Posts by Cheryll Barron
A clarification. Our use of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is neither fuzzy nor subversive – as in the accusation levelled at the organisers of a conference on the topic in London last May. For us, it describes cooperatives of various sorts, more or less the range set out in a 2009 report by Co-operative Development Scotland. Scroll down this post to see why one subject of that study, Switzerland, is proof that man as a consensus-building, egalitarian animal can be wildly successful.
Nothing drills the facts about Switzerland’s revolt against the corrupt old Catholic Church into you — your very bones — quite like mulling over them as you climb the 254 sub-arctic, twisting stairs to the bell tower of the Bern Muenster in mid-winter. From the viewing balcony up there, eyes unglued with difficulty from the hypnotic, turquoise River Aare below stray to the stone terrace at the cathedral’s base, where, during the Reformation of the 1500s, rebels had a merry old time smashing priceless religious images and objects.
This battleground in the Swiss capital is an unequalled symbol of the fight against inequality: the hulking Gothic structure on which construction began in 1421 loomed above a mere 5,000 inhabitants of Bern, at the time. All the better to intimidate them — only that assumption proved a mistake. In the words of an English-speaking specialist in the culture and history of Switzerland – an underpopulated species we care about for reasons to be explained in future posts – ‘much of Swiss history derives its interest from a revolt … of peasants against abbeys, … of towns against the ecclesiastical foundations from which they sprang.’
Switzerland’s continuing refinement of practical egalitarianism in the centuries-long wake of the Reformation means that there is a great feeling of been-there-done-that for anyone Swiss coming across a Twitter-trending lexical combination: inclusive capitalism — spotlighted in a speech earlier this year by the International Monetary Fund’s leader, Christine Lagarde. The Alpine republic most famous for political neutrality, charming quaintness and its tourist attractions, arguably deserves to be better known for its vast experience of using cooperatives as tools for wearing down social inequality. You might almost say that the whole of Switzerland – a country that has never had kings or queens, and is run not by any single leader but a Federal Council – works like a giant co-op.
Most elements of inclusive capitalism listed in a PBS – public-service broadcasting – programme in the U.S. a year ago, ‘The Alternative American Dream,’ are old hat for, and well-used by, the Swiss: ‘consumer ownership, credit unions and ownership by franchisees pursuing common purchasing efforts …’. Earlier entries on this blog have pointed to stable, cautious and solidly-grounded Swiss banking cooperatives avoiding the disastrous subprime mortgage crisis, and praised Swiss super-democracy.
Can the Swiss economy be said to have been injured in any way by excessive idealism? Quite the contrary. Cooperatives are democratic, not socialist. Socialism – as the Cambridge historian-of-ideas Gareth Stedman Jones has observed, was in part an attempt to replace the Catholic Church with a state religion. Most Swiss, a supremely praktisch people, have more down-to-earth aspirations. Last September, for the fifth year in a row, Switzerland was the world’s most competitive economy — leading the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness ranking based on its vetting of ‘the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country’.
And its record for inventiveness? Last month, for the fourth year in a row, it was also the country at the top of the Global Innovation Index – ranking economies by their capacity to marry ideas to knowledge for creativity with social and economic value.
What connects such success with putting idealism into practice to Bern’s Muenster — and the chief preoccupation of this blog — is the media revolution on which the Reformation rode. Printing centres, most notably in Basel, were established early, in Switzerland, and became critical to marshalling and disseminating the anti-clerical, anti-Vatican arguments and facts.
Forcing change on the Catholic Church in the prelude to the Renaissance would seem dustily irrelevant, to members of the chattering classes in our time. Practically none of us have been constrained by the dictates of religious authorities: most of us grew up as the children of agnostics, atheists or doubting semi-believers. But smashing medieval religious authorities’ outrageously unequal information-power with new technology – in the shape of the Gutenberg printing presses – resonates loudly, in the midst of our digital revolution. Print broke the power of sermons, just as the internet and e-publishing are vaporising the power of print’s gatekeepers today. It was from preaching that most people, who could not read, gleaned authoritative information about the world.
