Non-Fiction

A Book That Captures the Singular Life of Marie Colvin

14 January 2019

 

From The New Yorker:

In Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” there is a passage describing Colvin’s ordeal behind Chechen-rebel lines over Christmas of 1999. After coming under sustained Russian bombardment outside Grozny, the American-born reporter, then aged forty-four, was forced to trek out of the war zone over the snow-covered Caucasus mountain range to reach safety in neighboring Georgia. There were many bad moments, and, at one point, driven to exhaustion, Colvin considered lying down in the snow and sleeping. It was the opposite impulse of the one that drove her forward throughout her life. Colvin survived her Chechen experience and a dozen or more equally dangerous episodes during her twenty-five years as a war reporter, but, a month after her fifty-sixth birthday, in February, 2012, her luck ran out, in Syria. The Assad regime’s forces fired mortars into the house where she was staying, in the rebel-held quarter of Homs, and she was killed.

Colvin’s life has been memorably chronicled by Hilsum, a friend and colleague who lived and worked alongside Colvin in many of the same war zones, and whose home base was also London. (Full disclosure: I knew Colvin and am a friend of Hilsum’s.) At a time when the role of women is being reëxamined and has rightly galvanized public attention, Colvin’s tumultuous life has inspired a number of recent accounts, including the feature film “A Private War,” starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin. But it is Hilsum’s biography, written by a woman who both knew Colvin and had access to her unpublished reporting notes and private diaries—a trove of some three hundred notebooks—that seems to most closely capture her spirit.

As told by Hilsum, Colvin’s life was an unreconciled whirl of firsthand war experiences—many of them extremely dangerous and highly traumatic—London parties, and ultimately unhappy love affairs, laced through with a penchant for vodka martinis and struggles with P.T.S.D. Colvin was a Yank from Oyster Bay, Long Island, and Yale-educated, and she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn—her Bible was Gellhorn’s “The Face of War”—but she never wrote a book herself, and was little known to her countrymen, making her name, and the bulk of her career, instead, inside the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, a British broadsheet with a tabloid soul. From 1986 onward, when the Sunday Timeshired Colvin, the editors appear to have happily taken advantage of her lifelong hunger for professional affirmation, a chronic willingness to throw herself into danger in order to get scoops, and her considerable personal charm, which, early on, earned her the trust of roguish political players like Yasir Arafat and Muammar Qaddafi.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker




Open Access: Germany’s De Gruyter Signs ‘Read and Publish’ Deal

13 January 2019

From Publishing Perspectives:

The Berlin-based independent publisher De Gruyter has announced this week the signing of a “read and publish” agreement with Iowa State University Library, the first of its kind for the German house in North America.

The three-year pilot agreement, according to the publisher’s media messaging, “allows for all articles written by authors at Iowa State University to be made open access immediately upon publication.

“In addition, Iowa State patrons will be provided with access to De Gruyter’s “Research Now by De Gruyter” package, which includes all De Gruyter journals that are subscribed to by North American ARL institutions.”

De Gruyter’s “hybrid journal pricing structure” is in play here, with journal subscription prices adjusted based on the percentage of open access articles. A deep discount is provided, as well, the company says, “to Iowa State authors who publish their articles in one of De Gruyter’s many pure open access journals.”

. . . .

OA2020 is to a Munich-based collaborative effort signed by institutions in many parts of the world to replace “the subscription business model with new models that ensure outputs are open and re-usable and that the costs behind their dissemination are transparent and economically sustainable.”

The endorsement carries several stipulations to which signatories agree.

First, they’re asked if they agree that:

  • Researchers should retain full rights to share their work and the freedom to publish in the journals of their choice and participate in the publishing services they wish
  • The current subscription model, with its ever-rising paywalls, is an unsustainable barrier to the full fruition of scientific research and the fundamental objectives of open access
  • Scholarly publishing should be supported with economically sustainable and transparent business models and released from the constraints of an obsolete system of dissemination

And then they’re asked to promote the primary principle: “We aim to transform a majority of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to OA publishing in accordance with community-specific publication preferences. At the same time, we continue to support new and improved forms of OA publishing.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Code Name: Lise

12 January 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

In October 1942, Odette Sansom, a housewife turned British spy, was holed up on Gibraltar waiting for passage to Nazi-occupied France to begin her mission. She had left her three daughters at a convent school in England, a decision so painful, she later said, that it paled in comparison to Nazi torture. She had endured training, learning to shoot, detonate explosives, encode messages and navigate by compass at night. She had tried and failed four times to get to France. At last she was just a boat ride away, but the Polish seaman charged with taking her refused.

