Newspapers’ Challenge

Newspapers have been scrambling to keep up with the world of blogs. In the process they’re actually destroying what sets them apart.

Take this piece from the International Herald Tribune. It’s in this morning’s revamped paper, under the byline of John Doyle—without further affiliation. It’s a good piece, except for a lame ending, but it contains at least four grammatical or spelling errors:

  • “the Scotland” twice (“Darren Fletcher was the Scotland’s best player”)
  • “England, under am Italian manager”
  • “There is a poetry of national longing and a poetic justice being behind the success of the Celtic countries.” Good luck making sense of that.

Now I just put this down to poor subbing. But the problem isn’t that.

The problem is that this piece is actually a blog post. Written by someone who doesn’t work for the NYT/IHT, as far as I can work out. At the bottom of the online version is this:

John Doyle is the TV Columnist for the Globe and Mail in Canada, writes regularly about soccer and his book about soccer, All The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, will be published in 2010.

So, first problem is: does a blog post count as a news article that can be published in a paper as such? And should the reader not be informed that

  • it’s a blog post, not a news piece (or analysis)
  • and that the author isn’t actually a NYT scribe?

The editing is not good, but it’s actually OK if it were a blog post, because it can be updated. Indeed, the online version has been: It’s longer, it makes sense, and the grammatical and spelling errors have gone. Indeed there’s a correction there that signifies the evolving nature of online writing.

My point is this: I paid for this newspaper. I thought I was paying for something that reflected the best of the IHT/NYT’s stable of writers. I didn’t expect to see the space filled with half-finished blog posts by people who may or may not actually be on the payroll. But I certainly didn’t expect to see the stuff pasted in without any further editing on the part of the IHT staff.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love the paper. And cuts mean that subs don’t have half the time they used to to edit this stuff.

But nevertheless, if newspapers are going to stand any chance at all, they really need to make sure that their material is so, so much better in terms of polish than their online counterparts, otherwise us readers will start to wonder why we’re paying for stuff offline that’s worse than the stuff we read online.

Clint, Veganism, and Maligning the Net

Great interview in the International Herald Tribune/NYT with Clint Eastwood, but once again, it’s old media slagging off new media and ending up looking the worse for it.

The interviewer, presumably, asks Clint to confirm that he’s a vegan. Turns out he’s not.  Apparently the writer did his research on Wikipedia, because that’s what he cites as a source:

Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is. “I never look at the Internet for just that reason,” he said.

Trouble is, the source is not Wikipedia. As anyone who uses Wikipedia knows, any information on there must be sourced. A glance at the actual Wikipedia page would reveal that the source for this ‘fact’ about Clint is, in fact, a fellow old media source, The Los Angeles Times:

People ask him to autograph rifles, but Eastwood is no Charlton Heston. A vegan, he was distressed to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton boast recently about bagging a bird.

This piece was subsequently run in the San Jose Mercury News, the Providence Journal and PressDisplay.

In fact, you won’t be able to see this on the Wikipedia page anymore because it’s been removed. That’s because some new media moves faster than old media: on December 11, the day the NYT piece was first published, a Wikipedian spotted the reference and prompted a discussion, and the removal of the reference on the grounds that a direct denial from Eastwood trumps an LAT piece. (You can see the discussion here.)

In other words, from what we can judge, the journalist involved researched Clint on Wikipedia, and was ready enough to accept that as a source on which to base his questions. When the fact in question turned out to be wrong, he allowed Clint to make a familiar sideswipe at the Internet, and not further research the origin of the myth.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The LA Times doesn’t cite a source. But there are plenty of them—apparently. Clint is quoted on dozens of sites as saying

“I try to stick to a vegan diet—heavy on fruit, vegetables, tofu, and other soy products.”

Sites like GoVeg.com have been happy to include him in their Animal-Friendly Celebrities (although, to their credit, they seem to have removed him. Compare this page with this cached version.)

What’s perhaps most intriguing is the source of this quote. I’ll admit I can’t find it. But it’s been bouncing around the net for a couple of years; this forum cites it in September 2006. I found a  piece in Glasgow’s Daily Record on May 23, 2006 that also listed Clint as vegetarian, although the web site does not seem to contain a record of it. The oldest reference I can find is in the Miami New Times, on October 13 2005, which lists Clint among a number of (supposed) vegans.

In other words, a myth arose on the net, without any straightforward way of establishing its provenance or authenticity, which was then happily picked up by websites, businesses, and organisations whose purpose it served, then found its way into a mainstream news article, before finally being authoritatively quashed.

So yes, in a way Clint and the NYT reporter are right. The Internet isn’t reliable. But Wikipedia is. Or at least, it’s no less reliable than the sources it cites. Which in this case, happened to be old media itself.

Lesson? As a journalist I guess I might too have fallen into the trap of trusting the LA Times. But it’s a timely reminder that there’s no fact too small or apparently established that it can’t stand to be fact-checked.

