Twitteran: We Should Do What We Do Best

Paul Lamb over at MediaShift asks:

Is there still a need for vetting and fact checking of stories. Absolutely. But isn’t that something a machine, building off our collective intelligence, could be trained to do far better than any one human or editorial staff? Of course this ignores the fact that machines aren’t good at storytelling or understanding the nuances of human emotions and interactions – that which makes for good reporting and journalism. But maybe that’s something the machine could be taught as well? Maybe even doing it better than the tired old formulas used in most mainstream reporting?

The twitteran thing has been ably covered elsewhere, but I couldn’t resist posting a comment, which I narcissistically reproduce here:

Paul, I think you’re right in your comment that journalists need to think beyond storytelling and reporting, but that is part of a bigger crying need for us in the news industry to think harder about how we report, write and convey the news, and, indeed, what constitutes news.

In the case of Tehran, it’s a complex picture. Reporting political upheaval is difficult at the best of times, and Iran is not the first time that crowd-sourced news has done a better job of capturing an overall picture–of what is visible.

But reporting is also about uncovering the hidden information–the behind-the-scenes struggle, and I’ve not seen anything either on twitter or, frankly, in mainstream media, that’s captured that more difficult part of the story.

Smart media practitioners will learn from this lesson, not only that they can out-source to the crowd some of the ‘public’ events, but that their value lies in better reporting the ‘private’ events, those that go on behind closed doors.

We need to move with the times, and see as a positive development the emergence of tools that create a more comprehensive picture of mass events like this. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of bringing light to the dark corners, and this could so easily have been–and may yet be–one of the darkest of recent times.

MediaShift Idea Lab . Twittering Away the Jobs of Journalists | PBS

The Economist’s Secret: Its Limits

Interesting piece by Rafat Ali on paidContent.org quoting Michael Hirschorn of The Atlantic as to why The Economist is doing OK, while Newsweek and TIME are in free-fall:

“By repositioning themselves as repositories of commentary and long-form reporting—much like this magazine, it’s worth noting, which has never delivered impressive profit margins—the American newsweeklies are going away from precisely the thing that has propelled The Economist’s rise: its status as a humble digest, with a consistent authorial voice, that covers absolutely everything that you need to be informed about…The Economist has reached its current level of influence and importance because it is, in every sense of the word, a true global digest for an age when the amount of undigested, undigestible information online continues to metastasize. And that’s a very good place to be in 2009.”

Apart from the obvious reasons–the global thing (rather than Newsweek etc, who catered only for Americans Abroad)—I think the key thing here is that The Economist is digestible.

This means it’s finite. It’s a promise of a definitive digest in return for a commitment of time. It’s an odd equation: Give us some money and then we’ll give you back your time. (I’ve whittered on about attention being the scare commodity these days elsewhere.)

The other thing they point to in their critique is the web. The Economist folks aren’t link whores—linking in. They’re not link journalists—linking out.  (This doesn’t mean The Economist shouldn’t be online; it’s just that it shouldn’t try to be just another part of the big wide-web.)

There’s a lesson in here for all mainstream media. Well, several, actually:

  • Don’t focus on eyeballs. Concentrate on attention. Your readers won’t thank you for wasting their time with more stuff to read. They want the digest.
  • Don’t try to be trendy. The Economist looks little different than it did in the 1970s. That, actually, is the selling point.
  • Online has lots of different opportunities. I don’t think they’ve made full use of them yet, but at least they haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater. That may prove the smartest thing they’ve done so far. As Hirschorn says in the TV clip, when you can get a subscription to a magazine for virtually nothing, what kind of commitment does that demonstrate (on either side?)

Hirschorn: The Economist Benefited From Being Semi Competent About the Web | paidContent

A Bad Day for Social Media

You may be forgiven for thinking I’m a fan of social media, and, in particular, Twitter.

Headlines like “Twitter: the future of news” and “Twitter, the best thing since the invention of the thong” may have given the misleading impression I thought Twitter was a good thing.