A report on a conference of medieval sermon scholars at Harvard two years ago sets out the remarkable parallels – including doomed attempts to discredit the unmediated broadcast of information, as in old media propaganda, now, about blogs and blogging:
… It was the ecclesiastical system behind sermons “that invented the idea [that] there was a universal body of knowledge” and that led the way to modern universities. Sermons were the dominant literary form in the Middle Ages. They bridged the emerging power of the written word and what was, 900 years ago, the predominance of the spoken.
… Before the printing press, knowledge was disseminated through oral traditions. In the public sphere that meant sermons. These discourses from the pulpit were the Internet and the mainstream press and the propaganda machine of the Middle Ages.
… At the same time, sermons of nearly a millennium ago prompted a very modern question: Who has the right to speak? Vying with priests for the right to preach were lay people, lawyers, kings, and public officials. In a bit of recurrent culture shock, even women demanded the right to preach sermons.
Most of all, the prospect of lay preaching “was an anxiety for the Church,” wrote Carolyn Muessig in a study of medieval preaching and society. (The University of Bristol scholar delivered the first paper at the Harvard conference.) The concern, she wrote, was the Vatican’s desire to protect people from heresy and “to preserve a clerical monopoly on learning.”
The debate over who owned the medieval airwaves went on for hundreds of years. As late as the 14th century, one critic still held that the Vatican had the final say. “No lay person can preach without authorization,” wrote Robert de Basevorn, “and no woman ever.”
… In an internet break from reflections on that old battle, news of a book published by Yale University Press surfed onscreen, this week. More than twelve decades after a brutal misuse of power by her husband, Leo Tolstoy, his wife Sophia Andreevna has got her revenge. It seems that the author of War and Peace wrote a spiteful, vicious tale about his own domestic wars in an 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata. Everyone in literary Russia, and lofty beings outside it – including Tsar Alexander III – knew that the old philanderer’s story about a jealous husband who murders his wife was intended as punishment for Sophia’s infatuation with a musician who filled the void left by the romantic hopes and expectations that Tolstoy’s behaviour wrecked.
The aggression in the novelist’s self-pitying tale was not lost on the tsar, who sympathised with Sophia. In one phase of the drama, this writer’s wife demonstrated exceptional nobility of character in pleading with the ruler to order government censors bent on suppressing The Kreutzer Sonata to lay off – even though she was profoundly hurt by it.
She found her own way to fight back – in two novellas telling her side of the story that languished in deepest obscurity in Tolstoy’s archives until they were published in 21st-century Russia. Now, Yale has had them translated into English, in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, a collection that includes, along with extracts from her letters and diaries – more amazingly yet – a story by the Tolstoys’ son Lev that is also a protest against Kreutzer.
We have had to wait much too long for these remarkable discoveries. Sophia Andreevna had to make a special journey to St. Petersburg to plead her husband’s case with the tsar. Now, if she had only had a blog …
[ After this entry was posted, we followed a tweet to Glenn Greenwald’s report on The Intercept about dire consequences of militarising the police – his reaction to the nightmare killing of young and unarmed Mike Brown in Missouri. It is essential reading. But because polling results showing exceptional public esteem for the military have been so drastically under-reported for years, most people would find it hard to understand why the authorities blithely assumed that the citizenry would approve of arming and equipping policemen like soldiers. Media biases badly need counterweights. ]
We have searched and searched again but, so far, failed to find in online newspapers – well-known or obscure – any mention of, or solution to, the puzzle in our last post, the question of why Americans trust their military vastly more than other public institutions. If we were using all the wrong search terms, Google could hardly have served up the missing explanation in a persuasive paper by three collaborating scholars from which we will paste in a segment below.
