Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bertelsmann Going Public? Say It Isn't So, ...

Above: A detail screenshot from Bertelsmann's homepage.
The New York Post is reporting that "stodgy" – the Post's word, not mine – international media company Bertelsmann is making moves and giving signs that it could go at least partly public, after being run as a private company for 177 years.

Don't go toward the cliff, lemming.

Bertelsmann is still based in the German town of G├╝tersloh (current population less than 100,000) where it was founded as a Christian book publisher. Over the years, it grew into a mega-media company, owning everything from the producer of "American Idol" to broadcaster RTL to RTL Group (Europe's biggest production company) to iconic weekly German magazine Stern. Oh, it also owns Random House, its publishing arm Gruner + Jahr is the largest publishing house in Europe, and on and on.

Yet it keeps getting corporate chiefs who want to make radical changes, including going public, an option its controlling Mohn family members rejected a decade ago but which they apparently are considering now.

Bertelsmann, don't go public. You will get a cash infusion of money, yes, but you will lose control, even if, as the Post reports, you're taking legal steps to ensure continued control by the Mohn family. In a world of investors and funds that have absolutely no care in the world about a company's culture or history or anything but increasing quarterly dividends and stock prices, you'll be awash in shareholder lawsuits any time the stock drops. They will demand you drop slower-growth properties. They will tie the hands of your high-flying CEO. They will demand you strip out costs – er, investment, as real businesspeople call it – and throw money into dividends. That will make it actually more difficult to move into risky, developing markets, which is what the Post says is your goal.

Bertelsmann itself says in a press release that it's healthy. It reported a successful 2011 with "revenues of continuing operations rising 1.2 percent to €15.3 billion in the year under review (previous year: €15.1 billion). Organic growth was 1.7 percent. Operating EBIT reached €1.75 billion (previous year: €1.83 billion), remaining stable at a high level. The return on sales was 11.4 percent (previous year: 12.1 percent), once again demonstrating the profitability of the Group."

That doesn't sound like a sick patient to me, and it sounds like they've got money to make some riskier project launches, if that's what they want to do.

Wall Street is reportedly thrilled with the prospect of Bertelsmann becoming more, er, worldly, but one doesn't have to be anti-capitalist to think that a company is being lured into the alleyways so it can be taken for all its got. Bertelsmann the private company is a great symbol of capitalist success. Don't ruin it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Future Life, and Yours

From FutureLife March 14, 2012
Several days ago, I finished reading the final article in the final issue of a long-dead magazine, Future Life. It was the culmination of an off-and-on effort over several years to read the entire 31-issue run of the magazine.

It’s an achievement of dubious status, I realize.

Some things have changed since I began the effort to read every issue of the magazine. My original intention had been to come up with a business plan for a similar magazine. But over the next several years, I realized that there already were a number of publications that served the market for science-interested people who also love science fiction. None of them were the same as Future Life, naturally, but they covered more than enough of the same topics that there would not have been room for a new magazine in the same market space.

And yet, I continued reading, partly out of a self-induced urge to complete what I’d started, and partly because I was learning a lot about publishing by reading these 30-year-old magazines. I’ve been in the editorial business long enough to be able to tell when a short news article is nothing more than a warmed-over press release; I have a pretty good sense of when an article is published basically as a favor to someone; I know enough about paper weights, page counts, and coatings to be able to gauge the financial health of a publication.

I was also learning other things, though; perhaps it is better to say I was being reminded of other things. Future Life published its last issue in late 1981 (the cover date is December 1981, so it was actually released in late October of that year). Its entire life spanned only four years of eight annual issues. But the articles it contained reminded me of the public mood at the time and how it changed dramatically over the next decade. In the late 1970s, despite all of the country’s economic problems, the expectation was that we would keep exploring space, building permanent orbiting space colonies by the end of the century. The feature interview in Future Life #31 was with James Beggs, the Reagan administration’s newly installed administrator of NASA. The interview is largely devoted to him explaining all of the economic restraints that were being placed on the space agency. Basically: We’d like to do A, B, and C; but budget director David Stockman is only going to allow us to do A, and we’ll have to scale that down, too.
From FutureLife March 14, 2012

Naturally, NASA didn’t get to do much of squat, other than limp along with the already-outdated space shuttle, and colonization plans – commercial or private – simply receded from memory as the deep economic recession of the early 1980s took hold. It was a time when Americans went through something the British have gone through numerous times in the postwar years: austerity. We didn’t like it then any more than we like it now.

The country would come roaring out of that recession, its economy partially Reaganized (the full Reaganization would really take place under successors Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) and its priorities much more refocused on the ground in front of us. But the futures dreamed of and written about by Future Life’s staff were largely forgotten. In that four-year period, those futures included everything from galactic civilization to farming the seabeds to floating cities to life extension to ion drives to orbiting space junk to space warfare to overpopulation to laser art and on and on.

To its credit and unlike competitor Omni magazine, Future Life always remained refreshingly skeptical about UFOs. If Future Life had an obsession, though, it was scientist Gerard K. O’Neill’s “high frontier” concept of orbiting space colonies, and many articles, columns, space art, and news briefs were taken up with working out the practical steps of such a plan. What would be the economics (and the economy) of colonies? How would you transport people and cargo to them? How would you exercise in zero-g?
From FutureLife March 14, 2012

Future Life was a mixture of science and science fiction (films, books, paintings, etc.), and I think the magazine was an attempt to take the energy that the science fiction fan often burns off on daydreaming and self-absorption, and expend it instead on solving real problems and setting the fan’s sights on how to put their ideals to real-world uses. That, too, is an approach that I think has been lost. It might have been the particular interests of Future Life’s publishers and editors at that point in time, or it might have been a marriage between their efforts and the huge influx of new fans inspired by Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Star Trek movie, but after Future Life died, science fiction media coverage elsewhere tended to grow ever-more narrowly focused on feeding fanboy obsessions, without introducing any higher expectations for that fan.

