Tag Archives: reporter

Journalists’ Responsibility Is To The Truth, Not The Cops

I have a lot of admiration for BuzzMachine who expresses better than most the changes underway in blogging and journalism, but sometimes I get depressed about how the blogosphere views journalists, and, frankly, how little they understand their profession. This would be fine, but the success of blogs (a good thing) sometimes engenders what feels like a moral superiority over journalists. That lack of humility is out of place in such a new, and fast-changing medium.

Take this post, for example, that calls on journalists to behave more like citizens and report criminal activities to the police, like NYT reporter Kurt Eichenwald turned in child porn web sites because it is the law. Jeff’s take:

I think the reporter who does not follow Eichenwald’s lead is in a riskier position: of allowing and thus even abetting crimes to be committed. And what does that tell the public about our role in our communities? What kind of citizens are we then?

As I understand it, Jeff is suggesting a journalist should report to the police if he or she believes a crime has been committed. He says that the only counterargument to this is that “sources – especially if those sources are the ones performing the criminal act – will not trust reporters and reveal information that should be revealed if they believe those reporters will not protect them and will hand them over to the authorities.”

This call gets the usual smattering of anti-MSM comments in agreement. But at least one commenter, Charles Arthur, editor of the technology supplement of The Guardian, sees the obvious hole in this one: “Sometimes journalists have to do things that involve talking to people who break the law in order to show society what it’s like. That doesn’t mean standing idly by while someone breaks into a store. But if the only way you can get to talk to someone about something is by promising that you won’t betray their trust, that can be the price of freeing up the information that person holds.”

But that’s not all. Journalists are not designed to operate as citizens, and it’s unreasonable to suggest that being a reporter means being a bad citizen. The problem with the suggestion is that it concerns itself with clearcut cases: It may seem irresponsible not to report a paedophile ring, but should I then report every case of apparent corruption I come across? Every spammer I interview? Every indication of corporate fraud I come across on my stock reporting beat?

The bigger point is that journalists are in a place to report, and occupy a place somewhere alongside the Red Cross in terms of neutrality. This may sound pompous if you’re not in a war zone, but if you are, that’s exactly where you’d like others to consider you. This is why press and their vehicles are clearly marked. You want both sides to consider you as an impartial observer; your life may depend on it. This is a core tenet of journalism, and is something bloggers should be embracing, not trying to dismantle. (In many countries if a journalist was seen to be cooperating so closely with law enforcement, their lives would be in danger.)

Furthermore, what law? If a journalist is considered by government and law enforcement agencies as a model citizen who shops every law breaker she/he comes across in his/her line of work, does that mean even controversial laws that the journalist is writing about? So interview a bunch of human rights illegally blocking a military runway, and you’ll have to turn them after the interview is over?

The bottom line is that we expect our journalists to go out there and talk to all the people we can’t talk to, because we’re here, we don’t have the access, we don’t have the background, we don’t have the time, and then distill their knowledge and, where applicable moral judgements, in a way that makes sense to us. Their eyes and ears are ours not because we want to hear what laws have been broken, but because we want to understand the essential truth of the situation. A family living on benefits in a tenement: We don’t want the journalist to report potential abuses of the benefit system to the police, we want to know why the family is having problems, and, hopefully what may be done to solve the problem.

Journalism is rarely to do with the law. It’s about much more than that. If we suddenly expect our journalists to be model citizens, whatever they are, we can only blame ourselves if they come back with a much smaller part of the story.

The Defense Minister’s Blog

I’m much amused that news that Juwono Sudarsono, a lovely man and Indonesia’s defense minister, has started blogging has hit the blogosphere. This from Shel Israel, co-author of naked conversations:

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about politician blogging. Today, I realized how very myopic that post was because I wrote only about American politicos and cited Independence Day. This came to my attention today through the Jakarta Post, where reporter Ong Hock Chuan mentions Naked Conversations in an article about Indonesia’s Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono has started a blog.

Sudarsono’s most recent post deals with striking candor of the challenges of getting bureaucrats who clicked their heals in obedience under past government dictators to move with efficacy in the new democracy. His language remains a bit formal, but the content is pretty impressive stuff.

