Would the real Romano Prodi please stand up?

I’m looking forward to reading Brad DeLong and Steve Cohen’s new book, The End of Influence, sometime soon. But I was struck by one of the blurbs from former Italian prime minister and president of the European Commission Romano Prodi (who is also a former economics professor):

I started reading this book and could not stop until I arrived at the last sentence. Really splendid: rigorous, scientifically perfect, and politically accurate.

It’s not the blurb that gave me pause. It was encountering Prodi for the second time in a week, after not really thinking about him since his largely ineffectual tenure as Italy’s leader (although he was certainly infinitely preferable to the odious Berlusconi).

Prodi pops up briefly in the hugely entertaining A View from the Foothills, the diaries of Chris Mullin, which I read over the holiday break. Mullin was a Labour MP who made a few brief forays into the bottom rungs of government during the Tony Blair premiership. His diaries give a wonderful sense of British politics and government from a modest perch, where encounters with The Man (Mullin’s name for Blair) are at best fleeting. Here’s the brief mention of Prodi:

Monday, 29 March 2004

To Carlton Gardens for a ‘political’ lunch. The party pollster Greg Cook gave us the lowdown on the latest polls. The news is not good. Levels of dissatisfaction and cynicism are approaching those of the Major years. There was a discussion on Europe, [Foreign Secretary] Jack [Straw] said that the EC had had ten years of ‘seriously crud’ leaders — Santerre and Prodi. Prodi, he said, would be lucky to hold down even the lowliest government post in this country and yet in Italy he was considered prime ministerial material.

Incidentally, here’s one of the many funny passages on low ministerial rank:

I am besieged with invitations to address conferences organised by obscure but no doubt worthy organisations. Mostly they are the crumbs that fall from the tables of my many superiors and my first instinct is to reject the lot. However, they usually come with notes from officials advising acceptance and, reluctantly, I concede. Before long my whole life will be eaten up by pointless activity. One such invite, originally addressed to Nick Raynsford, came with a note from his Private Secretary still attached. It read: ‘This is very low priority. I suggest we pass it to Chris Mullin.’

The view from my window

Ankara view

I love Andrew Sullivan‘s View From My Window feature on his blog. So why not copy it occasionally?

There’s nothing particularly lovely about Ankara, Turkey’s capital and a city of over 4 million. But I’m involved in a fascinating project here — equal parts economic development and sustainability — which I might be able to write about at some point.

The only other picture I’ve taken on this crammed business trip was an utterly obvious one in San Francisco Airport before I boarded my plane on Monday:


In case you can’t read it, the copy reads: “Opportunity isn’t always obvious.” Today’s New York Times has a good article on the reddened faces at Accenture.

Tenth blogoversary


Well, I missed my 10th blogoversary by one day. But then, I’ve been missing a lot of events here on Davos Newbies recently. It isn’t that I’ve lost the blogging urge, it’s just that all of my blogging energy is being consumed by Berkeleyside. And I’ve had a fair chunk of paying work that needs attention as well in the last couple of months (which is a good thing). I will, I promise, get back to occasional updates here.

The first Davos Newbies post — a kind of Hello World — was on December 12, 1999. I didn’t really get motoring until January 3, 2000, when the run-up to that year’s Davos was ramping up. I then didn’t miss a day of posting until February 5. I think that spate of posts, which was conference liveblogging avant la lettre, stands up pretty well. The Internet Archive didn’t catch up with Davos Newbies until June 2000, but that does mean the original look — thanks Garret! — is preserved in aspic.

old DN

I’ve thanked Dave Winer many times for both pioneering blogging and for encouraging Davos Newbies from my first encounter with him. I’m still hugely grateful for that, even if we decided to take separate paths in our Berkeley hyperlocal efforts.

Photo of a number 10 by Leo Reynolds from Flickr

The ecosystem dilemma

My latest column for Reuters compares the ecosystem approaches of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android mobile operating systems. My conclusion:

For an ecosystem to succeed it will need the best developers. Apple’s policy of near-tyrannical control ensures certain quality and standards, but it also risks scaring off the best talent.

I also wanted to include an absolutely perfect xkcd cartoon. Not sure why that didn’t pass muster, but here it is:


Why use McKinsey — or any of the other guys?

Jay Rosen has a plaintive tweet:

I don’t get why managers hire McKinsey. Aren’t they supposed to be able to manage? What am I missing?

Jay’s question comes on the heels of news that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has hired McKinsey & Company to run its slide rules over the operations of the Wall Street Journal. Magazine group Condé Nast and Time Warner have recently come under the gimlet eye of McKinsey consultants.

The question on why engage the very expensive services of McKinsey, Bain, BCG or any of the other big strategy consultants is a long-running one in corporate circles. It’s not particularly new in media either. In my Davos days I became friendly with Michael Wolf who ran McKinsey’s media practice in those days. He didn’t look like he was short of work even when media companies were thriving.

There’s not a simple answer, but I think companies hire McKinsey (let’s use them as a proxy for all the others) primarily for two reasons, one good, one not so good. The good reason is that there are plenty of management tasks that most companies face relatively rarely. Most companies don’t integrate new acquisitions all that often (there are exceptions, like Cisco, which become hugely expert at the task). A company wants to install a new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system only once in a great while. And it may be relatively rare for a company to go through a brutal stripping out of inefficiencies and costs — even if it’s as hard-nosed as News Corp.

