The tsunami, Twitter and the Zones: Did social media amplify government generated confusion?

(Cross posted from my Northwest Coast Energy News site)

Kitimat, BC and New York City had one thing in common this week, the misuse and use of social media, Twitter and Facebook, that spread both accurate warnings and dangerous misinformation about an impending disaster. In the case of New York and the surrounding area, it was Superstorm Sandy that caused widespread devastation. For Kitimat it was the tsunami warning after the 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii and no damage but a lot of worry for residents.

New York has a population of millions, it is the media centre for the United States, and much of the U.S. Northeast coast is still recovering from the horrendous damage from Superstorm Sandy.
Kitimat has a population of about 8,000 and my home town is off the media radar except when the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline issue pops up on the national assignment desks. If the October 27, 2012 tsunami from the Haida Gwaii earthquake did come up Douglas Channel to Kitimat harbour, it was so minimal that any water rise was scarcely noticed.

In one way New York (the state and the city) plus New Jersey and other states were ahead of Kitimat. In the US, there were numerous official sources on Twitter and Facebook, as well as those ubiquitous live TV news conferences with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or various state governors.

On October 27, neither Kitimat nor the nearby town of Terrace had any official emergency outlets on social media. In Kitimat, that may change as early as this Monday when District Council considers what happened last Saturday night.

It has been documented that there was no official response from Emergency Management British Columbia (still largely known under its former name Provincial Emergency Program) until an hour after the first earthquake report from the US Geological Survey. Only sometime later did BC’s provincial emergency officials hold a short conference call with reporters. (At the time the BC Liberals were holding a policy convention at Whistler. After the conference call, TV reporters at the convention in Whistler were doing live reports with taped clips of Attorney General Shirley Bond. It should have been easy for Bond and other senior government officials, including Premier Christy Clark–who is plummeting the polls– to hold a live news conference just as US state governors and mayors did later in the week when it came to Superstorm Sandy)

So in that hour of silence from the BC government, one question that has to be raised is: Were the tsunami warnings so completely uncoordinated–at least as far as the public is concerned– that that was one cause of the misinformation and inaccurate information on Twitter and Facebook? Or did confusing information from authorities simply compound and amplify the social media misinformation that was already spreading across British Columbia and around the world?

Here in the northwest, the two area fire chiefs Trent Bossence of Kitimat and John Klie of Terrace have said after the quake that landline phones and some cell phones were out, in some areas up to an hour after the first shock. Klie told CFTK’s Tyler Noble on Open Connection that after the landline phones came back up the Terrace fire department was flooded with calls from people “who wanted it now.” The ability of firefighters to get information was then delayed “because so many people were trying to get through.”

Kitimat has the advantage of being a small town. Emergency services already had scheduled a volunteer recruiting session last Monday night (October 29) for Emergency Social Services–the folks who run, coordinate and work in reception centres during an emergency–so it was easy to turn that meeting into a earthquake/tsunami warning post mortem. (Imagine that happening in New York?)

The most important issue on Saturday night was the false information on both Facebook and Twitter that the Kildala neighbourhood was being evacuated due to the tsunami warning. Other false information on social media indicated that the giant Bechtel work camp at the Rio Tinto Alcan Kitimat Modernization Project was also being evacuated.

As Kitimat’s Emergency Plan Coordinator Bob McLeod told the earthquake post mortem about the information on Facebook and Twitter:

申博 - 太阳城娱乐- 申博太阳城
Kitimat Emergency Coordinator Bob McLeod
Kitimat Emergency Coordinator Bob McLeod at the earthquake postmortem Oct. 29, 2012 (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

“Your aim is to be saving people, and you’re not saving people. There was one case where someone was going around banging on doors in Kildala, telling them to get out. I think it was over when he was in the lockup that night. But this is the type of foolishness that goes on. You have people going on Facebook saying ‘Alcan’s been evacuated. they’re evacuating Kildala.’ I am going to be generous and say it is misinformation… It was a blatant lie. And that does not help.”

 

 

(For those outside Kitimat you can check the town on Google maps) As seen on this screen grab, Kildala is a low lying part of town. The area north of  Highway 37 is higher on a hill. Closer to the ocean at Douglas Channel are the Bechtel/RTA Kitimat Modernization Project work camps.

Map of Kitimat

Walter McFarlane of the Kitimat Daily recounted his experiences at the post mortem. (We were both at Haisla dinner at Kitamaat Village when the quake struck. See my earlier story here and McFarlane’s Kitimat Daily story here).

After driving from the village to the town, McFarlane told the meeting that he stopped at the town viewpoint where “people were telling me they had already been evacuated out of the Kildala neighbourhood, so my first stop after that was the fire department.” The fire hall is about a couple of blocks from the viewpoint, so it was easy to get accurate information from the fire department.