Blogging really is changing the world. I’m happy to be reminded of how much.

This even got picked up by a blogger at the World Bank (yes, I know! Whatever next?) who says it might be a hoax. It’s not; it’s legit. The site is held together by one of Juwono’s sons.

Actually, it is an important development, but with all due respect to Shel, Ong (who started all this discussion) and to the Bank, it’s probably a bit early to cite it as an example of blogging changing the world. Juwono is a very well respected figure in Indonesian politics, but he has always trod a lonely furrow. As far as I know he’s the first senior figure in either business or government in this country who has embarked on this initiative, and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops. He is engaging a young Indonesian audience and a foreign readership who remain understandably skeptical of the country’s leadership and direction. What he is not able to do through a blog is to engage the 200 million odd Indonesians who don’t have access to a computer, an Internet connection or English lessons. What is impressive, however, is that Juwono has replied to those people commenting on his blog (twice, on this post) so this is a good start. Congratulations, Pak.

Netscape Diggs In and Elbows Out the Competition

AOL/Netscape has launched a beta of its new homepage that looks uncannily like Digg, a hugely popular site for techies to publish stuff and have their stories sorted by popularity. Actually it not only looks like Digg, two of the top three stories are Digg’s. AOL’s been smart tho: visit the source page and you can only do so within a big black sidebar that keeps you wedged inside the Netscape site. (You can’t resize it, but you can turn it off, but obviously by default. Meaning it will open with every external link you click on. Oh, and it’s really slow to load.)

Perhaps by coincidence, or by the efforts of a few Diggers, those two Digg stories are less than complimentary about AOL: The first, AOL Copies Digg (“Check out what this is based on”) and the second  Trying to cancel AOL (“Here’s a recording I did of a conversation between myself and AOL while trying to cancel an account I no longer needed. It was old, and I hadn’t used it in a REALLY long time, I just never got around to cancelling it. Enjoy!”)

A piece by Reuters says that this new site has “editors, which Netscape calls anchors,” who “can choose to highlight what they consider important stories.” This might be the top portion of the page, but I assume the anchors are not highlighting the two stories mentioned above. Or maybe they are, in some wild new form of self-flagellating transparency?

I won’t get into the journalistic implications of all this here. But there’s a telling comment by Netscape.com’s new general manager, dot-com news entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, to the Reuters reporter: “We don’t have to do a level of journalism that you guys do,” he said, referring to traditional news organizations. “You guys take it 90 yards, we take it the next 10.”

The reporter didn’t pick up on this. But when sites like this basically suck content from other sites, from NYT to Digg to Reuters, to form the basis of their homepage, and then link to that content within a sidebar that squeezes the original website partly out of view and off the screen plaster, that 10 yards looks mighty cheap for the yardage you get. Whose content is it now? Who’s making money off whom? And who is the smartest person in the room?

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Conflicts of Interest, And The Search for Truth

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has an interesting post about conflicts of interest, bounced off a comment by Jason Calacanis who quoted a rumor he had heard that it was possible to “buy a review at TechCrunch”. (In other words, pay money to get a positive review on the website).

There are some good points in here, and in the comments, so let’s go through them. I’m sorry if this is overlong. The issue is close to my heart.

First off, I think Michael misunderstands when he assumes Jason’s quote “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety” means “when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.” That’s not my understanding of the term, and I think this where the root of blogging/journalism problems currently lie. (I don’t know either of these two gents personally, so I’m just basing my comments on Michael’s account.) The appearance of impropriety, in my view, means when the person in question may be seen to be doing something improper, whether or not they are. Example: taking a ride on a corporate jet to Barbados of a company you cover for your paper. Maybe it’s a freebie with a holiday tagged on the end. Maybe it’s the only way you can interview the CEO because he’s too busy and you’re stuck in Barbados in your suit waiting for a flight back. But it may appear improper to readers, who wonder whether you’re going to be unduly influenced by the high life, so you probably don’t want to do it. Or you insist you pay for the ticket yourself. Or you take your own flight to Barbados and stay in a separate hotel. The appearance of impropriety is important. You as a reader want to be sure your journalist/blogger understands this important concept.