But first, we must draw attention to a caveat, and then the reason why traditional media’s neglect of this subject is tragic – showing just how much the world needs the new media space that independent blogs have created:
• ‘The military’ is distinct from the political decisions its armed forces are obliged to execute – that is, which wars they fight, and where, and in broad strategic terms, by what means (eg., bombs dropped by drones vs. boots on the ground). Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist of rare gifts who made his name treating veterans of the Vietnam war for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), makes this essential point: ‘The justice of overall war aims and of operational theories – “strategic” bombing of civilians to weaken the industrial capacity to wage war is an example of such a theory – is not within the individual soldier’s scope of moral choice, unless he or she is willing to face imprisonment or death by refusing to fight.’
• Media hostility to, or neglect of, what the military does for civilians, since the Vietnam war — not just in America but in similar disenchantment elsewhere — could account for why it has been far more common for veterans of recent wars than for their historical predecessors to have the mental afflictions now called PTSD. That fits Shay’s suggestion in his brilliant Achilles in Vietnam (1995) – in which he drew riveting parallels between the tragedy of Achilles and his comrades, Homer’s subject in The Iliad, and the disturbances in Americans who fought the Vietnam war twenty-seven centuries later. He says, in extracts slightly rearranged, here, for concision:
What a returning soldier needs most when leaving war is not a mental health professional but a living community to whom his experience matters … [W]e should care about how soldiers are trained, equipped, led and welcomed home when they return from war. … [H]ealing from trauma depends … on being able safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community. … Economically, unhealed combat trauma costs, and costs, and costs. Recall that more than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans … reported engaging in violent acts … Between a tenth and a quarter of all males in prison are veterans … When combat trauma results in domestic violence … there is an intergenerational transmission of violence.
The New York Times, for one, has published excellent and massive reports about sufferers from PTSD and their families. But, as far as we know, it has devoted no equivalent analysis to – or run any report on – the shining public image of the military, as revealed by Gallup’s stunning findings about the confidence gap in which the military reigns virtually unchallenged as a reservoir of trust. For that, anyone curious must hunt down a 2012 American Academy of Arts and Sciences dissection of similar results in an opinion poll a year earlier, unenticingly titled, ‘The Origins & Lessons of Public Confidence in the Military’.
First, it notes a contradiction:
[T]he relationship between the American people and its defense establishment has historically been anchored in two opposing sentiments: on one side, Americans see a large, standing military as a potential threat to liberty; on the other, they revere the U.S. military for its role in establishing the nation in revolution, preserving it against rebellion, and defending it from foreign aggression.
The start of the next extract is a hugely welcome surprise for anyone depressed by the impression — seemingly based on irrefutable facts — that Americans care most about wealth creation, and the feeding of the gigantic getting-and-spending beast we call capitalism:
In addition to valuing competence, society also expects institutions to serve a greater good. This public-mindedness is grounded in three principles: selflessness, accountability, and fairness. These factors are highlighted by the other institutions that enjoy widespread public confidence: small business and the police. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military; 64 percent said the same for small business, and 56 percent for the police. In contrast, Congress (12 percent), the presidency (35 percent), and big business (19 percent) are held in relatively low regard by the American public.
What does the military have in common with the police and small business? In the case of the former, unselfish service is a common trait. The police (ideally) have no other purpose than to protect and serve the nation’s communities. In performing this service, capable men and women make sacrifices. They give up potentially lucrative and rewarding opportunities in other jobs. They put themselves in danger, sometimes sacrificing their lives. Small business is perceived to share two key traits with the military: fairness and accountability. In small business, Americans see the best qualities of the nation’s economic system (opportunity for those who seek it, rewards for those who succeed), absent the abuses and corruption that they impute to big business and banks. Small business owners pursue self-interest, but their success is deserved because it emerges from their own hard work and not from a manipulation of the system’s resources. Small businesses create wealth and opportunity; they are a gateway for immigrants to enter the American middle class, and they evoke the entrepreneurial spirit and mythos of American economic history – think of Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, the fictional heroes of Horatio Alger stories, and so on. Furthermore, small business owners are exposed to risk; if a small business fails, it is left to fail. Thus, fairness works both ways. [the highlights in bold type are post-Gutenberg’s]
The essay is a good read, all the way …While on the subject of strangely unpublicised opinion poll findings, here is a question for dining table entertainment: are Democrats or Republicans likely to be more sympathetic to the NSA’s spying on American citizens?