In which case I apologize. The truth is I think Twitter is bumping up against its limits. It’s possibly just a speed bump, but it’s a bump nonetheless.

The problem as I see it is that we thought that social media would scale. In other words, we thought that the more people got involved, the more the crowd would impose its wisdom.

We saw it happen sometimes: Wikipedia, for example, is a benign presence because it (usually, and eventually) forces out the rubbish and allows good sense and quality to take control.

But it doesn’t always work.

Take, for example, Twitter.

Twitter works great for geeky stuff. Fast moving news like an iPhone launch.

And, in some cases, news. Take earthquakes. Twitterers—and their local equivalents–beat traditional news  to the Szechuan (and the less famous Grimsby) earthquakes last year.

But these may be exceptions.

When stories get more complex, social media doesn’t always work. The current swine ‘flu scare, for example, is highlighting how rumor and, frankly, stupidity can drown out wisdom and good sense. As well as traditional reporting media.

Twitter, you see, allows you to monitor not just the output of those people you “follow”—i.e., whose updates you receive—but also to track any update that includes a keyword.

Follow “swineflu” and you get a glimpse into an abyss of ignorance and lame humor.

At the time of writing this tweets on swine ‘flu—updates from Twitter, from someone, somewhere containing the words—are appearing at the rate of more than one a second.

image

Screenshot from Twist, Monday April 27 GMT 02:00

Most of these updates are, to put it charitably, less than helpful:

31 minutes past my appointment time, still sitting in doc’s waiting room, probably inhaling pure swine flu.

The humor is poor:

If swine flu is only passed on by dirty animals I’ll be ok but I feel sorry for my ex-wife!

Viral marketing campaign: Swine Flu…it’s the next SARS!

Amid the noise is the occasional plea for usable information:

Can someone tell me how to avoid swine flu? I really don’t want to get it.

Some of it is weird:

Your ad on my swine flu mask. Live/work on Chicago’s northside. Will wear mask at all times when outdoors. No joke. [Message] me if interested.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised about this.

Twitter is a wonderful way to share information. It is immediate and undiscriminating. Anyone can contribute, and a BBC tweet looks exactly the same as a tweet from that guy who lives next door who always has a toothpick in his mouth. It’s a great leveler.

So we believed—and still believe—that it’s a sort of global brain: a way to distribute news and information without censorship and without regard to the importance of the twitterer.

Which is fine if it’s an eyewitness account of a terrorist attack or an earthquake.

But with a potential pandemic it’s just an epidemic of noise.

Some argue it’s fostering panic. Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute writes on the Foreign Policy website that

The “swine flu” meme has so far  that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

I’m not sure that panic is the right word for what is going on. After all, nearly every mainstream media has put swine flu atop its bulletin for the past few days, so it’s actually not surprising.

Panic’s not the word. I’d say it’s more like a babble of noise—most of it poor attempts at humor–which drowns out the useful stuff.

One of the tenets of social media is that the more people involved, the smarter everyone gets. But Twitter doesn’t always work that way.

Twitter is a stream. A waterfall of words. Great if you’re just gazing, but not if you’re looking for information.

The sad thing is that amidst that tweet-a-second cascade are all the links necessary to understand what is going on.

They’re just not being  heard.

Sometimes the system works. A good example is what happened in Austin, Texas, when word spread on Twitter earlier this month of a gunman atop a bar. Within half an hour the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman was updating its twitter feed with the news. An hour or so later the paper was not only carrying what the police were saying; it was actively countering twitter reports of hostages being taken, and of someone getting shot, by saying what the police were not saying.

The reporter involved Robert Quigley, wrote on a blog that

once we confirmed what was actually happening, the rumors stopped flying (or at least slowed down). This is not meant to embarrass anyone – tweets from the public are what often alert us to news event, and they many times have been accurate and excellent reports. But in a case like this one, having a journalist who has access to the police and the habit of verifying information is valuable. It did turn out that the guy did not have a gun, and police now say he was never in danger of harming himself or others.

This worked, because it was a responsible journalist who understood the medium. More important, the volume was not so great that his voice prevailed.

