Write About What You Know (So Don’t Write About Yourself)

“Write about what you know,” the creative-writing teachers advise, hoping to avoid twenty-five stories about robots in love on Mars. And what could you know better than the inside of your own head?

Almost anything. And almost anyone else is better positioned than you are to write about the foreign land between your ears. You are the person least qualified to be writing about changes in your own brain, since you need your brain to comprehend those changes. It’s like trying to fix a hammer by using the hammer you’re trying to fix.

That’s the always-interesting Michael Kinsley in the New Yorker, writing about Parkinson’s.

RIP Seth Roberts

seth-roberts-headshot-colorNews came today that Seth Roberts, the UC Berkeley professor of psychology, collapsed during a hike near his home. I met Seth through our respective blogs and shared a few meals with him in the Bay Area over the years.

I’ve blogged about him several times. Seth taught me about self-experimentation and science. He taught me about nutrition and fish oil. He taught me about innovation and creative thinking.  Most importantly, he taught me the value of appreciative thinking, which I once summarized thusly:

School teaches us to be proactively skeptical and critical. We’re taught to immediately look for the flaws in experiments or theories. An appreciative approach, by contrast, simply asks, “What’s redeeming about this experiment or idea? What’s done right?”

Some VCs are naturally appreciative, others naturally critical. After an entrepreneur pitch their first feedback will either be, “OK, here’s what I like about what you’re doing” versus “Here’s where I think the problems are.”

I am trying to take a more appreciative approach to people. When I meet someone new at a cocktail party, I am trying to ask myself more regularly, “What’s cool / impressive / interesting about this person?” as opposed to dwelling on their imperfections.

Like many who knew him or read his stuff, I’ll miss Seth. He was a one-of-a-kind thinker. And a deeply compassionate person.

Book Review: Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh

For those of us for whom “vice” equals sending text messages while driving over the speed limit on a freeway, there’s a natural curiosity about the dark side of society — curiosity about what happens after hours, in seedy neighborhoods, among those whose livelihoods depend on breaking the law. Hookers. Drug dealers. Loan shark frauds. The curiosity begins with complete ignorance about the practical realities. For example, if I wanted to buy cocaine in San Francisco, I have no idea where I’d even start. I don’t want to, but I’m still curious about the process and the people. Who controls a given block? Who are the pimps and how do they recruit the hookers? Where and how do the bosses keep their cash?

This curiosity partially explains why so many of us are glued to TV shows like The Wire — it opens up a side of urban American life that’s as foreign as Beijing to someone like me. And yet, despite several of these shows on the air, it was still a total shock to find out a couple weeks ago — via an FBI affidavit — that just a few miles away, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is serious organized crime going on, with state politicians trafficking guns across the border, gang leaders ordering hits on enemies down the block, briefcases of cash being delivered to drug kingpins in dark alleyways, and other allegations pulled straight out of Hollywood bang-bang-shoot-em-up central casting. This stuff is happening right here, right now, just across the way. And I am utterly ignorant of all of it.

51crPRZL9JLA few years ago, a University of Chicago sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh made waves by integrating himself into the Chicago gang scene. Now, in his latest book called Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy, he integrates himself into New York’s sex trade. He meets people in the ecosystem, somehow earns their trust, follows them around, and writes about what he sees.

It’s an interesting book, and I had a couple broad impressions. First, there’s a fluid connection between the underground economy and the above-board economy in a given city–the hookers who sleep with Goldman Sachs managers; the hotel maids cleaning the semen-stained beds who owe their immigration status to a Yale finance graduate who runs an immigration smuggling ring; the drug dealers who cut deals with cops in order to make sure the Wall Street trader is hyped up enough to want to order the full menu from the prostitute; and so on. This overground/underground relationship is best understood in network terms, with distributed nodes and a constantly shifting structure. A second big picture impression was about the nature of global cities like New York, where the desperately poor interact with the exceptionally wealthy in such varied off-the-books ways. These mega diverse American cities play host to a recent immigrant’s quest for the American dream, a quest that oftentimes is financed by an “alternative economic path” that should be framed, Venkatesh reminds us, in more complex terms than just by the laws they transgress.

