Yet Another Offensive Aspect of "Homeless Hotspots"

Let's put aside the obvious patronizing and exploitative features of the BBH-marketing-firm-driven "homeless hotspot" stunt. That's an exercise left to the reader. What I want to focus on are the assumptions, stated by BBH's Saneel Radia on Marketplace, that (1) this is simply using the Street Sheet "model" and (2) that the point of writing, editing, printing, and distributing a newspaper by the homeless and about homeless issues is all about... getting a wee bit of social interaction.

What we're doing is we're taking a model that exists already -- street newspapers. It's really that social interaction point, the ability for them to express themselves, to be a bit entrepreneurial. Again, if you really get into the experience, it is the opposite of condescending. It's very empowering, actually.

I call multiple, steamy layers of BS. Have you ever read Street Sheet? It's usually well made, insightful, and brings to attention issues affecting millions of people that you don't see on CNN. Just recently, the San Francisco-based Street Sheet collected position statements from candidates for District Attorney, had been active in the issue of making MUNI (local public transit) free for youth, and been on the scene at various Occupy protests. Hey, marketers: there's value in content, and content is not fungible.

Also, the process of reporting, writing, editing, producing, and distributing an actual product (as opposed to, say, doing whatever marketing firms do) keeps a person's mind sharp, which is hard to do when you can't afford an iPad or are engaged in daily work beyond survival, and provides skills and job training. There are many stories of homeless people pulling themselves up, as the saying goes, through the work street newspapers provide.

So, those are the "models" street newspapers provide. You think all a homeless person wants is to be graced by your patronizing presence for a few moments, in exchange for a few pennies?

Go market yourself, Saneel.

The Failure of Analogy in Policy: Debt Edition

Though I'm late to the party on noting Paul Krugman's unpacking of the actual U.S. national debt issue and his smacking down of hysteria over it, I do want to add that this is yet another failure point for analogy and metaphor in policy and politics. Krugman notes that the analogy most often used in discussion of national debt is that the country is like a family, the national economy is like a family's budget -- more specifically, the U.S. debt is often explained as a too-large mortgage that this family has taken out, and now must be repaid. And in general, there are broad strokes and similarities, and indeed analogies can at times offer us ways to wrap our heads around unfamiliar concepts: a peloton of cyclists sometimes moves and reacts like a flock of birds or a school of fish, as the small signals of individual movements propagate and translate into smooth movements of the whole. But, as Krugman shows, just because both involve borrowing money doesn't mean the implications of and appropriate actions for one translate to the other.

Basically, the problem is that analogies (and metaphors) aren't predictive: the peloton may act like a school of fish, but that doesn't mean some of the cyclists should be netted and would be tasty grilled with a bit of lemon. (No, really, the meat would be too tough.)

The same goes for so much of business journalism. One company may be like another, true, but that doesn't mean one is the other, and one's future will not be the other's. At this point, no one would honestly say that Facebook is MySpace and the same will happen to both (though both may end up on the ash heap of history) -- but they did.

The same goes for economics. As Krugman demonstrates:

First, families have to pay back their debt. Governments don’t — all they need to do is ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base. The debt from World War II was never repaid; it just became increasingly irrelevant as the U.S. economy grew, and with it the income subject to taxation.

Second — and this is the point almost nobody seems to get — an over-borrowed family owes money to someone else; U.S. debt is, to a large extent, money we owe to ourselves.

Fact-based reporting FTW! It's not only lazy, but it's promoting Bad Ideas to allow the implications of an analogy to run unchecked. (Here we have to keep in mind something from user experience research, and tailor our design/writing to the impulses of users/readers; in this case, the natural impulse is to extend forward the path one has been put on.)

Granted, I've been guilty of employing a metaphor or analogy in a news story, sometimes even to amuse myself in the writing. I hope to keep in mind Krugman's takedown, and always ask, when employing such a rhetorical tool, "but what are the differences, and will they matter more?"

Relativity and Rosen

Jay Rosen makes some good points in his "View from Nowhere" post. The idea of an impartial position is an important (if fairly recent) framework in journalism, but its limitations and problematic aspects have become the story in the last few years. Perhaps we should extend the metaphor of "position", relative to this framework. Einstein showed that the idea of simultaneity is a false one, and that velocity only is meaningful in terms of a frame of reference. Acceleration, however, was a real effect. Perhaps a way out of this "neutral position" muddle is to measure reportorial/editorial voices not just in comparison to some "liberal" or "conservative" North star, but by the change between these positions. We could call that "media literacy" or something.