Tag Archives: writer

A pale white man shows us what journalism is

My weekly Loose Wire Service column.

Is the Internet replacing journalism?

It’s a question that popped up as I gazed at the blurred, distorted web-stream of a press conference from London by the founder of WikiLeaks, a website designed to “protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public”.

On the podium there’s Julian Assange. You can’t make a guy like this up. White haired, articulate and defensive, aloof and grungy, specific and then sweepingly angry. Fascinating. In a world of people obsessed by the shininess of their iPhones, Assange is either a throwback to the past or a gulf of fresh air.

WikiLeaks, which has been around for a few years but has, with the release of mounds of classified data about the Afghan War, come center stage.

Assange doesn’t mince his words. He shrugs off questions he doesn’t like by pointing his face elsewhere and saying “I don’t find that question interesting.” He berates journalists for not doing their job — never

something to endear an interviewee to the writer.
But in some ways he’s right. We haven’t been doing our job. We’ve not chased down enough stories, put enough bad guys behind bars (celebrities don’t really count.) His broadsides may be more blunderbuss than surgical strike, but he does have a point. Journalism is a funny game. And it’s changing.

Asked why he chose to work with three major news outlets to release the Afghan data, he said it was the only way to get heard. He pointed out that he’d put out masses of interesting leaks on spending on the Afghan war previously and hardly a single journalist had picked it up.

Hence the — inspired — notion of creating a bit of noise around the material this time around. After all, any journalist can tell you the value of the material is less intrinsic than extrinsic: Who else is looking for it, who else has got it, and if so can we publish it before them.

Sad but true. We media tend to only value something if a competitor does. A bit like kids in the schoolyard. By giving it to three major outlets — New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel — Assange ensured there was not only a triple splash but also the matchers from their competitors.

So Assange is right. But that’s always been like that. Assange is part of — and has identified — a much deeper trend that may be more significant than all the hand-wringing about the future of the media.

You see, we’ve been looking at media at something that just needs a leg-up. We readily admit the business model of the media is imploding.

But very little discussion of journalism centers on whether journalism itself might be broken. Assange — and others – believe it is.

The argument goes like this.

The model whereby media made a lot of money as monopolistic enterprises — fleecing advertisers at one end, asking subscribers to pay out at the other, keeping a death grip on the spigot of public, official or company information in the middle — has gone. We know that.

But what we don’t perhaps realize is that the Internet itself has changed the way that information moves around. I’m not just talking about one person saying something on Twitter, and everyone else online reporting it.

I’m talking about what news is. We journalists define news in an odd way — as I said above, we attach value to it based on how others value it, meaning that we tend to see news as a kind of product to grab.

The Internet has changed that. It’s turned news into some more amorphous, that can be assembled from many parts.

Assange and his colleagues at WikiLeaks don’t just act as a clearing house for leaked data. They add extraordinary value to it.

Don’t believe me? Read a piece in The New Yorker in June, about the months spent on cracking the code on, and then editing video shot in Iraq.

In a more modest way this is being done every day by bloggers and folk online, who build news out of small parts they piece together —some data here, a report there, a graphic to make sense of it. None of these separate parts might be considered news, but they come together to make it so.

Assange calls WikiLeaks a stateless news organization. Dave Winer, an Internet guru, points out that this pretty much is what the blogosphere is as well. And he’s right. WikiLeaks works based on donations and collaborative effort. Crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I agree with all this, and I think it’s great. This is happening in lots of interesting places — such as Indonesia, where social media has mobilized public opinion in ways that traditional media has failed.

But what of journalism, then?

Jeff Jarvis, a future-of-media pundit, asked the editor of The Guardian, one of the three papers that WikiLeak gave the data too first, whether The Guardian should have been doing the digging.

He said no; his reporters add value by analyzing it. “I think the Afghan leaks make the case for journalism,” Alan Rusbridger told Jarvis. “We had the people and expertise to make sense of it.”

That’s true. As far as it goes. I tell my students, editors, colleagues, anyone who will listen, that our future lies not so much in reporting first but adding sense first. And no question, The Guardian has done some great stuff with the data. But this is a sad admission of failure — of The Guardian, of reporting, of our profession.

