it comes to the US this fall or sometime in 2010 (Japanese consumers will have theirs in April ’09), it will have a price tag of around $1000.00. You did say you wanted color, didn’t you? How badly? A thousand bucks badly? With the e-reader bar currently holding at around $350.00, that’s asking a lot in this or any other economy, even if you’re an AIG executive suddenly flush with discretionary income.

But, like your grandpa’s Dumont TV, once people have seen color it’s going to be very hard to go back to black and white, so a second generation e-reader arms race revolving around color screens may be shaping up.

And we’re told it’s pronounced FLEHP-ya, not FLEEP-ya.

White gloves not included in the price, but for a thousand bucks, heaven help you if you leave a thumb-print on the screen.

RC

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As Papers Go, So Goes Paper

We recently wrote a blog entitled “Why We Must Not Let Newspapers and Magazines Fail,” and here’s another reason why: if they go under, so does a big piece of the paper industry. With newspapers going belly-up faster than bass in a poisoned pond, newsprint consumption is plummeting. In 2008 consumption dropped 16% among daily newspapers, and that was before the bankruptcies, closings or death-throes of papers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver and other major venues wracked the newsprint industry in the opening months of 2009.

Tree huggers may take some satisfaction in this news, but it spells more economic woes piled onto the ones already bowing the shoulders of magazine, newspaper and book publishers. AbitibiBowater, a gigantic newsprint supplier that seems to have more syllables than assets, is desperately seeking refinancing of its debt , otherwise it too faces shuttering. Its stock has dropped by more than 90% and is currently worth about half a buck per share. This according to Michael J. de la Merced and Geraldine Fabrikant of the New York Times, a newspaper with troubles of its own.

Rescuing AbitibiBowater should be about as easy as pronouncing it three times fast, but as of this writing management is scrambling to reduce the pressure.

RC

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Kindled Out? Not Yet? Then Visit Kindleville

Sometimes it seems there are only two topics you can write about that are guaranteed to make money: the Obama Family and Kindle 2. And many of us would be satisfied with all Obamas all the Time. Still, Kindle continues its grip on our imagination, and for those who just can’t get enough Kindliana, Joe Wikert’s Kindleville Blog: All Kindle, All the Time is your dish of tea. Tips, tricks, links, lists, interviews, news, speculation, opinions, comparisons with Kindle 1 and other reading devices, these and more will sate even the hungriest Kindlephile or even the Kindlemaniac.

STOP ME BEFORE I KINDLE AGAIN!!!!!!

RC

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Welcome Sweet Springtime, We Greet Thee in… Lawsuits? Apple Latest Target

Spring has arrived and lawsuits are pushing their hardy green shoots through the soil everywhere we look. It started last week when we reported that Harlan Ellison is suing Paramount and the Writers Guild of America. Then we learned that Discovery Communications was suing Amazon for patent infringement over the Kindle (“Did Jeff Overlook U.S. Patent Number 7,298,851?”). Today it’s a Swiss company called Monec Holding Ltd. and the target is Apple. Did Steve Jobs overlook patent No. 6,335,678? According to an Apple Insider report by Katie Marsal, he may have. She writes:

In a 7-page complaint filed with a Virginia district court Monday, Berne, Switzerland-based Monec Holding Ltd accuses the iPhone maker of patent infringement, unfair trade practices, monopolization, and tortious interference for allegedly treading on its January 2002 patent No. 6,335,678 titled “Electronic device, preferably an electronic book.”

Monec claims Apple’s distribution of e-book applications violates an early patent filed by the Swiss firm. “Although Monec does not identify the specific eBook reading applications that prompted its lawsuit,” writes Marsal, “the complaint was filed just weeks after Apple began distributing Amazon.com’s Kindle eBook reader software through the App Store.”

Monec’s website
is unadorned, uninformative, unimaginative and uninteractive but if anyone reading this finds himself in the vicinity of Galgenfeldweg 18 in Berne, Switzerland we’ll be most interested to know what their office looks like and how many people work in it.

It’s easy to dismiss the actions against Amazon and Apple as nuisance lawsuits but they must be taken seriously. Pundits who brushed off the patent infringement suit brought by a firm called NTP Inc. against BlackBerry vendor Research In Motion Ltd. stopped laughing after the court awarded NTP more than $53 million in damages.

Actually, if anyone has grounds for a lawsuit it’s science fiction novelist Ben Bova, author of a novel entitled Cyberbooks. He published it in 1989, long before e-books were a gleam in the eyes of Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. Here’s the summary: “A futuristic satire on the fate of the publishing industry after the invention of ‘cyberbooks’, electronic books which eliminate the need for paper, printers, salesmen, distributors and even booksellers.” Unfortunately, Bova didn’t patent the gadget but wouldn’t you imagine that one of the parties in these lawsuits owes him a generous tip for his foresighted concept?