She was a woman, he said. France was no place for her. Would she like to go dancing with him in Gibraltar instead?

Sansom was relentless. She would get there even if she had to swim, she told him. He commented that she would look good in a bathing suit. In the end, she did the only thing she could—she got him so drunk that he gave in.

Odette Sansom, née Brailly, would go on to become the most decorated woman of World War II—a member of the Order of the British Empire, a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, and the first woman awarded the George Cross, an award for “acts of the greatest heroism.” Her story was first told in print in 1949, followed by a film re-enactment the next year that made her a national heroine. It has been retold many times since. In “Code Name: Lise,” Larry Loftis tells it again for a new generation, reweaving the usual account of her wartime activities into a kind of nonfiction thriller.

It is a story that is inherently thrilling. “Shortly after ten the mist began to dissipate,” Mr. Loftis begins, “leaving them partially exposed.” He then flashes back to give a glimpse of Sansom’s childhood. Born in Amiens, France, she grew up visiting her father’s grave every Sunday with her brother and grandparents. A war hero, he had been killed in action when she was 6. When war returns, her grandfather said, it will be your duty to do as well as your father did.

. . . .

In 1942, when the Admiralty asked civilians to send in photos of the French coastline for possible war use, Sansom mistakenly sent hers to the War Office. That was how she came to the attention of Col. Maurice Buckmaster of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a sabotage and espionage outfit formed in 1940. Its mission, according to Winston Churchill, was to “set Europe ablaze.” Nicknamed the Baker Street Irregulars, due to the location of its London headquarters, the group was also known by other names—“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” and “Churchill’s Secret Army.”

Buckmaster was particularly interested in finding recruits who could pass as locals. Sansom’s native French made her a natural asset, but she was initially considered too temperamental to serve. “She is impulsive and hasty in her judgments,” read one evaluation, “and has not quite the clarity of mind which is desirable in subversive activity.” It also noted, however, her “patriotism and keenness to do something for France.” Despite these reservations, the SOE sent her on.

. . . .

Sansom and Peter Churchill were arrested in April 1943 and sent to Fresnes Prison, outside of Paris. She was interrogated by the Gestapo 14 times and tortured, her back scorched with a red-hot poker and all of her toenails pulled out. Still, she refused to disclose the locations of other agents. She deflected attention from Peter, claiming to be the brains of the operation, and also cleverly made use of his famous name. Though Peter was not related to the great prime minister, Sansom said he was—and that she was his wife. That ruse is almost certainly what saved both of their lives. She was condemned to death on two counts. (“Gentlemen, you must take your pick of the counts,” she retorted. “I can only die once.”)

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


12 books that CEOs think you should read in 2019

11 January 2019

From Fast Company:

If you’re a founder or aspiring entrepreneur, perhaps you’re looking to round out your reading list for 2019 with a few inspiring business reads. We asked entrepreneurs to offer their book recommendations for the new year, including both recent releases and older favorites.

. . . .

BECOMING BY MICHELLE OBAMA

Everyone has a journey on the road to success, paved with triumphs and disappointments that are often invisible to the outside world. It’s a gift to read Mrs. Obama’s authentic and candid story that reflects the experience of so many of us. –Lisa Skeete Tatum, CEO of career management startup Landit

. . . .

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW BY DANIEL KAHNEMAN

Daniel Kahneman, the author, is a nobel laureate and psychologist who has dedicated most of his career to understanding the mechanisms for decision-making. This book is an exploration of the two “systems” we use to form judgements: System 1, which is more or less impulse and strongly swayed by emotion, and System 2, which is how we solve long division problems–our slower and more analytical thought processes. What’s fascinating is how often we fall into “cognitive illusions” or “cognitive bias” because of our dependencies on System 1. We are all trying to make better decisions more quickly, and this book gives really actionable advice on how to do this while explaining why we are the way we are. –Nicole Centeno, CEO of food startup Splendid Spoon

. . . .