Gallup’s startling answer, from June of 2013:
There are significant partisan differences in views of the government’s program to obtain call logs and Internet communication. Democrats are more likely to approve, by 49% to 40%. Independents (34% vs. 56%) and Republicans (32% to 63%) are much more likely to disapprove than approve.
The newspapers associated with the left, which broke this story, do not seem to have paid much attention to what turns out to be a strictly partisan split in opinion. Gallup’s explanation makes it unlikely that the poll would have a very different result today:
In 2006, when Gallup asked the similar question about a program that came to light at that point, Republicans were significantly more likely to approve than Democrats. The differences in partisan reaction between 2006 and 2013 reflect the party of the president under whose watch the programs were carried out at those two points in time.
Now, why has the information in this blog post had virtually no attention in traditional media, as far as we can tell?
Might the shockingly low numbers for public trust in the media solve the mystery? As we recorded last week, in Gallup’s poll earlier this summer, the 74 per cent statistic for the military compared with just 22 per cent for newspapers – in an ever-narrowing gap in status with ‘news on the internet,’ deemed trustworthy by 19 per cent of those surveyed. Still, that was several cuts above the 7 per cent for the U.S. Congress – to which we saw theadvocates.org blog referring, pointing to
… a Public Policy Polling poll last year (reported in the Liberator Online) … found Congress less popular than lice, root canals, cockroaches, hemorrhoids, and colonoscopies, among other plagues and pests.
The other day, we came across the results of a Gallup poll in June: by a staggering margin, Americans still trust their military more than any other public institution, including the people’s own elected representatives in Congress – and the presidency, and Supreme Court. Just look at the percentages of interviewees who answered that they had a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in each of these groups: military (74); Congress (7); the church or organised religion (45); presidency (29); public schools (26); banks (26); medical system (34); criminal justice system (23).
Most government spying is done on behalf of the armed forces, to serve military ends. Indeed, America’s citizens are slowly coming round to a less benign view of the NSA’s arguments about needing to collect vast stores of personal data about them for their own safety. But they also seem, on the whole, to accept the government’s arguments that changes in technology and the differences between fighting terrorists and waging conventional wars have changed what spies must do to spy effectively.
This flatly contradicts the claims of some of the most ardent campaigners on behalf of Edward Snowden – who remains more unfathomable than either wicked or virtuous, for many of us – that he has sparked mass outrage about government surveillance. (Though, by last November, the weaselly word ‘resonate’ was being used, as in, ‘His disclosures about the NSA resonated with Americans from day one.’)
A new specialist in conducting interactive, continuous polls, isidewith.com – commendably non-partisan, if a Forbes report is accurate – suggests that Americans, by a solid 10 per cent margin, oppose granting Snowden immunity from prosecution. But where in The New York Times or The Guardian – two purveyors of news analysis considered disproportionately influential– has this view been reflected, delved into and explained in perceptive commentary by either insiders or outside commentators?
Since there has been no such delving, nor in-depth reporting on the reasons for the public’s continued support of the military, the true mission of the 29 year-old at the heart of l’affaire Snowden continues to be as mysterious as the Turin shroud. Or, so we thought, as we read Michael Wolff, in his GQ profile of the Guardian’s chief, describing the newspaper’s attempt to ride the uproar about the leaker that it largely manufactured to make itself the talk of America and win a vast new transatlantic audience:
Its efforts so far had hardly put it on the map in the US – and suddenly Snowden did. … News outlets want to break big stories but at the same time not be overwhelmed by them – a certain detachment is well advised. It is an artful line. But the Guardian essentially went into the Edward Snowden business – and continues in it. … The effort to pretend that the story is straight up good and evil, … without peculiar nuances and rabbit holes and obvious contradictions, is really quite a trick.