This isn’t, so far, happening, with swine flu. There are news sites posting links to informed stories. And there’s the Centers for Disease Control, with its own twitter feed. (http://twitter.com/cdcemergency, if you’re interested.)

The problem: they’re only updating the feed every hour, meaning that for every tweet they’re sending out, there are about 4,000 other tweets out there.

In other words, it’s a problem of scale. Twitter works well when there are clearly authoritative voices which prevail. Perhaps when the weekend hubbub dies down, this will be the case with swine flu. Arguably, Twitter has done its job, because a lot of folk probably heard about the story not through traditional media but through their friends making lame jokes about it.

But I think, for now, this can’t be considered a victory for social media.

Enough Mainstream Silliness, Please: The Social Web Works

I’m a big fan of mainstream media — course I am, I work for them — but I’m also a big fan of the other stuff. Like Wikipedia. It’s usually the first place I start if I’m trying to familiarize myself with a new subject, even a new one.

Which is why I get uppity when mainstream media disses Wikipedia with the kind of broad-brush strokes it usually accuses the online world of making. Like this one from The Boston Globe, in a story (not a column) about social finance sites:

The wisdom of the crowd may be a fine way to discover the most amusing YouTube video, but Wikipedia has been vilified for inaccuracies, and the online world hardly has a reputation as a trustworthy source.

In one short sentence the writer manages to dismiss

  • YouTube as a mere site for “amusing” videos,
  • the “wisdom of the crowd” as a mere mechanism for finding stuff,
  • Wikipedia as apparently the mere butt of vilifiers, and
  • the online world as, basically, untrustworthy.

Sources? Examples? A measure of balance? Er, none.

Now I like the Globe, and I love the IHT, where I read this, so I’m guessing this might just have been a bit of sloppy editing or last-minute “background” so enamored of editors. But frankly I can find very little vilifying of Wikipedia, at least if one counterbalances the criticism with the praise  — and the sheer numbers: nearly 2 million articles in English, in the top 10 websites. (The best source, by the way, for criticism of Wikipedia is, er, Wikipedia; the piece has 125 external references.)

So, come on, mainstream journalists. The time is past for sniffy, unsubstantiated asides about things like Wikipedia. The social web has already established itself and proved itself. It ain’t perfect, but neither are we.

Sharing the wealth – The Boston Globe

Leaving The Bad News Trail

You can understand sometimes why people think old, mainstream media don’t get it. As journalists we’re trained to really cover bad news. It’s a cliche, but it’s true, though up until recently only born-again types or folk with dandelions in their ears would say it: The way traditional media covers society is deeply skewed towards the bad. Take this RSS feed from the BBC UK news website:

Bbc1

Admittedly, this was taken from a feed designed for Northampton, UK, readers (don’t ask why I subscribed to that particular feed. I guess I got nostalgic for a second.) And yes, this might actually tell us more about the Midlands than we’d like to know. But it strikes me as very distorted to have the last 12 new stories about death, robberies, fires and drugs. How reflective is that of society?

Until recently this question would be one of those which would elicit a response of shoulder-shrugging, and then some old hack like me would pipe up about how, yes, it would be lovely to write about nice stuff, but try getting that into the paper. The way newsrooms work is that bad stuff sells.

But things have changed. The newsroom has gone. Well, not gone, but it’s under threat, not so much from citizen journalism, which always struck me as a bit of an oxymoron, but from bloggers. We write about stuff that interests us, and people read us. Or not. But we aren’t governed by any particular agenda, and we have no heavy-breathing editor looking over our shoulder and telling us to sexy the lede up a bit. Or that our story will be spiked because no one died/cares/took their clothes off/was arrested/is famous enough/is American.

Why is this? Well there’s no doubt that scandal and strife sell. But the filtering process starts very early on; any journalist worth their salt will quickly develop a sense of what a story is, and will be composing the lede in their head even before the event has happened. If they’re really good, and have a good editor and broad enough brief, they might be able to write a positive story — a good guy does a good thing, a company turns itself around, a community grows — but the chances of that getting in the paper are slim alongside the opposite kind of story — a good guy goes bad, a company hits the skids, a community dies. Those latter stories need telling, of course, but as the BBC feed above shows, they tend to be the only stories that get told. Especially, ironically, when budgets get cut.