I had only begun reading Future Life magazine a couple issues before it stopped newsstand circulation and became a largely subscription-only publication. By the time my eighth-grade self was able to scrape together enough money to pay for a subscription, the magazine ceased publication altogether. It would be almost three decades before I cobbled together a complete collection of the magazine and begin reading what I’d missed. That’s how I came to see what we’ve all missed out on these past few decades.
From FutureLife March 14, 2012

Sunday, March 18, 2012

This Chinese Life

Or is it??
It's been a bad time for Ira Glass and his staff at the public radio program This American Life. This week, they had to publicly acknowledge that an episode of their quirky radio program was not true. Or at least not entirely true.

I won't recount the entire controversy, because it's been rehashed elsewhere ad infinitum. But, briefly, the January episode featured performance artist Mike Daisey reporting on a trip to the infamous Foxconn factories in China, where Apple products are made. He tells of meeting underage workers, an iPad factory worker who'd never seen a working iPad, armed guards outside the Foxconn factory, workers crippled by industrial pollutants, and more. But when a China-based reporter for another public radio program, Marketplace, heard the Daisey story, he knew that it sounded wrong, so he did actual reporting, and what he found was that Daisey lied, made up things that didn't happen, pretended to be in places he wasn't, tried to cover up his tracks, pretended to see things that had happened at factories (and at companies) hundreds of miles away.

There's enough reporting out there to let us know that Apple's Foxconn factories are bad places to work, so it's amazing that Daisey thought he had to fictionalize it to make it attention-grabbing. But he did, Ira Glass and his producers didn't catch it during their fact-checking, and the program aired. Now, Glass and his producers are bravely admitting the shortcomings of themselves and of Daisey.

I have to admit, I'm not a fan of This American Life, and the reason why is not unrelated to how they got themselves into this mess. I could never get past the serious, sometimes heart-wrenching stories being narrated while in the background hip music plays. The music is basically saying, "This isn't important. Life is quirky, innit?" That sound combo always struck me as the producers trying harder to be hip, rather than relying on the power of the journalism.

Well, their correspondent in this now-retracted story does not claim to be a journalist. (So why use him?) He is a performance artist. (So why use him?) His story had problems during fact-checking. (So why use it?) They went ahead with it even though they couldn't corroborate all of Daisey's claims. (So why use it?) I'm not being snarky when I say that This American Life's producers are having something of a journalistic come-to-Jesus moment as they look at what went wrong.

You can listen to the retraction episode (named, naturally, "Retraction") on the TAL website. It's a fine episode, and one that I hope is heard by every journalism student (and working journalist) in the country. Though I don't care for their program, I think Glass and his cohorts deserve serious praise for confronting the errors – theirs and Daisey's – that went into that episode. They are serious; from what I could tell from listening to "Retraction," they appear to be leaving no stone unturned and no sacred cow unexamined. In so doing, Glass & Co. are doing more than restoring their reputations; they are giving listeners an important lesson in why journalism has standards and why being right is more important than being hip.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Fangoria 312

I just like the cover. Okay?

Sort of a modern, classic design.

Moebius Is Dead

There was rotten news to wake up to this morning: French comics legend Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, has passed away.

This past fall, I had the pleasure of meeting a neighbor who is an artist and designer (and builder and inventor ... all very cool). He showed me some of his artwork, fantastic, thin-lined illustrations of people on flying contraptions against alien-looking landscapes. I said to him, "I don't know if you'll think I'm crazy or not, but what this reminds me of is Moebius." He immediately smiled and agreed, noting how much he admired Moebius' work.

Moebius, one of the creative geniuses behind the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant (which came to the U.S. as Heavy Metal and to Germany as Schwer Metall and to other countries under other names), leaves behind a staggering amount of work from around the world over many decades. Below is just a sample.
From 2012-03-10
From 2012-03-10
From 2012-03-10
From 2012-03-10
From 2012-03-10
From 2012-03-10
From 2012-03-10

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chewbacca Carries Esquire

Just proof that the Spanish edition of Esquire has far better covers than the U.S. edition, which is stuck in a multi-year cover design rut.

The above cover is occasioned by a one-page interview inside the magazine with Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew. Yes, a one-page interview got the cover treatment, something few magazines do. But when it allows you to put a Star Wars pic on the cover, I suppose it's irresistible, just as it was irresistible to me to buy this issue, even though I don't read any Spanish. (Well, I can make out "Esquire," "Leia," and "Chewbacca," so I guess I can read some Spanish!).

Saturday, March 3, 2012

My Latest in Northside: You Gotta Have Science

My latest Common Knowledge column in Northside San Francisco:

Turns Out, It Is Rocket Science
By John Zipperer 
It was inevitable that American politics would spoil that most pristine, beloved and genuine part of American culture: the annual blitz of Super Bowl commercials. Instead of being able to enjoy debating whether Volkswagen could outdo its Darth Vader commercial from last year (it didn’t), we were left with the news outlets arguing for many days about whether Chrysler’s “It’s halftime in America” commercial was intended to help President Obama’s reelection prospects. 
Such pointless debates always miss the bigger controversy. No it’s not why Clint Eastwood’s voice in the Chrysler ad sounds like Christian Bale’s Batman. The big controversy was around a commercial for U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra.