Tag Archives: the New York Times

Will blogging keep the mainstream media in line?

Here’s a very interesting piece from Mark Glaser on the Adopt-A-Journalist movement, otherwise called Watchblogs. “The so-called “watchblogs” are generally anonymous bloggers who have taken it upon themselves to read each report from a particular presidential campaign reporter and then critique it for factual errors or bias,” Glaser writes. “If they gain traction, watchblogs represent another step in the evolution of reader feedback and media criticism, and they have the potential to improve the work of journalists.”

Speaking as a journalist, all I can say is: yikes. I don’t mean it’s not a good idea: Journalists can benefit from people reading and commenting on their stuff (most journalists assume no one reads their stuff, let alone looks for the byline to see who wrote it), and, particularly in political campaigns, misperceptions can become embedded if there is not some kind of oversight and balance. I just worry, along with Daniel Okrent, the new public editor at The New York Times, who Glaser quotes as saying: “There does seem to be a great deal of naivete [on some watchblogs] about how newspapers work. It can lead to an incomplete impression, that someone was making a conscious effort to turn the news one way or the  other, when in fact it’s that someone was on a deadline or something had to be cut.”

Here’s another interesting case. TechDirt, an excellent and industrious blog, has taken a close look at wire service Reuters’ coverage of a speech by Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, who resigned recently. (This may well be the most blogged event ever, according to those present.) Reuters’ lead is this: “Internet activism that thrust up the Howard Dean U.S. election campaign later hobbled the organization’s ability to respond to criticism in the weeks before the primaries, Dean’s former campaign manager said on Monday.”

TechDirt’s Mike has then compared it with the accounts given by two bloggers, Howard Rheingold and Ross Mayfield. His conclusion: “…it certainly looks like Reuters is the one doing the spinning here, taking a few quotes here and there out of context to make their point. With the bloggers’ notes, you can see the context of what’s being spoken about, and the Reuters report gives none of that. I’m not one who believes that bloggers are a “threat” to journalism, but the contrast here shows a perfect (if a bit scary) example of just how easy it is for the press to spin things to make their point.

Robert Scoble, a blogger from Microsoft, takes it a bit further. He agrees with Techdirt, saying the “spin doesn’t match the speech”. He goes on: “This was like listening to a two-hour speech and then ignoring almost all of it so you can write the story you want to write in the first place. Why go to the conference then?”

I can quite understand why people say these things, and I am optimistic that blogs may help provide a different point of view to traditional media. And I think Mike has made clear that he’s not out to flay the media and promote blogs as an alternative to traditional media. And Robert has a point: Journalists often do have a preconceived idea of the story (we’re taught to do that) which they sometimes stick to doggedly in the face of uncontrovertible evidence to the contrary. But, speaking as a journalist (and one who used to be with Reuters for nine years) I think it’s worthwhile to try to get a clear fix on what journalists are required to do in their line of work. A journalist’s job is not to summarize a speech, say, nor, necessarily, to take the line that is presented in the speech. If we did that, stories would be boring and journalism would be little more than ‘journalism of record’. A journalist’s job is to take what he/she thinks is the most newsworthy information from an event/speech/interview and present it in a news story. What that newsworthy bit is, is of course subjective.

A news story is a very formulaic presentation of the material that often, for those present at the event being described, bears disconcertingly little resemblance to what happened. It’s a format honed (or distorted, depending on your point of view) by centuries of newsgathering, and I quite sympathise with those who think it’s warped and bears little relationship to reality. But it’s not spin. Spin is what PR people, flaks and others do. Journalists take an angle. That’s what the journalist is doing when she/he writes their story up and focuses on one aspect of it. Not everyone is going to agree that the angle taken was the right one; that’s where news judgement kicks in. But spin is what someone with an interest in the outcome puts on information in the hope of influencing a journalist; an angle is what the journalist thinks is the ‘sexiest’ take on the story. (Of course if a journalist has been spun, so that the spin becomes the angle he/she adopts for the story, they end up being one and the same. But the distinction, I think, remains an important one.)

I’ve looked at the blogs and looked at the original report and one could certainly argue for more context, to his remarks, as Mike has suggested. But only if Reuters misquoted Trippi, or quoted him out of context so the meaning of his words were twisted, would the story be wrong. But it’s also instructive to see the quite different angles taken by other news organisations: AP, for example, focused on whether to give all the email addresses Dean’s campaign has gathered to the Democratic Party. The LA Times went with the idea that Trippi lost money on the whole thing, while Wired led with Trippi’s claim that it was a beta test of a political revolution. This is an example of a story that had no clear news angle, leaving it open to the reporters to focus on what they will.