McFarlane continued, “I found the night of the earthquake that no information is just as bad as wrong information. People were calling me on my cell saying why does the Kitimat Daily say we have to evacuate.” That is because the Daily republished a warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre that “said tsunami warning, evacuation for the north coast. People were saying we’re on the north coast, we got to go.”

I was about fifteen to twenty minutes behind McFarlane in reaching town. (I did not leave Kitamaat Village until after we heard the first tsunami warning.)  As soon as I got to back in cell  range, my cell phone started to beep with saved messages from my TV and radio news clients calling for information. When I got to my home office, my landline was still dead and would be for about another twenty minutes. The only source of information at that point was Google News, Facebook and Twitter.

I saw the initial, and it turns out general, warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Soon I was also getting what I hoped was more specific information  on my marine radio from the Canadian Coast Guard Prince Rupert communications station.

But that, too was somewhat confusing. That Coast Guard advisory mentioned various zones, for example, Zone A and Zone B, but there was little specific context and that point I had no idea what Zone A meant. Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio then went on to say evacuate low lying coastal areas. (transcript below)

With that confusion, and mindful of “when in doubt, leave it out,” I did not mention the zone system in any information I posted on Facebook and Twitter that night. I only retweeted official information or tweets from reporters I knew and trusted (and I did not see any tweeted official information from the province with a link to the page that identifies the official tsunami zones)

From the interview on CFTK, it appears that both the Kitimat and Terrace fire departments were also getting inadequate information.

“We went to our normal place to look EM BC (Emergency Management BC) and there was nothing there,so we went to Plan B to get information and went on from there,” Bossence told Tyler Noble.

Klie said: “We struggle with that every disaster big or small. Social media, I think emergency organizations are trying to tap into more and more. Up north we may be a little behind the eight ball but sure enough Twitter and Facebook information is out there instantly. Looking at Facebook with my son, I saw that they were evacuating whole cities and I knew that was not true. Because of my experience I can filter some of the information, but there is so much information out there that it’s hard to filter what’s real and not real. It’s an area where emergency coordinators have to get into because its the fastest way of getting information out.”

“Once the phone system came back online at the Fire Hall we got a flood of phone calls,” Bossence told CFTK, “it was nonstop and it was people wanting to know. ‘What’s going on? What are we going to do? Are we leaving?’ and they’re giving us ‘This is what is what I’m reading, this is what I’m being texted, on Facebook they’re saying we’re supposed to evacuate’ adding to that we had an individual going around claiming he was a fire department, he was going door to door and telling people to evacuate. That was the added issue we had to deal with. It was definitely misinformation and a sense of urgency that was coming out through the social network (and eventually the media) was big problem for us.”

In Kitimat, I was told about the man going door to door with inaccurate information and as soon as I confirmed it with reliable official sources, I posted that on both Twitter and Facebook, emphasizing there was, at that time, no evacuation order.

But every situation is different. In contrast, in Superstorm Sandy, another story about men going door to door in Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn  was not true, as can be seen in an article summing problems with Twitter in New York, where Jared Keller of Bloomberg reported

I experienced this firsthand during Hurricane Sandy. After retweeting a message warning about muggers in Williamsburg dressed as Con Ed workers as an experiment, I received two sceptical responses checking the claim within 15 minutes, both from people who work in the media industry and spend a significant amount of time on Twitter. Within an hour, I received a mass text message from friends of mine who aren’t completely plugged into the social Web with the same warning: “I just read a news alert of two separate reports of people posing as coned workers, knocking on people’s door and robbing them at gunpoint in Williamsburg. I just want to pass along the info. Stay safe and maybe don’t answer your door.” Two other friends responded with thanks.

Keller goes on to stay “I know a lot of people, especially on Facebook, who end up believing whatever they see first,” says Kate Gardiner, a social media journalist. “It’s almost impossible to track something back to its point of origin there.”

You can read Keller’s complete article How Truth and Lies Spread on Twitter  here.

See also How to Tweet Responsibly During a Breaking-News Event by Garance Franke-Ruta  a senior editor at The Atlantic

With the earthquake and tsunami warning Saturday night, Twitter misinformation spread internationally. The first hashtag I saw was #bcquake, but as the the tsunami warning gained traction (especially after the warning was extended from BC and Alaska to Washington, Oregon and California and then to Hawaii) the more common hashtag #tsunami became prominent. As people outside BC began tweeting, they began using #Canadaquake and soon #prayforcanada also began to trend. Completely inaccurate information spread on #prayforcanada (believed to have originated in Indonesia) that it was Vancouver, not the north coast that had been hit by the 7.7 magnitude earthquake.

Are you in the Zone?

At this point, one question has to be asked. The spread of information, first the well-intended but wrong, second just rumour and third, the deliberately misleading, has been seen in social media not only during the earthquake and tsunami on the West Coast last weekend, and during Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast but all the way back to the 2004 Christmas tsunami in Southeast Asia.