Venkatesh writes that “good sociology is always a mixture of close focus and long shot. You dial in and pull back, dial in and pull back, a delicate dance over the data gaps.” The book’s highlights come more in the form of colorful nuggets (“dial in”) than scintillating sociological conclusions (“pull back”). It may seem surprising, for example, that after spending so much time with prostitutes Venkatesh failed to discuss the question of whether prostitution should be legalized in the U.S. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t. Isn’t it more interesting to find out that hotel bellmen and taxi hailers get kickbacks in the form of free sex with the prostitutes to whom they refer a lot business?

Venkatesh himself is definitely part of the book. Plenty of sentences begin with “I.” Other reviewers have criticized this aspect of the narrative. Perhaps I’m more interested than most in the internal machinations of an academic sociologist spending his days surrounded by hookers and drug dealers and trying to write a book through it all and, surprise surprise, whose own marriage is falling apart in the process — so I didn’t mind the authorial interjections. It does add a dark tone to the book. But it makes the author’s own sympathy for his subjects feel authentic. And that sympathy is contagious. I came away feeling more understanding of the need for many of the people in the book to hustle their way to a living–to create a better life than the impoverished environment they were born into.

(Thanks to Aaron Hurst for sending the book to me.)

Is Employee Job Tenure Really Shortening? (Yes, It Is)

Catherine Rampell, writing in the Washington Post, says churn in companies is down:

The share of people getting laid off each month — as well as, more disturbingly, the shares getting hired and quitting their jobs — is near record lows. That’s according to Labor Department data released this weekand calculations from John Haltiwanger, an economist at the University of Maryland. Haltiwanger estimates that private-sector layoffs, hires and resignations are 21 percent to 26 percent below their rates two decades ago.

But is it true? It seems counterintuitive. The new Five Thirty Eight helpfully digs into the tenure data:

The median “tenure” of a worker — how long the typical worker has been with the same employer — rose by 14 percent between 1983 and 2006, to four years from 3.5. When the recession hit, the trend accelerated, with median tenure hitting 4.4 years in 2010 and 4.6 years in 2012. As counterintuitive narratives go, it would be hard to beat, “Job security continues to rise.” …

But when you look closer, it becomes clear that this counterintuitive narrative is counterintuitive for a reason. The Labor Department’s data on tenure look only at people who are employed. That means that if a large number of recent hires lose their jobs at once — as tends to happen when a recession hits — median tenure will rise, even though people aren’t staying in their jobs for longer.

The prerecession trend of increased tenure turns out to be equally misleading in a different way. There are two major forces at work. The first is age: Older workers are more likely to have been in their jobs for longer, so the gradual aging of the U.S. population has pushed up workers’ average tenure. The second is the entrance of women into the workforce and, particularly, into career-track jobs. In 1983, the average woman had been with her employer a year less than the average man; 30 years later, their average tenures are nearly equal. If we set aside those factors and focus just on men in their prime working years, there was a decline in tenure in the years before the recession. This is one case where conventional wisdom holds up.

Of course, the correct, conventional wisdom of shortening employee tenure is even more apparent when you’re looking at high skilled workers in dynamic industries.

My Favorite Podcast: The Always-Enlightening EconTalk

listening-to-mp3Audiobooks and podcasts are handy when you’re on-the-go–while in the car as driver or passenger, sitting in an airplane (especially during meal time), or walking around outside. Both formats are experiencing a renaissance: audiobook sales are booming, and, more anecdotally, I’m told podcast listenership and ad rates are up across the board.

The comparative advantage of podcasts over audiobooks is that they are short and self-contained, so unlike in a book, you needn’t remember where in a long narrative you left off. If you drive or fly every day, or have an especially long one-off drive or flight, an audiobook makes sense. Otherwise, I prefer podcasts.

