Dynamist Blog

Life in a Declining Industry

This long American Journalism Review article on troubles at the LA Times made me think about the question media critics consistently dodge: What strategies are realistically available when you're caught in a declining industry, which the metropolitan daily newspaper most assuredly is? How do you sell localism--local news, local advertising, locally produced articles on national subjects--in a market saturated with cheap substitutes whose quality has been tested in national competition? What niche can you fill?

These are not questions that can be answered by referring to "good" journalism or "bad" journalism. The local newspaper faces the same essential problem as the independent bookstore, the local theater group (competing with the movies and TV), the local music scene, and so forth. What once was good--or good enough--no longer is. Newspapers, journalists, and their critics have to start by recognizing that circumstances have changed and strategies must change as well. Unfortunately, well-trained daily journalists tend to believe that the old ways were "ethical" and anything else (including the strong voices found in most magazines) is not.

Far be it from me to defend the decisions of newspaper managers, many of which (and whom) seem idiotic, but this sort of mindless "oh poor us" coverage doesn't add to readers' understanding. Morale is going to be bad in a declining business, but that doesn't mean ignoring the decline will reverse it.

GMO vs. Land Mines

A Danish company has genetically modified the plant Arabidopsis thaliana (Thale or mouse cress) so that its flowers turn red when the roots come into contact with nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted by decaying land mines. For more, including a photo, see the very cool Core77 "Materials Clogger" blog.

Pleasure In, Snobbery Out

In this article for the WSJ's "Taste" page, I argue that the success of the much-maligned "shopping magazines," notably Lucky, is a sign of cultural maturity--think adulthood vs. junior high:

As shoppers hit the stores for this year's holiday rush, the "wish books" many are consulting come not from Sears or Neiman Marcus but from Condé Nast and Hearst. They're poring over "shopping magazines," the publishing category established by Lucky and joined this year by its male-oriented spinoff, Cargo, and its new competitor, Shop Etc.

Shopping magazines don't dilute their celebration of shoes, gadgets, sweaters, handbags and makeup with articles on politics, celebrities or art. That makes it easy to sneer at them. Critics call these publications "magalogs," charging that they're little more than catalogs. Lucky doesn't even have real articles, grouse prestige journalists, just glorified captions. Even Kim France, Lucky's editor in chief, acknowledges that the magazine's photography is "very literal," with none of the artistic ambition of Fashion photography with a capital F.

For all their blatant materialism, however, Lucky and its kin actually represent cultural progress. Their unabashed presentation of goods as material pleasures keeps materialism in its place. They don't encourage readers to equate fashion with virtue or style with superiority. They're sharing fun, not rationing status.

Read the rest here (no subscription needed).

Abalone as Materials Engineers

In the intellectual disputes over nanotechnology, I lean toward the side that says borrowing from biological processes, which have had millions of years to evolve effectively, is more promising than using large-scale mechanical techniques as models. The Red Herring has an intriguing short article on a start-up that is working to apply abalone shell-formation techniques to "to design everything from nanowires to new LCDs." Here are some excerpts:

If the future of technology involves the synergy of silicon chips and biology, then Dr. Angela Belcher has a head start. Her two-year-old startup, Cambrios, leverages the abalone shell formation — which represents millions of years of evolution - to bring a new generation of biological nano-fabrication processes for the electronics industry.

Dr. Belcher has studied the biology of abalones and how the mollusks are able to assemble an extremely hard shell from calcium carbonate and other minerals in an ocean filled with various microbes and contaminants. The result: she and her colleagues have developed proteins that can bind to about 30 different electronic, magnetic, and optical materials, and then assemble the materials into protein structures.

These compounds could help chip engineers build nano-sized materials with extreme precision. And the atom-by-atom self-assembly advantage could help make these chips and optical components competitive with those crafted of silicon, and produce electronics that self-assemble and self-repair when circuits fail....

One of the most promising aspects of Dr. Belcher's discovery is that the process takes place in seawater - not the billion-dollar fabrication plants and hygienic rooms required for silicon manufacturing.

It all starts from the inter-tidal waters, the abalone's home. The abalone's hard shell is formed from ragonite, a natural mineral formation that appears in subterranean caverns. These small formations of hard substance look like tablets of paper and are less than 1 micron tall and several microns wide. The tablets are fused together with protein that acts as glue. To accomplish these bio-material formations, Cambrios uses bacterial phages measuring 6 nanometers in circumference and 880 nanometers in length....

