Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
I’ve written a few pieces on corruption lately. I’ll continue in that theme with this 30 minute video, part of series called “Straight Up” from Brooklyn Independent Media, about how journalists should think about covering corruption. As important topic as obviously the media plays a huge role in breaking corruption stories. If the video doesn’t display, click over to Vimeo. h/t City Limits
Sunday, November 9th, 2014
This post originally ran on April 28, 2013.
I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.
Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.
For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.
We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.
Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.
Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.
The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”
A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.
Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.
Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.
Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.
Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.
How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).
Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?
I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
This week I want to share a couple of urban podcasts. The first is another installment in Carol Coletta’s Knight Cities program, this one featuring Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Art Society in New York. I should note that the MAS Summit for New York City is actually tomorrow and Friday. If you aren’t attending in person, previous ones were live-streamed I believe, so my assumption is that this one will be too.
Cipolla talks infrastructure, density, entrepreneurship, civic leadership, and outer boroughs in a talk focused on New York City but relevant to other places. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.
The second is a radio segment in Kansas City featuring Jarrett Walker talking about public transit. As always, this is fantastic, must-listen stuff. If the audio embed doesn’t display, click for the MP3.
Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
Time for another round of videos that I’ve had in my to-post list for a while.
The first is a short documentary piece on two skyscrapers in New York that were built specifically a telco switching points: the AT&T Long Lines Building and the Western Union Building. They are still in use today. If the video doesn’t display for you click over to Vimeo. h/t BLDGBLOG
The next is another installment in the “Time-LAX” series of LA timelapses. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo.
Lastly a TV news segment in Indianapolis from 1978. It’s a look back at a 25-year futuristic vision of the city from 1953 that was featured in the Indianapolis Star. Lets just say the vision didn’t quite come true. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to YouTube. h/t We Are City
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
[ I don’t know how he comes up with this stuff, but Daniel Hertz has continued to turn out tons of interesting maps and findings on segregation and inequality. In this piece from last April, he looked at the matter of segregation in New York City. For more, check out his web site – Aaron. ]
Update to Original Post: I wrote this in the comments, but several people have asked about it and not everyone makes it down there: this post focuses on white-black segregation because that, for various social and historical reasons, has been by far the most significant geographic separation in American cities, certainly in the Midwest and Northeast. But by far the second most significant separation – white-Latino segregation – is also very extreme in New York. The same Census analysis that found NYC was the second-most-segregated metro area in terms of white and black people found that it was the third-most-segregated metro area in terms of white and Latino people. That’s obviously not the end of the story either, though. If you know about or are curious about some other aspect of segregation, leave a comment.
The online reaction to the recent reports on racial segregation in New York state’s public schools reminded me, yet again, that most people think of New York as an integrated city, and are surprised or incredulous when that impression is contradicted.
This is somewhat jarring, since virtually every attempt to actually measure racial segregation suggests that New York is one of the most segregated cities in the country. This University of Michigan analysis of 2010 Census data, for example, suggests that New York is the second-most-segregated metropolitan area in the U.S., exceeded only by Milwaukee, and that about 78% of white and black people would have to move in order to achieve perfect integration. (Chicago’s corresponding number is just over 76%, good enough for third place.)
Why is this so surprising? One obvious reason, I think, is that most people’s conception of New York is limited to about 1/2 of Manhattan and maybe 1/6 of Brooklyn, areas that are among the largest job and tourist centers in the world. As a result, they attract people of all different ethnic backgrounds, especially during the day, even if the people who actually live in those areas tend to be monochromatic. Imagine, in other words, trying to judge racial segregation in Chicago by walking around the Loop and adjacent areas: you would probably conclude that you were in a pretty integrated city.
But it goes beyond that, I think. Segregation in New York doesn’t look like segregation in Chicago, or a lot of smaller Rust Belt cities. For one, there just aren’t very many monolithically black neighborhoods left in New York. Here, for example, I’ve highlighted every neighborhood that’s at least 90% African American:
Were we to do this in Chicago, half the South and West Sides would be lit up. But in New York, black neighborhoods have become significantly mixed, in particular with people of Hispanic descent. This is a phenomenon Chicagoans are used to in formerly all-white communities – places like Jefferson Park or Bridgeport, which as recently as 1980 were overwhelmingly white, now have very large Latino and Asian populations – but in New York, it’s happened in both white and black neighborhoods.
That said, white folks in New York have still on the whole declined to move to black areas, except for some nibbling along the edges in Harlem and central Brooklyn. That means that instead of measuring segregation the way we might in Chicago – by looking for very high concentrations of a single ethnic group – it makes more sense to look for the absence of either white or black people.
