Debits and Credits

Portfolio's weak cover; BW's cool update; Economist instructs; WSJ probes, etc.

Portfolio disappoints this month with its cover story on the oil boom in Iraq.

We had bought the magazine on the newsstand for its cover and were pulled in by the headline, “Boomtown, Iraq.” We read that there’s an area of Iraq where they’re building McMansions, they love Americans so much they practically want to become the 51st state and where if you shoot the dirt just maybe up through the ground comes a bubblin’ crude? Tell us more!

Oh, dang. Turns out, it’s just Kurdistan, where this stuff was happening long before the U.S. invaded Iraq (this latest time, that is). The region has been semi-independent from Iraq for more than 15 years, first under the U.S. and British no-fly zones. You don’t get a hint of that from this story, though.
Kurdistan’s prosperity and stability are well known, even to business-press readers, and yet Portfolio pretends this is news. The editorial misjudgment is compounded by the idea of selling the magazine’s cover on a story that seems to be about prosperity inside Iraq proper, a story that a reader might believe plausible given recent security gains in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Our second beef relates to the story’s gonzo/New Journalism style, which may have been employed to make up for the lack of news, but boils down to descriptions of the cornflakes and omelets-to-order the writer ate in his hotel.
For the duration of the article we tag along with the author as he traipses around town visiting television stations, business owner’s and minister’s offices, power plants, oil pumps. Then he hits an amusement park with billiards and bowling.

And I’m thinking, Yes, this is the climax of the piece right here, affluent Kurds clowning around, the magazine’s going to love this entertaining stuff, so why does that make me feel like a pimp in a burgundy velvet suit? Who are these people who keep Al Qaeda from infiltrating their homeland while the U.S. Army scratches its head and watches the rest of Iraq fall to pieces? And why haven’t the New York Times and CNN taken notice? Here’s a guess, just one possibility: because journalists are pimps for war, my friends, in burgundy velvet suits. And that’s the news from here.


Again, since it’s not at all surprising when the author writes, “And the Kurds love Americans. Love, love,” we question whether a story about Kurdistan’s prosperity might have been better played inside.

We felt the same way (see fourth item) about February’s cover, Joe Keohane’s piece on fat. Such thoughts have crept into our minds about earlier covers, including November’s by Jesse Eisinger, who wrote an analytical piece about Wall Street’s troubles that was fine, but didn’t have either a narrative or enough new information to merit a cover.

What we like about Portfolio is that we don’t feel like we’re walking in on the middle of a conversation the way we sometimes do reading Forbes or Fortune. We applaud its appeal to lay readers. We love the rich design. We’re happy it’s here.

But in the end, it’s about the stories. Some cover pieces simply don’t stand up to their prominent display.

A credit to Business Week for a journalism 2.0 treatment of a web 2.0 subject.
Editors realized that this story by Stephen Baker and Heather Green about the benefits of social media was still being linked to and read widely date despite having been written in 2005.
So they went through and updated the story with new links and changed the headline from “Blogs Will Change Your Business” to “Social Media Will Change Your Business.”
If you’re going to read an article it’s helpful to have the most up-to-date numbers, and Business Week took advantage of the fact that the Web allows for that. Among some of the more interesting pop-up amendments (in italics):

First, a few numbers. There are some 9 million blogs out there,

Yes, there were 9 million, but how many of them were active? Probably only a fraction. In early 2008, says Technorati Chairman David Sifry, the search company indexes 112 million blogs, with 120,000 new ones popping up each day. But only 11% of these blogs, he says, have posted within the past two months. That means the active universe is closer to 13 million blogs. Kevin Burton, CEO of FeedBlog, argues that the number should be lower, from 2 million to 4 million blogs.

with 40,000 new ones popping up each day. Some discuss poetry, others constitutional law. And, yes, many are plain silly. “Mommy tells me it may rain today. Oh Yucky Dee Doo,” reads only one April Posting. Let’s assume that 99.9% are equally off point.

What we didn’t see in early 2005 was the advent of the spam blog. These blogs, produced automatically, are designed to show up in search results and to attract Google advertisements known as Adsense. Sifry estimates that fully 99% of the blog posts reaching search engines are spam.

It would be maddening (and needless to say, impossible, in a retracting industry) for every story to be updated every few years. But for a story like this, Business Week nailed it.

Some dollops of credit love for the little things we learned this week:
We want to credit the Economist for a story about femtocells. Created in the early oughts, these mini-base stations are becoming more mainstream and could disrupt the telecom industry.

“Femto” is the metric prefix denoting one quadrillionth (million billionth) of a unit. Femtocells are not that tiny, but they are very small, low-power versions of the radio towers and their wardrobe-sized base-stations used in mobile-phone networks. Hooked up to a home’s broadband-internet connection, femtocells provide solid indoor coverage and allow residents to make cheap calls using their existing handsets. Leave the house while chatting, and your call is automatically handed over to the wider mobile-phone network.

Although there are some implementation problems (apparently there is some competition when you have too many networks together, and the doo-dads are $200) the story makes the assertion that Femtocells are positioned to dethrone the big base stations in the way that the PC beat out mainframes.

The Wall Street Journal gets a credit this week for a good investigative story on retailers pursuing alleged shoplifters.

In an escalating battle against theft, retailers are going after anyone suspected of shoplifting, turning over their names to lawyers and collection firms, who pursue the suspects for stiff penalties and split the take with the retailer.

The article reports that there is very little oversight in “civil recovery” and retailers don’t have to have proof of theft to demand a payment. Usually the payment is $200, even if the allegedly lifted item was much less.

We enjoyed David Leonhardt’s story on the returning relevancy of economics in his second annual “survey of economists.”
The responses to the survey suggest that some of the most interesting work out there is being done at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T. where Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee are developing ways to overhaul development aid.
By developing a system that relies on performing randomized tests with aid programs, the economists can help aid groups determine what is causing positive effects.

Mr. Kremer and two other economists, in fact, did the textbook experiment—and found that textbooks didn’t improve test scores or graduation rates in rural western Kenya. (The students were probably too diverse, in terms of preparation and even language, to be helped by a single curriculum.) On the other hand, another randomized trial in the same part of Kenya found that treating children for intestinal worms did lift school performance. That study has led to an expansion of deworming programs and, as Alan Krueger of Princeton says, is “probably improving millions of lives.”

Economists improving millions of lives. That warms our cold Audit hearts.

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Anna Bahney is a Fellow and staff writer for The Audit