For the west coast in 2012, however, how much of the problem of misinformation on social media during the earthquake and tsunami warning was the fault of confusing information from the authorities? Just how were people going to interpret such general terms as “north coast” and “low lying areas.”?

From the BC Provincial Emergency Program you have to ask “What is Zone A?” It turns out by checking a day or so later that the province of British Columbia has created Tsunami Identification Zones.

Emergency Management Tsunami Zones
Before October 27, it is likely no one outside of the provincial bureaucracy had ever heard of the provincial tsunami zones. At that time no one in BC, either on Twitter or Facebook or through the media was identifying the BC Tsunami Zones for the public. Later on, the television networks put up maps showing Zones A and B —but that was only good if you had power and were watching the right channel. Kitimat Daily and Terrace Daily posted an official update at 10:42 long after the danger was past explaining the Zone system. It was no good at all if you were listening to news reports on radio or to Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio on a fishing boat and had no access to the actual maps.

Compounding the confusion is that the US system appears to be very different from the Canadian.

Also the US system has two levels of warning. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sends out general warnings but hands over for a more specific warning map from the Alaska -based West Coast and Alaska Pacific Tsunami warning centre. It uses its own system of lettered and numbered zones for the west coast of North America. (See the Oct 27 tsunami advisory here  Note it is a Google maps plugin.)

 

Alaska BC tsunami warning map
Possibly adding to uncertainty for those who sail the coast of British Columbia, is that usually when the Canadian Coast Guard talks about zones on marine radio, it is talking about the fishing zones as defined by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which are numbered not lettered 

 

DFO Management areas
Fisheries management zones as defined by the Department of Fisheries and Oceams (DFO)

 

So in case of a tsunami warning, Kitimat is in Zone B for the province of British Columbia and the Provincial Emergency Program and in Zone BZ921 for the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre. For the much more familiar fisheries management areas Kitimat is in Zone 6 (which of course has nothing to do with a tsunami, it’s simply the coastal zone system everyone is familiar with)

Tsunami warning map
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the EM British Columbia map shows Terrace, far inland up the Skeena River is considered in Zone A, along with Prince Rupert for tsunami warnings (if a tsunami was big enough to reach Terrace along the Skeena River valley, then I can only assume that much of the west coast of North America would have already been wiped out).

Tsunami Zone A

 

The Monday Post mortem

Warning brochuresAt the Monday, October 29 post mortem, when McLeod outlined the events of October 27, he began by looking back three weeks, saying, “I have feeling of frustration about a couple of things. October 7, I took 4,000 brochures [How Prepared Are you if Disaster Strikes?] down to the post office to mail out to the residents of Kitimat, They were all delivered by the post office. On Sunday, I had people coming to me and saying what are we supposed to do in the case of an earthquake? It is really, really difficult to get people interested.”

McLeod said that after he felt the earthquake, he went online to check information and then went up to the fire hall, which is Kitimat’s emergency coordination centre. There he met Fire Chief Bossence, his deputy, the RCMP detachment commander Staff Sergeant Steve Corp and representatives from Bechtel and the Rio Tinto Alcan modernization project.

“For the first little while we were going on line trying to get information. The usual method of dissemination getting information it comes from the West coast and Alaska tsunami warning system, then it goes to Victoria, Victoria gives it to the geophysical specialists and they will confirm or deny what ever the information and then it goes to the Provincial Emergency Program and they shoot it out to coastal communities.

“While in this case you’re working with what you find out from different sources and you are trying to determine how reliable these sources are.”

“In our case, for me the first thing you do when you get word of an impending tidal wave [tsunami] action is check the tide. If you’re on a high tide, it’s a different situation than a low tide

“The movie version of a tidal wave is this 50 foot mountain of water roaring along and this is not what is going to happen particularly in Douglas Channel because of the depth. So you are going to see a surge such as we saw in Japan and it will be an increasing surge of water.

“We were told that potentially some sort of surge hitting Langara  [the northern most island in Haida Gwaii) at 9:16, 9:16 came and went and there was no notification of a noticeable surge of water. So were down to a non event and we were on a receding tide.” (See advisory below)

“Misinformation going out is not helpful,” McLeod said. “You’ve got to set up a stream of how you get information out to people and it’s a valid point. The District Website, the Facebook page, something like that can get information out. But again if you lose power where do get it? Text can work even locally with cell phones. if you’re in a dead area with a cell phone, you can still get text”

McLeod then asked the audience, mainly people ranging from their thirties to seventies if they text. Only four or five people put up their hands. “You people are going to be saved, the rest of us…” McLeod quipped.

If a conclusion can be drawn from the earthquake and tsunami warning in the Kitimat region on October 27, it’s not just that in an emergency inaccurate, incomplete or malicious information can spread a the speed of light on social media, it’s worse that incomplete, inadequate and confusing information from the authorities is amplified and distorted by rapid posting on social media. That concept is not new for anyone who has tried the phone chain game where the outcome is often completely different from the start.