Perhaps that in itself is a reflection of the gulf between the way traditional media focuses on things, and how bloggers and others might do it. I think the idea that bloggers focus on what journalists write more closely is a good step forward, but those who do it need to have a strong understanding about what a journalist’s motives and tools are. The reason why there is a ‘news angle’ which may be quite different to what the those at the center of the event may consider to be important is because, somehow, journalists have to filter out anything that’s not new and find what is, whether or not those present consider that to be the most important element. That’s what news is.

That said about angle/spin, a lot of factual errors creep into news stories, usually as background. A journalist, under time constraint and with limited resources to hand, may end up throwing in a few lines of background which tend to entrench errors or slants that should be noticed and corrected. Glaser points to an interesting role played by Campaign Desk, which was set up to “help correct the record before a mistake was taken up by the pack”. Already, Glaser writes, Campaign Desk helped correct the record on Wesley Clark’s opposition to the war in Iraq after Matt Drudge made it look like Clark supported it. This sort of thing is helpful.

In the end bloggers may provide an important missing element in the news process: alternatives sources of information. Those who want to hear everything that Trippi said now have some good resources to fall back on, thanks to the dozens of bloggers who blogged his speech. That enables those interested enough to trawl through the blogs for more information. For the rest of the world, however, they need a filter, someone to distill what he said and take out of it an interesting angle that somehow pushes the story forward. That’s what journalists are for. Until something better comes along.

 

The Charting Of An Urban Myth? Or A Double Bluff?

Here’s a cautionary tale from Vmyths, the virus myths website, on how urban legends are born.

Vmyths says that Reuters News Agency filed a report from Singapore last week quoting anti-virus manufacturer Trend Micro (makers of PC-cillin) as saying computer virus attacks cost global businesses an estimated $55 billion in damages in 2003. That’s a lot of damage. Two spokesmen at Trend Micro have since called Vmyths to “correct” the report. One said it was “wrong.”  Another said Trend Micro “cannot gauge a damage value — because they simply don’t collect the required data”.

Vmyths says the report was later pulled, but without any explanation. I’m not so sure. I can still see it on Reuters’ own website, Forbes, Yahoo, The Hindustan Times, ZDNet, MSNBC, ComputerWorld, The New York Times, etc etc. And the story still sits in Reuters’ official database, Factiva (co-owned by Dow Jones, the company I work for.) I’ve sought word from Trend Micro (I wasn’t able to reach anyone in Taiwan, Singapore or Tokyo by phone and emails have gone unanswered for 10 hours; I guess Chinese New Year has already started. Perhaps the U.S. will be more responsive). Emails to the author of the Reuters report have gone unanswered so far.

As Vmyths points out, it’s great that Trend Micro has tried to set the record straight.  But if the story was wrong, why is it still out there on the web, and, in particular, on Reuters’ own sites? And why hasn’t Trend Micro put something up on its website pointing out the report is wrong? Has Trend Micro done everything it can to get things right? Was the report wrong, or the original data?

This episode highlights how, in the age of the Internet, an apparently erroneous story can spread so rapidly and extensively, from even such an authoritative source as Reuters, and how hard it is to correct errors once the Net gets hold of them. In the pre-WWW world (and speaking as a former Reuters journalist) it was relatively simple process to correct something: overwrite it from the proprietary Reuters screen with a corrected version, withdraw the story, or, in the case of subscribers taking a Reuters feed (newspapers, radio stations and what-have-you), sending a note correcting the story. Proprietary databases could be corrected. So long as the story wasn’t already in print, you were usually safe. Nowadays it’s not so easy.

Vmyths is right: Expect to see the $55 billion figure pop up all over the place. (Of course, until we know for sure, it’s possible that the real myth that comes out of this could be that the story was wrong, when in fact it was right.) Ow, I’m getting a headache.

Wi-fi For Truckers

 Interesting piece from the New York Times about Wi-fi for truckers. Turns out they like Wi-fi because it’s spreading to truckstops and their “cabs are not only workplaces but often sleeping quarters as well”.
 
Truck stops have offered various Internet options for years, but the connections have often been slow and expensive, and required drivers to go inside. In turn the connections, available by subscription for terms from 15 minutes to a year, provide a new source of revenue for the truck stops.
 
What I like about this idea is that it expands the technology beyond its traditional white-collar borders. Plus it would help make a really good sequel to ‘Convoy’.
 
 

News: The History of the iPod

 Nice story by the New York Times’ Rob Walker on the history of the iPod, two years old this month. I have to say after initial skepticism I’m a convert, whisking it around with me on forays to the jogging track, the pool, and the car.
 