Here, then, I’ve highlighted all the places where white people make up less than 10% of the population:
It’s a lot. And, correspondingly, here are all the places where black people make up less than 10% of the population:
It’s also a lot. And if we put the two maps together, we see that these two categories cover the overwhelming majority of NYC:
The same pattern holds pretty well if we lower the threshold to no more than 5% white or black:
And there are even a significant number of areas that are truly hypersegregated, with fewer than 2% of residents being either white or black:
Because I now love GIFs, here’s a summary GIF.
What does all this tell us? For one, it confirms graphically what the Census numbers suggested, which is that the median black New Yorker lives in a neighborhood with very few white people, and vice versa.
But it also suggests a racial landscape that looks different from that of Chicago, and lots of other American cities, in important ways. In particular, where Chicago has a relatively simple racial geography – white neighborhoods at various levels of integration with Hispanics and Asians to the north and northwest, black and Hispanic neighborhoods to the south and west, with only a few small islands like Hyde Park and Bridgeport that break the pattern – New York’s segregated neighborhoods form a more complex patchwork across the city. That means that while a North Sider in Chicago might go years without having to even pass through a black neighborhood, lots of white New Yorkers have to get through the non-white parts of Brooklyn or the Bronx to reach job and entertainment districts in Manhattan or northern Brooklyn.
I imagine that structural-geographic fact, combined with New York’s relatively high level of black-Hispanic integration, goes a long way to explaining my anecdotal experience that white New Yorkers tend to be less ignorant and scared of their city’s non-white neighborhoods than white Chicagoans are of Chicago’s. (There’s some interesting research that suggests white people tend to be more sympathetic to brown people, and their neighborhoods, than black people and theirs.) There’s also, of course, the fact that Chicago’s segregated non-white neighborhoods tend to have much higher violent crime rates, and much more modest business districts, than New York’s, although that’s likely both an effect and cause of their relative isolation.
All of this is another reason that I’m kind of excited about the growing entertainment and shopping district on 53rd St. in Hyde Park, since the more that the South Side has “neighborhood downtown” strips that draw people from across the city, the more likely North Siders and suburbanites are to travel through the black and Latino neighborhoods that surround them, observe that many of them are actually quite nice, become less committed to shunning them, and thus contribute less to the social and economic dynamics that have created the institution of the ghetto, and the poor job prospects, failing schools, and high crime rates that accompany it.
In conclusion: New York is super segregated, but the numbers aren’t everything.
Also, let me have another Talk To Me Like I’m Stupid moment: suggestions for books about the racial history of New York? What’s the equivalent of Making the Second Ghetto or Family Properties? I’ve already read Caro’s Moses book.
This post originally appeared in City Notes on April 14, 2014.
Tuesday, September 9th, 2014
[ Analyst Daniel Hertz found some interesting maps of Brooklyn back in May that tell a different tale about Brooklyn than the one you’ve probably heard – Aaron. ]
I’m trying to make more of an effort, whenever I write or talk about gentrification, to point out that the real issue is larger: that gentrification is only one aspect of income segregation – specifically, the part where the borders between rich and poor neighborhoods shift – and that the real problem is that we have such sharply defined rich and poor neighborhoods to begin with.
Anyway, one problem with our obsession with gentrification as the end-all of urban equity issues is that it discourages us from talking about other important things happening in our cities. In some instances, gentrification has become such a dominating narrative that it has completely erased broader trends that we really ought to be concerned about.
Case in point: Brooklyn is getting poorer.
Does that shock you? Were you under the impression that all of Brooklyn was in the process of becoming one giant pickle boutique? That would be forgivable, given that nearly every article filed from Brooklyn for a decade or so has been about gentrification. But no.
I recently ran across a post from data-crunching blog extraordinaire Xenocrypt, which noted that from 1999 to 2011, median household income in Brooklyn fell from $42,852 to $42,752. That’s not a huge drop, obviously. The national median income fell from $56,000 to $50,000, so Brooklyn is actually catching up, sort of, to the country as a whole. But it still got poorer in absolute terms.
Moreover, if you map (as Xenocrypt did) the borough’s neighborhoods by change in median income, you get a really striking picture:
…which is that, indeed, a good three-fifths or so of Brooklyn is actually getting poorer. Have you read any articles about that? No, I will wager that you have not. Neither have I. I strongly suspect that is because they don’t exist – at least not in any outlet that might be considered mainstream.
And what about housing prices?