I don’t think that blogging is going to be as big next year as it is this year, in the sense that the number of people blogging will probably tail off. But there will be no shortage of readers, and commenters, for the simple reason that bloggers write about stuff the old media has long ignored. Old media thinks it’s learning this lesson by bringing the community into the news gathering process, by taking their photos, their writing, their videos, their comments. I’m not sure that’s right.

At least I don’t think it’s the only part of this. Old media should look for a way of using its reporting strengths and resources and tell those stories themselves: devote time and effort to finding stories that reflect the community, the good parts and not just the bad parts. They’re harder stories to tell and they run against the grain of every newsroom lesson we’ve learned, but if we’re serious about connecting to the communities around us, we need to understand them better. And that means taking the good with the bad.

Those Darn Thanksgiving Eve Pitches

 Jeff Jarvis has an amusing tirade against the lame Thanksgiving eve stories of TV (“The lead story is that the roads and airports will be crowded this morning. Now that’s news!”) to which I’d add: how about the lame PR pitches this time of year about the dangers of shopping online? I’ve had half a dozen this year and I don’t even pretend to live in the U.S. Here’s a sampling (all follow with pitch to talk to client, needless to say):

  • As Black Friday and Cyber Monday near and the holiday shopping season kicks into high gear, consumers still appear to have the jitters when shopping online through unfamiliar, lesser-known merchants. (Pitching online security software)
  • With approximately $56.6 billion stolen so far in 2006 as a result of personal ID theft, all shoppers should be aware of ways to make their online experience more secure. (pitching a fingerprint reader)
  • With recent research suggesting that 60% of consumers terminated or considered terminating a relationship due to mishandling of their private information and new laws in place that levy stiff fines against organizations that have consumer data slip through their networks, it is more important than ever for retailers and payment processors to secure and safeguard consumer data. (Pitching data privacy service)
  • As Black Friday approaches, identity theft is not the only concern keeping shoppers offline this holiday season – trustworthiness of the retailer, non-delivery, quality of merchandise, and shipping costs are all concerns, especially when buying from smaller, independent online retailers (pitching online security software; actually same product as the first one, different pitcher and angle)
  • The 2006 holiday shopping season kicks off today. This is also the high season for pick-pockets, department store thieves and Internet marauders. (pitching something or other, I’ve forgotten.)

Yadayadayada. It goes on. Not an interesting or original line among them. Admittedly, I’m not desperate for story ideas, but these are a) so lacking in imagination and b) so steeped in the assumption that us journalists write the same kind of story as each other, year in, year out, I want to weep.

So if you find yourself reading tired stories about the ‘dangers of shopping online’ stories in your mainstream media diet, you’ll know where the idea for them came from. I better start working on mine to be ahead of the rush.

The World Cup Changes

Maybe it’s cos I don’t follow other sports as slowly, but this World Cup is beginning to feel like a media watershed in several different — and surprising — ways.

  • First off, the supply of World Cup footage to YouTube, and “live” commentary by cellphone from those in the stadium to those outside threatens to overturn the tight FIFA controls on coverage and sponsorship. FIFA stewards can stop people wearing clothing or carrying banners that don’t support the official sponsors, but they can’t keep people’s cellphones out of the stadium. Can they?
  • Secondly the best writing has come from blogs, not from the traditional sports pages of newspapers. But these aren’t pure bloggers, they’re journalists blogging for their newspapers’ or TV stations’ websites. The Guardian, for example, has a stable of writers who have been pushing out excellent blogs. My favorite BBC blogger on the World Cup is Paul Mason, who is actually a business correspondent for the Beeb’s flagship program Newsnight. Of course there are other soccer blogs, but these bloggers not only write well, they write regularly and attract interesting comments.
  • It’s not just about the rise of the bottom up. Some lucky cable subscribers are getting very cool new services, such as commentary in different languages to three or four different viewing perspectives. Sadly where I live we don’t get any of these, but I’ve heard they rock. These are good services to provide and it’s great to see some imaginative providers offering them. Soccer coverage has usually been woeful: Not enough long view of the pitch, so the viewer has no real sense of who is where on the pitch, while commentators offer very little extra value. Time to change.
  • Some widgets have made following the World Cup action easier, although they are still somewhat primitive.

