Needleman and Me

Posted in Issues

The life of a newspaperman resembles the saga of Black Beauty, as A.J. Liebling wrote long ago. A warm dry stall to sleep in and buckets of oats with one owner. The north forty and potato peelings for dinner with the next. And, always, the specter of the knacker’s yard.

So when in early 2002 the new management at Boston Globe unexpectedly terminated on the column I had written for 18 years about economics and related topics, I understood full well the stark choice I faced. Give up a subject I loved covering and take up plowing instead. Or quit and go it alone.

Until January, I had occupied a privileged position in the small world of American economic journalism. I was one of a relative handful of newsfolk permitted to spend most of my time covering technical economics. I had won Loeb Awards, published books, including a collection of columns, was nearing completion of an account of economics’ reorientation in the ’80s and ’90s. My reputation among economists was good. I had more stories to write than I knew what to do with. More were coming in every day.

I didn’t want to stop writing about economics.

So I quit the paper and took to the Web. I was interested in the possibilities of on-line coverage. And I hoped some other publication eventually would pick me up.

I established in March, and resumed writing weekly. After all, it wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened to me. Forbes magazine had declined to let me continue to report economics in 1978. I left, and was on the beach for nearly a year before the Globe hired me to do the same. The book I began that year, which turned out to be about the search for “a new Schumpeter,” was published in 1984 as The Idea of Economic Complexity. It has served me well over the years.


For a time, I thought of the online column as the Bartleby Gambit, after a Herman Melville story in which a clerk responds to his dismissal with the same mild answer at every turn: “I prefer not to,” he says.

Fairly quickly, though, I concluded that the Web enterprise might attract a good audience — especially if I figured out an appropriate frequency and perhaps maintained some links. How to make it pay was another question.

This was the period of the rise of the blogs — personal Web logs, often hosted for free by software developers and host services as a way of building business, and dedicated by their keepers to every conceivable topic, the written equivalent of talk radio. Whatever else, I knew I wasn’t a blog. There were several sites that I enjoyed looking at every day — John Ellis, Mickey Kaus and The Man Without Qualities among them. But the premise of most blogs left me cold. I covered economics to earn a living.

I wrote a column about collaborative filtering — the citation patterns, formal and informal, which are the engines of any evaluation system — in an attempt to put my finger on the difference. The quantity and quality of links had much in common with a newspaper’s brand name, I discovered. For a look at what goes on the junction of journalism and blogging, see Slashdot — a small on-line newspaper mostly about software with one of the most sophisticated letters-to-the-editor pages in the world.

But the underlying goals of blogging and journalism are very different. The most interesting blogs are loss leaders for persons who are involved in other sorts of careers. The rest are basically hobbies. My plan was to make Economic Principals pay.

Then one day I discovered an enterprise similar to my own — in Silicon Valley. Veteran technology reporter Rafe Needleman had put up a two-to-four-times-a-week column, Catch of the Day, after Red Herring magazine shut down its e-publishing venture last year. Before he left, he says, he had 100,000 email subscribers.

I was Bartleby no longer. I began thinking in terms of Needleman and Me.

But the companies that Needleman covers generate a lot more commerce than the economists I follow. In fact, he is following a path with his online column that was blazed by Esther Dyson in the early 1980s. Dyson took over a small newsletter for market analysts and built it into a powerhouse by covering, imaginatively and honestly, the companies that then were building the personal computer industry. It was trade journalism. But it was good journalism, exhibiting unusual intelligence and flair. And before long, the information revolution had become a major story in mainstream news.

In those good old days, Dyson’s subscriptions cost $395 apiece. The Web being what it is, Needleman gives his column to readers nearly free — in exchange for demographic information that helps him sell advertising to the companies he covers. I am hoping to go one step further — to make my coverage available online and to an email subscription list with no strings attached at all, to anyone interested in economics, inside or outside the profession.

The reason, of course, has to with wanting to remain as perpendicular as possible. Even though there’s not much advertising revenue in technical economics, there’s a lot of patronage and pressure of other kinds. Everyone, it seems, inside and outside the profession, has a firm idea of the important topics and how they should be approached. That’s why ultimately you want civilians, not economists, covering the beat.

I was, I think, the only American journalist routinely covering the production and distribution of new economic ideas in universities. I sought to write for the lay reader about the institutions through which economics was done — to inform the outsider who may have taken a course or two in economics in college, and who wondered what was going on now.

A newspaper had seemed like the ideal place for this kind of coverage — especially a newspaper in Boston, which constitutes a kind of world capital of economics, thanks to the presence of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a half-dozen other major universities and colleges, and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Always there was pressure to write other things: politics, technology policy, business stories. That was fun; it was the newspaper life. But I made a good-faith effort to fairly cover developments in all parts of economics. And for a while I think I succeeded.

But newspapers are cutting back these days, under pressure from declining circulation and diminishing ad revenues. They don’t try to do as much as they did before. The business section in which I had worked at The Boston Globe often had been characterized as being among the best of the nation’s regional dailies. But today it is operating with six fewer reporters than a year ago, more than a 20 percent reduction. And the Globe’s Sunday business section has carried almost no advertising for two years.

If not for a newspaper, what are the prospects for independent economic journalism? At least a couple of vaguely similar ventures exist on the Web, Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews for the Poynter Institute and Bob Park’s What’s New for the American Physical Society. MediaNews is a reliable daily digest of nearly everything that is written about the news business. What’s New features pungent criticism of populist policy and quack science from a physics professor whose disclaimer notes that his opinions may not necessarily shared by the American Physical Society or the University of Maryland, “but they should be.” Each is somewhat different from what I want to do.

So is Media Unspun, a well-edited daily commentary on business news that bills itself as “the only e-mail newsletter that many people will pay for.” (It is the work of the team formerly known as Media Grok at the late, lamented Industry Standard magazine.) I checked around with organizations that I thought might be interested in underwriting a column about economics. Environmental think-tanks? Venturesome university departments? No soap.

It was then that the Sabre Foundation came to the rescue. Sabre is a small but distinguished organization, a “begging” foundation best known for arranging the donation of scientific books and journals to organizations in more than 50 developing nations. It pioneered Internet training for officials of non-governmental organizations overseas. And recently it successfully exploited the Internet to launch the Michael Oakeshott Association, for the promotion and critical discussion of the ideas of the British philosopher — a prime example of Web-based disintermediation.

Even more to the point, Sabre maintains a long-standing project in the philosophy and accountability of institutions in democratic societies. An abiding curiosity about university economics fits right in. The Foundation offered to host a three-year pilot to see if an on-line column can be made to work. I jumped at the opportunity. Now I am hard at work raising money to support the project.

For a time I thought about going daily. Who among us doesn’t have a site or two we like to punch up every day? I thought better of it, settled tentatively on an omnibus column of several items to posted/delivered at the end of the week plus perhaps some links, this new turbo version to start after Columbus Day. The goal is to do everything a national paper does about economics — but more of it, and sometimes better.

Meanwhile, go get ’em, Needleman. I’m rooting for you.

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In a column on July 7, I misidentified Joeseph Stiglitz as a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. It was a Freudian slip. Stiglitz served as chief economist of the World Bank from 1997-2000. He sharply criticized the IMF in a recent book.