If Gardiner is correct when she says “I know a lot of people, especially on Facebook, who end up believing whatever they see first,” the BC government delays made everything worse. People Tweeted the first thing they saw and the first thing people saw came from multiple and often conflicting sources.  Add that to those Tweets that were exaggeration, rumour and lies.

The problem in 2012 it is not one person talking to one person talking to one person, it is a Tweet or Facebook posting that go out to thousands, or millions of people and that’s a lot more dangerous.

McLeod said the post mortem who said emergency services is trying to get more information out to public, but he added. “The unfortunate part is that if you publish it this week, by Christmas no one will remember. If you start throwing it out every week, it becomes like a stop sign at the end of the street. Nobody sees it.”

(Coming next. If Kitimat had to evacuate)

Transcript of Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio tsunami warning.

Pan pan. Pan pan. This is Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio, Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio. Warning for coastal British Columbia issued by Environment Canada on behalf of the British Columbia Provincial Emergency Program at 2057 Pacific Daylight Time Saturday 27 October. Tsunami warning for Zone A, the north coast and Haida Gwaii,Zone B, the central coast and including Bella Coola, Bella Bella and (unintelligible). A tsunami warning has been issued, if you are in a low-lying area coastal area, you are at risk and must move to higher ground or inland now.
Do not return until directed to do so. Closely monitor local radio stations for additional information from local authorities. Please minimize phone use in affected areas, for further information contact the provincial emergency program at website www. papa echo papa period bravo charlie period charlie alpha.Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio over.

General warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre

000
WEPA42 PHEB 280341
TIBPAC

TSUNAMI BULLETIN NUMBER 003
PACIFIC TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER/NOAA/NWS
ISSUED AT 0341Z 28 OCT 2012

THIS BULLETIN APPLIES TO AREAS WITHIN AND BORDERING THE PACIFIC
OCEAN AND ADJACENT SEAS…EXCEPT ALASKA…BRITISH COLUMBIA…
WASHINGTON…OREGON AND CALIFORNIA.

… TSUNAMI INFORMATION BULLETIN …

THIS BULLETIN IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY.

THIS BULLETIN IS ISSUED AS ADVICE TO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES. ONLY
NATIONAL AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO MAKE
DECISIONS REGARDING THE OFFICIAL STATE OF ALERT IN THEIR AREA AND
ANY ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN IN RESPONSE.

AN EARTHQUAKE HAS OCCURRED WITH THESE PRELIMINARY PARAMETERS

ORIGIN TIME – 0304Z 28 OCT 2012
COORDINATES – 52.9 NORTH 131.9 WEST
DEPTH – 10 KM
LOCATION – QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLANDS REGION
MAGNITUDE – 7.7

EVALUATION

NO DESTRUCTIVE WIDESPREAD TSUNAMI THREAT EXISTS BASED ON
HISTORICAL EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI DATA.

HOWEVER – THE WEST COAST/ALASKA TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER HAS
ISSUED A REGIONAL WARNING FOR COASTS LOCATED NEAR THE EARTHQUAKE.
THIS CENTER WILL CONTINUE TO MONITOR THE SITUATION BUT DOES NOT
EXPECT A WIDER THREAT TO OCCUR.

THIS WILL BE THE ONLY BULLETIN ISSUED FOR THIS EVENT UNLESS
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE.

THE WEST COAST/ALASKA TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER WILL ISSUE PRODUCTS
FOR ALASKA…BRITISH COLUMBIA…WASHINGTON…OREGON…CALIFORNIA.

A more specific warning from the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre

 

WEAK51 PAAQ 280334
TSUAK1

BULLETIN
PUBLIC TSUNAMI MESSAGE NUMBER 2
NWS WEST COAST/ALASKA TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER PALMER AK
834 PM PDT SAT OCT 27 2012

THE MAGNITUDE IS UPDATED TO 7.7. THE WARNING ZONE REMAINS THE
SAME.

…THE TSUNAMI WARNING CONTINUES IN EFFECT FOR THE COASTAL
AREAS OF BRITISH COLUMBIA AND ALASKA FROM THE NORTH TIP OF
VANCOUVER ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA TO CAPE DECISION
ALASKA/LOCATED 85 MILES SE OF SITKA/…

…THIS MESSAGE IS INFORMATION ONLY FOR COASTAL AREAS OF
CALIFORNIA – OREGON – WASHINGTON AND BRITISH COLUMBIA FROM
THE CALIFORNIA-MEXICO BORDER TO THE NORTH TIP OF VANCOUVER
ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA…

…THIS MESSAGE IS INFORMATION ONLY FOR COASTAL AREAS OF
ALASKA FROM CAPE DECISION ALASKA/LOCATED 85 MILES SE OF
SITKA/ TO ATTU ALASKA…