DARING GREATLY: HOW THE COURAGE TO BE VULNERABLE TRANSFORMS THE WAY WE LIVE, LOVE, PARENT, AND LEAD BY BRENÉ BROWN

I get recommendations for business books all the time that are incredibly interesting, but I sometimes find that the books that actually impact my business are ones that have nothing to do with commerce. I’m a big fan of Brené Brown and her work on vulnerability and empathy. Her book Daring Greatly is a fantastic work that has helped inform how Maiden Home interacts with the ecosystem we’re building between our craftsmen partners in North Carolina, the Maiden Home team in New York, and our customers all over the U.S. –Nidhi Kapur, CEO of furniture startup Maiden Home

Link to the rest at Fast Company

Welcome to The Great Acceleration

4 January 2019

From The Scholarly Kitchen:

My employer, Oxford University Press, holds regular “Oxford Journals Day” events where we bring together our society publishing partners and journal editors to catch up on the latest developments in publishing and to share their experiences. In the autumn of 2017, I was asked to give a “State of Scholarly Communications” presentation for this meeting and, being a fundamentally lazy person, I thought – this is great, Academia moves at such a slow pace that, with some minor tweaks, I’ll be able to re-use this talk for years. Six months later I was asked to reprise the talk for a UK event and I ended up having to rewrite about half of it. Six months later, I had to rewrite the other half.

I like to think of the period that we’ve entered into now as “The Great Acceleration,” a term coined by author Warren Ellis (or, as a recent exhibition states it, “Everything Happens So Much“). We aren’t really dealing with new issues – arXiv has been around posting preprints since 1991, mergers have been common for a while now (Wiley buying Blackwell happened more than 11 years ago), and the open access movement has been front and center since at least the year 2000.

. . . .

But, like every other aspect of our lives in this interconnected, digital utopia in which we live, we’ve reached a point where everything feels like it’s happening at once. Every week it seems like another piece of crucial publishing infrastructure is changing hands, or a new open access policy is announced, or there’s a new open letter petitioning for change that you’re expected to sign onto, or a new technology or standard that you absolutely must implement.

The upside to this accelerated pace is that it gets us closer to our goals faster. We know that the field of scholarly communications is far from perfect, but now it’s so much easier to gather evidence about reader and author needs, so much easier to publicly discuss potential plans, and, at least in some cases, to put those plans into action and draw attention to them.

The downside is that the faster you go, the less effective are your brakes. Scholarly communications is a complex ecosystem, and one that for most participants, largely works pretty well. Deliberately disrupting one aspect of the chain may have unexpected consequences in hundreds of other areas, and by then it may be too late to stop things from collapsing. We know the damage that the “move fast and break things” philosophy of Facebook and others has done to our society at large. Is this what we want for academia as well?

I would argue that the two biggest forces driving change in the scholarly communication landscape are consolidation and regulation. By consolidation, I mean that there’s a now constant cycle of mergers and acquisitions, reducing the number of independent players in the market. By regulation, we’re talking about the increasing number of rules and the compliance burden being put on researchers.

. . . .

We are in the midst of an era of mergers and acquisitions, and the biggest of publishers continue to get bigger. You’ll note that most now have names that are conglomerations of their former entities, “Springer Nature”, for example. The top 5 publishers account for more than 50% of the papers published each year, 70% in the social sciences.

In the past year or two, we’ve seen Wiley purchase Atypon, the platform that hosts more than a third of the world’s English language journals, along with Authorea and Manuscripts.app, both online paper writing collaboration tools. Elsevier has swallowed up bepress, which builds institutional repositories, SSRN, a widely used social sciences preprint network, Plum Analytics, a supplier of altmetrics, Aries, the company behind the Editorial Manager submission system, and in late December, Science Metrix.

. . . .

Some of these acquisitions are driven by need – Wiley reportedly spent a lot of money building a platform that underperformed, and bought Atypon to replace it. The same goes for Elsevier, whose home brewed submission system, eVise, never quite worked out, prompting them to buy Editorial Manager.

But a lot is also driven by Wall Street demands. We know that library budgets are flat, if not declining and that investors demands that companies increase their revenue each year. So first, you gobble up more and more of the existing market. Then you build an open access publishing program – that’s seen as new money, coming directly from funders and institutions rather than from the libraries. A third option comes into play here – if the market is flat, what other markets can a company extend itself into? Remember that Elsevier no longer refers to itself as a publisher, rather it is a “global information analytics business”

. . . .