I subscribe to several. The HBR Idea Cast delivers informative 15 minute segments on important business themes. Dan Savage’s Savage LoveCast is frequently hilarious and wise on all things love and sex. Longform has interviews with interesting writers.

But the best podcast I subscribe to is EconTalk. It really is a central part of my continuing education. Russ is a first rate host and moderator, and his guests are distinguished in their fields. The topics run the gamut–sometimes Russ pairs a fundamental economic framework with a timely issue of the day, other times the topic is completely random. Almost always I leave feeling enlightened and entertained.

One podcast tip: if a guest is speaking slowly, change the speed on your audioplayer to 1.5x, and you’ll finish an hour-long podcast in no time.

Here are a dozen of my favorite episodes from the EconTalk archives.

Nina Munk on the Millennium Villages Project

Nina Munk, journalist and author of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about her book. Munk spent six years following Jeffrey Sachs and the evolution of the Millennium Villages Project–an attempt to jumpstart a set of African villages in hopes of discovering a new template for development. Munk details the great optimism at the beginning of the project and the discouraging results after six years of high levels of aid. Sach’s story is one of the great lessons in unintended consequences and the complexity of the development process.

Jeff Sachs Responds on the Millennium Villages Project

Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the Millennium Villages Project talks with EconTalk host about poverty in Africa and the efforts of the Millennium Villages Project to fight hunger, disease, and illiteracy. The project tries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in a set of poor African villages using an integrated strategy fighting hunger, poverty, and disease. In this lively conversation, Sachs argues that this approach has achieved great success so far and responds to criticisms from development economists and Nina Munk in her recent EconTalk interview.

Jonathan Haidt on How Morality Binds and Blinds

Jonathan Haidt of New York University and author of The Righteous Mind talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book, the nature of human nature, and how our brain affects our morality and politics. Haidt argues that reason often serves our emotions rather than the mind being in charge. We can be less interested in the truth and more interested in finding facts and stories that fit preconceived narratives and ideology. We are genetically predisposed to work with each other rather than being purely self-interested and our genes influence our morality and ideology as well. Haidt tries to understand why people come to different visions of morality and politics and how we might understand each other despite those differences.

Michael Munger on Violence in Sports

Michael Munger of Duke University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the role of formal rules and informal rules in sports. Many sports restrain violence and retaliation through formal rules while in others, protective equipment is used to reduce injury. In all sports, codes of conduct emerge to deal with violence and unobserved violations of formal rules. Munger explores the interaction of these forces across different sports and how they relate to insights of Coase and Hayek.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on Happiness and Money Being Correlated

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, of the University of Michigan talk with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about their work on the relationship between income and happiness. They argue that there is a positive relationship over time and across countries between income and self-reported measures of happiness. The second part of the conversation looks at the recent controversy surrounding work by Reinhart and Rogoff on the relationship between debt and growth. Stevenson and Wolfers give their take on the controversy and the lessons for economists and policy-makers. This conversation was recorded shortly before Betsey Stevenson was nominated to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Dan Pallotta on The Idiocy of Measuring Non-Profits by Their Overhead

Dan Pallotta, Chief Humanity Officer of Advertising for Humanity and author ofUncharitable talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in his book. Pallotta argues that charities are deeply handicapped by their culture and how we view them. The use of overhead as a measure of effectiveness makes it difficult for charities to attract the best talent, advertise, and invest for the future. Pallotta advocates a new culture for non-profits that takes the best aspects of the for-profit sector to enhance the mission and effectiveness of charities.

First of all, this focus on costs and this focus on overhead eliminates any conversation about impact. So, we’re not having a conversation about how effective the organization actually is at solving problems. So, who cares if the overhead is low if no problem is getting solved? And really, who cares if the overhead is high if the problem is getting solved, because ultimately we want the problem to get solved?