Like biology itself, Cambrios' technology operates at the nanoscale. The company says its assembly of materials can be coded with the same degree of specificity as molecular interactions, meaning that it could radically expand the physical limits of existing manufacturing methods and architectures, while reducing their cost and environmental impact. "The ability to manipulate the genome of viruses gives us a very powerful tool to write the software for bottom-up assembly," says Dr. Leighton Read, a partner with Alloy Ventures, a Cambrios investor. "I don't think the coolness factor is how small you can get, it relates to what you can build and how well you can build it and how well it works."

These excerpts emphasize the science. The full article includes more business information.

Holiday Commissions

Support your favorite blog(s). Do your Amazon holiday shopping through any link from this blog or another favorite site. Amazon Associates like Dynamist.com get a percentage of whatever you spend, and you don't pay a penny more. (The percentage is higher if you order the specific item the link goes to, but Amazon pays a commission on anything you buy when you begin at an Associates link.)

During the rest of the year, I use Amazon mostly for books, but come holiday gift-giving, it's a great source for toys (especially if you don't have kids and need the reviews) and other non-media gifts. For his birthday, I got my father this GPS unit for tramping around the mountains.

UPDATE: Marginal Revolution, one of my favorite blogs, is making a similar pitch.

Light Blogging

I'm visiting my family in South Carolina, where we had a surprise birthday party for my father on Saturday. (I'm going to see The Incredibles again tomorrow night with my niece and nephew.) I also have two articles due this week, so blogging will be light. On the plus side, I'm staying in a hotel with Wi-Fi and a refrigerator for my Diet Coke supply.

Photo Fix

A number of readers, including my mother and Professor Postrel, complained that they couldn't see the photo of my father and me below. I'd mistakenly posted a TIFF file rather than a JPEG. It's fixed now--so if you'd still like to see what we looked like in 1961, scroll down.

If You Think Today's Economy Is Unusually Tumultuous, You Haven't Read Enough American History

Andrew Olmsted calls my attention to this Robert Samuelson column on the myth of the good old days:

It's not simply that you can't turn back the clock. The larger difficulty is that the "good old days" never were. The supposedly placid past, once probed and explored, usually turns out to have been as jarring as the disruptive present. Something is always assaulting our sense of security and stability. We Americans say we like change, but we want it without troubling side effects. This is a mirage. Anyone who doubts that should read John Steele Gordon's superb, just-published book "An Empire of Wealth."

Mark Your Calendars

If you're in the DC area, don't miss Charles Paul Freund's lecture at AEI, "Popular Culture in the Middle East: A Conduit for Liberal Values?" It's Monday, December 6, from 5:30 to 7:00. Aside from being a brilliant and talented writer, Chuck is a delightful speaker. He might even show Arabic music videos.

Fighting Cancer

Fortune features an interesting article on how Michael Milken has jump-started research on prostate cancer. Here's an excerpt:

Eleven years later many others are listening too. That's because Milken has, in fact, turned the cancer establishment upside down. In the time it normally takes a big pharmaceutical company to bring a single new drug to market, Milken has managed to raise the profile of prostate cancer significantly, increase funding dramatically to fight the disease, spur innovative research, attract new people to the field, get myriad drugs into clinical trials, and, dare we say, speed up science. Milken's philanthropy, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, formerly called CaP Cure, has raised $210 million from its founding in 1993 through 2003 (the latest audited figures), making it the world's largest private sponsor of prostate cancer research.

That all-fronts effort, say numerous experts interviewed by FORTUNE, has been a significant factor in reducing deaths and suffering from the disease. The progress on this bottom line, in fact, has been stunning. In 1993 some 34,900 Americans died of prostate cancer; this year the figure is estimated to be 29,900, despite the fact that the population has grown 11% since then. That translates to a 24% drop in per capita death rates. (The National Cancer Institute, which adjusts its figures to minimize the effects of the aging population, calculates the decline at 26%.) What makes the improvement all the more remarkable is that the incidence of prostate cancer rises markedly with age--70% of cases are diagnosed in men over 65, for example. And today there are 1.6 million more men over 65 than there were ten years ago. Indeed, the drop in the prostate cancer death rate is four times the decline in overall cancer rates during the past decade.

For more on the subject, or to subscribe to an excellent news-summary email newsletter, go to FasterCures.org.

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