Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rubina At The Journal

New York parlance or universal acronyms? Only recently did I realize that "The Journal" unequivocably means The Wall Street Journal, and "The Times" refers to The New York Times. Both of these are great publications, and getting to work here is pretty good for aspiring journalists like Rubina.

So we were happy when Rubina got an opportunity to join The Times as a freelance graphics editor last year, and then subsequently at The Journal. In case you're wondering what she does as a graphics editor, it is gathering the information for visuals that are not just photos, and then creating them. This includes charts, tables. diagrams, schematic summaries and maps that usually accompany news stories or articles.

Newspapers are facing a tough environment trying to hold on to readership and ad revenues in the face of competition from the internet. They are pressured on headcount and typically take on only freelancers or people on temporary contract. Rubina is passionate about her work so her working this way without any job security or benefits was fine. She creates about 2 - 3 graphics daily and we used to cut and save all these till the novelty of this declined somewhat. We knew she enjoys her work and is productive and appreciated by her group and supervisors. It's also great experience so that was good.

Then I got her call a few days back. The editor of the front page of The Journal said he wanted to talk to her. Don't worry, he said, it's good news. Then over lunch he offered her a regular, full time position. She's very happy and so are we (Anita, Sheena and I - her family) especially since she loves living in Manhattan. I saw she hasn't yet updated her personal website in respect of her employment status at The Journal since she's still going through the formal process, and will probably do so subsequently.

Currently she's working on the "A" (main) section of the paper. Her group traditionally do not put their name on their graphics, but typically one third of the ten or so of them are hers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Offshore Drilling And Poor Journalism

I often wonder at the failure of these US multi-billion news agencies to address the most basic questions that arise from the very news that they cover. Here is an example.

For the past couple of months we've heard arguments flying back and forth about lifting the ban offshore drilling around the US. Given the skyrocketing crude prices and that we're not going to avoid importing oil 10, 20 or 30 years out, I'm now all for it. Safety and pollution concerns are now very low, and we don't have the same wildlife refuge conservation considerations in offshore drilling as in ANWR.

The Democratic leadership (till recently including Obama) have opposed lifting the ban. They say that it won't help in the short term, and that oil companies have plenty of offshore areas that they can use first.

The first argument is silly - does it mean Congress and government should only limit itself to the most short-term measures? But the second argument about idle leases merits serious consideration, and no news agency that I know has asked the oil companies or Republicans to respond to this specific point, and then reported upon it. Instead the election coverage on energy issues by the likes of CNN is an endless blather of cross-talk among candidates, their surrogates and political pundits.

One place where I found a partial rebuttal to this "use idle leases first" argument is on this QandO blog. In short it says that leases take a very long time to work, are held up by many procedural steps, and require a lot of capital investment that is costly or hard to come by. It's only a partial rebuttal because it doesn't fully answer the question: if the oil companies have their hands so full that they can't get through these existing leases, then where will they find the capacity to explore the new areas?

Still, at least this little blog tries to answer this most obvious of questions. That's a lot more than has been done by the large and sophisticated media outlets.

All is not lost. Some new programs with welcome depth are coming on air. My favorite is CNN's Fareed Zakaria's GPS (Global Public Square) that started a few weeks ago and covers central global and foreign issues.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Does A President Need Principles?

A good thing about the upcoming elections is that either presidential candidate will be a huge improvement over Bush. The race is surprisingly close at this point, given Obama's highly successful foreign tour, favorable press coverage and inspiring speeches as compared to McCain's gaffes and senior moments. Many more voters view Democrats favorably as compared to Republicans. Obama is an inspirational speaker with quick wit and charm. He is also highly intelligent and organized.

Yet according to CNN's "Poll of Polls" today Obama is at 47% to McCain's 44% with 9% undecided. What gives?

One reason McCain is so close may be that he is still widely thought of as decent and principled despite his share of flip-flops. The Washington Post today carried a long article about how emotion and ambition have always guided McCain's behavior. But even such negative coverage may only humanize him and not tarnish his overall standing with voters.

Obama appeals to the idealism of his enthusiastic supporters with his message of change and hope. Yet in his life there seems little or nothing of principle he's done, or made sacrifices, that compromised his own interests.

Then there have been his rapid switches on issues after winning the Democratic nomination. These move him to the center or even into Republican territory, like his wooing of evangelicals and decrying a Supreme Court ruling against the death penalty in non-homicidal cases.

Such tactics while smart help shape perceptions. Half the voters (myself included) think Obama will do or say whatever gets him elected or furthers his personal interests. But even assuming that is true, how much does it matter? It largely depends on what the candidate hopes to achieve by becoming President.

The significance of being the first black / minority President shouldn't be lost on Obama. Here is his chance to go down in history as a great leader with path-breaking accomplishments. If that's his objective then his actions and decisions driven by pure self-interest will largely converge with what is good for the country. He will surround himself with good people, and take decisions on their merits in the national interest to secure his legacy.

Companies seek the smartest and most capable CEOs who are not necessarily nice guys. The system of compensation, rewards (and punishments in case of wrongdoing) tries to align the CEOs' self-interest with that of the companies.

This private company analogy can apply to Obama even if his incentives for being a good President are different. So while Obama has his core following of wide-eyed admirers it will be interesting to see how the preferences of the more skeptical swing voters unfold in the coming months.