This is creating a lot of anxiety in the market. If you’re a publisher and suddenly your mission critical infrastructure is owned by a competitor, that has to make you nervous. Combined with concerns about lock-in, this anxiety has led to a growing consensus that the market needs a major investment in shared and open infrastructure and standards. Rather than relying on a competitor or even a private company likely to be acquired by a competitor for key services, perhaps it’s better to work with a community-owned, not-for-profit service. Much of this is being driven by open source software community, which has many advantages due to its transparency, and portability.

It’s unclear whether there’s enough scale in our relatively small community to drive open source development at the level seen for larger industries. We’re just starting to see some of these systems emerging, and while the tools themselves look promising, what’s really needed are services built around those tools. Most publishers don’t have the internal capacity (nor the desire) to become software development and support companies, hence a need for outsourcing remains critical.

. . . .

Given the high number of degrees awarded by universities every year and the very low number of tenure track faculty positions made available, research careers are something of a buyer’s market. We’ve seen universities continually increase the demands they make of their research employees. Researchers are required to do more and more beyond their actual research, including the usual teaching, mentoring, and serving on seemingly endless committees, but also primarily fundraising — science positions are increasingly similar to free-lance work, where the university essentially agrees to rent you space, and then you’re responsible for paying your own salary and costs through whatever grants you can bring in.

Now on top of this, researchers are being asked to jump through an enormous number of additional hoops, ranging from pre-registration of experiments, to posting of preprints (and monitoring and responding to resulting comments), to formal publication (where one must take great care to publish it in an outlet that follows the very specific rules set by your funders, your university, and all of your collaborators’ funders and institutions). Then you need to make the data behind the paper publicly available and help others use it, and if you really want to drive reproducibility, write up and release your methodologies. Societal impact is now deemed important, so you have to become your own publicist, promoting yourself and the work via social media. At the same time, people may be talking about your paper via post-publication peer review systems, so you need to monitor those and respond to any questions/criticisms.

Link to the rest at The Scholarly Kitchen

PG says a lot of the promotion and marketing requirements placed on academic authors sound like what indie authors do when they self-publish a book.

He’s remarked upon the strange economics in the world of academic publishing before, but PG will again remind one and all that the scholarly publishers don’t pay the researchers and authors any royalties or other compensation for the articles they publish.

However, scholarly publishers do charge very high subscription fees for their publications, which, like everything else, are rapidly moving away from paper to electronic form. A large percentage of these subscription fees are paid by college and university research libraries.

PG suggests following the money.

  1. Academic researchers are almost always receiving some sort of financial compensation from academic institutions in the form of salaries, office and lab space, access to the college/university libraries. While outside foundations, etc., may fund some parts of the research, the nonprofit academic institutions, including university-affiliated hospitals and other medical facilities in some cases, are providing support necessary for a great many research projects.
  2. A key deliverable for most academic research is a published report of the results of the research programs. For a variety of altruistic and self-serving reasons, colleges and universities want their contemporaries to know what excellent and innovative work is being done by their scholars.
  3. Instead of simply releasing such research reports directly, by posting them on university computer systems with free downloads available and permitting other relevant online locations academic research to repost, the colleges and universities expect their researchers to obtain what amounts to a stamp of approval from an appropriate third-party privately owned (in most cases) academic publication.
  4. The researchers write up their findings and submit them to scholarly publications. Since such publishers do not employ people with sufficient expertise to determine whether the research has been properly conducted and the research conclusions are supported by the research results, the scholarly publishers send the draft findings and conclusions out to experts in the field. In many cases, those experts are employed by other non-profit academic and research institutions and are certainly not employed by the scholarly publications.
  5. After appropriate third-party scholarly reviews are received by the publisher, sent to the authors, incorporated into revised reports, subjected to follow up examination by third-party experts, etc., the authors’ work is finally published.
  6. The scholarly publisher sells and licenses its publication of the author’s work to libraries, journal subscribers, etc. As mentioned above, scholarly publishers charge very high subscription fees for their publications.

What makes the scholarly publications valuable?

  1. The expertise and labor of the authors of the articles published which may incorporate the results of testing, laboratory research which may involve the use of expensive lab equipment, the use of clinical research facilities in hospitals, etc., which are provided by the institutions where the authors conduct their research,
  2. plus the quasi-certification of the reliability of the articles provided by third-party experts who have reviewed the published materials.

Who receives all the money generated from the sales and licensing of the scholarly publications?

Not the authors or the institutions providing research facilities or the experts capable of reviewing the research and providing the seal of approval.