So in large parts of Brooklyn, real estate prices are falling.
I have nothing particularly intelligent to say about this – these maps were news to me – except that it’s maybe the most dramatic example I’ve seen yet of just how limiting our fixation on gentrification is. I mean that both in a sort of journalistic sense, in that we’re being deprived of an accurate sense of what is actually going on in our cities, as well as from an advocate’s perspective: how can we claim to be working for fairer, more equitable, etc., cities, if we’re ignorant of their most basic economic and demographic changes?
This post originally appeared in City Notes on May 3, 2014.
Wednesday, August 27th, 2014
Last week’s episode of Monocle 24 radio’s show The Urbanist was about independent cities. If you’ve listened before, you’ll know that their episode themes are applied loosely, but there are a couple of specific segments on “city-state” type of constructs, one is the very first segment, which is a hypothetical discussion about London, and the second a short commentary about Singapore starting around 30:00. If the embed doesn’t display, click over to Monocle’s site to listen.
Other segments include a piece about a Liverpool discount program for independent businesses, a segment about Istanbul that immediately follows the Singapore one, and a look at New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood starting at around 43:00.
Wednesday, June 11th, 2014
You’ve probably heard by now of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” plan for eliminating traffic deaths in his city in ten years. While I had some quibbles with the idea of targeting zero, the idea of focusing on street safety is clearly a good one.
Nicole Gelinas has a major piece in City Journal talking about Vision Zero called “New York’s Next Public Safety Revolution” that’s well worth reading. She did a 15 minute podcast on this as well you can listen to here. If the embed doesn’t display, go directly to the MP3 file.
Here an excerpt from the piece:
Too many New Yorkers die every year because of reckless drivers. Thankfully, new New York mayor Bill de Blasio has shown leadership in this area, unveiling an ambitious and workable plan to make traffic safer. Backed strongly by New York Police Department chief William Bratton and the city council, the mayor’s multiagency initiative, called Vision Zero, will seek to reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero, just as the police try to cut murders to zero. The inspiration behind the plan, which reinforces and expands on efforts by Michael Bloomberg’s administration, comes from Sweden’s use of innovative road design and smart law enforcement, which has reduced overall traffic fatalities in Stockholm by 45 percent—and pedestrian fatalities by 31 percent—over the last 15 years. When a child runs after a bouncing ball into a residential street and a speeding car strikes and kills him, the Vision Zero philosophy maintains, the death shouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable tragedy but as the result of an error of road design or behavioral reinforcement, or both. We already think this way about mass transit and aviation. These days, a plane crash or a train derailment is never solely explained by human error (a train conductor falling asleep, say); it also is a failure of a system that allowed a mistake to culminate in disaster. Of course, engineers and regulators can’t eliminate all injuries and deaths; but by applying rigorous, data-based methods, they can cut down on them dramatically.
Sunday, June 8th, 2014
I love newspapers, especially actual print newspapers. I could read multiple per day if I had the time. One of the joys of being in London is sitting down in a cafe with a stack of about six dailies and killing a few hours. I’ve said before that I need two lives: one to live and another just for reading newspapers and magazines. I’m already mourning the day when the day of print daily reaches its end.
Right about the time the New York Times sacked former executive editor Jill Abramson, Buzzfeed posted a leaked internal report on innovation from the NYT about its digital future. (The report is embedded at the end of this post). It’s the product of an internal working group that did an in depth analysis of the NYT’s digital offerings, concluding they were behind and in danger from disruptive upstarts. As I’m a newspaper junkie as well as an NYT digital and Sunday print subscriber, I downloaded it and finally got a chance to read it and will share some thoughts.
There’s a lot of admirable material in the report, which is well worth reading for anyone interested in digital media futures. The NYT candidly acknowledges its problems in terms of poor collaboration between IT and the newsroom, the culture that privileges print over digital, the need to do things like have a digital promotion strategy ready for stories that drop, and much more. I was particularly impressed that they did not dismiss the threat of folks like Buzzfeed (“lol!”) and Upworthy (“You’ll never believe what happened next”). Rather, they saw them as potential future disruptive threats, specifically relating them to Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” framework.
One observation I had is that in the very same report in which they acknowledge a print bias, they more or less exhibit it. For example, the report contains copious references to “the masthead,” suggesting the traditional print journalist’s deep love for the culture and traditions of the trade. I’m reminded of Tocqueville’s mourning the loss of the refined manners and such of the aristocratic state in a coming democratic age. Tocqueville, however, was the rare person who could transcend his immersion in aristocracy to not only see what was being lost, but also to recognize the virtues of a democratic state, accept that its coming was inevitable, and also to understand that on balance that was a good thing.