We should be looking at WikiLeaks and learning whatever lessons we can from it. WikiLeaks’ genius is manifold: It has somehow found a way to persuade people, at great risk to themselves, to send it reams of secrets. The WikiLeaks people do this by taking that data seriously, but they also maintain a healthy paranoia about everyone — including themselves — which ensures that sources are protected.

Then they work on adding value to that data. Rusbridger’s comments are, frankly, patronizing about WikiLeaks’ role in this and previous episodes.

We journalists need to go back to our drawing boards and think hard about how WikiLeaks and the Warholesque Assange have managed to not only shake up governments, but our industry, by leveraging the disparate and motivated forces of the Internet.

We could start by redefining the base currency of our profession — what news, what a scoop, what an exclusive is. Maybe it’s the small pieces around us, joined together.

The New Normal: Constant Flux

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

I was reading a blog by a World Banker the other day—now there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have thought I’d use a few years ago—about our old favorite in this column: Twitter.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good that the World Bank is blogging, and talking about Twitter. And one shouldn’t judge the thinking of the Bank from the words of this World Bank employee—who is not part of the banking part of the Bank.

But it does reflect, I suspect, a lingering and dangerous misconception about what Twitter—indeed, social media—is among institutional thinkers.

The writer, Filipino Antonio Lambino, writes:

The point is this: norms will continue to shift around a bit (or a lot) but will eventually take hold.  The same medium or application is likely to be used differently by different people in different contexts – and rules of engagement will emerge for these various uses.  Until things settle down, however, some of us are bound to remain a little conflicted and uncomfortable.  And through this transition period, by using what we like and rejecting what we don’t, we become direct participants in the norm-setting process.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The truth is that there is no norm. Or the norm is that there is no norm. We’re now in a state of constant flux. Antonio can become a direct participant in the norm-setting process, but he will be disappointed if he’s looking for some norm-setting moment. The reality is there is none.

The fact that he’s using a blog—and tweeting his post on his twitter feed—should give him a clue. Blogs were the first assault on the citadel of there being any ‘norm’. They were initially a reaction against the idea that you needed to know HTML, the formatting and design language of the web, in order to create stuff on the web.

The argument went: Why should we have to know that kind of thing to be able to share our thoughts online? We don’t have to know how to make a notebook to write things down. We don’t have to know how to make a camera to take photos. Why should we have to know the inner workings of the web in order to use it to create stuff?

So blogs were born. But they quickly evolved. There was no norm. Blog is short for web-log since it was assumed that blogs would be online journals. But they’re not. When was the last time you read a blog about what someone was up to? Blogs are a medium for ideas and reporting.

Then along came things like Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster et al.

All have had to adapt to their users. YouTube was ‘broadcast yourself’ but now is more about rebroadcasting what other people, or TV stations, have already broadcast.

Facebook was supposed to be for college kids to connect to each other. Wikipedia was originally supposed to be content produced by academic specialists. It only took off when they let anyone contribute. Now it’s evolving again, as users wrestle with each other over what constitutes a Wikipedia-worthy entry.

And this process of evolution is also evolving. Twitter started out as a SMS message sharing system. Users took it in different directions and the founders were smart enough to follow. As you know, most of the features that make Twitter what it is—hashtags, mentions, retweeting—were all devised by users themselves.

Twitter is just one: look at FriendFeed, Google Buzz etc as examples of flux, where users figure out how they want to use it and the creators of the service hold their breath. 

The point, as Antonio would say, is this: Norms were norms because they were set by a limited group of people. Those with power—either financial or political. Newspapers have all sorts of norms, from the headline size to the fact that sports are usually at the back. Norms get established because the creators are limited in number and control the means of creation.

That’s no longer the case. Now the people who create things on the web have to genuflect before their customers, because the customers determine the success of a product. The customer is the user is the creator. The customer sets the norm. The creator of a medium in this new world is not the creator of the content that makes it a success. The two have been separated.

Hence, a norm today may not be there tomorrow. It used to be the ‘norm’ that if someone followed you on Twitter, you politely followed back. That’s no longer the case (spammers put paid to that, but it also became unwieldy.) It used to be the norm that you posted links to your own content on twitter; now you do it sparingly unless you’re a Twitter god.