I’m sure there are lots of non media bloggers out there, but the mainstream media seems to be finally getting it, and the World Cup is a perfect place and topic to do it. Everyone’s an expert in soccer, and no one is shy about offering an opinion. In some ways it’s a great leveler and a great showcase for participatory journalism.

The Blogosphere’s Soul Has a Buyer

The blogosphere is reaching its moment of truth sooner than one might have expected — in the form of a website that offers a marketplace for bloggers willing to write about a product in return for money. What’s revealing is the discussion that follows news about PayPerPost.com on TechCrunch — comments that not only bring into sharp relief the, er, varied, attitudes about not only PayPerPost, but other blogs and websites — including TechCrunch itself.

First off, the owner of the service, Ted Murphy, adds his own comment, in which he tries to clarify what the site does and does not do: “Advertisers will post all sorts of Opportunities, from a simple “link back to this site” to product reviews with pictures. Each Opportunity will have different compensation based on the advertiser. It’s up to you to pick the Opportunities that best suit you. If it doesn’t feel right, if you don’t own the product, or if you can’t be honest we ask you to pass on the Opportunity.” As he sees it, it’s a chance for bloggers to “make a buck for all the benefit they provide to companies. Celebrities get paid millions to wear products and be seen with their favorite drink. It’s up to the celebs to choose what they wear and drink and if they are being true to the fans. If they love the product and they can make a buck at the same time everyone wins.”

TechCrunch’s Marshall Kirkpatrick is suitably horrified about the new service, which he says requires not that the payment for coverage be disclosed, but only that PayPerPost.com must approve your post before you are paid: “Is this a bad joke designed to torpedo the blogosphere’s credibility in general? It doesn’t appear to be. If we’re all trying to negotiate a space between Hollywood and mainstream journalism, this is taking things way too far towards the most insipid parts of Hollywood.”

Which is pretty much my response. Murphy’s idea is flawed for a simple reason: If you as a blogger love a product, it’s your lack of financial and professional link with the company behind that product that gives your opinion some weight. That’s why media exists — to pay a salary to people who act as a medium between company, government or individual and the public. The public buys the media product because they believe that what they’re reading/seeing/hearing has some credibility, some independence from the subject they’re covering. As soon as someone acting as a medium accepts money to promote one item, their credibility is shot, not only for that item, but every single other thing they discuss.

What is interesting, though somewhat depressing, is the range of views of those who posted comments. Several of those betrayed a very weird understanding of what mainstream media is. Juan Luis wrote: “I really don’t see any difference with real old media… Or do you really think that advertisers don´t pay for reviews and articles in all sort of magazines,newspapers, tv, radio etc… Has the blogosphere more credibility than the CNN or Car&Driver??” Another: “Do you listen the radio? If you do then you’ve probably heard this type of advertising 1,000 times per day, when the host’s voice tells you about a product or service which they endorse and love. Ever read magazines? Then you’ve seen this kind of coverage all the time– when a major advertiser spends major dough, editorial coverage is all but ensured. Obviously it’s unseemly in many regards, especially if someone is running a tech blog and the advertisers are tech bloggers. But, if this website for example had a post by Marshall or Michael saying that he refi’d his mortgage through Ditech, and he had a positive experience, and that he’s being paid to write this post, I don’t think I would have a real problem with it. Using the cred you’ve gained from blogging to endorse a product is not that awful.”