This is unusual, however. Most people and institutions exposed to a radical, involuntary disruption of their world don’t seem to recover. I explored this in a post called “The Rupture” in which I observe that it is generations who grew up without the experience of the destruction of our urban cores that are reclaiming them. The older generations who experienced the decline and the loss of precious rituals such as dressing up in white gloves for tea at the downtown department store, the loss of factory jobs, etc. cannot transcend that loss. Unsurprisingly, the Israelites who witnessed the miracles of the Exodus were never able to enter the Promised Land.
That’s the dilemma facing the NYT. The digital promised land awaits. But are they willing to enter it and take possession? Only time will tell.
What I want to examine, however, are four key great unexamined assumptions of the report, each of which I think deserves more consideration than they gave it:
1. The journalism of the New York Times is excellent
2. The total number of readers is the key success metric
3. The business model of the New York Times will continue to be advertising
4. The problems at the NYT can be solved through lower level collaboration and not direct top-level leadership
The NYT’s Journalism Has Serious Problems
The report leads off with a boast:
The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging — and we’ve got a huge lead over the competition.
I disagree. The NYT’s journalistic quality has badly eroded. I’m a moderately center-right guy, but not only do I enjoy high quality left leaning journalism, I actually pay to get it. I read nearly every issue of the London Review of Books. The Guardian is my favorite newspaper in the world and I’d definitely be a print subscriber if they put out a US edition (hint, hint). I love high quality reporting and analysis from a left perspective that is informative, true to its principles, and transparent about where it’s coming from.
This is not the New York Times, where both the opinion and news sections have major problems. Rather than delve into too much political controversy I’ll stick to what’s obvious and which everyone knows, namely that the editorial pages of the NYT are extraordinarily tired. They are full of columnists like Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd who are well past their sell-by dates. Heck, even the reporting staff at the NYT (who operate under a completely separate management structure from opinion) agrees. The New York Observer wrote about this in a piece called “The Tyranny and the Lethargy of the Times Editorial Page.” The Observer describes the reporting staff as being in “semi-open revolt” against editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal and that the situation has “reached the boiling point.” Enough said. I’m sure you’ve already tweeted at least one Friedman parody yourself.
The report’s inability to grapple with clear content issues is telling, as it makes you wonder what else they are in denial about.
Is Readership the Measure of Success?
The report is permeated by a concern over web traffic and readership. For example, “over the last year The Times has watched readership fall significantly. Not only is the audience on our website shrinking but our audience on our smartphone apps has dipped, an extremely worrying sign on a growing platform”, “Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do”, “Some key measures of traffic and engagement point to an inescapable truth: The Times needs to work harder to reach and hold onto readers”, “The Times should use it as another tool to drive traffic to our journalism”, “Companies like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have, in just a few years, eclipsed our traffic by building best practices for search and social into their workflow.”
I don’t want to disparage traffic. All things being equal, I’d like to have more of it. But if I went off on a quest to maximize traffic, it would take me away from my mission and I suspect destroy the value my readers get from this site – the very readers I write it to reach. Wanting to be among the traffic elite while, as they put it, maintaining “the journalistic values and integrity that make the Times the greatest journalistic institution in the world” would seem to be incompatible.
The NYT should instead be seen as a pseudo-luxury product like Apple. Hence they shouldn’t measure themselves in terms of raw audience size or web traffic like a mass market product. They should find measures more appropriate their category, especially who is reading (target demographics such as senior government officials), and the influence their journalism is having, as well as profitability and margins. Let the other guys chase clicks with listicles and slide shows and whatnot. The goal shouldn’t be to have the most readers, but to have the best – and hopefully the most of the best.
Yes, this is like Christensen’s description of a company experiencing disruption reacting by going upmarket. You’ll note he also suggests that is inevitable. But unlike with a technology product that is purely functional, luxury and pseudo-luxury products have an enormous advantage in pulling off the strategy: exclusivity (or the feeling of exclusivity) is part of what creates the market pull for the product in question. There isn’t an NYT reader out there who isn’t at some level congratulating themselves for being part of the group of people who reads the New York Times. The real competitive threat is not from the Buzzfeeds of this world, but from somebody like the Guardian (which has the additional cachet of being English – think about the urban hipsters who now all follow their favorite Premier League team) seizing the NYT’s mindshare among elite readers. This is especially a danger in light of the NYT’s content troubles.