It may not be the most exciting business in the world, but the publication of scholarly works is a great way to make a large return on the investment necessary to publish journals and books in 2018 2019.

Consider the Narwhal

3 January 2019

Not really to do with the business of writing, but PG’s fleeting attention was captured by the title of the OP.

From The London Review of Books:

In 1584, as Ivan the Terrible lay dying, he called from his bed for his unicorn horn, a royal staff ‘garnished with verie fare diamondes, rubies, saphiers, emeralls’. Unicorn horns were believed throughout Europe to have magical curative properties; as late as 1789, a unicorn drinking horn was used to protect the French court, where it was said to sweat and change colour in the presence of poison. To prove the horn’s efficacy, Ivan ordered his physician to scratch a circle on the table with the tip of the horn, and to ‘seeke owt for som spiders’. The spiders placed within the circle curled up and died; spiders placed outside it ran away and survived. The dead spiders, though, could not console Ivan. ‘It is too laite,’ he said, ‘it will not preserve me,’ whereupon, soon afterwards, he died.

The unicorn horn was, of course, a narwhal tusk: the tooth of a small Arctic whale, which grows out through the upper lip, twisting counter-clockwise for up to 2.5 metres. Named rather ungallantly for the Old Norse word nar, meaning ‘corpse’, and hvalr, ‘whale’, after their mottled grey markings, narwhals are unicorn-like not just in their appendages, but in their elusiveness; they are one of the mammals about which we know least. They spend the winter months dodging dense pack ice, where humans cannot follow, and can swim a mile deep, twisting upside-down as they descend into pitch-black water.

. . . .

The great mystery of the narwhal is the purpose of its tusk. Appearing in males of about a year old, as short and thin as a little finger, it grows for nearly ten years until it’s as wide as 25 cm at the base. Herman Melville writes of the ‘nostril whale’ in Moby-Dick: ‘Some sailors tell me that the Narwhale employs it for a rake in turning over the bottom of the sea for food. Charley Coffin said it was used for an ice-piercer … But you cannot prove either of these surmises to be correct.’ He ends by suggesting it would make an excellent letter opener. Because less than 15 per cent of female narwhals have the tusk, it can’t be necessary for survival, and so, when male narwhals were observed clashing tusks it was often interpreted as rivalrous jousting. Recently, though, scientists have found that the tusk is shot through with around ten million nerve endings, and by rubbing tusks on meeting, the narwhals may be passing on information about the salinity (and therefore propensity to freeze) of the water through which they have just passed; not aggressors, then, but Mercators.

. . . .

The legend of the narwhal is not a gentle one. The Danish ethnologist Knud Rasmussen recorded the myths of the Inuit of Greenland’s northwestern coast in the late 19th century. In the narwhal origin myth, the cruel mother of a blind son tricks him out of his fair share of bear meat. The mother plaits and twists her hair into a long braid and the two go out to harvest passing white whales; the son binds her with ropes to one of the whales, and it drags her into the sea. According to Rasmussen, ‘she did not come back, and was changed into a narwhal … and from her the narwhals are descended.’

. . . .

This was not Elizabeth I’s only narwhal tusk. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Raleigh’s half-brother, presented her with a gem-encrusted narwhal tusk worth £10,000 (enough, at the time, to buy and staff a small castle). It was, he told her, a ‘sea-unicorn’.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

The Media’s Post-Advertising Future Is Also Its Past

1 January 2019

From The Atlantic:

It’s my holiday tradition to bring tidings of discomfort and sorrow to my colleagues in the news business. One year ago, I described the media apocalypse coming for both digital upstarts and legacy brands. Vice and BuzzFeed had slashed their revenue projections by hundreds of millions of dollars, while The New York Times had announced a steep decline in advertising.

Twelve months later, it’s end times all over again. There have been layoffs across Vox Media, Vice, and BuzzFeed (and dubious talk of an emergency merger). Mic, once valued at $100 million, fired most of its staff and sold for $5 million. Verizon took a nearly $5 billion write-down on its digital media unit, which includes AOL and Yahoo. Reuters announced plans to lay off more than 3,000 people in the next two years. The disease seems widespread, affecting venture-capital darlings and legacy brands, flattening local news while punishing international wires. Almost no one is safe, and almost everyone is for sale.