A TSUNAMI WARNING MEANS… ALL COASTAL RESIDENTS IN THE WARNING
AREA WHO ARE NEAR THE BEACH OR IN LOW-LYING REGIONS SHOULD MOVE
IMMEDIATELY INLAND TO HIGHER GROUND AND AWAY FROM ALL HARBORS AND
INLETS INCLUDING THOSE SHELTERED DIRECTLY FROM THE SEA. THOSE
FEELING THE EARTH SHAKE… SEEING UNUSUAL WAVE ACTION… OR THE
WATER LEVEL RISING OR RECEDING MAY HAVE ONLY A FEW MINUTES BEFORE
THE TSUNAMI ARRIVAL AND SHOULD MOVE IMMEDIATELY. HOMES AND
SMALL BUILDINGS ARE NOT DESIGNED TO WITHSTAND TSUNAMI IMPACTS.
DO NOT STAY IN THESE STRUCTURES.

ALL RESIDENTS WITHIN THE WARNED AREA SHOULD BE ALERT FOR
INSTRUCTIONS BROADCAST FROM THEIR LOCAL CIVIL AUTHORITIES.
EARTHQUAKES OF THIS SIZE ARE KNOWN TO GENERATE TSUNAMIS.

AT 804 PM PACIFIC DAYLIGHT TIME ON OCTOBER 27 AN EARTHQUAKE WITH
PRELIMINARY MAGNITUDE 7.7 OCCURRED 25 MILES/40 KM SOUTH OF
SANDSPIT BRITISH COLUMBIA.
EARTHQUAKES OF THIS SIZE ARE KNOWN TO GENERATE TSUNAMIS.
IF A TSUNAMI HAS BEEN GENERATED THE WAVES WILL FIRST REACH
LANGARA ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA AT 916 PM PDT ON OCTOBER 27.
ESTIMATED TSUNAMI ARRIVAL TIMES AND MAPS ALONG WITH SAFETY RULES
AND OTHER INFORMATION CAN BE FOUND ON THE WEB SITE
WCATWC.ARH.NOAA.GOV.

TSUNAMIS CAN BE DANGEROUS WAVES THAT ARE NOT SURVIVABLE. WAVE
HEIGHTS ARE AMPLIFIED BY IRREGULAR SHORELINE AND ARE DIFFICULT TO
FORECAST. TSUNAMIS OFTEN APPEAR AS A STRONG SURGE AND MAY BE
PRECEDED BY A RECEDING WATER LEVEL. MARINERS IN WATER DEEPER
THAN 600 FEET SHOULD NOT BE AFFECTED BY A TSUNAMI. WAVE HEIGHTS
WILL INCREASE RAPIDLY AS WATER SHALLOWS. TSUNAMIS ARE A SERIES OF
OCEAN WAVES WHICH CAN BE DANGEROUS FOR SEVERAL HOURS AFTER THE
INITIAL WAVE ARRIVAL. DO NOT RETURN TO EVACUATED AREAS UNTIL AN
ALL CLEAR IS GIVEN BY LOCAL CIVIL AUTHORITIES.

PACIFIC COASTAL REGIONS OUTSIDE CALIFORNIA/ OREGON/ WASHINGTON/
BRITISH COLUMBIA AND ALASKA SHOULD REFER TO THE PACIFIC TSUNAMI
WARNING CENTER MESSAGES FOR INFORMATION ON THIS EVENT AT
PTWC.WEATHER.GOV.

THIS MESSAGE WILL BE UPDATED IN 30 MINUTES OR SOONER IF
THE SITUATION WARRANTS. THE TSUNAMI MESSAGE WILL REMAIN
IN EFFECT UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION STAY TUNED
TO NOAA WEATHER RADIO… YOUR LOCAL TV OR RADIO STATIONS… OR SEE
THE WEB SITE WCATWC.ARH.NOAA.GOV.

$$

Did the media over react to the earthquake and tsunami warning?


There were also numerous Tweets on October 27, accusing the media of over reacting. The Haida Gwaii quake was 7.7 magnitude. Compare that to the Haiti earthquake on January 12, 2010 which was 7.0. The Christ Church, New Zealand earthquake on February 27, 2011 which caused major damage was 6.3 magnitude. So the Haida Gwaii earthquake was a major event. The tsunami warning that eventually reached as far off as Hawaii had to be taken seriously.

Fortunately Haida Gwaii is sparsely populated and there was minimal damage largely because most of the houses and buildings are wood and can absorb some of the shaking from an earthquake.

Given the tsunami damage in Southeast Asia in 2004 and in Japan in 2011, no media organization could ignore the developing story.

If there is justifiable criticism, it is that some media over hyped the story in the beginning, rather acting to reassure the public in a responsible manner. But the media that over hyped the earthquake and tsunami are the kind that would over hype any story. That is generally the result of management listening to “TV doctors” and media consultants who urge over hyping to increase ratings. (It often works). But those who,  quite early in the event, who tweeted that the media was overreacting, were themselves guilty of overrea

A radical (interim) solution to save newspapers: fire all the columnists

I am going to make a radical suggestion that just might save the dying newspaper industry (for a while).