Actually, Michael does get it, as he writes “I want to state quite clearly that I have never taken a payment for a review and never will. Sure I’ve been offered money for a review a couple of times. But it would be completely unethical for me to take it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. Companies that have offered to pay me have never been written about on TechCrunch.” In fact, Michael might consider actually naming these companies if they don’t back off quickly, to warn readers that they may be trying the same stunt with less ethical bloggers.

Then Michael explores the idea, put forward in the chat by Steve Gillmor, that “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.” Michael agrees. I don’t, and this is where I get worried. He uses examples from NYT, allegedly running a puff piece about a company because its CEO is allegedly influential within the NYT, and an AOL blogger who writes glowingly about an AOL which I won’t repeat here, because I don’t know about them, but he concludes that neither case is unethical: “I personally don’t think either of these cases are unethical. Because I know that human interaction drives all of this stuff, I know to factor that in when I read stuff.”

Ouch. This cannot stand uncontested. If true, the first case is highly unethical. The second, if true and if the writer pretends to be an objective commentator and doesn’t declare his connections to the company he’s writing about, is definitely so. Wherever there is a conflict of interest, ethics rears its ugly head. If the conflict of interest is not resolved — the writers not recusing themselves from writing about the subject, or not declaring their interest and consequent lack of objectivity, it’s unethical.

Then there’s the larger issue about whether there is no such thing as objectivity; this is more nuanced than Michael allows. Objectivity may not exist in the eyes of any commentator, but it should remain an aspiration, a guiding path. We all try to be objective as journalists/bloggers, or should be trying to be, or else we are letting down our readers. To declare that there is no such thing is to me a cop-out, a way of throwing up our hands and saying, “it’s too hard! Why should we even try?”

Then Michael talks about what he calls more subtle conflicts, for example, how he’s not being favored by Google PR because he’s harsh in writing about them. Meanwhile Yahoo et al include him in news embargoes because, he wonders, he often writes positively about them. Or when a company takes him to lunch? “Or writes something positive in their blog about TechCrunch before I write about them? Or here’s the read mind bender – what if I don’t write about a competitor to a company that I like? Doesn’t inaction count as much as action when we’re talking about conflicts?”

These are not, in my view, mind benders. There are clear rules for these things among credible journalists. First off, companies that don’t include people in their PR mailings because they don’t like what they say are childish, and need to be exposed. But it doesn’t matter; a good reporter/blogger shouldn’t be relying on a steady feed of early press releases anyway. To do so becomes unhealthy, the writer becomes lazy and dependent, and will (or should) quickly realise the chalice is poisoned: The goodies will keep coming if you write nice things. We laid into the White House press corps for accepting this a few years back: Why aren’t we decrying the same thing in technoland?

Yes, it is all about relationships, but not ones that depend on you always writing nice stuff. Free lunches: Don’t take them if you think it is in exchange for something. (In fact, if you can, don’t accept them at all. They’re not really free, as the saying goes.) As a writer you have to do whatever you need to do to maintain your freedom to write whatever you think is right. If that means keeping folk at arms’ length, do it. If it means having shouting matches every so often with industry sources who feel personally let down, do it. But keep your freedom to write what you think is right.

Michael’s conclusion: “Our lives are full of conflicts and thinking that envelopes full of cash are the only way people get paid off means you are watching too many made-for-tv dramas. Put everything you read through a filter and form your own opinions on things. Don’t look for the golden fountain of objectivity. It doesn’t exist.”  Once again, I’d say no. Find the voices you believe are objective and listen to them. Of course there’s a filter; I’m a white middle-aged Western male who lived too long in the wilds of Asia. I’m bound to see things differently. But you’ll quickly tell what I believe in, and if you share the same beliefs, you’ll probably trust me to do the right thing. 