 
There have, however, been rumblings of complaint about the battery: One user says he was given short shrift by Apple when his died after 18 months, being told it would be cheaper for him to buy a new iPod. I’m waiting for a response from Apple on this one.

News: Barcodes Fight Back

 I love this idea. The New York Times reports that James Patten, a graduate student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has come up with a digital tool that can scan the bar code printed on nearly any product, and indicate whether its corporate pedigree is blemished. The Corporate Fallout Detector “combines a bar-code reader with an internal database of pollution complaints and ethics violations packed in a casing resembling a cold-war-era Geiger counter”.
 
Marc Smith, a research sociologist at Microsoft, has meanwhile “been developing a similar device, combining a bar-code scanner, a hand-held computer and wireless Internet access. In a grocery store near a cafe that was promoting a Wi-Fi hot spot, he tested a box of cereal by scanning the bar code and letting the computer nose around on the Internet. It turned out that the cereal had been recalled because its label failed to mention the presence of nuts, a potential hazard to people with allergies.”
 
Both great ideas, but why stop there. You could use barcodes — or their more powerful successors, RFID tags — to hook up with data such as other consumer comments, cheaper products elsewhere, or whatever. Suddenly the tags and barcodes that empower retailers may end up empowering the consumer…

News: Remote PC Users, Beware

 For those of you using software to connect to your computer remotely, here’s a chilling, cautionary tale from the New York Times of a guy who, for almost two years, used an arsenal of computers in his bedroom on the 14th floor apartment he shared with his mother to break into others, steal their credit card information and shop. GoToMyPC is mentioned in the story, which was one of the programmes the guy used to access and hijack other PCs, raising some serious warning flags about the downsides of these kind of programs, which allow you to access your PC remotely.
 
 
The bottom line: Be very careful when you use a PC in a public place, including your own. This guy mainly used software he had installed on public computers to capture the information needed to get access, but shoulder surfing — folk walking behind you, looking to see what you type — is another way. Certainly, don’t leave your computer unattended and still attached to the Internet if you don’t intend to use things like GoToMyPC. (And if you do, consider the information on your PC to be vulnerable.

Column: No More Information Overload

Loose Wire — No More Information Overload
 
 Now, the news you choose to read can be delivered in a friendly format that won’t clog your inbox
By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 3 July 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

This is not another column about spam, but that’s where I have to start. Spam, or junk e-mail is, we’re all agreed, the bane of our lives. But what if the problem is not so much spam, as e-mail itself?

Look at it like this: E-mail is our default window on the Internet. It’s where pretty much everything ends up. I have received more than 1,000 e-mails in the past week. The vast bulk of that is automated — newsletters, newsgroup messages, despatches from databases, press releases and whatnot. The rest is personal e-mail [a pathetically small amount, I admit], readers’ mail [which I love, keep sending it] and junk. While it makes some sense to have all this stuff in one place, it’s hard to find what I need, and it makes my inbox a honey pot for spammers. And when I go on holiday, it all piles up. Now, what if all that automated stuff was somewhere else, delivered through a different mechanism you could tweak, search through easily, and which wasn’t laced with spam? Your inbox would just be what is e-mail, from your boss or Auntie Lola.

Enter the RSS feed. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary or variations of the two, depending on who you talk to. It’s a format that allows folk to feed globs of information — updates to a Web site, an on-line journal [a Weblog, or blog], news — to others. These feeds appear in programs called news readers, which look a bit like e-mail programs.

This also makes sense for those folk who may not subscribe to e-mail alerts, but who regularly visit any number of Web sites for news, weather, movies, village jamborees, books, garden furniture, or whatever. Instead of having to trawl through those Web sites each morning, or each week, or whenever you remember, you can add their RSS feeds to your list and monitor them all from one place.

RSS feeds aren’t just another way to deliver traditional information. RSS feeds have become popular in part because of blogs — on-line journals, usually run by an individual chronicling their experiences, thoughts and journeys around the Web. While many blogs are more like personal diaries, others are written by people who know what they’re talking about, and have become a credible source of information and opinion for industry insiders. Many of these bloggers now offer updates of their Web sites via RSS feed. “There’s an awful lot being created by individuals who are key figures in their markets,” says Bill Kearney, who runs a Web site, www.syndic8.com, that lists more than 20,000 such newsfeeds.