 

Kevin Kelly on Productivity in the Internet Age

Kevin Kelly talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about measuring productivity in the internet age and recent claims that the U.S. economy has entered a prolonged period of stagnation. Then the conversation turns to the potential of robots to change the quality of our daily lives.

Gary Taubes on Why We Get Fat (Low Carbs)

Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, talks with EconTalk host Russ Robertsabout why we get fat and the nature of evidence in a complex system. The current mainstream view is that we get fat because we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Taubes challenges this seemingly uncontroversial argument with a number of empirical observations, arguing instead that excessive carbohydrate consumption causes obesity. In this conversation he explains how your body reacts to carbohydrates and explains why the mainstream argument of “calories in/calories out” is inadequate for explaining obesity. He also discusses the history of the idea of carbohydrates’ importance tracing it back to German and Austrian nutritionists whose work was ignored after WWII. Roberts ties the discussion to other emergent, complex phenomena such as the economy. The conversation closes with a discussion of the risks of confirmation bias and cherry-picking data to suit one’s pet hypotheses.

Richard Burkhauser on the Trickiness of Measuring the Middle Class

Richard Burkhauser of Cornell University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the state of the middle class. Drawing on recently published papers, Burkhauser shows that changes in the standard of living of the middle class and other parts of the income distribution are extremely sensitive to various assumptions about how income is defined as well as whether you look at tax units or households. He shows that under one set of assumptions, there has been no change in median income, but under a different and equally reasonable set of assumptions, median income has grown 36%. Burkhauser explains how different assumptions can lead to such different results and argues that the assumptions that lead to the larger growth figure are more appropriate for capturing what has happened over the last 40 years than those that suggest stagnation.

David Weinberger on How Knowledge Has Changed in the Age of the Internet

David Weinberger of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of Too Big to Know, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in the book–how knowledge and data and our understanding of the world around us are being changed by the internet. Weinberger discusses knowledge and how it is attained have changed over time, particularly with the advent of the internet. He argues the internet has dispersed the power of authority and expertise. And he discusses whether the internet is making us smarter or stupider, and the costs and benefits of being able to tailor information to one’s own interests and biases.

Alain de Botton on the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Author Alain de Botton talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. How has the nature of work changed with the increase in specialization? Why is the search for meaningful work a modern phenomenon? Has the change in the workplace changed parenting? Why does technology become invisible? These are some of the questions discussed by de Botton in a wide-ranging discussion of the modern workplace and the modern worker.

Adam Davidson on Manufacturing in America

Adam Davidson of NPR’s Planet Money talks with EconTalk host Russ Robertsabout manufacturing. Based on an article Davidson wrote for The Atlantic, the conversation looks at the past, present, and future of manufacturing. Davidson visited an after-market auto parts factory in Greenville, South Carolina and talked with employees there as well as with executives at corporate headquarters. What is the future of factory work in America? Why are some manufacturing jobs in America while others are in China or elsewhere? The conversation looks at these questions as well as how well or poorly the U.S. education system prepares students for the world of work.

Dani Rodrik on Productivity and Globalization

Dani Rodrik of Harvard University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about trade, the labor market, and trade policy. Drawing on a recent paper with Margaret McMillan on trade and productivity, Rodrik argues that countries have very differing abilities to respond to increases in productivity that allow production to expand using fewer workers in a particular sector. When workers are displaced by productivity increases, what is their next best alternative? Rodrik discusses how this varies across countries and policies that might improve matters. He argues that poor countries should subsidize new products as a way of overcoming uncertainty and externalities from new ventures.

2 AM Friends

“I haven’t talked to Joe in years, but I know that if I were stranded and called him, he’d drop everything and come pick me up.”

I hear that a lot. It’s great to have friends who will bail you out of a tough situation, who’ll always answer your call at 2 AM, who will fly around the world to help you in an emergency. Even if you haven’t spoken to them in a long, long time.