It’s tempting to think that this is the inevitable end game of Google and Facebook’s duopoly. The two companies already receive more than half of all the dollars spent on digital advertising, and they commanded 90 percent of the growth in digital ad sales last year. But what’s happening in media right now is more complex. We’re seeing the convergence of four trends.

1. Too many players

It’s not just Facebook and Google; just about every big tech company is talking about selling ads, meaning that just about every big tech company may become another competitor in the fight for advertising revenue.

Amazon’s ad business exploded in the past year; its growth exceeded that of every other major tech company, including the duopoly. Apple is building tech that would skim ad revenue from major apps such as Snapchat and Pinterest, according to The Wall Street Journal. Microsoft will make about $4 billion in advertising revenue this year, thanks to growth from LinkedIn and Bing. Uber is reportedly getting into the ad business as it eyes new revenue sources to beautify its forthcoming IPO. AT&T is building an ad network to go along with its investment in Time Warner’s content, and Roku, which sells equipment for streaming television, is building ad tech. Oracle, Adobe, and Salesforce are using their cloud technology to collect data that could be used for ad targeting, as Axios reported.

These tech companies have bigger audiences and more data than just about any media company could ever hope for. The result is that more advertising will gravitate not only toward “programmatic” artificial-intelligence-driven ad sales but also toward companies that aren’t principally (or even remotely) in the news-gathering business.

. . . .

4. Patrons with varying levels of beneficence

Publications that were once the crown jewels of publicly traded firms are finding refuge in the arms of affluent patrons. Many legacy titles have already landed with millionaires and billionaires, including Time (bought by Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce), Fortune (bought by Chatchaval Jiaravanon, a Thai businessman), and The Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon). Emerson Collective, an organization founded by the billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, purchased a majority share of The Atlantic in 2017.

Those nostalgic for the lucrative old days might curl their toes at the mention of a Medici-esque sponsorship model. But billionaire-supported investigative reporting is surely better than no investigative reporting at all. So what’s the matter with patronage?

A patron is a person. A person can change his or her mind—and often does. Chris Hughes junked The New Republic when losses eclipsed his idealism. Phil Anschutz snuffed out The Weekly Standard. Michael Bloomberg has made noises about selling off his political desk if he runs for president, or offloading his entire eponymous media empire, which employs several thousand people.

. . . .

To understand the future of post-advertising media, let’s briefly consider its past. During a period of the early 19th century known as the “party press” era, newspapers relied on patrons. Those patrons were political parties (hence “party press”) that handed out printing contracts to their favorite editors or directly paid writers to publish vicious attacks against rivals.

That era’s journalism was hyper-political and deeply biased. But some historians believe that it was also more engaging. The number of newspapers in the United States grew from several dozen in the late 1700s to more than 1,200 in the 1830s. These newspapers experimented with a variety of journalistic styles and appeals to the public. As Gerald J. Baldasty, a professor at the University of Washington, has argued, these newspapers treated readers as a group to engage and galvanize. Perhaps as a result, voting rates soared in the middle of the 19th century to record highs.

It was advertising that led to the demise of the party press. Ads allowed newspapers to become independent of patronage and to build the modern standards of “objective” journalism. Advertising also led to a neutered, detached style of reporting—the “view from nowhere”—to avoid offending the biggest advertisers, such as department stores. Large ad-supported newspapers grew to become profitable behemoths, but they arguably emphasized milquetoast coverage over more colorful reader engagement.

As the news business shifts back from advertisers to patrons and readers (that is to say, subscribers), journalism might escape that “view from nowhere” purgatory and speak straightforwardly about the world in a way that might have seemed presumptuous in a mid-century newspaper. Journalism could be more political again, but also more engaging again.

. . . .

For example, in just the past few decades, The New York Times’ revenue has shifted from more than 60 percent advertising to more than 60 percent reader payments. As its business model has changed, so has its coverage. “Look at The New York Times in 1960 vs. 2010; the reportage is more interpretive,” observed the late James L. Baughman, the communications theorist and University of Wisconsin professor.

Mid-century newspapers were as broad and unobjectionable as department stores, because department-store advertising was their business. News media of the future could be as messy, diverse, and riotously disputatious as their audiences, because directly monetizing them is the new central challenge of the news business.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Was America Born Capitalist?

20 December 2018

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

LARB presents an excerpt from Daniel T. Rodgers’s As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, out this month from Princeton University Press.

. . . .

Was America born capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.

Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.