So, Antonio and others who are waiting for things to settle. They won’t. Already Twitter is becoming something else, and probably has a life span of five more years max. Other services will come and take its place. It’s a fast moving universe.

I’m glad the World Bank is making space for Antonio and like-minded souls to ponder the significance of these new networks. My advice: jump in and experiment, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect it to come to a final destination. Especially one called Norm.

SideWiki’s Wish Fulfilment

A piece in today’s Guardian attracted my attention–“SideWiki Changes Everything”—as I thought, perhaps, it might shed new light on Google’s browser sidebar that allows anyone to add comments to a website whether or not the website owner wants them to. The piece calls the evolution of SideWiki a “seminal moment”.

The column itself, however, is disappointing, given that SideWiki has been out six weeks already:

Few people in PR, it seems, have considered the way that SideWiki will change the lives of beleaguered PR folk. In time, this tool will significantly change the way brands strategise, think and exist. SideWiki is going to challenge PR by providing the masses with the tool for the ultimate expression of people power, something uncontainable that will need constant monitoring.

The author, one Mark Borkowski, offers no examples of this happening, so the piece is very much speculation. In fact, I’d argue that SideWiki has been something of a damp squib:

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A, by the way, marks the launch, so the interest fell off dramatically almost immediately.

So who is right? I can find very little evidence that people are using SideWiki in the way that Borkowski suggests. A look at top 10 U.S. companies (not the top 10, but a cross section) indicates that only one company has ‘claimed’ its SideWiki page, and that few users, so far, have made use of SideWiki to express their views about the company:

Company Entries Claimed Comments
Walmart 2 No Even
Exxon Mobil 0 No
Chevron 0 No
GM 0 No
Apple 20+ No Even
Monsanto 0 No
Starbucks 0 No
White House 2 (blog posts) No
Blackberry 2 Yes Even
Microsoft 20+ No Negative

Now I’m not saying that SideWiki isn’t going to be an important way for people to get around websites’ absence of comment boxes or lack of contact information. I’d love it if that was the case. I’m just saying there’s very little evidence of it so far, so to argue that is premature at best, and poor journalism at worst.

And here’s the rub. Mark Borkowski is not a journalist. He doesn’t claim to be; he’s a PR guy. But how would you know that? The Guardian page on which his comment sits does not clearly indicate that; indeed, the format is exactly the same as for its journalist contributors:

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Only at the bottom does one find out that he “is founder and head of Borkowski PR.”

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I have no problem with PR guys writing comment pieces for my favorite newspaper. I just want to know that is who they are before I start reading. (I can hear the argument being made that Borkowski is a well-known name in the UK, so this shouldn’t be necessary. But that doesn’t hold water. The affiliation of all writers should be clearly indicated.)

The problem? Anyone who is not a journalist—and many who are–has an interest, and that interest should be clearly declared. In Borkowski’s case, he works in PR, and is clearly suggesting that PR agencies need to work harder in this space:

The social media world encloses our personal and professional actions – the only answer for PR folk is to take a more active role in being brand custodians, representing a higher degree of brand and reputation management.

In other words, he’s indirectly touting for business. Once again, nothing wrong with that if the piece is clearly tagged as an opinion piece—which it may be, in the print version. But here, online, there’s no such indication.

Of course, one should also check that the writer does not have a financial or business interest in the product and company being written about, in this case Google. I can find none on his website, but that I have to check—that it’s not clearly flagged on the piece itself—is not something I or other readers should have to do.

Bottom line? The Guardian isn’t alone in this. The Wall Street Journal does it too. But I don’t think it helps these great brands to, wittingly or unwittingly, dismantle the Chinese Walls between content by its own reporters and those outsiders who, however smart and objective they are, have interests that readers need to know about.

SideWiki changes everything | Mark Borkowski | Media | The Guardian

Journalists Citing Wikipedia: Rarely an Option

Reuters has just published its handbook online. A smart move (declaration of interest: I’ve done some training work for Reuters. I’ve got my old dog-eared copy on a shelf nearby.)