These “2 AM friends,” as I refer to them, tend to be old childhood buddies, old roommates, or family friends who, for whatever reason, you no longer talk to or see often. There’s nevertheless real closeness and unbreakable trust. They play a similar role as family. I have a couple 2 AM friends.

But 2 AM friends, for all the joy and help they provide in times of need, do not nourish or invigorate my day to day life, almost by definition, as I’m not talking to them on a week to week or month to month basis. Sure, there’s some abstract sense of meaning I get from reflecting on my relationship with them, but it’s just that — abstract. And, sadly, that feeling weakens with every passing day.

I’m a big believer in staying in touch with people (via email, phone, in-person visits) to keep up relationships. I’ve always been mildly skeptical of the phrase “we pick up right where we left off.” If months and months of time have passed without any real communication, and if you or the friend are living reasonably dynamic lives, it’s going to take awhile to re-sync emotionally and intellectually. Even if there’s a lot of shared history in the past.

It takes a heck of a lot of time and energy to keep up with friends, of course. Time and money beyond just ‘liking’ social media updates. Joys and frustrations. All to be done in a culture where there are no broadly accepted social norms about how to “do” friendship. In the world of romance, there are a million and a half articles and guideposts for how to date, how long to wait before you call, what you should expect two years into a relationship, and so on. In the friendship maintenance department, there’s basically nothing. As Andrew Sullivan put it, it takes no work to fall in love. It takes real work to rise to a real and lasting friendship.

Some people’s lot in life is so unlucky that they haven’t been able to keep up with anyone — they have no one to list as an emergency contact number on a medical form.

Other people are fortunate enough to have that 2 AM friend to list, but then few other people with whom they share their day to day, week to week, month to month journey. If the emergency contact person isn’t the same as the day to day friend, and frequently they’re not, then this is the scenario I’m interested in: how can we appreciate the unique joys of a friend who’s part of our lives as our lives unfold? How can we work to strengthen those bonds and not fall back on solely the 2 AM friends?

In Empire Falls, there’s this line by Richard Russo which has stuck with me: ”One of the odd things about middle age was the strange decisions a man discovers he’s made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.”

Happiness vs. Meaning, Continued

I re-wrote my post last week on meaning vs. happiness in a more succinct form for LinkedIn. Pasted below. Also, here’s Chris Yeh’s rebuttal post.

The things that make you happy (low stress, good health, sex) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals). Compare the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy!) versus the feeling of training really hard for a marathon and completing it (satisfying and meaningful!).

Adam Alter, in this recent online New Yorker piece about whether the poor have more meaningful lives than the rich, noted that if happiness was all that mattered, people wouldn’t do ultramarathons or Tough Mudder events: “Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.”

According to the research, if you ask someone who’s crazy busy, sleep deprived, and anxious about the future about whether he’s happy, he might well answer no. But if you ask him to zoom out and reflect on his broader life satisfaction and ask whether he thinks he’s living a meaningful life, there’s a better chance he’ll answer yes. Especially if his busyness and stress and sacrifice is serving some greater good (or what he perceives as the greater good). That’s because having goals, sacrificing for the future, and being part of something bigger than oneself all lead to a sense of meaning.

What does this mean when thinking about your career?

1. There are certain career paths that seem to lead people to neither feel happy nor create meaning. Stereotypical lawyers and bankers fall into this camp. There’s the obvious stress that reduces happiness; you make money but don’t have time to spend it; and all the while, there’s no sense of broader aspiration or sacrifice for something bigger.

2. There are certain career paths that don’t offer much day-to-day happiness but do promise meaning. A classic example is working at an NGO or non-profit in a tough place in the world (rural Africa, for example). Many tech entrepreneurs also have low happiness, high meaning. The tech entrepreneurs I know who are striving for big world-changing outcomes are not actually happy most days. But the long term change they believe they’re enacting, and the personal legacy that it might create, adds a sense of meaning. That makes the journey worth doing from their perspective.