Economic transactions saturated the daily life of Winthrop’s New England as well. Private property in land was relatively easily sold and purchased. Production was primarily for markets: local markets for most New England farmers, long-distance markets in timber, fish, and grain for others. Debt, too, left its mark all across these money-scarce economies. Debt cases pervade the early records of the Massachusetts General Court, just as they saturated early modern English society, etching the economy with complex lines of trust, reputation, and obligation. The rules of lending, repayment, and loan forgiveness that Winthrop outlined in the long second section of his “A Model of Christian Charity” were, in the context of New England’s everyday economic life, anything but abstract.

Finally, the world the New England Puritans made was not only a world of trade and commerce but a world in which wealth was a sign of value. Wealthier men like Winthrop played a vastly outsized role in public affairs in the Massachusetts colony. Land distribution was sharply skewed in favor of the wealthy as well. A society without ranks and order, as the “Model” made clear, was no dream of the New England Puritans.

And yet, deep as their immersion in market institutions and presumptions was, early New England Puritans did not accept market morals whole. “A Model of Christian Charity” itself was born at a moment of high tension between commercial interests and social ends, when an investors’ quarrel over risk and lending had threatened to undo the Massachusetts settlement project before it had truly begun. Disputes over buying and selling erupted aboard the ships during the ocean voyage, and they did not go away thereafter. The concerns with self-love that Winthrop poured into his model of charity spilled over into every aspect of colonial New England life. To the extent that the “Model” stands at one of the foundation points of the American story, Winthrop’s concern to establish the proper place of markets within the moral imperatives of charity must be recognized to stand there, just as prominently, too.

Matters of price and commerce weighed heavily on John Winthrop in the winter and spring of 1629–’30 as many of the key phrases that he would rework in “A Model of Christian Charity” began to crystallize in his mind. Recruited as the Massachusetts Bay Company’s governor in late October as the head of a yet-unfunded expedition scheduled to sail on the first of March, he was immediately sucked into a whirlwind of business concerns. There were emigrants to be recruited if the project was to realize its envisioned scale. There were ministers who had to be persuaded to leave their settled parishes for a church order that was, as yet, anything but clearly defined. Artisans of many different sorts were needed. There were persons of wealth to recruit as well. There were ships to be hired and stocked with the beer, water, biscuits, and dried meat that the ocean voyage would require. Arrangements for the sale of his own lands had to be made.

. . . .

The most pressing point of business was the challenge of finding adequate capital for the enterprise. Like all the other English colonization ventures in the Americas, the Massachusetts Bay Company was organized as an investment corporation. Merchants with wealth and a special degree of tolerance for risk, both for God’s sake and for their own, had invested sums on which they anticipated return. For the first two years after its organization in 1628, the company had managed the work of a small community of settlers at Salem, supplying them with clothing, tools, provisions, arms, and the services of a resident governor, minister, and doctor, in expectation that trade in fish, timber, and beaver skins would repay their investments and allow the settlement to prosper.

But the first two years’ trial had not been a success. By the time that serious consideration began of reorganizing the company as a self-governing colony in New England, managed by its emigrants rather than its London-based investors, its capital stock was deeply in debt. Some of the supplies and cattle sent over had miscarried. Many of the servants (transported at extraordinary charge, a company report complained) had not proved as useful as expected. Trade had not been as profitable as expected. Not all those who had pledged to participate in the share offerings had actually done so. Altogether, an accounting in late 1629 concluded, fully one-third of the initial capital had been lost. The company’s governor alone was owed 1,200 pounds; other primary investors were in similar straits. Before the seat of the company’s government could move to New England, separating its English investors from the management of their investments, some sort of reckoning would have to be made.

. . . .

Finally, with the matter at a standstill, three options were placed before the company’s members. The first was that every shareholder agree to double his original investment — a fantastical scheme, given the risks, that was quickly rejected. The second was that the company fold up its affairs, selling off all its property, distributing what it could realize among its shareholders, and essentially abandoning the colony project. The third proposal was more realistic than the other two, but to many individual investors it was much more painful. It proposed that the capital stock of the company be reorganized, that the value of all existing shares be written down by two-thirds, and that a smaller group of undertakers assume control, pledging to pay the original shareholders back on their now sharply reduced value at the end of seven years. Without that debt forgiveness, without some act of self-sacrifice, the settlement venture would not move forward.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG suggests that the Puritans are generally misunderstood in modern America. Partly due to The Crucible, an Arthur Miller play about the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials, which took place about sixty years after the early crises of The Massachusetts Bay Company, and the depiction of the Puritan ministers of Salem as oppressive dictators in a rigid theocratic society, the story of Puritans as founding capitalists is far less known.

