03 January 2009

Say It Ain't So, Doctor!

Back before some of you were born, I subscribed to a magazine called Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia (tag line: "Running light without overbyte"). It was a wonderful stew of homebrew projects and computer-science theory, and evolved into one of two premier magazines on how to write software professionally.

I was a writer and technical editor for the other one for several years (that would be Software Development, née Computer Language), and briefly for Dobb's -- the parent media company decided it couldn't afford to keep running two similarly-targeted rags in a shrinking market for paper media, and canned SD.

So I have a reasonably clear notion of what the business is like, and have been watching sadly as Dobb's has cut its page count, simplified its artwork, and in general followed the track of a magazine whose life-support monitors are beeping with shriller and shriller urgency. Now Alan Zeichick's blog reports that Dobb's may be folded into a "report" within Information Week. If he's right -- and his notion of the publishing biz is a lot more "reasonably clear" than mine -- a thirty-two year icon of our community is headed for the dumpster.

While the "paperless office" is still a grim joke, "paperless publishing" is very much upon us. The almost-demise of the proud Detroit Free Press is the clearest signal possible that newspapers and magazines are headed for boutique status at best.

Who cares? After all, it's traditional for old farts to mourn obsolete tech -- I got my journalism degree in 1981, for God's sake! -- and perhaps your correspondent is just feeling a wee bit grumpy this morning.

Well, I do care, and you should too. Good technical journalism is still perfectly possible in the new era, just like its political cousin, and the barriers to entry are practically nonexistent now. Every media outlet is looking over their shoulder to an extent undreamed-of in the paper age -- hiccup, and a brand-new competitor pops into existence and munches your lunch.

So the competition is relentless, which is good, and the margins get thinner and thinner, which is bad. Free-market theologians never seem to get this one, so bear with me for a few moments while I explain. Company A invents the hypersonic disk drive, made of titanium alloy and carbon nanotubes, which offers 2 TB/s throughput and a 15-year MTBF. They sell it for a premium, and make a pile of cash. Company B reverse-engineers the unpatented parts of their tech and markets the merely supersonic disk drive, stainless steel, ceramic, 1 TB/s, 10-year MTBF. They can sell it for half the price, driving A's product out of the market.

Then C figures out how to build a transonic drive out of aluminum; D, subsonic out of plastic. Fast-forward two years, and you've got brilliantly cheap disk drives, but they fail at random intervals, taking your data with them.

All it takes is enough iterations of "We can make it almost as good for a lot cheaper". Now, Moore's Law has masked this trend in the tech field; the MacBook Pro on which I'm writing this is so much better a computer than, say, the Commodore 64 I owned back in the Computer Calisthenics days (all right, all right, I admit I've still got it in the basement! Happy now?) that it's not even funny. I can buy a digital SLR today for less than my point-and-shoot cost a few years ago.

On the other hand, the free ride from ever-smaller logic gates is over. We're well into quantum-tunneling limits now. And outside the electronics market...well, look at the food you eat. Sure, you can get tomatoes year-round, and they're cheap. But they're grainy, hard, and tasteless. Kid's toys? It is to laugh. Clothing? Likewise. The race to the bottom drives out the good, leaving only cheap crap and thunderously expensive tinkertoys for the rich.

And journalism?

Wow. Kind of smacks you in the face, doesn't it? Three words, two numbers: Anna Nicole Smith, 24/7.

Is there anyone (besides the media-company flack vampires) willing to argue that good product is widely available today? Go listen to some of Edward R. Murrow's London Blitz broadcasts, remembering that most Americans in 1940 expected the British to lose. Then watch his pieces on Senator Joseph McCarthy, which almost single-handedly demolished the cult of lies and intimidation which had made Tailgunner Joe the most feared man in America. Or Walter Cronkite's on-air pivot on Vietnam, in the face of the Presidency, his own network, and most of the power elite in the country. I defy anyone to say with a straight face that our flawlessly-coiffed celebucasters, terrified of losing "access", are even in the same genus. Print media, same story. The Washington Post brought down Nixon in 1974. The New York Times was one of Bush's primary enablers for Iraq in 2003 -- bought the lies whole and helped sell them to the public. Sat on the NSA warrantless-wiretaps story for more than a year (i.e., did not break it before the 2004 election). There is not even much pretense anymore that journalists do anything but serve the bottom line of the huge companies they represent -- and that bottom line is under constant pressure to cut costs and build market share.

