Monthly Archives: April 2017

Wheat and Heat

Huge grain storage bags are seen in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota in this 2012 aerial handout photoWe were promised that climate change would threaten food supplies…especially wheat.

Apparently not.

From Iowa to China, years of bumper crops and low prices have overwhelmed storage capacity for basic foodstuffs.

Global stocks of corn, wheat, rice and soybeans combined will hit a record 671.1 million tonnes going into the next harvest – the third straight year of historically high surplus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s enough to cover demand from China for about a year.

In the United States, farmers facing a fourth straight year of declining incomes and rising debts are hanging on to grain in the hope of higher prices later. They may be waiting a long time: Market fundamentals appear to be weakening as the world’s top grain producers ponder what to do with so much food. reuters

That is the pesky thing about the real world, it keeps breaking models.

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Bully! A Splendid Little War

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So The Donald has sent in the cruise missiles in response to the Syrian sarin gas assault on its own people.

Sending 59 cruise missiles with conventional warheads and then sitting down to dinner with the Chinese President pretty much establishes Trump as a “tough guy”. But will he be smart enough to leave it at that?

In a very real sense, Trump has redrawn the “red line” which Obama and Kerry allowed to fade to palest pink. Served notice that “there is a new Sheriff in town” to quote an awful lot of pro-Trump blogs. Which, I suspect, most international players had already noticed.

The question is whether Trump is able to enjoy an American casualty free battle and move on to the next thing on his agenda. Obama demonstrated in Libya that regime change may, or may not, be for the better. Generally, it seems to be a bad idea in the Middle East simply because the next regime may be worse than the one you “changed”. During the campaign, Trump seemed to get that. Does he now?

Assad needs to go. Murderous barbarian and all. However, he needs to go when there is some idea of a better thing to replace him. That might be a new regime or it might be the carve up of both Syria and Iraq and the end of the Sykes-Picot travesty which has haunted the Middle East for nearly a hundred years.

Regime change could be accomplished with a lot of money, a few Russian Spetsnaz and a dozen bullets. But what then?

Unwinding Sykes-Picot is a much larger and, strategically, more intelligent enterprise. Defeat ISIS and then carve out the Sunni, Kurd and Shia enclaves being sensitive to the worries of the Turks and the position of the minorities. That is the work of a negotiator and a statesman. And it is something which will involve Putin as well as Trump. No bad thing that.

Right at the moment, Russia is hanging on by a thread. Demographically, economically it is in huge trouble. For Putin to survive he needs to seem indispensable. Trump can give him that. Putin can give Trump essentially nothing. Other than his nukes and his special forces, he is the Tsar of a gradually dying nation and only massive help from America can really save him. Monkeys can climb a very long way up trees, it is the getting down part which is tricky.

Syria offers Putin the opportunity to act as and be seen as a statesman.  With Trump’s help, he can open the book on Sykes-Picot and facilitate the reformation of Syria and Iraq into a loose confederation of ethnically and religiously homogenous statelets. Between the Americans and the Russians, all of the factions can be brought to the table and, with luck, disarmed and sent on their way. None of the resulting states will be heard of again for generations.

Trump has played the first card of a strategy which will likely take a few years to play out. By being willing to punish actions which are against all agreed-upon international norms Trump makes it clear that hard power is a real thing for America again.

Trump knew the world was watching and he gave them a show. Now we’ll see what he does with the attention.


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The Long Good Bye

Vancouver Sun, David Beers, The Tyee

Hold The Presses!

It’s been a brutal three weeks of dread, tears, and colleagues suddenly forced to see each other as threats to their own jobs. That’s the picture painted by sources who were inside the recently merged Vancouver Sun and Province newsroom after layoffs were announced and the sorting of survivors and casualties began to unfold.

The cuts are nowhere near done, and with each round the newsroom is getting older, whiter and less versatile, said the sources.

The season of fear opened with word from Postmedia headquarters on March 10 that 54 employees, including 29 journalists, would be cut from its Vancouver-based operations, the Pacific Newspaper Group (PNG). The announcement was a startling blow, say inside sources, because when the last cuts — 20 per cent of positions across the company — were achieved with 38 buyouts at PNG just two months earlier in January, management gave the impression that would be it for a good while. “No one expected this so soon,” said a source. “We thought we’d hit the targets.” the tyee

David Beers who I know and respect was laid off from the Vancouver Sun back in 2001 and went on to found The Tyee which I have written for. The Tyee is entirely web based and supported by BC labour and assorted lefty funding organizations as well as its readers. So it is no surprise to read “If the latest cuts do happen, say insiders, the sparse newsroom will be populated mainly by grey-haired veterans with few around them to mentor. There will be fewer people under 35, and fewer people of colour.”

However, the fact is that the old newspaper model stopped working about 2001 when David, who could well have led the charge to make the Vancouver Sun, at least, useful in a digital age, got the boot.