The intention of Miller that The Crucible represent a critique of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities aggressive investigations (and the similar Senate committee investigations chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy) searching for communist spies and collaborators in the mid-1950s also undoubtedly affected Miller’s depiction of Puritans.

Back to The Los Angeles Review of Books:

You have already given your money to God, Winthrop counseled the company’s members in his December 1 address. Of what advantage would it be to haggle over 100 pence or 50 pounds? For the sake of God’s glory and the plantation’s welfare, you should be ready “not only [to] lend it, but lose it.” And then came the line that Winthrop would rework just after the “city upon a hill” sentence in “A Model of Christian Charity”: “Consider your reputation, the eyes of all the godly are upon you, what can you do more honorable for this City, and the Gospel which you profess, than to deny your own profit, that we may say Londoners can be willing to lose that the Gospel etc.” This pattern of reuses from Winthrop’s appeal to the colony’s investors gives no clear-cut answer as to when Winthrop found the time for the “Model’s” final composition, but it leaves no doubt about the moral issue that initially stood at its center. Whatever else the “Model” would become, its initial occasion was commerce and, more pointedly, the pyramids of debt and obligation that a market economy opened up. Triggered by a deeply fraught meeting in London, its subject was the labyrinth where commerce and morality cut across, blurred, and confronted each another.

Winthrop’s fellow voyagers carried all these concerns with markets and morals, self-interest and the public good, directly into their new settlement. They absorbed the energy of the colony from the beginning. The prices men began to ask for labor were a particularly tender issue. From the beginning, the colony’s governing bodies followed their fluctuations with concern. Alarmed that carpenters, sawyers, bricklayers, and thatchers were taking advantage of the first summer’s building boom by inflating their wage expectations, the colony’s General Court ordered a ceiling on house builders’ charges in August 1630; it set them free again the next March, only to reimpose a maximum price per board on sawyers again in September. When wages surged once more in the fall of 1633, the General Court imposed a general scale of wages on artisans, agricultural workers, and common laborers before letting this, too, lapse when the demand for labor subsided.

Unexpected fluctuations in the prices of goods brought a similar response. Price legislation was a repeated reaction to sharp swings from the norm. Corn and beer were subject to price controls from time to time. In 1638 a committee of 29 of the colony’s leading figures was tasked with sorting out the general problem of “oppression” in wages and prices, though it failed to bring in the report it had been mandated to make. A more pointed order in 1640, when the emigration stream from England suddenly came to a halt and cash dried up in response, decreed that corn, wheat, and rye might pass as money at specified rates until accustomed conditions returned. In the meantime, when debts were to be satisfied, their no longer realistic nominal values would be subject to third-party arbitration, lest “a great part of the people in the country be undone.”

Combined with all the details and challenges of establishing a market economy in isolated settlements is the larger theological view that motivated the Puritans.

From Wikipedia:

“A City upon a Hill” is a phrase from the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, he tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

. . . .

This scripture was cited at the end of Puritan John Winthrop’s lecture or treatise, “A Model of Christian Charity” delivered on March 21, 1630 at Holyrood Church in Southampton before his first group of Massachusetts Bay colonists embarked on the ship Arbella to settle Boston. Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans that their new community would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us”, meaning, if the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant with God, then their sins and errors would be exposed for all the world to see: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”. Winthrop’s lecture was forgotten for nearly two hundred years until the Massachusetts Historical Society published it in 1838. It remained an obscure reference for more than another century until Cold War era historians and political leaders made it relevant to their time, crediting Winthrop’s text as the foundational document of the idea of American exceptionalism.
. . . .

On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy quoted the phrase during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:

… I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella (sic) three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella (sic) in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required …

On November 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan referred to the same event and image in his Election Eve Address “A Vision for America”

I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,” as were those long ago settlers …

These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still… a shining city on a hill.

and in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama also made reference to the topic in his commencement address on June 2, 2006 at the University of Massachusetts Boston:

It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.

More than half of you represent the very first member of your family to ever attend college. In the most diverse university in all of New England, I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill—that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of places.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

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