Tag Archives: International Herald Tribune (Zuerich) GmbH

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

Decoding the Pizzini

From the pages of the International Herald Tribune comes a glimpse of a world where clandestine communication retains the old and tested methods of hand to hand. When a godfather becomes expendable  is a piece by Andrea Camilleri, the author of “The Smell of the Night” and other novels in the Inspector Montalbano series. In it he describes the way that captured Mafia boss communicated with his subordinates while on the run:

The authorities said that Provenzano would transmit his orders – regarding such matters as who should be rewarded with government contracts, whom one should vote for in local and national elections, how one should act on specific occasions – by means of pizzini, little scraps of paper folded several times over, which his trusty couriers (mostly peasants with spotless records) would pass from hand to hand along lengthy and seemingly random routes.

These were necessary precautions to reduce, as much as possible, the risk of interception. One pizzino, for example, took more than 48 hours to travel the mile between the boss’s cottage and Corleone. Others could take weeks to reach a nearby destination. The telephone was out of the question.

Amazing that such methods are still in use today — and a sober reminder of several things.

  • Not much the Internet, or police forces, or intelligence agencies, can do to monitor this kind of thing unless they get off their heinies;
  • Is it just the Mafia using this kind of thing? Or are other underground organisations doing it? The organisation I know a little about — Jemaah Islamiyah, the al Qaeda-linked Indonesian terrorist group — use a combination, and while their technical skills have grown quickly, far more quickly than the people monitoring them, they still retain networks that don’t use any form of modern communication;
  • This ageless form of communication may yet be around for a lot longer than our beloved Internet.

Anyway, I find this whole ‘pizzini’ thing fascinating. It has more to do with The Da Vinci Code than with Mafia-watching, but technology could offer some clues to deciphering them. Some 350 of these encoded messages exist, apparently, mostly in the form of numbers. Other messages were left in a bible, with certain passages underlined.

Some notes, according to The Guardian, have been deciphered, illustrating recruitment problems and that Bernardo Provenzano was addressed as “vossia”, the deeply respectful and indeed archaic, form of “you”. What it doesn’t say is how they were decoded, and whether that breaks the code for the others.

If it doesn’t I call on the Italian police to release them to on the Internet and let us have a crack at them. I’ll never manage it, being useless at this kind of thing, but now everyone does Sudoku puzzles in the bath, I suspect your average commuter will make short work of decoding them.

 

Mobilizing the Bird Watchers

It sounds more like the storyline for a movie, but this piece in the International Herald Tribune by Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Coming Plague”, highlights an area where technology might be able help stem the tide of bird flu:

One of the best untapped resources in this epic battle against influenza is bird-watchers, who are among the most fanatic hobbyists in the world. The major bird-watching organizations and safari clubs ought to work with the World Health Organization and OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, to set up Web-based notification sites, where birders could report sightings of groups of dead birds, and the movements of key migrating species.

This information would then lead to issuing alerts, and, when “carrier species are sighted in a region, swift action should be taken to minimize contact between the wild birds and their domestic kin. In such a way, it might be possible to limit avian deaths to susceptible wild birds, such as the dying swans of Europe.” The picture Garrett paints is a scary one (her book title perhaps reveals her optimism, or lack of it, about what could happen.) So could the bird watcher brigade save the human race?

In some places it’s already happening. Organisations in the UK, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have asked their members to report dead birds, but unless I’m not looking in the right place their websites don’t make much of it. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust had one link to avian influenza but buried the contact number for the public at the bottom of the page (and no email link).

China, too, is mobilizing bird lovers, according to the China Daily but candidly admits its numbers aren’t enough:  “There are more than 100 frequent birdwatchers in Beijing, but the number proves to be far from enough when the people are scattered at wild bird habitats around the city,” [Li Haitao, a birdwatcher in the capital,] said.

It would seem to me that the Internet is perfectly suited to this kind of coordinated “citizen reporting” of migratory patterns and bird deaths. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Plus, it would make a great movie. Leonardo di Caprio as an anorak-wearing bird watcher saving the planet?

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A Lesson From the Underground

Security is as much about giving people information as it is about building security systems. That’s the message from the managing director of the London Undergound, Tim O’Toole, but it could as easily apply to personal computer security. Don Phillips’ piece in today’s International Herald Tribune could offer useful lessons to software developers and anyone trying to keep trojans, viruses and spyware at bay:

Tim O’Toole, the managing director of the London Underground, who said a terrorist attack last summer was the greatest Underground crisis since the Nazi blitz of World War II, was telling U.S. transit and rail officials they should avoid the temptation to spend lavishly on new security systems just to reassure the riding public.

Instead, he said, spend first on human resources, including constant training and a system to lavish fresh information continually on every employee in the system during a crisis, even if there is a chance some information could fall into the wrong hands.

O’Toole’s message may not have gone down very well since, “outside the hall where he spoke were many exhibits of expensive new equipment to battle terrorism on transit and rail systems.” One could imagine the same thing happening at a computer security conference. But here, I think, a difference emerges. What I think firewall and antivirus vendors need to think about is this: giving timely, useful and intelligible information to users so they can make good decisions. It’s not about locking everything out, because that’s clearly impossible.