Others pointed to blog sponsorship and ads as a sign this day has already come: “Product placement is everywhere and it’s already been happening for free in the Blogosphere since its inception. The only difference is that now a handful of people will make a few dollars off it … go to almost any bloggers site and you’ll see an ad already on there, including the sponsors of this page. They pay for ads here becaise it gets traffic – and exposire is what advertisers pay for.” (Sorry, haven’t corrected all the grammar here.) Another: “Why is it ethical to put Google Adwords in your blog, and it’s not ethical to write a paid post from time to time (provided that you openly disclose at the beginning of the post that the post is advertising).”

Others pointed to the widely perceived venality of some bloggers who only write about products that they get freebies of: “And allready there are a lot of bloggers who receive gifts and products to review them.This is the same as paying, or not? Perhaps this could be a more transparent way to get relations between bloggers and advertisers.”

OK. I acknowledge there are some gray areas here, born out of the fact that bloggers need to make money, and advertising is the obvious way to do it. This is no different from old media. What is different is that there are none of the usual Chinese walls that keep editorial and advertising apart (in theory), so that journalists are not influenced by, or even aware of, the advertisers that are buying ads next to their copy. True, these lines can get blurry, especially on radio and in “advertorials”, but they do exist. Blogs that carry ads are not Hollywood stars wearing company products as endorsement; they are a continuation of MSM’s advertising. Every ad is (or should be) clearly marked as sponsorship or ad. Of course, the proof is in the pudding; Will that site be objective about that sponsoring company in its writing, and, if it is, will the sponsor see that as a betrayal of sponsorship?

In MSM, individual journalists are sought after and influenced into writing about a product, but a good journalist — hell, a real journalist — will never write anything other than a fair, detached and balanced review of the product. There is no cash in exchange for reviews in old media; well, none that I know of. If bloggers aspiring to replace old media don’t know that, they need to. Otherwise the blogosphere truly is riding to hell.

There’s another point here. The very debate about this seems to me to be different to the kind of debate we’d have seen in the blogosphere a year or 18 months ago. It’s a much more pragmatic debate now, less utopian, less principled. As one commenter wrote: “If your writing is not objective enough, people are gonna know that you’re probably getting paid, and over time they’ll be less inclined to stay subscribed to your blog: which means that in the end it’ll all balance out.” While I would have said that would have been true a couple of years ago, I’m not so sure now.

Scoble Shift

Robert Scoble, Microsoft blogger and the subject of a couple of Loose Wire WSJ columns in the past, has quit Microsoft for PodTech, a podcaster and videocaster. Techmeme, the technology bloggers’ portal, is full of the news. It’s as if the Pope has quit his day job and joined AC Milan.

There’s lots of speculation, but Scoble says there was no acrimony, no scrimped expense accounts, and lots of effort on the part of Microsoft to get him to stay. For sure the loser in this is going to be Microsoft. While there are thousands of other Microsoft bloggers, none of them had Scoble’s long leash and roaming brief. For many people, especially opinion formers and early adopters, Scoble was Microsoft — more than Gates or that other guy, whatsisname (Ballmer – ed). As Mathew Ingram of the Globe and Mail puts it: “Flack or not, corporate shill or not, I think he has single-handedly done more to humanize Microsoft than all the millions of dollars spent getting Bill Gates to kiss babies or hug orphans or whatever they do to make MSFT seem less like the Borg.”

It will be interesting to see how this pans out for Scoble, and for Microsoft. Will Microsoft continue to feed Scoble the inside dope that is the staple of his blog? And if so, will he appear more or less credible as a result? Will Microsoft move to fill his shoes by hiring another high profile blogger, or move one of the 3,000 other bloggers into his unique slot? Will Microsoft revert to the Evil Empire in the eyes of the technology community, or has Scobe succeeded in convincing it that this view was outdated and unfair?

I think Scoble is a pretty unique character, and it was partly his ebullience and personal approach — not just his Microsoft access — that won him fans. That will make it harder for Micosoft to replace him, and it should make it easier for him to move his brand and followers somewhere else. (As a footnote it’s interesting that while most folk outside geekdom have never heard of Scoble, his move did get some coverage from mainstream media. Here’s one from Reuters, used by The Washington Post website.)