Fire all your columnists.

Newspapers should do the one thing they used to be good at–original reporting. Anybody can sit down and whip out an opinion piece and post it on the web (as I am doing now).

Fire all the columnists.

Use the money to hire a bunch of eager and smart young reporters from the tech generation. Given the bloated salaries of most ageing, out-of-touch columnists, the newspaper business could probably get three entry-level reporters for every fired columnist.  Instead of a stupid “last hired, first fired” policy, the young reporters could keep the industry on life support for a while longer until one of those young people come up with a solution that saves the industry from itself before it collapses entirely.

(One proviso here. There are a few, too few, writers labelled as columnists who actually go out and do frequent original reporting. I’d keep them and make them get out in the field even more than they do now, because they’re actually reporters. There are also innovative reporters/live tweeters/live bloggers like Andrew Carvin @acarvin  (personal website)   in the US and Kady O’Malley  (CBC Inside Politics blog) @kady in Canada. I’d keep them as well. I would not keep tweeters/columnists who just send out their opinions without any actual reporting).

Why fire the columnists?

One. The world wide web is full of opinionated bloggers and tweeters.

In terms of the opinion marketplace, opinion, especially ill-informed opinion, is at the market level of a t-shirt made in China and brought over to North America by the container load, dirt cheap and available in any colour you want. If opinionated columnists helped attract a newspaper audience in the 1980s, today a columnist is a penny a dozen (and we all know what’s happening to the penny).

On the other hand, a large segment of the population seems to be eager for real, on-the-scene, informed reporting. But since having columnists sit on their fat asses in offices, never going out, never even making a phone call or moving a mouse to check a fact, are, in budget terms, cheaper than actually sending reporters out in the field, newspapers are firing reporters and promoting columnists. It’s the same with political panels on television. The panels cost little, fill up air time and add almost nothing substantive to a news broadcast.

Dumb.

How many of today’s audience actually care about columnists? Last fall, I was teaching a continuing education class at a university on social media. There were about 30 students, ranging in age from 20 to 65. I mentioned the CBC and National Post’s Rex Murphy, (I know from my days producing The National’s website that Rex was quite popular then among the CBC audience). To my shock and surprise, blank stares. No one. No one in that class had ever heard of Rex Murphy, even though he hosts Cross Country Check Up, he once wrote a column for The Globe and Mail and now gives his opinion on CBC’s The National and in The National Post. An anomaly perhaps, an indication of the decline of the CBC, perhaps. But those students did talk about how they got news, yes news, from Twitter and Facebook and how links led them to the media that originated the story.

Two. The majority of columnists, left, right or middle, are completely out of touch with reality.

Most columnists today are ageing boomers, or members of Generation Gekko (the spoiled generation between the WWII Greatest Generation and the Boomers) and most haven’t had an original thought in at least a decade. Nothing proves that more, here in Canada, than the near unanimous condemnation of the student protests in Quebec by columnists in almost all the major media across this country. One has to wonder if these columnists talk to their kids (if they have kids). They rant about today’s generation of students as “spoiled brats.”

Compare that blanket condemnation with the intelligent discussions I have seen among several Facebook friends and their followers over the issues in Quebec. Even those who oppose the students stand on tuition fees and are disturbed by the marches disrupting their neighborhoods and businesses are more measured in the Facebook discussions I have seen than what you read in the columns or heard in the television news political panels.

Why read the pontification of a columnists, when you get a wider view of opinions and experiences from a thread on Facebook (where I should note, people use their real names and are known personally to at least some of the people taking part in the discussion)?

None of those columnists, when they were starting out, had to go through four or five unpaid internships to get their first paying job (and unpaid internships are not only standard practice in the media but in almost all industries that also pay their CEOs millions in salaries and bonuses). None of those columnists are burdened with life-long debt for getting a university or college education. The columnists seem to have forgotten the fear we all felt as kids at the prospect of nuclear annihilation over our heads when they dismiss as nonsense, the completely justified fears the current generation of young adults have about the future of a planet facing drastic climate change.

None of those columnists ever seem to bother to read the news wires available on their computers  (or even their reporting colleagues on their own newspaper). If they did, they would know that the discontent among the current student and young adult generation is worldwide. There have been student protests in Chile over high tuition and debt for the past two years. There have been student protests across Europe, even before the debt crisis. Then there’s the Arab Spring (conditions may be different but it’s the same generation) and yes, the London riots, even the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, the G20 disturbances in Toronto. I’ve seen tweets and Facebook postings that students in the UK are going to adopt the Quebec students’ red square symbol in their struggle with the government of David Cameron. If it happens that would show the power of social media and the networking power of the new generation.