Neither is it about ‘educating the user’. Vendors usually complain that they try to do this but fail, so go the other way — software that does everything silently, behind the scenes, and automatically, with an interface that gives only the barest information or choice to the user. Neither option — education or invisibility — works. Instead, the secret is like the Underground lesson: let people know what’s happening in the context of the situation and threat.

Back to Don’s piece:

O’Toole said the greatest mistake the London Underground had made after the bomb attacks of July 7 was its “poor performance” in keeping employees fully informed of everything that was happening even if that information is sensitive and could not be released to the public right away. In an information vacuum, employees may grow suspicious of authorities just at the time they need to be full members of a crisis team, he said. Management did a “poor job” of information flow during last summer’s attacks, he said. In the future, “We will be pumping everything we know out internally. Some of it may get out, but that’s O.K.”

There’s a clear parallel, in my mind, to Internet threats. Don’t hide knowledge about newly discovered vulnerabilities — newly found holes in existing software that might let bad guys in, if they knew about it — until a fix is found. It’s clear that attacks happen too quickly for antivirus vendors and software developers to be able to cover all contingencies, so better to inform customers and let them assess the risk. The trick is, how to do this?

I would suggest the following guidelines:

  • Most people now have firewalls installed on their desktop computers. These programs — or anti-virus programs, or antispyware programs, or combinations thereof — could become a sort of signalling service giving timely information to the user. For example, the current Kama Sutra worm, Nyxem.E or Grew.A, could be flagged with a small pop-up message informing the user of the danger and offering suggestions.
  • Make the information relevant to the situation. How do I know whether the new updates to my firewall keep me safe from the WinAmp bug identified by Secunia? If something big is happening, letting people know quickly might be more worthwhile than feverishly working on an update which doesn’t reach the user in time. Worst case scenario, the user can just unplug their computer for the rest of the day. Let them make that decision, but give them the information first.
  • The text of such alerts or advisories has got to be useful and clear. ZoneAlarm and other vendors often leave their messages too vague to be meaningful for us ordinary folk, scaring us out of our wits the first few times and then, gradually, just like the wolf crying scenario, we get blasé.

Sadly we’ve become accustomed to ignoring messages we don’t understand. This needs to change. Just like in the ordinary world, we’ve become both numb and constantly terrorized at the same time because of poor or insufficient information. We need to learn lessons about security from other fields. I don’t recommend bombarding users with alerts, but if they are used sparingly, judiciously and with good solid guidance contained inside, I think they are the best way to keep the user in the loop.

What Newspapers Should Do: Gist and Juice

I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but there’s so much hand-wringing going on about the future of newspapers in the Second Age of the Internet I thought I would throw in my two cents: Newspapers need to treat print and online as two different audiences, and cater for them accordingly. It’s about getting the word out, not getting a product out.

The rule is a simple one: Newspapers are for people who love to read, and want something in a format and depth they can take with them. They are looking for layout, nuance, photos, details, rich writing and analysis. In short: Storytelling.

Online, meanwhile, is for getting up to speed quickly. It’s information as briefing. Tell me what I need to know so I can get on with my day. In short, it’s short, to the point: for people who don’t like (or don’t have time) to read.

It’s not just about brevity for the sake of speed. People don’t like reading lots of text online, so it’s obvious that writing for the Internet is best done short and to the point. (This, incidentally, is one reason why blogs are so successful: Bite-sized chunks that deliver something that fits nicely on the average computer screen. Sure there are some bloggers who write essays, and write them beautifully, but most blog postings are short and to the point.)

But this doesn’t necessarily mean putting a few paragraphs on the net, or a teaser or two, and then a link to the full-blown story on a subscribe-only website. What is online still needs to be as comprehensive a product as the newspaper would offer its hardcopy readers. It just needs to be shorter, and, as I’ve said elsewhere [WSJ.com link: Subscription only, I’m afraid], formatted in a more imaginative way than merely a vague pastiche of a newspaper with a few HTML tricks thrown in. (Think newsmaps.) It’s intriguing to see newspapers, including my own paymaster The Asian Wall Street Journal, toy with formats; when is the same big thinking about format going to happen online?

Online content needs to be short and sharp. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down to wire service copy or wire service- style writing; it means reducing the amount of text to something manageable in an online format. So, say a piece on Medium being the new Large (something I just read in the still excellent The Guardian) could be delivered online as a briefer piece, the main point summed up in a paragraph with the main examples to back it up. Not necessarily pretty, but just because it’s a feature doesn’t mean it a) isn’t useful information and b) has to be feature-length to convey its meaning.

The newspaper reader is still going to prefer the full length version. There’s something delightful and serendipitous about reading a thoughtful newspaper like The Guardian in its entirety (or the International Herald Tribune, another coffee-time favourite despite, or perhaps because of, its quixotic choice of stories). There’ll still be a market for that, whatever the size of the paper it’s printed on. But how many of us get time to read these papers cover to cover every day?

The Internet needs to be a faster mechanism to get that same rush of interesting fact and insight that reading a newspaper cover to cover offers. The journalists who write the material may baulk at seeing their lovingly crafted 3,000 words reduced to 300, but they shouldn’t grumble. The offline world will still see their 3,000 words and, if the editing is good, the online reader will still get the gist, if not the juice, of their writing. It’s no longer about one product delivered from an ivory tour. It’s about getting the word out.