I posted (approvingly, but without comment) a retweet from Nieman pointing out that Reuters generally forbids quoting from Wikipedia:

Online information sources which rely on collaborative, voluntary and often anonymous contributions need to be handled with care. Wikipedia, the online “people’s encyclopedia”, can be a good starting point for research, but it should not be used as an attributable source. Do not quote from it or copy from it. The information it contains has not been validated and can change from second to second as contributors add or remove material. Move on to official websites or other sources that are worthy of attribution. Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries. It is only acceptable to link to an entry on Wikipedia or similar sites when the entry or website itself is the subject of a news story.

This is good policy, but the point could be made more clear. Wikipedia does not encourage the writing of entries that don’t cite existing sources:

Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

In other words, if it’s in Wikipedia it should have been somewhere else first, and anyone using the information should go to that original source to check before citing it.

This is true of any journalistic endeavour,  and so it’s no great issue. (“Who told you that?” “What’s your source for that?” “Where did you hear that?”: all questions a journalists asks of someone who tells them something that’s not their own direct experience.)

People should not be offended by Reuters’ polic; indeed, they should be following it already—as writer, as reader, as consumer of Wikipedia.

Confirming is easy enough to do, by the way: just click on the small number that should be next to the information you’re planning to use:

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That will take you to the footnote, highlighted in blue:

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Then click on the link, if any, in that footnote which should take you back to the source:

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If it doesn’t—either because the link no longer works, or the source is an offline one–then you need to do a bit more digging before you’re ready.

Of course, if no footnote exists, then you should be skeptical, or look elsewhere to confirm the information.

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

Wifitising: Great Idea, or Daft and Dangerous?

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WiFi has become a commodity, something we expect to be able to find, but marketers are slowly waking up to its potential to get the message out—by renaming the service. But is it such a good idea?

A Dutch company, according to Adrants, has started changing the name of its WiFi service continually—both to promote items and to nag freeloaders into buying coffee:

By continuously changing the names of their store networks to such things as OrderAnotherCoffeeAlready, BuyCoffeeForCuteGirlOverThere?, HaveYouTriedCoffeeCake?, BuyAnotherCupYouCheapskate, TodaysSpecialExpresso1.60Euro and BuyaLargeLatterGetBrownieForFree, the chain is able to both promote items as well as guilt patrons into realizing free WiFi really isn’t totally free.

Some boring questions are not answered in the article, such as whether users find themselves bumped off the network when the name changes (I guess not) to whether regular customers complain that they have to change their WiFi settings every time they log on.

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And they’re not the first to try something like this: A German car rental company called SIXT has set up WiFi networks in airports with names promoting the car company’s brand. Select the WiFi network and you’re taken to the company’s home page.

The article doesn’t explain whether these WiFi networks provide real connections, or merely access to the company’s page. Needless to say, if it’s the latter any positive message may be undone. And, as the writer points out, this “wifitising” is a form of spam that people may not appreciate.

On top of that is the growth in dodgy WiFi networks that offer free WiFi but actually launch “man in the middle” attacks to eavesdrop on your passwords and other data as you use the network. A hacker last month, for example, accessed personal emails of guests using a U.S. hotel’s free WiFi network. A study by Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research of 147 U.S. hotels found that only six of the 39 hotels (HTML version of the PDF file, which requires registerig to download) offering WiFi were encrypting traffic. It concluded hotels were “ill-prepared to protect their guests from network security issues.”

The problems with changing the names of WiFi networks are obvious: They further confuse the user and reduce the chances of a standard emerging that may reduce people’s vulnerability when using WiFi. Of course, anyone can give a WiFi an official-sounding name, so networks are vulnerable to start with, and the Cornell report shows that using even legit WiFi leaves users vulnerable. So it’s hard to see this wifitising trend—small tho it is—as anything more than a fad, because if it does catch on, it’s going to make using public WiFi more complicated and misleading, rather than less so.

Renamed WiFi Networks Guilt Freeloaders Into Buying Coffee » Adrants

Updater Fever

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I sometimes wonder what software companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, they’re all the same—want from their customers.

I spend enough time with novice users to know how confusing using computer software can be. Especially online: It’s a scary world out there (they’re right to be scared) but these companies, which should know better, make it more so. By trying to hoodwink into using their products they are undermining users’ confidence in using computers in the first place. If they keep on doing this, expect more people to use computers less—and certainly to install less software, or experiment in any way online or off.