Blogs and RSS have, despite their unwieldy names, helped to level a playing field between traditional news suppliers — news agencies, newspapers, news Web sites like CNN — and those in or monitoring a particular industry. Some call it “nanomedia”: An often-cited example is New York’s Gawker (www.gawker.com) which collects gossip and news from the Big Apple, many times scooping the local dailies. Indeed, blogs themselves came of age this year, first during the Iraq War when a young Iraqi translator calling himself Salam Pax ran a massively popular blog (dearraed.blogspot.com) from Baghdad, offering a compelling perspective on the conflict. Later The New York Times felt the growing power of blogs when the plagiarism crisis prompted by reporter Jayson Blair was fuelled by blogs and other Internet sites, all in real time.

We don’t want to go too far. There’s a lot of dross in blogs, and therefore a lot of dross in RSS feeds. And while the software has improved in recent months — check out news readers such as Newzcrawler (www.newzcrawler.com) or Feedreader (www.feedreader.com) — it still feels slightly experimental. But as the format matures, I think our once-bright hopes for the Internet as a democratic, intelligent medium might be realized.

Part of it means throwing away what we traditionally think of as “news.” Corporations are beginning to sense that blogs make an excellent in-house forum for employees. Small companies have found that running a blog for their customers — say a real-estate agent sharing news and opinions about the neighbourhood property market — pays better than any newspaper ad. Individuals — consultants, columnists, one-man bands — have, through well-designed, well-maintained blogs, built a critical mass of readers, some of whom become paying customers or subscribers. Teachers are finding RSS feeds useful for channelling subject matter to classrooms and sharing material with other teachers.

Is there money in it? One Canadian company, Serence (www.serence.com), targets its form of RSS feed, called Klips, to companies automating specific tasks — monitoring competitors, prospects or industry news, accessing critical internal data. There is, of course, a danger that what ailed earlier formats ends up ailing RSS feeds: This month, one company started carrying ads in an RSS feed, with mixed results. In the end, I think, some of this data will be good enough to pay for, some will be supported by ads, and some will continue to be done out of love.

RSS’s strengths are simplicity and versatility: It can be added on to other programs — the browser, Outlook, or be delivered to your hand-phone, hand-held device, or even as audio on your MP3 player. It’s a lot more powerful than e-mail, and — we hope — will be guaranteed spam-free. Hurrah.

Column: Under the Wire

UNDER THE WIRE

The Latest Software and Hardware Upgrades, Plug-Ins and Add-Ons

from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

History Scanned

The past is being digitized — fast. The ProQuest Historical Newspapers program has just finished scanning more than a century of copies of The Washington Post to its existing database. The database includes each page from every issue, in PDF files, from 1877-1987. The program has already done The New York Times (1851-1999), The Wall Street Journal (1889-1985) and The Christian Science Monitor (1908-1990).

Cellphone with Character

Somewhat belatedly, Nokia is getting into the handwriting phone thing, aiming itself squarely at the huge Chinese market. On May 20, it unveiled the 6108, created in the firm’s product-design centre in Beijing. The keypad flips open to reveal a small area on which Chinese words can be handwritten with a stylus. A character-recognition engine will convert the scrawls into text, which can then be sent as a message. The phone will be available in the third quarter.

Security Compromised

A new survey reckons “security breaches across the Asia-Pacific region have reached epidemic levels.” In a report released last week, Evans Data Corp. said that 75% of developers reported at least one security breach — basically any kind of successful attack on their computer systems — in the past year. China is worst off, from 59% of developers reporting at least one security breach last year to 84% this year. It doesn’t help that most of the software is compromised: Tech consultant Gartner has recommended its clients drop Passport, the Microsoft service that allows users to store all their passwords, account details and other valuable stuff on-line, saying Passport identities could be easily compromised. This follows a flaw revealed earlier this month by Microsoft after an independent researcher in Pakistan noticed he could get access to any of the more than 200 million Passport accounts used to authenticate e-mail, e-commerce and other transactions. Microsoft says it has resolved the problem and does not know of any accounts that were breached. Gartner’s not impressed: “Microsoft failed to thoroughly test Passport’s security architecture, and this flaw — uncovered more than six months after Microsoft added the vulnerable feature to the system — raises serious doubts about the reliability of every Passport identity issued to date.”

Son of Napster

Apple’s apparent success with iTunes seems to have prodded some action in the on-line music market. Roxio, maker of CD recording software among other things, said last week it would buy PressPlay from Universal Music and Sony Music Entertainment for about $40 million in cash and rename the whole caboodle Napster, which it earlier bought for $5.3 million. Pressplay offers radio stations and unlimited tethered downloads for $9.95 a month in addition to song downloads that allow for CD burning. My tuppennies? None of this will work unless companies put no restrictions on the files downloaded. Emusic does it that way and it’s why a lot of people keep coming back.