Friday, July 3, 2009

How Awesome Is This? There's a New Foundation in Town

There's a new foundation in town: The Awesome Foundation is doling out month-long $1000 grants, plus office space at betahouse in Cambridge, to "people doing awesome things in the world."

Founder Tim Hwang, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard and founder of the excellent ROFLcon series of events exploring Internet memes, describes the new foundation as "a fast-paced micro-MacArthur Foundation for your flashes of fast-paced micro-genius."

Hwang started hunting for micro-trustees in early June, and within a few weeks had assembled a group of 11 people willing to pony up $100 per month to support the idea. (More trustees are still joining...)

They announced the foundation, and started looking for grantees, yesterday. I'm curious what kind of projects will make the cut...

There is of course a Facebook group and Twitter feed.

Really nifty news to start the Fourth of July weekend with...

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Notes from the 'Future of News' Seminar at Berkman Law School

I tromped down snowy Mass Ave this afternoon to go to a two-hour seminar on "The Future of News," organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law school. Obviously, as a long-time journalist, short-time blogger, and even-shorter-time videocaster and podcaster, I'm interested in the topic. (I was also part of the founding crew at in 1995.)

The two guests tonight were author and consultant Jeff Jarvis and Russ Stanton, editor of the LA Times.

As has been the case with many of these discussions that I've witnessed or participated in, there was much more fretting about the current state of things than there was talk about solutions, new directions, and new business models. I said to Stanton afterward that I feel there is a dearth of attention paid to new ways newspapers can develop advertising products that satisfy their local markets; he seemed to agree.

Following are my rough notes (all paraphrased) on what Stanton and Jarvis said in their 15-minute talks; I didn't take notes on the Q&A portion. Nor did I take notes on Josh Cohen's part of the evening. Cohen is the senior business product manager for Google News, and he chimed in via video link. Unfortunately, the video dropped out before he could contribute anything of substance.

Russ Stanton:

    Launched LA Times site in late 1995…but didn’t get serious about the Web until January 2007.

    More than half the photo staff is fully trained in video… on assignment, they’re likely to shoot photo and video.

    In addition to Web and print, also thinking about TV and radio and mobile as platforms for content distribution.

    Politics blog called “Top of the Ticket,” launched last summer – run by two of the oldest members of the staff – by last November, was among the top 60 blogs on the Internet.

    Two digital experiments the Times has done: Let readers define the boundaries of their neighborhoods on a map … and “Top Dogs” – most popular breeds and names (most Chihuahuas in LA are named Princess).

    LA Times is now the fastest-growing newspaper Web site in the US. Doubled traffic in 2008. 140m page views a month, and 9 million unique visitors a month. Fourth place among newspaper web sites.

    I don’t believe that pay models or micropayments are realistic solutions.

    There are no magic bullets or quick fixes.

    With the Times' Sunday Magazine, we're focusing on households with $125K or higher income, and taking circulation down by half.

    We need to develop content people will be willing to pay for – like, which has figured out how to mine every stat of every baseball game possible.

    Traffic dried up after we put entertainment industry coverage behind a pay wall for two years.

Jeff Jarvis:

    We used to live in a content economy. We’re now moving into a link economy.

    In a link economy, you only need one copy, and the links to it are what give it value. Content without links has no value. Content gains value as it gains links.

    Jounalists have to become aggregators and curators and community organizers. We have to become educators: when we have people helping do journalism, we have to help do it better. There’s a knowledge that we in journalism have that we’ve never shared.

    We thought we were the ecosystem of news in a community. Now, we shouldn’t even look at ourselves as the center of it. We should be at the edge.

    Glam is the #1 women’s brand online. 110 million unique visitors after three years; iVillage, the former queen, has 20 million. iVillage owns and controls content, and shoves ads at you – the old media model. We were the magnets. You came to us. Glam started a network that supports 800 sites. Less cost, more speed, less risk.

    Google created networks that allows others to succeed. My little blog has maps and videos from Google. I have Google ads; I made $4,000 in 2007 from it.

    To close things off behind a pay wall is suicidal in many ways.

    Newspapers are a horribly expensive structure. We can’t afford it anymore.

    We have a project at CUNY – New Business Models for News.

    At some point, you’ve got to turn of the presses if you want to find a sustainable new model.

    News is a process, not a product… it’s like a string with no obvious beginning or ending.

    Google puts things up as “betas.” News can be a beta – here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know, what do you know? We never thought that way in news. We put out the paper once a day. If it was full of errors, that was a mess.

    The article itself may be an outmoded atomic unit of doing journalism. If you look at any story about the financial crisis, the background is either too much or too little. If you don’t know what a CDO is, two lines about a CDO in a story isn’t enough.

    Figure out how to make something the community wants you to make... to the point where the community takes it over (as it has with Craigslist.)

    If we invented newspapers today, they wouldn’t be on paper.

    Lucky papers will restructure contracts and go online… others will fold.

    There is no orderly transition, where print hands off to digital on January 20th [as with the Presidency]. There is destruction in the middle.