Finally, Michael does clearly state his position on consulting, advisory roles etc. and he’s dead on. In fact, I think his post raises important points and does a good job of looking for a path through them. But we shouldn’t forget (and here’s my bias creeping through) that journalism has been battling, to lesser or greater success, with these issues for centuries. There are clear rules laid down when a journalist works for a reputable institution, and, contrary to popular opinion, most journalists extract some pride in trying to follow them, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. (I was, as were all attending journalists, thrust an envelope with $100 in cash when I attended a relaunch of Indonesia’s intelligence agency a year or so back, before I realised what was in the package. it took me weeks to not only return the money to the right place but to ensure there was a record that I had returned the money.)

Bottom line: There are ethics, they are well-established and we should seek them out, declare that we will abide by them and then abide by them. It is a struggle and none of us is perfect (definitely not me), but we should try to be. It is not an excuse to say that in this Web 2.0 world the ethics are different. We should not be so foolish as to think we have invented a new world. If we ignore this, I’ll wager, the idea that blogs might become an impartial and important source of information will quietly and quickly die because no one will believe anything we write.

How to be a Press Expert

Interesting post (a bit late reading of it; apologies) On Being a Press Expert and dealing with the media by danah doyd [sic], a PhD student in SIMS at Berkeley and a social media researcher at Yahoo! Research Berkeley. She makes some good points, and she’s clearly exhausted after three years of becoming sought after (eight matches on Google News is quite a whack, one of them after she wrote this blog entry).

She makes some great points, which I encourage you to read. It makes me realise that despite the sophistication of the news gathering process those playing the role of “expert” have only limited information about the role they’re being asked to play. This leads them, like danah, to being mercilessly exploited by journalists who use them either as a lazy way to figure out the technology they’re writing about (MySpace, say) or simply sought out as a contrary viewpoint to whichever other experts they’re interviewing. With the rare exception of TV-bred pundits, who know exactly what they’re doing because it’s their job, most such experts pour their heart and soul into responding to journalists’ requests, quickly burning themselves out.

I thought I’d try to make these people’s lives a little easier by offering a few guidelines of my own. I’m a columnist, so I guess my needs are different, but I’ve also been a reporter for nearly 20 years on varying beats so I think I know a few things about that side too. Generalizing wildly, here’s what I’d suggest

  • Respond to all requests if you can. Not responding at all doesn’t come across well.
  • When you respond, try to get a quick and dirty idea of what the journalist is looking for:
    – What kind of outlet do they work for? TV has different requirements to print, radio to online, magazine to daily, etc.
    – What kind of piece are they researching: A primer? A quick soundbite for a bland piece? A wide-ranging discussion with a view to an iconoclastic column? A book?
    – When is their deadline?
    – Is the subject matter something you feel competent to talk about?
    – Are you being wheeled out to represent a particular point of view? The journalist might be coy about this, but it’s worth trying to get a sense of where you fit in their story, and if you’re being typecast in a way you don’t feel comfortable with.
    – Do they want to email a few questions, or an IM chat, or a phone call? If the last two, how long is it likely to take?
  • You can always turn down an interview after learning the above. Sometimes there’s no point in wasting time if you feel the journalist is not serious about their work, or that the story is not something you want to be a part of, or that you’re being cast in a role you don’t like.
  • You can always turn down an interview if you don’t think you’re an expert in this field. There’s little to be gained by genning up on a subject for a specific interview, unless a) you don’t mind spending the time doing that b) you may find yourself saying something that’s incorrect and c) you end up being an expert in that field too. It’s good to prepare for an interview but don’t learn a whole new field just to keep the journalist happy/buttress your growing fame.
  • Arrange a time to talk you feel comfortable with. The journalist shouldn’t expect you to drop everything to answer their questions, unless the story is about you and a major felony you’ve allegedly committed. If their deadline is unreasonable (“Anytime in the next 5 minutes”) think hard about whether it’s worth it.
  • Spend some time before the interview trying to figure out the main points of what you want to say. Make sure they’re what the journalist wants to talk about.