The Advertising Based Business Model
Circulation and traffic are really only important for one reason: CPM, or the advertising rates the NYT can charge. If your business is selling ads on the internet, obviously you want more readers, any kind of readers. You can segment and easily target ads to each demographic or even individual.
But what would the New York Times look like without an advertising driven business model? They may get a chance to find out. Print circulation continues to decline and print is still the bulk of the ad revenue. Sad as it seems, we appear to be heading to a digital only future and the financials on the current model aren’t good if you look at the secular trend.
The report notes that circulation revenues exceed ad revenues. In the first quarter of 2014, digital only circulation revenue exceeded digital ad revenue. The NYT is already majority supported directly by subscribers. Imagine a world where you could deliver content to those subscribers in a way that ads actual value to their lives instead of doing obnoxious things to them to make additional bucks on top of the bucks they are already paying. Obnoxious things like this:
Eliminating advertising longer term would also enable significant cost savings in labor, technology, etc. as the entire infrastructure that supports ad sales and delivery could be eliminated. It would be interesting to see the NYT cost structure broken down by: content creation and digital technology, ad sales and delivery, printing and distribution costs, and other SG&A. What does your cost structure look like if you don’t have any cost associated with advertising and/or manufacturing and distributing a print daily?
Keep in mind, many print subscribers like me would convert to digital only if print were discontinued, so digital revenues would go up. But there are many potential sources of revenue that the NYT has barely touched. Only like 5% of revenue comes from “other” sources. They note the potential for events, which is a good idea for a revenue stream to build up. There are huge numbers of opportunities for them to better monetize their content and brand to replace or supplement advertising.
Consider the idea of selling data, which they mention in passing with Pro Publica selling data sets. In a sense, the future business model of media was already invented in this way by Michael Bloomberg. He makes his money selling data terminals, and journalism is a value add to that business. Why can’t the NYT do something like that?
I tried to take up this challenge with my Telestrian platform. I failed to establish a material revenue stream from it, but I’ll attribute that to my own failures. I bootstrapped it, so it was under-invested, and that was just a symptom of my general unwillingness to go all in an treat it as an actual business instead of a bag on the side of everything else I do. I continue to believe the general concept is sound.
Media companies like the NYT have instead turned to “data journalism” (e.g., The Upshot at the NYT). Data journalism takes something that has a huge dollar value in the marketplace – data – and combines it with something with limited dollar value in the marketplace – journalism, which people mostly expect to get for free. It’s like multiplying by zero: net result, zero dollars. When you consider the vast fortunes made in data industries and the fact that no company appears to have ever made any real money off data journalism, something is clearly amiss. Rather than being a value add to data, journalism appears to be a value destroyer.
Imagine if the NYT created a “New York Times Terminal” application that’s the standard reference source for all sorts of data and visualizations that huge numbers of government officials, students, academics, other journalists, economic developers, consultants, etc. would want to have? They’ve already got the brand and the credibility and the channel for selling it. And this type of product produces next to no conflicts of interests for journalism.
The Financial Times has already started doing this with things like their FDI Intelligence service (of which I’m a customer). There’s also the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The possibilities are endless for creating new revenues streams, but this won’t happen because of the “separation of church and state” culture they have which keeps content creation completely isolated from monetization.
I’m not saying that you abandon advertising tomorrow. Obviously the business doesn’t support that. I’d also love nothing better than if print ultimately survive. But you have to be scenario planning and looking at how you land the plane over the longer term in various situations. This is one of them. Which brings us to:
Arthur Sulzberger Has to Lead
The idea that the newsroom and the techies need to collaborate more is nice, but that won’t solve the fundamental problems. The stone cold reality is that the New York Times is not going to solve its problems without the direct intervention of and strong leadership from Arthur Sulzberger. The buck stops with him. His family controls the paper. He’s the one who fired Jill Abramson. He’s reportedly the one providing air cover for the lackluster opinion pages. Only he has the authority and gravitas to change a culture and management structure that the journalists and their “masthead” loving ways will never change on their own.
It’s clear that the culture of the NYT has major issues and that the inmates are running the asylum, likely a legacy of newspapers historic isolation and independence of the journalists from the rest of the business. It appears to be a rather Machiavellian environment, and by sacking Abramson after Dean Baquet complained, Sulzberger is only encouraging that behavior. It reminds me of the maneuverings of the various “dukes” recounted by Gay Talese back in the day. Office politics exists everywhere, but they appear to be having a profoundly adverse effect at the NYT.