3. Finally there are career paths that offer happiness but not meaning. An easy, low stress job — like being a highly paid social media analyst at a large company — is going to have you feeling good day-to-day, but won’t leave you feeling purposeful.

If you had to pick whether to prioritize happiness or meaning, my advice would be: choose a career that’s meaningful, but weave in happiness habits as much as possible. By “happiness habits” I mean the small tactical things — like keeping a gratitude journal — that’s proven to lift your mood day-to-day.

Another approach would be to embrace the fact that life is long, people evolve, and that you ought to emphasize different values at different times. For example, perhaps there are stages in life when you want to consciously focus on meaning and stages when you focus on happiness. Early on in your life you seek meaning with audacious career goals and sacrifice and travel; later in life you optimize for day-to-day happiness with a lower-stress, family-oriented job.

Do you buy the difference between happiness and meaning? If so, which do you optimize for you in your career and in your life?

Short Term Profit Taking vs. Long Term Value Creation

Reid recently penned a piece about Carl Icahn’s ambitions to split PayPal off from eBay, and the broader difference between the short-termism of Wall Street vs. the long-termism of Silicon Valley. The piece generated a lot of attention and it advances some some important ideas. Give it a read. My favorite line: “Innovation comes from long-term thinking and iterative execution.”

Felix Salmon on the Economics of Online Content

Over the past year, Felix Salmon of Reuters wrote a masterful five-part series on the economics of content online. Worth reading for anyone interested in the topic. I link to each part below and excerpt my favorite paragraphs (all Salmon’s words, but emphases are my own).

Part 1: Advertising

Do advertising dollars ultimately end up where people spend their time, he asked, echoing Kleiner Perkins’ Mary Meeker says, or, pace Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger, is that a “fallacy”?

I’m with Juenger on this one. As he says, “time spent is supply, advertising spend is demand… Just because there is a large and growing supply of Internet inventory doesn’t mean advertisers have a correspondingly large desire to deliver more Internet impressions.” Indeed, as the price of online inventory continues to fall, it seems just as likely that online ad spend will go down (because the ads being bought are getting cheaper) as that it will go up…

Moreover, if you’re running a news site, you’ll be even more sobered to learn that just 2.7% of the time that people spend on the internet is spent on news sites. You think you’re competing against a lot of other news sites to attract advertisers? You don’t know the half of it. In reality, you’re competing against the other 97.3% of websites, andthey are competing against TV. It’s a fight you can’t hope to win, especially since non-news websites are so much better at delivering people primed to buy stuff (search) or delivering large numbers of people in narrowly-targeted demographics (Facebook)…

According to Meeker, some 67% of all ad dollars are spent either on TV or in print. And according to Juenger, ad spend on TV actually went up, between 2009 and 2012, even as Americans’ attention moved away from TV and towards other screens. That makes sense to me, mainly because of the point I was making back in 2009, drawing the distinction between brand advertising, on the one hand, and direct marketing, on the other. TV is brand advertising; online ads, by contrast, are closer to direct marketing….

When people like Meeker look at ad spend, they’re looking mainly at brand advertising. Brands are valuable things, and billions of dollars are spent every year to keep them that way, mostly on TV and in print. And if you have a big national brand, there’s really only one way to reach a big national audience: you need to buy ads on TV. Doing so is expensive, but it’s necessary, and it works, which explains the huge sums of money which still flow into TV every year…

So if the internet is not going to displace TV as a medium for mass-market brand advertising, might it at least be good at direct marketing? Can publishers not deliver certain readers, in certain demographics, to marketers who want to reach them? To a certain extent, yes. But the fact is that Google and Facebook, between them, are extremely good at delivering as many of those readers as any advertiser could ever want: all that Facebook needs to do is turn a dial, and billions of new impressions get added to the stock of global inventory, targeted at any demographic that any advertiser could want. Google, similarly, owns search, especially mobile search. It’s conceivable that some marketers might prefer to reach an audience some other way — but this is a race to the bottom, with a finite amount of demand chasing an essentially infinite amount of supply. That’s a buyer’s world, where the sellers have no real leverage at all…

