Slate gets it exactly wrong.

Today, Slate announced the end of Today’s Papers and In Other Magazines, replacing them with The Slatest, an updated-thrice-daily aggregator of what they consider the top twelve news stories, magazine articles, and blog posts of the moment.

Sadly, this gets what made Today’s Papers and In Other Magazines great, though TP hasn’t been truly great since Scott Shuger stopped writing it years ago. Michael Kinsley said it best, in Slate’s own obituary for Scott Shuger:

TP, as we call it, became a daily course in how the media think, what they get right and wrong, all illustrated by the day’s news. He used the different ways the five papers covered (or didn’t cover) the same story as a controlled experiment in journalistic practice.

The last thing I need is another article telling me exactly what I have to know—I already have The Week in Review at the New York Times, and needing three daily updates on stuff to know just serves the neophilic impulse, rather than any genuine sense of being informed about the world. It’s just noise.

What made Slate smart was the meta-analysis: TP, In Other Magazines, and the long-since moved-to-video-and-now-I-ignore-it Summary Judgment, which compiled and contrasted the critics’ takes on books and movies. What made it worthwhile was the ability to get a good-if-not-full picture of a big and complicated world without easy answers in just a couple of paragraphs at a time. Thrice-daily pointers to twelve other things I need to read strikes me as exactly the wrong direction. If I just want novelty, I already have a loaded-to-the-gills RSS reader.

Measuring the Critics

Slate’s Brow Beat has an excellent graph of relative conformity of movie critics. One critic, dismissed as a troll (and he praised both Norbit and Transformers 2 so I’m inclined to agree), nevertheless agrees with other critics 50% of the time. Further, virtually all of the critics bunch up at about 75% conformity, with the most conformist critic at only 83%.

This suggests to me that a scale from 1 to 100 doesn’t really work. These guys should be graded (for conformity) on a curve, spread evenly across a spectrum. With that graph, we could break film critics up into three categories: trolls, thoughtful critics, and squares.

Or maybe I’m just saying that because I despise critics at both ends of the list. (My favorite three movie critics writing today are David Edelstein, Roger Ebert, and A.O. Scott, followed by up-and-comer Lindy West.)

Five Reasons Farhad Manjoo is Doomed

All right, maybe he’s not doomed, but once again I’m less than impressed with Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, who says today that
Google’s Chrome OS is doomed.

His article starts out by admitting that Google’s Chrome OS (which I’ll abbreviate GCOS, even if that name has been used before) is intended, at least initially, for Netbooks.

Nevertheless, his first point (“Linux is hard to love”) complains that it’s hard to install software on Linux and that Linux doesn’t have much hardware peripheral support.

Of course, partnering with hardware manufacturers should address immediate peripheral support; the only other hardware most people want on a netbook is 802.11 support, CDMA or GSM wireless cards from various providers, and maybe an external mouse, if decadence is the order of the day.

His second point (“We aren’t ready to run everything on the Web”) is exactly why GCOS is being first targeted at Netbooks. They’re called Netbooks for a reason: most folks aren’t running Microsoft Office on these little boxes.

It’s true that we aren’t ready to run everything on the Web just yet. But Google isn’t shipping GCOS on everything just yet, either.

His third and fourth reasons (“Microsoft is a formidable opponent” and “Google fails often”) are true. But they apply equally to every product those vendors ship. If Manjoo was writing about the Zune, would he say that Apple is doomed? Unlikely—even if Microsoft shipped a great product. Does Manjoo think that Google Mail is doomed now that it’s left beta? Of course not.

Really, points three and four are just puffery to stretch the whole article out to five points. Readers like lists. Well, editors do, anyway. And readers certainly click on top ten, five reasons. But I’m not sure that readers are more satisfied after having clicked through, given the frequent poor analysis of the lists.

Manjoo’s final point claims that “The Chrome OS makes no business sense,” because they’re giving it away for free. His central claim in this section is that it’s “a wasteful customer acquisition expense”: it’s better for Google to spend more money improving their advertising engine than to branch out into new areas.

Correctly, he notes that the primary point of Chrome OS from a business sense “is to screw with Microsoft.” I think that’s defensive: every dollar that Microsoft spends chasing the notebook market and protecting their desktop franchise is a dollar they’re not spending on Bing. Which I haven’t tried, but I hear is pretty good. So by attacking Microsoft, they’re protecting their core franchise. (I doubt that Google’s Web search improvements are hampered by pouring resources into GCOS.)

Within his “no business sense” claim, Farhad Manjoo also suggests that GCOS as customer acquisition is unnecessarily expensive because Gmail and Google Docs can run from Windows. The cost of customer acquisition may be high—but the customer defection rate of users back to Microsoft Office would be infinitely lower on an operating system that doesn’t run office.

Really, though, whether Manjoo is right or wrong is beside the point. In a prior life, I wrote a column about computer security. My job, distilled to its most vaporous essence, was to be controversial, and attract readers; whether I was right or wrong was beside the point, as far as the bottom line was concerned. And make no mistake, attracting readers and clicks was the real objective. The content that did so was secondary.

Thus blogging about Manjoo’s article helps accomplish his real goal: being controversial enough to attract readers. I’m torn between a cynical acceptance of that answer—which would push me to stop reading the damn articles, since they’re worthless from an analytical perspective—and a utopian wish that higher-quality analysis would attract more readers, and be more valuable than “top five reasons X is doomed” journalism.

But how many of you clicked on this article because of its title?