To quote the old song from the 60s, which I am sure most of those columnists sang in their day, “something’s happening here” but unlike a few reporters, the columnists never bother find out, they just sit at their keyboards and create “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Even in terms of a business model, if you’re running a newspapers and you want to attract a younger audience ( the younger audience is a mantra in television, even though the executives don’t really mean it) why have your newspaper columns shit (and I meant that) almost every day on your potential next generation of customers? Yes, most newspaper readers are older (but even those are giving up on newspapers) but why ignore a potential market of millions that could save your business? Perhaps because the newspapers executive are cut from the same obsolete cloth as their columnists

To expand on this, since I returned to my old home town of Kitimat, centre of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline controversy, my once high respect for the Ottawa press gallery is in free fall and now near zero. Most of the reporting on this British Columbia pipeline and tanker issue from Ottawa and Toronto, is only 20 per cent accurate, if that. (That is why I founded my own news site, Northwest Coast Energy News). Almost all of the columns on the Northern Gateway issue written east of the Rockies are so inaccurate that they are worthless.

In the old days, when Canadian newspapers actually did reporting from across the country, there would be someone out west to tell the Ottawa or Toronto columnists and their senior editors, hey this column is completely wrong. (There are only three national level reporters in Canada whose reporting can be trusted on the Northern Gateway, Mike De Souza at Postmedia, Jeffrey Jones at Reuters and Nathan Vanderklippe at The Globe and Mail and even they tend to write too much from an energy sector point-of-view. As for the energy columnists, their opinions are worth about as much as molecule of shale fracked natural gas)

The press gallery, especially the columnists, exist in an inside-the-Queensway bubble, listening to politicians, war room strategists, spin doctors and pollsters and have come to believe that is reality. It seems that to the Ottawa press gallery, the only thing that counts is electoral politics. Everything else is, to use the term from economics, a political “externality” and not worth reporting. Discontent across Canada and political turmoil around the world mean nothing, unless it can be factored in to whomever wins the next parliamentary, congressional or presidential election.

Three. Let them blog.

It is interesting that most of the columnists, many of them conservative, many hired in the 1980s, when newspapers decided that they only wanted to chase the well-heeled, upper middle class and upper class market that advertisers craved, worship the free market but are completely insulated from it, especially on newspapers that are loosing money (unlike the young people they scorn who are subject to the marketplace every day.)

So if these columnists are so in favour of the marketplace and if they are fired, as I suggest, then let them put their ideas out in the marketplace as a blog, and see if they can actually earn a decent living at it. Most won’t of course, but there are a few who do, like Andrew Sullivan. More power to those who do succeed, and perhaps a lesson for those who fail and who are currently condemning today’s students and young journalists for their struggles.

Four. The paywall issue.

Newspapers are rushing to create paywalls. Some reporters say paywalls are needed to produce good journalism.

Wrong. We’re getting into a chicken and egg argument here. Paywalls aren’t going to work and not because the internet has worked on free information since 1993. Paywalls won’t work for the simple reason that 80 per cent of newspapers today are not producing anything worth paying for whether it’s online or mobile; they’re not producing anything even worth paying for and picking up the dead tree printed edition. Many newspapers have already fired most of their reporters and photographers or those reporters and photographers have got fed up and quit or taken early or full retirement. Now the newspapers are going to put up a paywall, with even fewer staff doing the reporting and expect that public to pay for that diminished product?

Dumb.

With wire service reports available for free on sites that don’t have paywalls, why then fill up your news site or newspaper with wire reports that people can get elsewhere for nothing and then expect them to pay for it? As well as the wire services there are now the citizen newspapers, from paper.li. I subscribe to a half dozen daily feeds as a sort of wire service for Northwest Coast Energy News and often those compilations give me three or four sources on a new story, so if a story is behind a paywall, there are always alternatives. As well as my own original content, I use Storify to keep my readers up-to-date with issues I can’t cover myself. (Example here)

Dumb.

One has to ask “what are they thinking” in the media’s ego-driven, consultant-plagued corporate board rooms? (Consultant-plagued because all the media companies are repeating the same failed strategies over and over instead of trying something innovative). Why would anyone under the age of 35, in these days of austerity, whip out their credit card and pay to be told by a columnist who hasn’t picked up a phone to check a fact since they were first appointed around 1990 that these readers/viewers are spoiled brats and that their worries about the future are of no consequence.

Dumb.

As I said above, with so much opinion available for free on the web, why pay for the rants of the 95 per cent of columnists whose writing isn’t worth it and only serves to raise your blood pressure (no matter where you are on the political spectrum).