In retail, those forces, worshipped as Holy Writ, gave us Wal-Mart -- endless aisles of crap that drive out any local outlets for quality. (But hey, Always Low Prices!) The Wal-Mart-ization of journalism may be celebrated by Viacom stockholders but has already wounded our country badly (see Iraq, Guantanamo, FISA, habeus corpus). Mortally? I sure hope not, but take away our civil liberties and our allies, and we're just China, but with shoddier infrastructure and a shakier work ethic.

The tech field is a bit different from the political arena; the stakes are lower (though by no means inconsequential -- consider the security consequences of an electrical grid run on consumer-grade OS software, for example), and the facts are easier to ferret out. But geeks too depend on question-authority reporting, checked facts, and even -- dare I say it -- grammatical sentences.

(OK, I don't care if I cement my old-fart status for ever and anon. It stuns me that folks who will devote hours to the signal-to-noise ratio of their video, or relentlessly pursue a 1% page-load improvement on a Web site, can't be bothered to communicate clearly in English. Do not attempt to sell me the line of crap that "it doesn't matter" -- using contractive "it's" when you intend possessive "its" introduces ambiguity, blurs meaning, and wastes my Goddamned valuable time! Does the word "bandwidth" ring any bells in that brilliant noggin? Hello?!)

Dobb's, whatever its shortcomings, is the single remaining vendor-independent, general-interest technical publication for developers, and focuses primarily on how we do what we do. (Not to diss Alan's excellent SD Times, but it's aimed at managers, and frankly is pretty heavy on the product coverage. And for what it's worth, if you wondered, the answer is in fact "yes": the advertisers do lean heavily on pubs like Software Development. But believe me, good editors like SD's Alexa Weber Morales fight back hard, and protect their writers from it like grizzly moms their cubs. I don't doubt Alan does the same. And after all it's advertisers, plural -- if MSDN magazine sufficiently pisses off Microsoft, say "toodles".)

You can get your tech info direct from Microsoft, or Sun, or somebody like me. But I don't have the budget to do an investigative report on Python 3.0, much less ferret out the hidden flaws in .NET 3.0. I was getting about a buck a word for a "real" magazine, and the Web pays a lot less (if at all). Spending forty hours for three hundred bucks is not going to pay for my son's orthodontia -- I'm going to spend the time writing code, sorry.

Much is made of the "gatekeeper" function of traditional media outlets. I can tell you from personal experience that SD's edit team was downright obsessive about quality (some of those emails still sting a little!). The common response is that the market will sort all that out, the good pubs will rise to the top. Me, I'm not so sanguine. When the fight for eyeballs and ad dollars gets vicious, history shows that the boardroom is much more likely to cut costs than invest in quality.

What can you do? If you're a developer, and a good one, you've already got good critical-thinking skills -- your first reaction to an algorithm is invariably "Now where are the corner cases, what would cause this to fail?" Apply these to journalism, both of the mainstream and the tech variety. It's skepticism, not cynicism, one of those fine distinctions that matter. (Grumpy old man in back row: "YEAH! Like 'they're' and 'their'!!!")

For example, Microsoft publishes valuable information about software development, some of it insightful and excellently written. Just keep that little voice in the back of your mind: "What are they trying to sell me? Do I need it? What will it really cost me?" IBM, likewise (after all, it's where Scott Ambler works, he's one of the best process writers we've got). It's actually easier with the big-vendor outlets, you know up front where they're coming from. Somebody like me, well, you don't necessarily know what my agenda is, or my blind spots, or even who's paying me. Don't relax your scrutiny.

If you don't have these critical thinking skills, and you're a developer, you've got two choices: You can cultivate them (a mentor helps) or you can resign yourself to inhabiting the hump of the curve, the great mass of programmers who grind out code that mostly works. (Hint: If you spend more than 10% of your working life staring at a debugger, you should rethink. Quickly.)

In the political arena, the choice is even starker. You can apply the same healthy skepticism to the news you read or hear, or your children can wind up living in a narcotized Wal-Mart surveillance state. ("WITH BAD GRAMMAR!" "Yes yes, only please shut up now, I'm making a point here.")

It's up to you. Think carefully about what you get cheaply.


At 5:53 PM, Anonymous Rick Wirch said...

Rick what an awesome summation of thoughts.

I thought I was the only person bemoaning the death of journalism. I often go on a rant because without good journalism we end up with what occurred the last 8 years.

Your rant is almost identical to mine except I was never journalism major.


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