In an effort to pull off that trick, the Snowden brand – with hints of baby Jesus – and the Guardian brand – as something like God the father and protector – become nearly symbiotic. (The Guardian now campaigns fiercely for a Snowden pardon.)
Because the Snowden exposés were so crucial to the paper’s U.S. ambitions — in turn, part of a future plan sequestered behind dust sheets, as we said last week — it stifled virtually all perspectives and discussion critical of him and his band of helpers, including the lawyer-turned-journalist Glenn Greenwald:
The theoretically freewheeling Guardian locked itself down. Staff and contributor Twitter feeds were closely monitored for indications of Snowden or Greenwald deviations, with instant reprimands when any party-line divergence was spotted.
Devotees of the Guardian will find it hard to recognise it in that censorship usually associated with dictatorships, unless they have been loyal readers of this blog – and remember the comments about press reform that its moderators deleted, which post-Gutenberg saved and reproduced here. (Scroll down to the bottom of this earlier entry: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’ 7 November 2011.)
Such drastic warping of the discussion in a democracy of a subject as serious as military tactics and defence must be countered. How? In the spring of last year, we suggested that for systematic and regular audience consultation, media might adopt equivalents of Switzerland’s Publikumsrat – the five-man Public Council of Swissinfo.ch, which is the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999. (See: ‘How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media,’ 3 March 2013.)
The style of government that makes Switzerland the world’s most democratic democracy is replicated in organisations of every size and kind in CH – including its many businesses run as cooperatives, two of which make the list of the world’s top twenty-five in sales.
The Publikumsrat gives Swissinfo’s editors and journalists detailed feedback on their choice of subjects as well as on the way these are tackled. It makes suggestions for new topics. It also defends Swissinfo from its detractors. More than once, in the last ten years, it has led campaigns to protect it from accountants wielding budget-slashing axes – inspiring ‘Save Swissinfo!’ petitions from as far away as New South Wales, in Australia.
We see Publikumsrat equivalents in the Anglosphere as unavoidable and essential. If the Guardian had one, the gap between popular opinion and the paper’s religious fervour, covering Snowdenia, could not be the great black hole it is.
The proof of quite how badly we need one is in the Gallup poll statistic for public confidence in the press. It was a humiliating 22 per cent, only three points higher than for ‘news on the internet’ (19).
You have been speaking about mutualisation of the newspaper, and you explained how it makes sense to involve readers, … But traditionally, were we not listening to readers … ? What has changed now?
I think it is going further. It is technology. Because the readers now have the ability to publish and link up. And I think in all this we have to make a judgment about whether essentially our role stays the stays the same. You are right to say that the best newspapers have listened to their readers and drawn upon their expertise. But the realm of newspapers is shrinking and all this energy is being created elsewhere and I think it is a real life or death position for newspapers as to whether they essentially ignore all that or whether you have to redefine the role of the newspapers to encourage it to come inside with what they are doing.
Very well said, but that conversation is now four years old. We cannot unfortunately peep behind the scaffolding and dust sheets to observe the latest stage in planning for The Guardian’s digital future. Does it make sense to hope that Rusbridger will walk his talk — unveil a plan for, at the very least, an experiment in mutualisation that involves giving reader-commenters the financial stakes that are of the essence of the cooperative idea?
We ourselves were pessimistic about this, a few weeks ago – in a post arguing that it is far more likely that younger media innovators will take that particular leap. But Rusbridger’s temperament and managerial style, more than his age, could rule him out as the most important pioneer in the next phase in media’s Darwinian shift.
That is certainly the likely conclusion of anyone reading the most thoughtful, complex and revelatory profile of any newspaper editor still in harness – Michael Wolff’s portrait of Rusbridger, published in the British edition of GQ last month. It is surprisingly even-handed – unstinting with praise for Rusbridger’s strengths – given that the Guardian eliminated Wolff’s perch on its web site earlier this year.