In any event we’ll be at ringside watching Amazon and Apple wrestling with their tormentors.

RC

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4109 Doomsday Worm Just an April Fools Joke, Right? Right?

What would happen if a worldwide computer pandemic erupted? It’s not too farfetched to liken it to the breakdown of the social order when the Black Death swept the civilization in the 14th century:

One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.

Just as the social fabric of trust was rent asunder by fear of contracting the plague, terror of contracting a fatal computer virus would cause us to shun emails from even the most trustworthy friends, family and business associates. Nor would we have any way of knowing if we could rely on any website no matter how reliable it claims to be. And of course, with paranoia running rampant, your own communications would be blocked as well.

If these dark thoughts sound familiar, it’s because you heard them in the days leading up to the end of the last millennium as doomsayers predicted the collapse of the Internet when the world’s clocks advanced from the 20th century to the 21st.

Luckily, nothing happened. Life, and the Web, went on.

Let’s hope that when the second hand crosses the 12 at the passage of March 31st to April 1st, things will be just as uneventful as Y2K-Plus-One-Second.

A number of malware watchers are worried we will be plunged into the technological Dark Ages, however. They are telling us about some evil geniuses who have produced a Worm called Conficker that has already burrowed into some 12 million computers and is set to unleash a plague of unprecedented ferocity using the multiplier effect of countless zombie computer hosts created inadvertently by folks like you and me when we obliviously click on links to interesting websites. What the actual effect will be, no one quite knows, but speculation has exercised the some of the best imaginations in the security field.

“One researcher, Stefan Savage, a computer scientist at the University of California at San Diego, has suggested the idea of a ‘Dark Google.'” writes John Markoff in the New York Times. “What if Conficker is intended to give the computer underworld the ability to search for data on all the infected computers around the globe and then sell the answers?”

On the other hand, you could wake up on April 1st with a popup message that says Ha-Ha! April Fool!

Patches have been created for the Microsoft OS, the vulnerable target of Conficker. But the creators of the Doomsday Worm have already reconfigured – or reConfickered – the program to possibly render these patches and other security software useless. You can and probably should run a backup on March 31st. But if your computer bears the plague the day before, it will bear it the day after.

Any other bright ideas?

Here’s hoping that the worst thing that happens to you April 1st is a hotfoot.

RC

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S&S Follows Random in Reduction of E-Book Royalties

In October 2008 Random House circulated a letter among literary agents announcing a shift in e-book royalties from one based on list price to one based on actual net moneys received. Five months later, Simon & Schuster has followed Random’s example. “Beginning March 1, 2009,” writes Judith Curr, Executive Vice President and Publishers of S&S’s Atria Books division, in a Dear Agent letter, “all Simon & Schuster contracts worldwide will offer a royalty of 25% of net receipts for all sales of all electronic editions including eBooks and audio book downloads.”

Although publishers’ royalties are presumably negotiable, the boilerplate on one recent (pre-March 1 2009) Simon & Schuster contract called for a 15% list price royalty. That means that on an e-book retailing at $10.00, the author would be entitled to $1.50. Switching to a 25% royalty on net receipts, the author will now receive $1.25. How is that number calculated? Most e-book retailers take a discount of approximately 50% of an e-book’s list price. If S&S collects $5.00 from the retailer, the author will get 25% of that, or $1.25. a reduction of twenty-five cents per sale from the previous arrangement.

One significant aspect of S&S’s policy statement is a clarification of the way the company arrives at list prices for e-books. Curr’s letter states that “we have, with limited exceptions, adjusted the suggested retail price for our eBooks to mirror the price of the most recently published edition of the book (hardcover or paperback), rather than the discounted prices we had been using.”

Translated, that means that if S&S issues a book in hardcover, the e-book price will be commensurately high; when S&S then releases a cheaper paperback edition, the e-book price will proportionately drop. The rationale (if that is the right word for it) for this approach is spelled out in a recent posting, Penetrating the Mysteries of E-Book Pricing. Kind of.

It’s hard to say if 25% net e-book royalty will become “standard” throughout the publishing industry but with majors like Random and S&S leading the way, that would seem to be the direction things are headed. (By way of comparison, and as a matter of full disclosure, E-Reads pays a royalty of 50% of net receipts for e-book sales, and has done so since its founding in 2000. On a $10.00 book, that means a royalty of $2.50. At no point is the royalty rate ever reduced.)

– Richard Curtis

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