Some very large proportion of the websites on the internet have a pretty basic business model: “we will publish great content; millions of people will want to read or view that content; advertisers will want to reach those people; and so we’ll be able to sell our audience to advertisers and make lots of money”. There are people out there who have succeeded with that model, but the number of successes is dwarfed by the number of failures, and the amount of scale you need to even get your foot in any media buyer’s door has been rising dramatically for years. By the time you’ve paid for your content and for your ad-sales infrastructure, the chances that you’ll have any money at all left over for your shareholders are slim indeed, and getting slimmer year by year…

All of which means that smart online publishers are looking beyond advertising, to other forms of generating revenues.

[In a recent exchange with Marc Andreessen, during Marc's tweet storm about online journalism, Felix wrote: "Pot at end of rainbow = advertisers who aren't buying on a CPM basis."]

Part 2: Payments (Alternatives to Advertising)

Which brings up a fundamental rule of online subscriptions: there is zero correlation between value and price. There are lots of incredibly expensive stock-tipping newsletters which have a negative value: you’d be much better off if you didn’t subscribe to any of them at all. And of course there’s an almost infinite amount of wonderfully valuable content available online for free, starting with Wikipedia and moving on through the sites of organizations like Reuters, Bloomberg, the Guardian, and the BBC

But there’s another consideration, too: the more formidable the paywall, the more money you might generate in the short term, but the less likely it is that new readers are going to discover your content and want to subscribe to you in the future.

Part 3: Costs

If [Bezos] didn’t want an established property, he could have invested $250 million to create a brand-new journalistic outlet. To put that sum in context, the total amount of money raised by Business Insider, since inception, is $21.6 million; Vox Media has raised $23.5 million; BuzzFeed is on $46.3 million; andHuffington Post raised $37 million before it was acquired by AOL. Throw in Gawker Media, Mashable, Politico, Pando Daily, Breaking Media, Weblogs Inc, and just about any other new journalism company you can think of, up to and including Bustle; you’re still nowhere near $250 million…

The result is that the journalistic outlets seeing the biggest profits are the ones where costs are kept incredibly low. At one extreme lies the Bleacher Report, which was sold for a reported $180 million; it consists primarily of stories written by unpaid contributors, expertly optimized to maximize pageviews at the expense of accuracy or quality. Or look at Summly, which Yahoo bought for $30 million: it produces news summaries entirely by algorithm, with no editorial costs at all… 

Here’s a statistic worth dwelling on: “A senior editor at The Washington Post recently told me that he killed an average of three advanced investigations a year, usually over the protests of the reporters, who couldn’t see that they didn’t have the goods.” Outside ProPublica — and even inside it — how many online-only organizations can say the same?

Part 4: Scale

Henry Blodget: “I do think that over the next five years, what you’re going to see is a lot of consolidation. The fact is, there are way too many digital news and media organizations out there right now. There will be a lot of consolidation. As they come together, you will get huge economies of scale on the sales side, on the tech side, and on some of the other areas as well. And then you’re going to see these companies produce good profits…”…

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the CMS when it comes to the question of who’s going to win the online-publishing wars. As Blodget said on Friday, if you’re going to make serious money in this business, you need serious scale. If you want serious scale, you have to be able to expand not only organically but also by acquisition. And if you want to be able to scale up through dealmaking, you need to have a technology and sales platform which can support large-scale acquisitions…

The difference between the Glam view of the world, which comprises thousands of publishing brands, and the Blodget view of the world, which involves only a relative handful, is that while it’s true that consumers like brands, it’s no longer true that one big brand is going to beat thousands of small brands. Smaller websites can feel much more targeted and personal, and can build up a much more loyal following, than sites which have millions of users. If advertisers can get their ads onto that kind of site, and reach just as many people as they would buying one huge site, they’re better off for it. …