These sections of his essay, if true, are discouraging for anyone hoping to see real action, soon, in mutualisation that actually means something:
While the Guardian has a business staff with a CEO, and is overseen by trustees with ultimate responsibility, it has one real power centre, strategic thinker and moral compass: its editor, Alan Rusbridger. (A kind of preternatural consensus surrounds Rusbridger, but underneath him the Guardian is a fraught political cauldron, with underlings struggling to align with him, stay in his favour and undercut everyone else who is trying: “a nest of vipers”, in the description of an outside consultant brought in to work on one of the paper’s big redesign projects.)
His is an absolute, pre-modern sort of power, faith-based and exclusionary. You believe or you don’t. You are in or you are out.
Why bother to wonder about Rusbridger proving himself capable of, say, redesigning his role so that his position as editor-in-chief would have to be ratified by members of a mutualised Guardian voting in a referendum? Because, being optimistic, we hope that we and Wolff are mistaken – and that neither age nor personality will scupper his ambition to make a true mark on history.
… In our next entry, we will consider how much richer the cultural contribution of a mutualised Guardian would be.
Generals only ever exist as temps in Switzerland, in the army in which all Swiss men must do a stint of compulsory training and service. As the Wikipedia explains:
General (Gen) – General (Gen); général (gén); general (gen); generale (gen): The rank is only assigned during time of war, when the Federal Assembly chooses one general to command the entire Swiss military. Otherwise the word “general” is not used.
This convention seemed worth drawing attention to after we read late last month, in The New York Times, about research confirming what everyone knows: that while people think equality ideal, they quake at the prospect of dispensing with a hierarchy. They fear that it amounts to inviting in chaos with open arms. This clichéd view of flat organisations — and of cooperatives — will soon look fuddy-duddyish and irrelevant, as young innovators we have mentioned here fashion tools to make collaboration and collective decision-making swifter and less fraught.
The second half of Matthew Hutson’s article – ‘Espousing Equality, but Embracing a Hierarchy’ — showed that other organisers have the same idea as the Swiss military of using transitional hierarchies as means to particular ends.
Increasingly, companies are valuing diverse input and turning to flatter structures. But even companies that supposedly deplore the value of hierarchy have status and power differentials, formally or informally.
The video game company Valve seems like a symbol for the flat organization. Valve posted its handbook for new employees online in 2012. “We don’t have any management, and nobody ‘reports to’ anybody else,” it says. […] Yet Valve has temporary team leaders who help coordinate projects, and employees rank one another when calculating compensation.
The design firm IDEO also aims for flatness but retains an element of verticality. “The idea of a flat hierarchy is a little bit of a myth that we even tell ourselves within IDEO,” Duane Bray, a partner, told me.
For instance, employees progress through four “levels of impact”: At the “individual” level they focus on their core skill set; at the “team” level they start to have responsibility for others; at the “portfolio” level they look at how collections of projects come together; and at the “enterprise” level they connect globally and take all of IDEO into account in their decisions.
Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, has written about the dysfunctions of hierarchy and encourages his M.B.A. students to pursue flatness — but not to its ultimate end. “It’s often useful to have at least one person who serves a role of leader,” he said, “even if that role is more of a coordinating function.”
Making the pigs temporary hierarchs in Animal Farm – to do particular jobs or serve particular functions with an expiration date, then revert to equality — could have dispensed with this objection of T. S. Eliot’s when he, like other top-tier publishers, rejected George Orwell’s manuscript: And that is all we have to say in this entry – using the slow season to experiment with ‘morselizing’ thoughts, research findings and arguments, a neologism apparently invented by a wonderfully named Canadian professor of media studies, Sidneyeve Matrix.
That seems exactly the right prescription for our new attention spans, shorter than the life of a firefly, and our endlessly interrupted reading — about which Tim Parks was recently complaining in The New York Review of Books.
Media resisting the unavoidable bow to the democratic future of media ownership are being shown up in Britain by, of all people, the bean-counters of medicine — the traditionally conservative, cautious and slow-moving top managers of the country’s most cherished public institution, the roughly £100 billion ($171 billion) National Health Service.