The era of mass readership newspapers and mass viewership television is drawing to its natural close. And, yes the internet does have something to do with this. But at a number of different levels.

First off, the old cash cow of classified advertising was destroyed by Craigslist and its imitators. Classified ads were nice because they were straight revenue with no “service” component and no serious requirement for the sorts of metrics advertising agencies want.

Display advertising was also hit. Why buy a $15,000 full page ad that just sat there when you could go on line and incentivize customers in hundreds of interactive ways you could actually measure?

Yes, there are still car ads and still real estate ads but those come with the price of service copy and, frankly, if you want to reach someone under 35 is this your best ad spend?

The “movie” pages dwindled, book advertising (yes, that was a thing) shrank, business “appointments” notices – a great source of revenue because they were full price – began to be concentrated in business-focused publications. The governments still advertised but more and more of their budgets were going online where they could measure results.

It is all very well to say ““The old white guys in Armani suits in Toronto don’t.” understand journalism, but the problem was a lot deeper than an absence of journalistic understanding. The old guys – and not just at Post Media – have no idea what to do in the face of the internet and the world it created. They have yet to realize that information is no longer consumed the way my ninety one year old mother consumes it.

A lot of those old guys kept using their Blackberries after the iPhone arrived. They did their computing (aka browsing the net) on their laptops or desktops and were thrilled that their “phone” could receive email. They completely missed the fact that the kids were wondering around with high powered computers in their pocket which could, but seldom did, make phone calls.

They missed smartphones as tools of media consumption but they also missed the impact of digital on content creation. Beers’ article contains a good deal of lamentation for the “newsroom” and copyeditors and the sad fact Post Media centralized is page composition in Hamilton with the inevitable errors that has brought. All of which was outmoded thinking when David was laid off back in 2001.

Leading edge boomers took their cue from their parent’s generation: the people who won the purely mechanical World War II. Organization, heirarchy, unions, careers, pensions were all baked into that system. Unions and management spent years fighting over new technology, the end of hot metal composing, the use of freelancers and pretty much any innovation which changed the top down structure of the newspaper publishing business. Reading Beer’s article you can see how vestiges of this structure remain with the effect of ensuring that senior people are laid off last and those under 35, POC, people never stand a chance. Seniority is the mantra of the old craft unions and it is not quite dead at Granville Square.

There is simply no reason, in an age of Smartphones and WordPress based online publishing, for there to be a newsroom at all. A section editor with a laptop can and should be feeding his or her section with the best material freelancers pitch. Payment per word – ideally electronically – with daily and weekly budgets and news budgets set by way of a conference call or Skype. (Which, interestingly, is a model The Tyee used to a large degree from the go.)

The ritual of copyediting is a brilliant luxury and I am old enough to notice its absence and thank my lucky stars for Grammarly for both my occasional pieces and my professional writing. It is not perfect, but it is pretty good and the pro level is excellent. But it is easy enough to have material freelancers write sent to a freelance copyeditor before publication.

All of which assumes the end of the “print edition”. Something which should have happened a decade ago as the iPhone was launched. From time to time I go to a coffee shop or a pub: people are reading up a storm. On their Smartphones or laptops. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw anyone under 40 reading a newspaper. And that was true five years ago. Dead tree newspapers are done and have been for quite a while. Their only purpose may be in the community format where they can act as wrappers for the flyers which still make a bit of money.

Beers makes a direct connection between the hollowing out of the newsroom and a decline in the value and usefulness of the content. I think he has a point there but not as much of a point as he would have had a decade ago. The problem is that the audience for general content, the meat and potatoes city desk news, fires, car crashes, criminal trials, the goings on at city hall, school news and such like, has fragmented. In a city like Vancouver, with a 50% recent Asian immigrant population, my “old white guy” news is unlikely to be of much interest to a person living almost entirely within a literal and figurative, ethnic enclave. Business news might have a following but, again, that following may be fairly seriously undercut by the fact that where “old white guy” business people look to Toronto and New York, successful Chinese business people may look to Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. Arts and entertainment? Same problem and exacerbated by the fact the internet has rendered the idea of a general culture laughable and entirely fragmented the “youth market”.

Having a great newsroom when next to no one wants straight, objective, news about the quotidian affairs of the city, province or even country they are living in is essentially beside the point. It is not that people are uninterested, it is rather that they have their news fix on Google or Facebook. (Facebook is particularly corrosive to the idea of general news because people will share Facebook news with other people who are deeply interested in that topic. A general newsroom cannot possibly compete.)

I hate to see people lose their jobs. I especially hate to see people lose their jobs because the owners of the company they work for lost the thread a decade or more ago. But the reality is that the world has moved on from the print newspaper. David Beers recognized that when he founded the Internet only Tyee in 2001.

The bright lights at Post Media or the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail might want to give him a call.

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