Just don’t blame the net if you get it wrong. It’s cheap and it’s old wave.

The veteran power of Clint Eastwood – International Herald Tribune

Breaking Down Resistance

Here’s a piece i missed from the International Herald Tribune by Phyllis Korkki that does a great job of looking at the problems that people increasingly face: technology. Not everyone likes it or understands it, and it’s not easy for them to find out how to do what they need to do. Here are a couple of snippets I particularly liked:

If you are uncomfortable around new technology, you may be learning at a “keystroke level” instead of a conceptual level, said Deborah Compeau, associate professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. 

Fearful learners “want to have a piece of paper that tells them what buttons to push in what order,” she said. This leaves them unprepared for errors and impasses, which are inevitable.

This is true; I’ve been working on these kind of crib sheets for some time now, and I’m not sure they are always the best way for people to learn. It’s like a map through a maze that doesn’t contain any paths beyond the route you’re supposed to take: no use you if you take a wrong turn and get lost.

Talking of which, Compeau points to what I think is the best approach in getting ideas across:

A good teacher creates analogies that make it easier for nontechnical thinkers to understand how a system works; for example, by comparing a hard drive to a filing cabinet, and directories to the drawers of the cabinet, she said.

This is what I’ve tried to do in my WSJ.com column (which comes to an end at the end of this month, sadly.) It’s not always easy to find the right analogy, and they don’t always work, but I suspect it’s the best approach.

Have a good holiday.

Tips for the tech-averse – Print Version – International Herald Tribune

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An Agency for the Citizen Reporter

My friend Saigon-based Graham Holliday has helped launch a words version of Scoopt, the world’s first commercial citizen journalism photography agency. With Scoopt Words :

[w]e believe that your blog writing can be every bit as valuable as professional journalism. It’s the same idea that lies behind Scoopt the picture agency: in the right circumstances, amateur photography is just as valuable as professional photography… as we have proven again and again.

So if your content is valuable, why shouldn’t you be paid for it? Why is it OK for a newspaper to lift your words or publish your writing for free just because you’re an ‘amateur’? If it’s good enough to print, it’s good enough to pay for.

Great idea, a bit like BlogBurst, I guess, a syndication service that places your blog content on top-tier online destinations, though BlogBurst doesn’t pay you, so perhaps closer in spirit to OhmyNews, which ScooptWords quotes approvingly. Rightly so; OhmyNews helped to overturn South Korean media and throw a few people out of office. (OhmyNews has recently teamed up with the International Herald Tribune to swap headline links on each others’ websites.)

I like the ScooptWords idea, but I have my reservations. ScooptWords’ FAQ quotes an essay by Betty Medsger, former Washington Post reporter and Professor of Journalism, “about the knowledge and experience of many professional journalists”, suggesting that one shouldn’t feel intimidated by the power of the traditional press. But Medsger’s message wasn’t quite that. She did point out that most journalists who have won awards and fellowships never studied journalism, but her conclusion was not that experience wasn’t necessary, in fact, it may be, she says, quite the opposite:

Journalists put information and ideas from other disciplines into public vessels of various kinds — breaking news stories, investigative pieces, analytical work, cultural criticism. These non-journalism graduates clearly know how to think journalistically, and they are adept at filling various vessels with quality work. But their thinking and learning did not originate in journalism education programs. Mentors in newsrooms apparently have been their teachers. Or perhaps it was experience itself, which again is not surprising.

I never studied journalism either, and I don’t know many folk outside the U.S. (and a couple in Australia) who did. But the newsroom experience sure has helped. Those mentors are pretty useful people, even if they drive you nuts eventually.

I’m not opposed to citizen journalism, or bloggers selling their work to traditional media outlets. I think it’s an important step to dismantle some of the walls around the ivory tower that is many journalists’ citadel. Many have important things to say, and an eyewitness report of a significant event is always going to be the best journalism anybody will ever write or read. But what I think will happen, should happen, is that this new influx should help improve and better define journalism, to refine the standards journalists allegedly abide by, rather than ignore or belittle those standards. Journalists should understand bloggers. But bloggers and citizen reporters also need to understand journalists.

Hopefully Scoopt Words will help do just that. More strength to you, Graham.

The Future of Animal Advertising

For those of you who listen to podcast versions of my slot on the BBC World Service, this isn’t one. Apologies. What this is is what I hope will be the beginnings of more regular podcast fare known, tentatively, as Loose Wireless. To start off, it’s just me yakking away on subjects that interest me, either stuff I’ve already written about or stuff I’m reading about. I’m hoping to be joined by a few collaborators later, but for now it’s just an experiment. If it doesn’t take up too much time, and there’s an appetite for it, I’ll try to do more. Here’s today’s edition of Loose Wireless, which takes a look at three stories in today’s International Herald Tribune, which seem to carry a theme, best described as: Could cows be the next form of online advertising?

Here it is