This latest leadership failure has left new executive editor Dean Baquet damaged and maybe in an ultimately fatal position. I don’t know him from Adam, but the one I thing I do know based on all the reports about Abramson’s firing is that he went over the head of his boss to stab her in the back so he could take her job and climb up the corporate ladder. Or at least that’s how it looks. Sulzberger himself disputed that Abramson had been paid less than Bill Keller, but I haven’t heard anyone deny the that narrative on Baquet. So for those who don’t know him personally and can only draw conclusions from public reports, what is the obvious question to ask yourself if being recruited by Baquet to the NYT? Without a doubt it’s, “If this guy will do that to his boss, how fast would he throw me under the bus for his own benefit?” Fair or not, reflective of who he actually is as a person or not, that’s the logic that this affair has put on the table, and the blame lies with Sulzberger for running his shop like this. So fixing the NYT starts with Sulzberger changing his leadership style.
What’s more, only Sulzberger can cram through the major changes that are needed. Only he can challenge the paper’s most fundamental truths, chief among them the the wall of separation between business and content.
This is the ultimate beauty of getting out of the advertising business: it eliminates the conflict of interest that an advertising business model holds. If you’re being financed by readers and ancillary revenue streams with limited to no conflicts of interest, you can start operating more like a normal company.
This is imperative for navigating to the digital future. For example: the report notes that journalists sit on one side of the wall and digital product managers on the other. How is this possible? Isn’t content ultimately part of the product? What’s more, there are actually two different sets of journalists, news and opinion. That just adds to the confusion.
In a normal company, the product manager is in charge of the product. Not at the NYT. This, I think is a typical corporate setup for a company that wants to run product and services style of IT shop, but which leaves ultimate decision making authority over the product with a separate business group. I lived it and it sucks. In this setup there’s no clear executive sponsorship outside IT for initiatives that are technology enabled, because nominally IT is the product manager, but one with limited authority in the business. In an outside consulting model, where you’re paying green money, the business exec who makes the decision to sponsor the project and hire the consultant has their ass on the line. And the reputation of the consultant is on the line as well. See: Healthcare.gov. But in the NYT setup, nobody is actually responsible, so you get lots of finger pointing and system blaming. There needs to be a real executive sponsor or it is a recipe for pain.
In fast changing digital news world, it seems to me that your journalists and product technology need to be on the same team and share a lot of overlapping skills. What’s more, the Abramsom fiasco and general sense I get of newsroom culture suggests that other corporate functions like HR ought to be a lot more involved in the newsroom. How can you run a business where the core product team isn’t tightly coordinating with the rest of the business? It doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. Back in the day when newspapers were quasi-monopolies, the pace of change was slow, and the revenue side came with conflicts of interest the old school ways of doing things made sense. But it doesn’t anymore. And believe it or not people in business functions have a high standards of professional ethics around protecting confidentiality, telling the truth, avoiding/disclosing conflicts of interest, etc.
The types of changes needed to make build the real digital news future are so radical to the journalism status quo that only Sulzberger himself, someone who not only has the clout but also the family’s history of stewardship of the NYT over the years, can make this happen.
If anyone can. As Clayton Christensen noted, incumbents have a terrible time responding to disruptive innovation. Those who experience a rupture of their world often are never able to get over it. That’s why it may well be that the future of news belongs to people who never marinated in old school journalism traditions and practices. Can the New York Times be the exception to the rule? As a subscriber, I hope so.
Here’s the report and direct link if the embed doesn’t display. I have many more thoughts on this report – such as their concept of “sections” vs. verticals – but I’ll save that for another day.
Full Disclosure: I have written an article for the Guardian and once contributed to the NYT’s Room for Debate feature.
Tuesday, May 6th, 2014
[ Although his reputation in many urbanist circles is as a defender of sprawl, Wendell Cox happens to be a skyscraper fan. Here’s a review he did last year of the history of the world’s tallest buildings – Aaron. ]
The New York World Building (1890-1955).
Skyscrapers have always intrigued me. Perhaps it began with selling almanacs to subscribers on my Oregon Journal paper route in Corvallis. I have continued to purchase almanacs each year and until recently, the first thing I would do is look in the index for "Buildings, tall” in the old Pulitzer The World Almanac, the best source until the Internet.
My 1940 edition is the first in which “Buildings, tall” appears. The world of skyscrapers has changed radically through the years. This article provides a historical perspective on the world’s tallest buildings, using information from almanacs and the Internet (See Table Below). Extensive hyperlinking is also used, principally to articles on particular buildings.
