This column, a regular feature, was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. What’s the real value of big data?
The Obama administration’s report last week on the need to consider restricting how Google, Facebook, and other internet powerhouses collect and use big data reminds me of a story I’ve been hoping to see for a while: How much does this collecting and slicing and dicing of big data actually help advertisers and marketers?
I get the idea that a woman who lives in New Jersey and has accessed information online about baby carriages makes a great target for advertisers selling other baby or maternity products. But do marketers really benefit from data that they buy that goes way beyond that — that zeroes in on what other websites she has been to, where she buys what online, where a location service says she has physically been lately or whether her Gmails refer to different products or subjects?
Two years ago, I was in an audience of media and marketing people mesmerized by a presentation from a Yahoo data expert who promised that his firm could target, to take one example, “men who had shopped online for a BMW and also been to a New York Giants football game in the last year.”
Each of those attributes might be worth something. Does putting them together really matter?
Maybe. But I’ve never seen a story that delves into the costs of using all that multi-grain data compared to the results it produces. How much more expensive are different levels of targeting compared to the results they actually produce? When does the big-data-based super-targeting become not only a privacy issue but also an expensive, alluring technology solution in search of a problem?
2. Update on Newsweek litigation:
It’s time for an update on the suit brought by Dorian Nakamoto against Newsweek. He’s the 64-year-old California engineer outed as the secretive genius behind bitcoin in the dubious March cover story in Newsweek’s comeback print issue.
This should be a good suit to write about and read about because it presents an easy-to-digest primer on the dynamics of tort law.
Neither side seems to have much in the way of assets. Indeed, I’d start by finding out if Newsweek’s owner, IBT Media — an obscure company that took over the money-losing magazine from Barry Diller’s IAC/Interactive Corporation — has any assets to defend in a suit. Let alone any insurance or other wherewithal to hire lawyers to defend it.
Then, I’d want to know why Los Angeles lawyer Ethan Kirschner took the case for Nakamoto — other than to be a nice guy or to get a few headlines. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in suits like this usually get paid based on a percentage of what they win. But, again, I can’t imagine there’s much to win from IBT or from author Leah McGrath Goodman or editor in chief Jim Impoco — even if Kirschner can prove his case and, more important, prove that Nakamoto suffered damages for which he should be compensated.
Another question: Did Goodman or Impoco get IBT to indemnify them, the way most substantial news organizations do? If so, how solid could that indemnification be if IBT doesn’t have sufficient assets?
Which brings us to the case’s most interesting aspect and to any briefs or other arguments that might have been filed so far: Beyond the hassle of having reporters camped outside his house for a few days after the Newsweek story appeared, how was Nakamoto damaged by having someone assert, even if falsely, that he’s the genius behind bitcoin?
Plaintiffs in past cases have recovered damages as a result of being cast in what’s called a “false light” — even if the false light didn’t have negative connotations. But those damages are difficult to prove and, in this case, seem impossible to prove.
But who knows? Maybe Kirschner has a theory, or his client has a claim, that changes the odds. Either way, Newsweek’s false re-start with this story, its curious legal position of continuing to assert what it cannot prove and what its reporting did not establish, and its seemingly shallow pockets, combined with Nakamoto’s seemingly weak prospects, would make this a fun legal battle to look in on.
3. White House Correspondents’ Dinner….again:
Two years ago, prompted by Tom Brokaw’s apt critique of the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner as an over-the-top event that “separates the press from the people they are supposed to serve,” I pointed out that the proceeds raised from the $250-a-plate dinner didn’t seem to produce much in the way of scholarships for needy journalism students.
The association’s website seemed to list only about $105,000 in scholarships and grants — despite the fact that the dinner sold “nearly” 2,700 seats, according to its website. Plus, the website thanked corporate donors who seemed to have chipped in additional cash.
With the dinner this weekend seemingly more amped than ever, I checked the association’s latest tax return — which, as it turns out, covers activities for the year 2012 that I speculated about two years ago.
Indeed, there was just exactly $105,000 in grants. Other association expenses were $155,000, meaning the organization spent more on its own management (rent, salary for a staffer, etc.) than on its charitable works. And that was before spending another $403,000 on the 2012 dinner, which took in $661,000.
Looking further into the gap between the dinner’s glitz and cost and the impact of those scholarships, and asking leaders of the association about all that was a good story idea two years ago. The more the dinner grows, the better it gets.