I'll never understand the stock market. Take what happened on Friday: the government announced that 705,000 jobs were created in February -- the biggest gain in a single month since 1983. As a result, unemployment was down to 5.5 percent. All great news, right?
Wall Street panicked. By the end of the day, the stock market had plunged by 171 points, the third-largest drop ever.
So the stock market gets the willies when unemployment rates fall -- that I understand. It doesn't matter if you follow the economic school of Greenspan or Marx; all predict that low unemployment means higher labor costs. I'm not going to debate whether that is a good thing or bad -- what bothers me is the context of last week's events.
It was also last week that the New York Times published its seven-part series on the economy, noting that job losses and shrinking paychecks have created "the most acute job insecurity since the Depression...shattering people's notions of work and self and the very promise of tomorrow." Judging from the Times series, most of those 705,000 new jobs are either entry-level positions or pay considerably less than the worker's previous job. By some estimates, 1 worker in 4 is now a temp or part-time employee, working at lower wages and without benefits.
Last week's news was also a change from the usual financial headlines, announcing that yet another corporation was planning massive layoffs. The most recent was AT&T, which announced just a few days after Christmas that 40,000 employees would be "unassigned" (read: fired) this year. And a curious thing happens when those announcements appear; as far as I can tell, the company's stock always goes up. Wall Street, it seems, favors companies that vow to overwork the fortunate few who remain.
But it's the degree of the stock market's reaction to the unemployment figures that saddens the most. Reaction was stronger than after revelations of the Saving & Loan scandals, junk bond scandals, and pretty much any other financial or political or economic scandal you can name. Swindle a few billion, no sweat -- but it's panic time when an employer might have to pay experienced worker Joe and Jane Citizen a few more bucks because no army of lumpen proletariat wait to take their place.
Looking for insightful commentary, I eagerly opened this morning's (March 10th) Examiner to read John Crudele's column in the business section. Surely Crudele would shed light upon these murky topics, I thought; for years, he has hammered the Federal Reserve for tinkering with the unemployment numbers, claiming that far more people were out of work than the feds claimed. If anyone could make sense of What It All Means, it would be him.
Yes, Crudele mentioned AT&T, but he didn't muse upon the Wall Street tumble, nor did he ponder the unemployment figures. Instead, I discovered his weekly offering was about the Internet -- and particularly, Internet advertising.
In summary: AT&T's recent announcement of five free hours of access per month for one year would be a boon to the Internet, because it would bring hundreds of thousands of new people on-line. This is good news for businesses wanting to advertise on the world wide web. Writes Crudele,
Like any other advertising-driven medium, the Internet will prosper if site owners can convince manufacturers that their products will get enough exposure to make the Internet a worthwhile advertising medium.
"Clearly, the more traffic they have, the more they can sell," says [PC Magazine editor Michael] Miller. "More traffic is good. We all sell advertisers."
Besides feeling disappointed that his column did not discuss unemployment, I felt a good measure of anger. Exactly when was it decided that the Internet is an "advertising-driven medium?" Web page ads only began to appear in the last year or so. By what authority does Miller claim, "We all sell advertisers?" To paraphrase an old joke, "What do you mean, 'we,' Kemo Sabe?"
In truth, the number of web sites with ads are just a tiny minority. Sure, you'll find stuff for sale at Yahoo, ESPN, Wired, and a few score other sites. Now visit the other 6,000,000 web pages without ads. Go ahead; we'll wait.
To presume that everyone else is desperate to lure advertisers is not only silly, it's downright insulting. If your web page doesn't carry top-dollar advertising, Crudele and Miller seem to be saying, you're not worth bothering with.
This is completely opposite the spirit that permeates the Internet, and particularly the world wide web. An impressive job title or trademarked corporate monicker aren't what's important -- it's the quality of your ideas, the value of your content.
One of my favorite examples is the Usenet Info Center, which provides invaluable background on the Internet's sprawling -- and frequently confusing -- discussion forum. The Center is a great introduction to Usenet for beginners and has features that even net.veterans will find useful. Even more impressive, author Kevin Atkinson just graduated from high school, having started the project when he was sixteen years old. Although barely old enough to vote, Kevin has made a significant contribution to this world wide community. And even better, you won't find the site plastered with ads.
Miller, Crudele, and most other business folk don't understand that something significant is taking place. On the web, it doesn't matter if you're a Fortune 500 corporation or a tiny back-bedroom business; what counts is what you offer. Possibly for the first time in history, it's a truly level playing field.
We see this every day in the readership of the Albion Monitor. Although just twelve editions old and without a penny of advertising, our little newspaper has already made a difference. Thousands have read our series on the murder charges against Bear Lincoln and the history of last spring's events in Round Valley, for example, where they found the most complete account of those events published anywhere.
Our ongoing coverage of environmental damage from leaking underground storage tanks broke the news that California was preparing to abandon cleanup efforts in many cases. Thousands read that story, too, and we found that visitors came from EPA, the military, NASA, and health agencies. (Employees from big oil companies visited as well.) Maybe it was due in some small part to our coverage that the EPA sent the state a memo last month, emphasizing that California can't just walk away from this public health threat.
And, of course, we produce this newspaper without ads of any kind, depending upon subscribers to show support for the kind of coverage we offer. Without your subscriptions, this newspaper simply wouldn't exist.
How does an effort like ours fit into Crudele's vision of the Internet? "Only a few site providers... are gutsy enough to be charging fees to get onto their sites," he wrote. Sorry again, I disagree. All those free sites with advertising do charge fees -- because with corporate sponsorship comes influence.
Would a company like MCI have bought ads in our last issue, with its controversial series on the right-wing attack on abortion rights, knowing that Christian-right groups regularly organize product boycotts? Would Eddie Bauer have bought space in our current edition, with its feature showing that the company sells trendy wooden rocking horses made by prison labor? I don't think so. But if we depended upon income from those companies, we'd have to think twice about running a story that could prove embarassing to them.
It's another basic fact of economics: the worker serves those that pay the bills. And we think you'd prefer for us to serve your interests alone, without our loyalties divided between our readers and corporate sponsors.
Folks on the 'net are more savvy than Crudele and Miller think; people know, particularly when it comes to something as important as unbiased news, that "free" may come at a hefty price.
I can only hope Crudele drops his Internet punditry and returns to topics that he knows something about. He can start by explaining how AT&T is going to support hundreds of thousands of new Internet customers after firing more than 13 percent of the workforce. Of course, we all know how they'll do it: by hiring new employees at lower wages. And, of course, Wall Street will boost their stock as reward.
Our next issue appears after the elections; hope to see you then.
Jeff Elliott, Editor