In those cases, a lot of companies turn to McKinsey because it has done it all before. The promise the well-suited McKinsey partner can make to Rupert Murdoch or any other corporate chieftain is, “We’ve seen this problem before dozens of times. We have procedures for dealing with it. We can do it efficiently.” For a very large sum of money.

The less good reason for using McKinsey is to deflect criticism. The ax comes down and a surviving executive can say to her shell-shocked employees: “My hands are tied. Those hot-shots from McKinsey came in and said we had 30% more editors than the industry norm. There was nothing I could do.” Or it could be that it’s a political ploy: “McKinsey said we should shut you down, but we decided to go with swingeing cuts instead.”

Murdoch has never seemed shy about wielding an ax, so I suspect the consultants are coming into the WSJ because they can do the analysis more quickly and efficiently than Rupe’s own bean counters.

Financial Times' new low

I’ve lamented the US political coverage by the Financial Times’ Edward Luce before. And the other day Felix Salmon picked up the theme. But I think today may mark a new low.

Luce provides political analysis on the award of the Nobel peace prize to president Obama. He takes the church of the savvy line that the prize will reinforce the view that Obama is all talk, no action. Given that Luce has never found a conservative take on conventional wisdom that he doesn’t like, that’s unsurprising. But he plumbs the depths with his language.

Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio host, spoke for a large number of conservatives when he described the award as a display of humour by God that was designed to “emasculate the United States”.

“This fully exposes the illusion that is Barack Obama,” Mr Limbaugh told Politico, the Washington news site. “They love a weakened, neutered US and this is their way of promoting that concept.” The “they” in Mr Limbaugh’s world view consists of effete Europeans and their ideological cousins living on each of America’s coastlines who believe in multilateralism, the UN and diplomacy.

Unsurprisingly, America’s Merlot-drinking classes were more respectful of the announcement. Ted Turner, head of the UN Foundation, a private group set up to defend an institution that is unpopular in the US, said: “This is an exciting time when global co-operation is recognised to be necessary for securing a peaceful and prosperous world.”

Strobe Talbott, head of the centrist Brookings Institution, told the Financial Times: “While some might see the prize as premature, Obama has already had an extraordinary and salutary effect on the view of the US in much of the world. But the progress in Geneva with the Iranians [on uranium enrichment talks last month] suggests that there is already some concrete benefit.”

Gosh, who would you rather be? A talk radio host who speaks for a “large number of conservatives” or part of “America’s Merlot-drinking classes”? Think Luce’s language expresses any preference?

Brad DeLong often laments the inadequacies of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The FT is in a different league and it does a remarkable job of covering the world. But they do a piss poor job in Washington.

Venture capital harms your wealth

My latest column for Reuters has been published. I argue that the venture capital industry in the US will be forced to shrink as institutional investors pull back from all except the most successful funds:

Everyone believes they are investing in the children of Lake Wobegon, who are all above average. But institutional investors won’t play the fool for long and the response from potential LPs is bound to get stonier for all but the most accomplished funds. So what, if anything, will save venture capital?

There will need to be fewer, smaller funds, making smaller bets with their investors’ money. Fewer exits won’t be such a problem, because fewer exits will be needed. It will be something that looks, in fact, a lot like the VC world pre-dotcom. That will be a wholly good thing, for venture capital, for investors and for entrepreneurs.

A smaller industry will have fewer hangers on who invest with the latest trend, and there will be less dumb money buoying poorly formed, unrealistic dreams.

The death of magazines

Manplan 2

For most of my professional life, I worked on magazines. So when knowledgeable observers who I respect sound the death knell for magazines, I find it sad. Jeff Jarvis writes, “What’s the point of emotions? It’s economics.” I don’t think economics necessarily invalidates the emotions.

My own magazine history reflects the truth the death of individual titles has always been reality. Look at the magazines I worked on (I’ve only included ones where I played a major role):

Five magazines, two deaths. I have no idea whether the others are on life support or are thriving.

More important, I look at my own magazine consumption. Like Jarvis, I used to buy magazines by the bushel (unlike him, I never put it on an expense account). I just loved the feel, form, structure and content of magazines. Now? I subscribe to two: The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. If I have a long-haul flight, I will probably buy a couple of magazines at the airport.

If magazines have lost the fanatics like me, there’s probably not much hope for them.

It may be, as Jarvis points out, that just as the music business has had to find a way to move from the album to the song, publishing is figuring out a way to navigate from the issue to the article to the post. That will necessarily be online, not in print.

I think, however, there will still be some limited space for some magazines that deliver more than individual articles. The two titles I subscribe to provide that for me. I just re-upped with The New Yorker today, in fact. I can’t imagine not getting it every week — there’s too much I want to page through and read for the online experience to compete. Ditto for NYRB, not least because of the length of most of the articles. The other category I can see surviving, and perhaps even thriving, are magazines that rely heavily on visual impact. My old stamping ground, The Architectural Review, could be one of those survivors. And my friends who produce the world’s most stunning magazine, Eye, may also find a path to the promised land. They certainly deserve it.

Photo from Flickr by Eversion