Take what just happened. I use Windows Live Writer to blog: it’s an excellent program, by far the best things Microsoft has done in years, and today it prompted me that an update was available. I duly clicked on the link to download the Writer beta installer:

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Only, of course, it wasn’t the installer but The Installer From Hell:

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Prechecked are six programs, none of which I have on my computer right now. There’s no single button to uncheck those boxes, and most novice users may not even know they can (note the confusing text above it: “Click each program name for details” and “Choose the programs you want to install”—nothing to explain to novices that these choices have already been made for you, and how to unchoose them.)

It’s not as if Microsoft is trying to sell us smack. This is free software. But it’s very damaging in ways only someone who spends time with real people can understand. Even when the software is installed for example, you get this last little twist of the Knife of Befuddlement:

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This might not seem like much, but if you’re an ordinary user, finding your home page all different and your search engine altered to something else can be as disorienting as coming home to find someone’s moved your furniture and the cooker is now in the bathroom. Well, not quite that much, but you get the idea.

Of course Microsoft’s not alone in this. Even Google’s been playing the game, and Yahoo! tries to bundle the toolbar in with pretty much every piece of software that’s ever been downloaded–which also alters the homepage, and default search engine, and probably moves the fridge around as well.

The problem is that the more these companies try to fool us, the easier it is for real scammers to scam us—because what they both do starts to look very similar.

Take this scam that I came across this morning. A splog (spam blog—a fake blog) had used some of my material so when I tried to access the page to find out why, I instead got this believable looking popup

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This without me doing anything other than clicking on a link to a blog. A graphic in the background appeared to be checking the computer for viruses, and of course this window is nigh on impossible to get rid of. Try clicking on the red cross and you get this:

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Try to get rid of that and you get this:

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And then this:

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It’s obviously a scam (it’s adware), but it’s darned hard to get rid of. And to the ordinary user (by which I mean someone who has a real life, and therefore doesn’t see this kind of thing as intrinsically interesting) there’s no real difference between the trickery perpetrated by these grammatically challenged scammers, and the likes of Microsoft et al, who try to inveigle their software and homepage/search engine preferences into your computer.

Either way, the ordinary user is eventually going to tire of the whole thing and say “enough!” and go out fishing or, if it’s that time of year, wassailing.

Let’s try to avoid that.

(And yes, the latest version Live Writer is good, though don’t use the spellchecker. Just a shame that it’s made by Microsoft.)

Is New Media Ready for Old Media?

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I’m very excited by the fact that newspapers are beginning to carry content from the top five or so Web 2.0/tech sites. These blogs (the word no longer seems apt for what they do; Vindu Goel calls them ‘news sources’) have really evolved in the past three years and the quality of their coverage, particularly that of ReadWrite Web, has grown in leaps and bounds. Now it’s being carried by the New York Times.

A couple of nagging questions remain, however.

1) Is this old media eating new media, or new media eating the old? On the surface this is a big coup for folk like ReadWriteWeb—which didn’t really exist three years ago—but look more closely, and I suspect we may consider this kind of thing as the beginning of the acknowledgement by old media that they have ceded some important ground that they used to dominate. This, in short, marks the recognition of traditional media that theses news sources are, to all intents and purposes, news agencies that operate on a par with, and have the same values as, their own institutions.

2) Is new media ready for old media? I have a lot of respect for ReadWriteWeb, and most of the other tech sites included in this new direction. But they all need to recognise that by participating with old media they need to follow the same rules. There’s no room for conflicts of interest here: Even the NYT has reported on potential conflicts of interest for Om Malik and Michael Arrington (here’s a great piece from The Inquistr about the issue, via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed.)

The thing with conflicts of interest is that they’re tough. It’s hard to escape them. And it’s not enough to disclose them. You have, as a writer (let’s not say journalist here, it’s too loaded a word, like blogger), a duty to avoid conflicts of interest. Your commitment as a writer has to be to your reader. If your reader doesn’t believe that you’re writing free of prejudice or favor, then you’re a hack. And I don’t mean that in a nice way.

Which means you have to avoid not only all conflicts of interest, but appearances of conflict of interest. Your duty is not just to disclose conflicts of interest, and potential conflicts of interest, but to avoid them. If that means making less money, then tough.