There seemed to my eyes to be more Twitterers in the audience than bloggers... here are some of the tweets. And here's some great coverage from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, including video.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Internet Policy and the Next Presidential Administration

Google's Rich Miner pointed me to this event coming up on Thursday evening at the Berkman Center. The title is "The Uncertain Internet: Core Net Values for the [TBD] Administration."

Here's the descrip:

    Now is a critical moment for defining and reinforcing the best features of our communications platforms. What do we value about the internet and what should be the focus of the next administration? This event will be a discussion exploring the Net’s benefits and its increasing vulnerabilities. How do we maintain the network we know, and anticipate the network it is becoming? What issues emerge in the era of "cloud computing" and the mobile internet? How do we ensure broadband for everyone? What can be done to promote open networks and open devices? Join us for a wide-ranging discussion with leaders from the legal, technical, and political fields.

    The panel will include:

    - Jonathan Zittrain (Professor, Harvard Law School)
    - Susan Crawford (Professor, University of Michigan Law School)
    - Rich Miner (Mobile Platforms, Google; co-Founder of Android)
    - Alec Ross (Tech Policy Advisor to Barack Obama)

(Wonder why no McCain representation?)

It's free and open to the public.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Happened at Today's Panel Discussion About Non-Compete Agreements

Probably the most interesting aspect of this afternoon’s discussion of the impact that non-compete agreements have in Massachusetts, held at Harvard Law School, was the absence of any company willing to publicly defend the practice of having employees sign non-competes.

The organizers had lined up Melanie Haratunian, an Akamai executive, to represent that point of view, but she backed out earlier this week. The reason? Akamai is apparently in the midst of enforcing a non-compete agreement against a former employee, and was concerned that that employee’s counsel might be in the audience today. That, at least, was the story I was told beforehand by several of the event’s organizers; perhaps one of you can fill in the details.

Moderator John Palfrey simply said, in opening the discussion, that Akamai “had to pull out of this event due to some pending litigation related to this topic.” (When I called Akamai spokesman Jeff Young for confirmation, he said he was not aware of any such litigation.)

I wonder why, if the stalwarts of the Massachusetts innovation economy believe so strongly that non-compete agreements are essential to retaining their best people, that no one would come forward to defend that position? EMC? Nuance? Genzyme? Boston Scientific? Anyone? Anyone?

Update: Here's some video I shot:

Some notes from the discussion…

Harvard prof. Lee Fleming said that people and ideas move from states that enforce non-competes to states that don’t (think California.) His research has found that non-competes squelch employee mobility by about 20 percent, and 30 percent for experts in a given field. Fleming asked whether non-competes might stifle the reallocation of the best people to the best business opportunities.

Paul Maeder of Highland Capital Partners said that non-competes are like diabetes -– a silent killer. Before a company can get off the ground, a prospective founder thinks twice about risking a lawsuit.

One problem with the way non-compete agreements are written, said Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital, is that they often prohibit people from working in “an area deemed to be competitive,” which can be vague.

Maeder said he is seeing a lot of California start-ups crop up that aim to challenge Akamai’s business of Internet content delivery. He said that one of them “will likely become the market share leader,” and asked whether we want that successor company to be in California, or here

Rich Miner, an exec at the Cambridge office of Google, says that the company doesn’t require people to sign non-competes. At a previous company, Wildfire Communications, Miner recalled trying to hire an engineer from Comverse. Comverse decided to chase the employee and enforce the non-compete, and so Wildfire had to pay him for six or eight months before he could actually begin working.

Maeder observed that Washington State, where non-competes are enforceable, has produced two great tech companies: and Microsoft. But he noted that there had been no great operating system spin-offs from Microsoft, or online bookstore spin-offs from Amazon.

Maeder also compared non-competes to indentured servitude, and said they foster “sleepiness” here in Massachusetts. He advised employees to ask about them at the beginning of the interview process, not on the first day of work -- when it's too late to negotiate anything different (like six months instead of a year).

Maeder says that he discourages his portfolio companies from requiring employees to sign non-competes, but he said that isn’t yet a firm-wide policy at Highland. (It is, apparently, at Spark Capital.)

Maeder suggested that there are three ways to change the rules surrounding non-competes in Massachusetts:

1. Legislative fiat (“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said, having visited Beacon Hill recently. Miner agreed, saying that change needs to be “a grassroots effort.” He did say, though, that he mentioned the issue to Governor Deval Patrick when Patrick visited Google’s office recently.)

2. Educating employees about their impact

3. Get venture capitalists and executives who serve on boards to speak out about the issue with the companies they work with.

During the Q&A period, Steven Chow, an attorney at Burns & Levinson, recalled that he used to sue EMC on behalf of Digital Equipment over employees who were violating non-compete agreements by going to work at EMC. (Didn’t that do a good job of preserving DEC’s dominance?) He said that non-competes help “keep the cost of engineers down,” since employers don’t have to compete as aggressively on salaries.

'Twas a good discussion, but it would’ve been about 10,000 percent more interesting had someone been on the panel to defend non-competes as a tool for talent retention, or make a case that getting rid of them wouldn’t necessarily make Massachusetts more competitive.

Next time?

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