During the interview:

  • Don’t be offended if
    – the journalist isn’t interested in small talk. They may just not have time, or were rebuffed when trying to make small talk with other experts. Conversely, however warm and friendly the journalist is, they’re not your confessor or a friend, so be polite but don’t feel you have to ask about their dog, or whatever.
    – the journalist only stays on the line a few minutes. They may just need a few quotes. This is a good thing, either because the journalist already knows their stuff and just needs to reflect your point of view correctly, or else the journalist is on deadline/a freelancer not earning much from the piece/a hopeless case who isn’t really going to listen to you however long you talk to him. Most importantly, they don’t take up half your day.
  • Try to bear in mind the journalist’s needs during the interview/IM chat/email exchange. That means:
    – Don’t talk/type too much. The journalist probably won’t have much more space than two sentences to capture the interview, however long it was and however eloquent you were.
    – What you do say, make snappy. Avoid jargon. Even if the journalist understands what you say, he still has to translate it for his audience.
    – Stick to the question they ask. Unless they’re horribly off track or can’t smell the elephant in the room (in which case, you may want to make a mental note not to talk to them again) you should just answer the question you’re asked, and never add stuff that’s not directly connected to the question.
    – Think quotes. Be yourself, but remember for them a good quote is not what you might think it is. “The ex-combustible lozenge which foments the understabilizer is one of the most underutilized pigment enhancers in modern electrophotoendoscopy” may sound great to you, but the journalist may not agree. Better would be a seemingly throwaway line like “This is something the industry has been waiting for for years. It could be the rock star of our little world.” No need to talk down to the journalist, but make his job easier by trying to talk in a way that his readers are going to enjoy reading.
  • Don’t be scared to tell the journalist when you don’t know something. Suggest another person they could talk to. You can’t know everything.
  • Don’t try to persuade the journalist. Your role is not to convince them but to represent your point of view. Someone trying to convince someone else usually talks way too much. Talk too little. Make your prepared points (twice, if possible, expressed slightly differently) and then stop talking. The journalist can always ask you to elaborate.
  • A good journalist might realise there’s another story there, either an additional piece or an alternative angle to the one they had envisioned. Be ready for this. They’re not being lazy or poorly prepared, they’re doing their job. These are people worth talking to because they have an open mind. Help them frame their ideas, if they ask for it, and if you have time. An interesting chat might help both of you.
  • Keep your own notes about the interview. Jot down what you said, roughly (or keep a record of the email exchange or IM chat.)
  • Before the interview concludes, make sure:
    – they spell your name right
    – they get your title as you want it to be
    – (where necessary) they get your employer correct (I’ve made mistakes here before)
    – get a rough idea of where/when the story will appear. No need to pry too much, but it’s worth knowing.
    – the journalist will promise to email you a copy of the story. They’ll forget. They’re not being rude, they’re just being forgetful (sorry for all the times I’ve promised this and not done it. Will try to do better)
    – you get a contact number/email for them. You may want to change or clarify something, and you need to be able to reach them. You may also need to yell at them after the story hits the stands, but both of these are advised against unless you really feel strongly about it.

After the interview

  • Don’t pester the journalist about when the piece might appear. Big turn-off for the journalist who will feel a bit harassed if you do this. The Journalist Rule is: We can pester anyone and demand they speak to us now. Anyone pestering us, however reasonable their request, is interference in press freedom. Yes, I know it’s not fair.
  • Look back on the experience and work out where you could have done better. Did you get all your points across? Did you lapse into jargon? Did you talk too much? Did you answer his questions? Could you have expressed yourself better?
  • Prepare yourself for the next interview. There’s no shame in being polished.
  • Don’t be too upset if your interview never sees the light of day. See below
  • Don’t be too upset if your quotes are mangled and your views misrepresented. If you have to, complain to the journalist (not his editor). There’s not much that can be done unless there’s a factual error; that can be corrected. Put the rest down to experience, unless you’ve been doing it for 20 years, in which case, you probably want to think about retiring.

I’m sure there’s more to be said but this is longer than a post should be anyway. Experts have a difficult, largely thankless but vital role to play, and I apologise here and now for the number of times I’ve chatted with you for hours and then not had space to put you in my story. I am sorry. Sometimes it’s just impossible to find the space, or the story gets cut; while it’s going to be scant comfort, it’s likely the wisdom you shared with me improved the story. Next time I’ll try to do better. But we journalists are grateful for the time you do give us. Even if we don’t show it.