The pinch-me-I’m-dreaming headline at the top of The Independent’s home page on Monday read: ‘New government policy for the NHS could allow doctors and nurses to “own” hospitals’.
Before we get to the reasoning behind that proposal, let us quickly say that inviting readers and commenters – reader-commenters — to become part-owners of media organisations through subscriptions that would also be financial shares — making them small-scale co-owners – is an actual need in this sector, though not in British medicine. The flow of cash into the NHS is assured. It comes from taxpayers. But, as last week’s entry in this blog noted, the advertising revenue on which print journalism depends to pay its bills looks increasingly shaky as a supreme cash cow for online publishing, as it elbows print out of the way.
Moving towards co-ownership — or ‘mutualisation’ — is the one step that the boldest experimenters with new media structures are resisting. Declining to go that far, we pointed out last month, is the single disappointment in the otherwise wildly impressive reports about De Correspondent – the new Dutch publishing enterprise putting commenters at front and centre-stage in its publishing scheme. Nick Denton, the serial online media entrepreneur – most famous for co-founding Gawker in 2003 with Elizabeth Spiers – has perfectly expressed what we also believe, in describing his many excellent adventures in media redesign to Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:
“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers. … And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”
These smartest readers are most likely to devote all the time they can to the success of an online publishing enterprise – whether a startup or a famous name in the news business ‘flipping’ co-ownership of a part or the whole of its web site to commenters – if they can justify that to themselves with the hope of sharing in its financial success, some day. Denton’s schemes allow reader-commenters to share the stage with professional writers and journalists. They are designed to make readers feel part of a larger family or club, and – as in the De Correspondent plan — to improve the quality of information disseminated on his sites, and the range of expertise on which it draws.
Giving performance and efficiency a gigantic boost is the ambition behind the remarkable news about the proposal for British medicine:
Ministers are drawing up plans to allow doctors and nurses to own and run the hospitals they work in as part of a radical blueprint to change the way the NHS is run.
Under proposals to be floated tomorrow, staff could be able to take over hospitals and other NHS responsibilities and run them as new mutual companies in the style of the department store chain John Lewis.
Staff would then become “shareholders” in the new company with the power to dismiss the chief executive and board members as well as set policy and targets for the new organisation.
Ministers are not ruling out the possibility that staff could even be given a financial stake in the organisations for which they work – sharing bonuses if their hospital makes a profit on NHS work. The new policy comes after an independent review, led by the independent think-tank the King’s Fund, found what it described as “compelling evidence” that NHS organisations with high levels of staff engagement delivered better quality care. […] Ministers have been particularly taken by the success of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, which had been losing £10m a year and had very low levels of patient satisfaction until taken over by the private provider Circle, which manages it for the NHS. Circle is owned jointly by the staff who work for it and private-equity funders.
… We hope that the people in charge of making the rules for the ‘mutualised’ British hospitals will take care to head off any possibility of repeating one grave mistake in American medicine — allowing doctors to invest in medical testing laboratories, rightly blamed for countless unnecessary tests ordered by many of those doctors. These are notoriously a large part of the explanation for America’s expensive and inefficient health care.
The chief fear for the democratic redesign of media is that it will lead to the collapse of cultural standards; that it will usher in a depressing age of mediocrity. Again, the right rules have to be drafted to ensure that this does not happen. Who says that any such effort would lack supporters? Who says that the least talented co-owners of a media enterprise will not wish to celebrate and promote their most talented comrades, attracting honour, fame and new members?
A few weeks ago, there was news of opera-lovers panicking about performances in some places accompanied not by live musicians but digital recordings. A New York Times reader said, in a letter to the editor:
Live music is being performed by an ever-shrinking elite corps of musicians. This trend cannot be reversed. But it will bottom out. There will always be a market for elite musicians … On some level we want to see humans demonstrating their mastery.
Who would disagree?