So, for these ‘news sources’, the issue is going to become a more central one. Of course, the question will grow larger as these outfits move mainstream. But it may become more pressing for the carrier of the news, not for the provider: Who, say, accepts responsibility for errors and conflicts of interest? NYT and The Washington Post, or the carriers of the news? I’m sure there will be lots of caveats in the small print, but if material is on the NYT website, I think a reader would assume it reflects that paper’s ethical standards. If you’re in doubt, think of the recent United Airlines case.

That story’s reappearance started on Google News, and then was picked up by Income Securities Advisors, a financial information company, which was then picked up by Bloomberg. The technical error was Google’s, in finding it on a newspaper website and miscategorising it  as new, but the human error was in the ‘news source’, which saw it and then fired it off to their service, which is distributed via Bloomberg. Who is to blame for that mess? Well, the focus is all on Google, but to me the human element is the problem here, namely the reporter/writer who failed to double check the source/date etc of the piece itself.

The bottom line? It’s great that old media are recognising the quality of new media. What I want to see is this rising tide lifting all boats. Old media needs to not only grab at these news sources out of desperation but learn from their ingenuity, easy writing style and quality, and these outfits need—or at least some of them need—to take a cue from old media, take a look long and hard at themselves and ask themselves whether they could serve their readers better by shedding all conflicts—real, potential, or perceived—of interest.

Babylon? Oh So 1999

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I used to think that small programs that sat in your computer’s memory and could be accessed quickly by a keystroke were the future, but nowadays I’m not sure that’s true. At least, they’ve got to be real careful. If they’re not, they end up looking and behaving dangerously like adware.

An example that steers dangerously close is Babylon. Once a service with great promise, and still used by at least one of my friends, Babylon offers access to all sorts of online content — dictionaries, thesaurii, Wikipedia entries — just by highlighting a word in any application and hitting a couple of keys. A wonderful idea, and, with so much great reference material online, something that should by now have come into its own. But the experience falls short.

Install the software and you immediately get a pop-up suggesting you buy the product. It’s strange how out of sync that sort of behaviour is in today’s more demanding, less patient world. And while the information Babylon retrieves for you is impressively large, it’s probably too large to be useful. Nowadays we need surgical strikes on information, not carpet bombing.

Given it’s supposed to be a writer’s and browser’s tool, the occasional pop-up balloon from the system tray doesn’t help either. I don’t want programs blitzing me with reminders that the program is there, or that I am still using a trial version. This behaviour is, frankly, so 1999 it’s not funny.

Needless to say, I uninstalled the software within ten minutes. Or at least I tried to: Babylon has a few more tricks up its sleeve to make sure that isn’t as painless as installing it.

First off, there’s no uninstall shortcut in the Start menu, only the application that sits proudly alone outside a folder:

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This approach–not putting a shortcut inside a folder along with an uninstall link–always strikes me as the refuge of the pompous and delusional. Microsoft does it; Adobe does it; Real does it. They could just about get away with it. Everyone else is kidding themselves.

So, it’s to the Add or Remove Programs folder, which, under XP, always takes so long to load it gives you time to wonder why you haven’t switched to a Mac already. And there, one finds two more surprises from Babylon:

Firstly, there are two entries, not one in the list:

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Interesting. I don’t recall for a while coming across a program thinking it carried that kind of weight. More pumped up self-importance, I fear.

That’s not the end of the fun. Click on the first of these and instead of the usual confirmation box about uninstalling, you’re given one last chance to cough up:

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I’m pretty sure that breaks all sorts of user design rules. It’s annoying: Why would someone who had gotten this far in uninstalling suddenly say to themselves “Doggone it! What was I thinking? Why don’t I just buy the thing instead?” By now I’m regretting even downloading Babylon to start with. All I wanted, for Chrissakes, was a decent Thesaurus.

The truth is that software has now learnt to fit better to the way we work, and not to intrude in the way that Babylon does. Look at browser widgets or the Mac’s Spotlight, or even Answers.com’s 1-Click Answers. Luckily, perhaps, Babylon’s lack of manners stands out because it’s just not how programs are written these days.