Wikipedia Scalps a Journalist

Wikipedia isn’t always on the defensive, when it comes to getting things right: The Hawaii Reporter reports that the Honolulu Star-Bulletin has fired a reporter for plagiarism, after allegedly lifting material directly from Wikipedia:

Honolulu Star-Bulletin Editor Frank Bridgewater said today in a nearly 200-word front-page letter to readers on Friday, the 13th of January, that he had fired veteran entertainment reporter Tim Ryan following an investigation into his stories over the last several years. Ryan has been employed with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin since 1984.

Though Bridgewater does not acknowledge this in the letter, the internal investigation was prompted by two reports in Wikipedia.org and Hawaii Reporter, which documented that Ryan seemed to have lifted large sections of national stories – directly and without attribution – for his local reports.

Bridgewater admits only to Ryan’s stories containing “phrases or sentences that appeared elsewhere before being included, un-attributed, in stories that ran in the Star-Bulletin.”

The letter lists six stories, including a review of a PBS documentary about Aloha Airlines. The Aloha story page includes a footnote correction which does acknowledge that a portion “was taken verbatim from the Web site reference.com. The material was originally published in the online encyclopedia wikipedia.com. The article, on Page D6 Thursday, failed to attribute the information to either source.” Wikipedia had in the meantime run its own investigation of the journalist, the Reporter says,

after its editors discovered Ryan seemed to have taken large portions of his Honolulu Star-Bulletin Dec. 22, 2005, story on a PBS documentary about Aloha Flight 93 from an earlier Wikipedia.org story. The Wikipedia.org editors delved into his past entertainment reports noting similar trends in two additional stories Ryan authored that first appeared on NPR and in other national news sources.

Those Darn PR People, Part XXXIV

It’s a cheap shot, I know, but it’s too good to pass up as an illustration of the need for a bare minimum of research by PR folk before they hit the send button on mass emails to reporters.

I’m not going to name names here, but a ‘leading global communications consultancy’ has just invited the Far Eastern Economic Review, the publication I used to write for, to a media briefing to meet a software company which wants to, the email I’ve just received says, “meet the local media for the first time since the recent opening of the company’s Asia-Pacific Headquarters”.

The problem is, as you all know, that the Far Eastern Economic Review has since last October ceased to exist as a reporting publication and is now a monthly collection of essays about the region written by contributors and put together by a hardworking staff of three. It certainly no longer covers media briefings by tech companies. And it certainly no longer carries my column (which many might say is a good thing.)

Sadly, this merely confirms to me that when the old FEER died, not everybody took as much notice as we employees might have thought. Anyway, I was told by friends to end these PR tirades on a practical and positive note, so here’s a tip to the few PR people who don’t do it already: Check the reporter you’re pitching to (or sending an unsolicited email to):

  • works for a company or publication that still exists;
  • doesn’t have a blog and take an impish delight in drawing attention to your rare missteps;
  • er, that’s it.

For my part I promise not to mention names.

Being A Reporter And Being A Columnist: The ‘Good Story’ Trap

I’m a journalist. You probably knew that. But since focusing on being a columnist (rather than a reporter) I’ve tried to avoid the journalist crowd. Not because they’re not interesting, dedicated, very smart people, many of whom I count my friends. It’s just that journalists have a certain way of thinking, and I’m not convinced, at least as a columnist, that that is the best way to think. Last night, back in Hong Kong, I think I was able to pin down another reason why.

I was hanging out with some old former colleagues. Nice guys, all of them. We were talking about stuff, and I couldn’t help noticing the habit that all journalists tend to have. They’ll share stuff, anecdotes, things they’ve done, heard or seen, and all the others will be assessing the information in terms of whether it constitutes a story. The biggest compliment one journalist can pay another is to mutter, at the end of a tale, ‘good story’. It doesn’t just mean, of course, that the narrator has spun a good yarn. It means he or she has imparted enough juicy material for the other journalists to realise they’re working on something good. It’s a natural way to think — after all, we’re only as good as our next article — but is it the best way?