The question, however, is whether Bankoff would want Business Insider to be part of Vox. News is always a tougher sell, but at the same time it confers priceless legitimacy: BuzzFeed, for instance, is investing an enormous amount of money in its journalism, not because that’s a particularly cost-effective way to generate traffic, but rather because it means that both readers and advertisers take the site much more seriously as a result…

Looking at Medium, along with Vox, and Glam, and even AOL, I think I can begin to discern the vague outlines of how digital publishing might eventually be able to deliver the kind of scale and impact that brand advertisers demand from TV and glossy magazines. I don’t know who the winner is going to be. But I do think that Blodget is right about one thing: whoever the winner is, they will have to have some very deep pockets. Winning this game won’t come cheap.

Part 5: News

The most enjoyable part of blogging, in the early days, was putting things up on the internet and seeing people respond to them — by clicking on your links, or linking to you, or engaging you in the comments section. But it wasn’t easy. Twitter and Facebook — and Pinterest, for that matter, and the rest of the social media universe — did two important things. Firstly they made publishing incredibly easy; and secondly they rewarded publishing by giving contributors immediate likes and replies and favs and other evidence that people really cared about what you were publishing. It was the endorphin rush familiar to old-school bloggers, democratized and accelerated…

Right now might also be a very brief window of opportunity for roll-up strategies. The idea behind such things is simple: if you have a powerful CMS, then it makes sense to take existing sites (like, say, the Curbed Network) and move them onto a more powerful system (like, say, Vox Media’s Chorus). Everybody wins. But as web technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, and sites start looking very different depending on the device used to view them, it becomes increasingly difficult to port an entire website over to a brand-new platform. You can’t just import the HTML and tweak the CSS any more. Up until very recently, there hasn’t been the money available to prosecute such a strategy; it won’t be all that long before such a strategy becomes technically much more difficult. (I can’t imagine, for instance, merging the Vox Media and BuzzFeed back ends without enormous headaches and difficulty.) So if you’re going to do it, then you should waste no time.

Pursuing Happiness or Meaning in a Career

Radhanath-Swami-on-ocean-of-Happiness1

The things that make you happy (friends! good health! sex!) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals.). I think about the difference by comparing the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy) vs. the effect of training really hard for a marathon and then completing it has on you (meaning).

Robin Hanson has a round up of the distinction. Consider a few excerpts from him, drawn from the research.

What a happy life is:

People who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry … [and] is associated with selfish behavior.

What a meaningful life is:

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. … Having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. … They also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life, … but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents. …

Just the other day, Adam Alter wondered in this recent online New Yorker piece about whether the poor have more meaningful lives than the rich:

Happiness, after all, doesn’t explain the popularity of ultramarathons, mountaineering, and Tough Mudder events—or the sacrifices parents must make to raise children. Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.

When contemplating this happiness/meaning distinction in the context of career strategy, I have a few reactions.

First, entrepreneurship tends to increase meaning but not necessarily happiness. The day-to-day of an entrepreneurial journey — or any long-term project — can be crazy stressful. Most entrepreneurs I know who are striving for big world-changing outcomes are not actually happy most days. But the long term change they believe they’re enacting, and the personal legacy that it will create, adds a sense of meaning. That makes the journey worth doing from their perspective.

Second, I wonder if there’s a viable career strategy that emphasizes either concept at different times in life. For example, there are stages in life when you consciously focus on meaning and stages when you focus on happiness. Early on in your life perhaps you seek meaning with audacious career goals and sacrifice; later in life you optimize for day-to-day happiness with a low-stress job.

Third, if you had to pick just one path, my advice would be: choose a career that’s meaningful, but weave in happiness habits as much as possible. By “happiness habits” I mean the small tactical things — like keeping a gratitude journal — that are the subject of most of commentary on the happiness topic.