The Rise of Commercial and Residential Buildings
Throughout most of history, the tallest habitable buildings have been religious edifices, or mausoleums, such as the great pyramids of Egypt. But in the middle to late 19th century, taller commercial and residential buildings were erected in the United States. For four years, from 1890 to 1894, the New York World Building, itself was the tallest in the world, at 309 feet (95 meters) and 20 floors. But it was not until the turn of the 20th century that a commercial or residential building exceeded the tallest religious building, Ulm Cathedral in Germany. This was Philadelphia’s City Hall. In its wisdom, however, Philadelphia outlawed any building higher than William Penn’s head at the top of City Hall. It was not until the late 1980s that a taller building appeared in Philadelphia (One Liberty Place).
Tallest Buildings in 1940
Despite Chicago’s claim as birthplace of the skyscraper, by 1940, nine of the 10 tallest buildings in the world were in New York. Manhattan was so dominant that the World Almanac listed the city at the top of the list, out of alphabetical order. The five tallest buildings, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, 60 Wall Tower (now 70 Pine), 40 Wall Tower (now the Trump Building) and the RCA Building (now the GE Building) all opened in the 1930s and represent Art Deco at its zenith. The sixth tallest, the Woolworth Building, had been the world’s tallest from 1913 to 1930 and is neo-Gothic.
Cleveland’s Terminal Tower was 7th tallest, and the tallest building in the world outside New York. Cleveland’s Union Terminal was in the building and served the legendary New York Central Railroad’spremier New York to Chicago 20th Century Limited.
Tallest Buildings in 1962
Things changed little by 1962. The five Art Deco skyscrapers that where the tallest in 1940 remained so in 1962. There were two newcomers to the top 10 list, both modernist monoliths, the Chase Manhattan Bank Building in lower Manhattan and the Pan Am Building (later the Met-Life Building). The Pan Am Building is despised by many New Yorkers as Parisians despise the Tour Montparnasse. This led to banning similar behemoths in the ville de Paris (most of the skyscrapers in the Paris urban area are in La Defense, a nearby suburban “edge city”). But all of the 10 tallest buildings in the world were in the United States.
Tallest Buildings in 1981
Just two decades later, New York’s dominance eroded. By now, The World Almanac listed New York in alphabetical order, between New Orleans and Oakland. For the first time since before 1908 when the Singer Building opened, New York was not the home of the world’s tallest building. That title had gone to Chicago’s, Sears Tower (later Willis Tower), which opened in 1974. Chicago gained even more respect with two other buildings appearing in the top 10, the Standard Oil Building (now Aon Center) and the John Hancock Center, which was the tallest mixed use (residential and commercial) building in the world. The twin towers of the former New York World Trade Center were tied for second tallest in the world.
For the first time, a non-American skyscraper was in the top 10. Toronto’s First Canadian Place was the eighth tallest in the world. Only three of the former five New York Art Deco buildings remained in the top 10, with 40 Wall Tower and the RCA Building no longer on the list.
Tallest Building in 2000
By 2000, Kuala Lumpur, which is not among the largest cities in the world, emerged with both of the tallest buildings, in the Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers ended America’s long history of having the tallest building. These distinctive postmodern towers were just two of six Asian entries in the top 10, including another postmodern structure, the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai’s Pudong, which is probably the world’s largest edge city.
I recall my surprise at exiting the Guangzhou East Railway station in 1999 to see the CITIC Tower, the 7th tallest building in the world. There could have been no better indication of that nation’s modernization. The Pearl River Delta had two other of the tallest buildings, one in Shenzhen (Shun Hing Square), the special economic zone that became the economic model for the rest of China, and the second in Hong Kong (Central Plaza).
Tallest Building in 2013
By 2013, the world of skyscrapers had nearly completely overturned. Dubai, with a population little more than Minneapolis-St. Paul, is now home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The Burj Khalifa is not just another building. Never in history has a new tallest building exceeded the height of the previous tallest building by so much. Even the long dominant Empire State Building had exceeded the Chrysler building by only 200 feet (64 meters). The Burj Khalifa was nearly 1050 feet higher (320 meters) than the then tallest building, Taipei 101, and reaches to more than 1/2 mile (0.8 kilometers) into the sky. The world’s second tallest building (the Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower) is also on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Shanghai World Financial Center is now the fourth tallest in the world, and when it opened had the highest habitable floor and the highest observation deck in the world. Its unusual design has earned it the nickname "bottle opener" among residents (Photo 1). Hong Kong has a new entry in the list, the International Commerce Center, across the harbor in Kowloon. Nanjing’s Greenland Financial Complex (Photo 2) ranks 8th, and Shenzhen’s Kinkey 100 ranks 10th.