I try to think a bit differently as a columnist. For me, the lead in a story — the meat, the point, the angle of the story — doesn’t cross well to a column. Think ‘lead’ in a column and all you get is a bad news story. Writing a story is building an inverted triangle. The meat is at the top, and then you throw in as much other stuff as you can before you run out of space. Sure, you could try to come up with a good bottom — what’s called a kicker — but only if you have a good editor who won’t lop it off because of lack of space.

Writing a column for me is like layering a cake. You have all these different audiences you want to try to capture, so you need to add each layer carefully, not leaving behind those less than interested in the topic while not boring those who already know the background. You need to have a point, of course, but it’s not always going to be the ‘newsworthy’ bit a journalist would focus on — the ‘good story’. You need to put it in perspective, just a like a news piece. But you also need to throw it forward, and not in the way news stories usually do (‘the revelation is bound to cause concern in the market/cabinet/UN etc’) but in terms of what the users might expect to see around the corner, up the road, or over the horizon. As a columnist too you need to pronounce judgement on the trend/product/statement/issue, a luxury journalists don’t have. Your opinion, for once, counts.

I suppose my worry about the ‘good story’ thing is that journalists don’t, or won’t go much beyond that. Calling something a ‘good story’ implies that the angle has already been pinned down, the incremental step forward that the ‘good story’ will push the issue as a whole. But by defining ‘a good story’ journalists also tend to draw a line around the discussion, the issue, the debate, and thereby limit their thinking. There’s no point, journalists know, of taking the discussion further forward because until that incremental ‘good story’ is written, the issue — the bigger story — will stay stuck at that point. News is about angles, what is ‘new’, not necessarily what is really important. To journalists ‘good story’ is a way of saying, ‘interesting. Next subject, please’.

What I’m saying is not new, and it’s been much better expressed elsewhere. Neither am I criticising journalists, who know their ‘good story’ is the one that will pay the bills and please their boss. And, interestingly, journalists not covering the topic they’re talking about will happily debate the ins and outs of the subject till the dawn. The ‘good story’ bit only really applies to topics that might be within the beat of the reporters having the chat. But I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the chance to write a column, not least because it’s forced me to think outside what constitutes a ‘good story’ into thinking about the issue from a much greater distance, and to try to find a way to make it as relevant as possible to the reader. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job, but I think I’m beginning to understand what is required of one as a columnist, as opposed to being a reporter.

Is Gmail Not The First To Scan Emails?

(See this later posting for a response from MSN and Yahoo.)

Here’s possible evidence that Gmail is not alone in scanning your email in order to target ads at you.

MarketingVOX (‘The Voice of Online Marketing’) reports that “the strange mix of privacy advocates, anti-globalists and anti-commercial groups that seem to be swarming on Google in hopes of preventing the company from providing its new Gmail service might be surprised to find out that the other free email providers already do exactly what the groups seem to find offensive.”

It says that Yahoo Mail “allows for searching emails”, while Hotmail “appears to target ads based on message content”. MarketingVOX says its own investigation “revealed that different free email sites include different levels of interaction with message content”, although it did acknowledge that “since the testing was anecdotal, the email engines may be merely coincidentally providing relevant ads.” MarketingVOX was not successful in getting responses from the companies in question, although Yahoo pointed the reporter to the company’s privacy policy.

The colourful language aside, MarketingVOX raises an interesting possibility: That this kind of thing has been going on and we just didn’t know it. But does that make Gmail OK? I’d argue not. Just because it may have been happening doesn’t mean folk would find it acceptable. Indeed, there may be some legal questions lurking out there if it transpires some email providers have been scanning content to deliver ads.

It’s hard to imagine that Yahoo do scan emails because the wording of their privacy policy appears to expressly rule it out: “Yahoo!’s practice is not to use addressing information or the content of messages stored in your Yahoo! Mail account for marketing purposes.” I couldn’t find anything on Hotmail’s privacy policy. I’ll ping Yahoo and Hotmail and see what they say.