Photo 1: Jin Mao Tower (left) and Shanghai World Financial Center (right), Shanghai. Construction began later on the recently topped out Shanghai Tower to the right of the Shanghai World Financial Center.
Photo 2: Greenland Financial Center, Nanjing
Nine of the 10 tallest buildings in the world are now in Asia. The last American entry is the Sears Tower (Willis Tower), in Chicago, which ranks 9th. Skyscraperpage.com maintains a graphic of the world’s tallest buildings (Note 1).
A number of super-tall buildings (Note 2) will soon open. Earlier this month, the Shanghai Tower was “topped out.” This structure is across the street from the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center, forming by far the greatest concentration of super-tall skyscrapers in the world (Photo 1). The Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen and the Wuhan Greenland Center in Wuhan are also under construction, and will rank, at least temporarily, second and third tallest in the world when completed. The Goldin Finance Building in Tianjin and the Lotte World Tower in Seoul will be somewhat shorter. One World Trade Center in New York will be completed before most of these, which will allow it brief entry into the top ten.
Another entry, Sky City in Changsha (Hunan) could be on the list, slightly taller than the Burj Khalifa. This building is to be constructed in 210 days, following site preparation and work began last month. It was, however, halted by municipal officials and there are conflicting reports as to the building’s status.
Skyscraperpage.com also maintains a graphic of the world’s tallest under-construction buildings.
Tallest Buildings in 2020?
None of the tallest buildings in the world are predicted to be in the United States by 2020, according to a graphic of current plans posted on the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat website. The Burj Khalifa is expected to be replaced as tallest by another Arabian Peninsula entry, the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, which will be 0.6 miles high (3.3 kilometers). The torch has been passed to Asia.
|WORLD’S TALLEST COMPLETED BUILDINGS: 1940-2013|
|1||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|3||60 Wall Tower (70 Pine Street)||New York||950||290||66|
|4||40 Wall Tower (Trump)||New York||927||283||90|
|8||Metropolitan Life||New York||700||213||50|
|9||500 5th Avenue||New York||697||212||60|
|10||20 Exchange Place||New York||685||209||54|
|1||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|3||60 Wall Tower (70 Pine Street)||New York||950||290||66|
|4||40 Wall Tower (Trump)||New York||927||283||71|
|6||Pan Am (Met-Life)||New York||830||253||59|
|7||Chase Manhattan||New York||813||248||60|
|9||20 Exchange Place||New York||741||226||57|
|1||Sears Tower (Willis Tower)||Chicago||1,454||443||110|
|2||World Trade Center-North Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|2||World Trade Center-South Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|4||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|5||Standard Oil (Amoco)||Chicago||1,136||346||80|
|6||John Hancock Center||Chicago||1,127||344||100|
|8||Texas Commerce Tower||Houston||1,002||305||75|
|9||First Canadian Place||Toronto||952||290||72|
|10||60 Wall Tower (70 Pine Street)||New York||950||290||66|
|1||Petronas Tower 1||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|1||Petronas Tower 2||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|3||Sears Tower (Willis Tower)||Chicago||1,454||443||110|
|4||Jin Mao Tower||Shanghai||1,381||421||88|
|5||World Trade Center-North Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|5||World Trade Center-South Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|8||Shun Hing Center||Shenzhen||1,260||384||69|
|9||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|10||Central Plaza||Hong Kong||1,227||374||78|
|1||Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower||Mecca||1,971||601||120|
|4||Shanghai World Financial Center||Shanghai||1,614||592||101|
|5||International Commerce Center||Hong Kong||1,588||484||118|
|6||Petronas Tower 1||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|6||Petronas Tower 2||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|8||Greenland Financial Complex||Nanjing||1,476||450||89|
|9||Sears Tower (Willis Tower)||Chicago||1,454||443||110|
|Outside United States|
|United States, Outside New York|
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”
Note 1: There are a number of sources for information on tall buildings, such as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Skyscraperpage.com, Emporis.comand Wikipedia.com. Of course, my favorite will always be The World Almanac, even if the Internet provides faster access. Wikipedia also has fascinating articles on individual buildings (Wikipedia’sutility is limited to recreational research for identifying original sources, and should never be used in serious research, or God forbid, used in a footnote).
Note 2: The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats defines a super-tall building as being over 980 feet (300 meters) high.
This post originally appeared in New Geography on August 24, 2013.