Hire the kids, lots of them

On the other hand for the same current limited budgets, if newspapers got rid of the columnists and hired a whole generation of new, young reporters, with guidance from some open minded senior editors (and checked by good copy editors—you really need to bring copy editors back, firing copy editors is another media corporate stupidity), that would bring “new blood” to use the cliche to the news web sites and news pages. We would see original reporting on issues that everyone, not just the younger generation, care about. A century ago, reporters started in the business right out of high school around 16 to 18 and the newspapers, of the day used their energy to create audience and profits. Even with today’s demand for higher education, a 25-year-old reporter has the energy and eagerness to shake things up. It is possible, perhaps, that they then could produce stories that would be worth paying for, whether by attracting advertisers or even making a news site so good that people might actually penetrate the paywall with their credit cards.

Dunsel

To use a term from one of my generation’s favourite TV shows, Star Trek, The Original Series, in 2012, a columnist on a newspaper is a Dunsel. (Dunsel is a term used by midshipmen in the 23rd century to describe a part which serves no useful purpose. From Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki. )

Getting rid of columnists is just an idea, one of many as the news media, an essential part of any free and democratic society, struggles to to survive and find a way to pay to produce its product.  There are many blogs and reports out there on the issue of media survival, too many to  link to. My idea of getting rid of columnists would just be one stopgap measure.

Unfortunately most media executives these days are also Dunsels, earning huge salaries, running around believing it’s still 1985 and rejecting any new ideas from no matter what source (except expensive reports from their consultants) and thus serving no useful purpose, so it is likely that the newspapers’ downward spiral will continue until nothing is left.

 

Related See Jeff Fraser’s piece If they build it, will they pay? on the Canadian Journalism Project site where he says the New York Times paywall is working, because the Times is emphasizing quality original reporting and most paywalled papers are not emphasizing quality reporting.

It’s not just Kai Nagata that’s quitting, it’s the whole damned demographic

I intend to write a longer blog on the raging debate over Kai Nagata’s now famous blog about his resignation from CTV News, Why I Quit My Job putting it in a wider and historic perspective.

Throughout my career I’ve known people who have gotten fed up in the way Nagata did and quit. So quitting is nothing new and I will include that in a future blog.

As the backlash against Nagata grows, I think a crucial point has to be made now. As I said in some Facebook and other posts, Nagata’s blog wouldn’t have gone viral if it hadn’t touched a cord with a lot of people, including many of his generation. The blog has an audience around the world that is still growing.

A lot of people are now saying Nagata is a self-indulgent egotist in his mid-20s. Maybe. Elders have attacked restless, ego-driven 20-somethings since the first agricultural settlements in Anatolia seven thousand odd years ago.

Many influential voices in journalism are saying that Nagata should have stayed and fought. One of the latest comments comes from someone highly respected in the broadcast news industry, Howard Bernstein, Quitting Solves Nothing.

Nagata isn’t the only talented young journalist who has quit the business (although it looks like Nagata didn’t hold out as long some people). I know other people in their 20s in Canada, the US and the UK who have also quit but who haven’t voiced their dissatisfaction so eloquently as Nagata. So perhaps quitting does solve the problem of knocking your head against a brick wall. It feels so good when you stop.

The first question that has to be asked is: with jobs in journalism so scarce and competition
for those jobs so fierce that the managers who actually want talent have their pick, then why are so many of the best and the brightest who can quit (not married, no mortgages, not overburdened by student loans) actually quitting?

I have seen Facebook and other postings from very talented journalists and former journalists, I know,  all in their late 20s, early 30s, (and whose work I respect)  all saying Nagata is right.  Most of the criticism appears to becoming from an older age set, from late 30s up until retirement.

The second and more important question is where’s that all important audience that the media managers keep telling us they are trying to serve?

The audience for news among the 20 to 30 demographic is dismal.  Those dismal figures go beyond the supposed disinterest that age group has in news.

This is the demographic that the advertisers supposedly hunger for, supposedly  would kill for: 18 to 34. Where are that audience? Not watching TV news, that’s for certain. Why are the news ads filled with safety bath tabs, reverse mortgages,  non-medical life insurance and topical pain relievers?  The advertisers aren’t that dumb, if the 20 to 30s were watching the news, you’d see a lot more ads than there are now for smart phones and tablets, computers, cars, adventure vacations and eco-tourism trips, starter condos and the furniture for those starter condos. Instead the ad dollars are going to attract poor, aging, arthritic, worried boomers. At the same time, in any TV newsroom, the managers go on and on and on and on about the “younger audience” while producing the kind of news piffle that led Nagata to quit and has driven that audience away.

The 20 to 30s are also not reading newspapers, at least on paper, they browse online at the free news buffet.

It’s not just that they are part of the download generation who expect free stuff. The news media hasn’t produced anything that they think is worth paying for. After all they will pay for music on iTunes and for non-pirated software or anything else they feel has real value. The news media doesn’t produce anything that would attract an 18-34 audience that would mean advertisers would throw money at the media to get their attention.

Among my non-journalist friends in their 20s, one thing is very clear.  They don’t trust the media at all. Any media.  While mostly aging conservatives attack the CBC for its supposed left-wing bias, many of 20 to 34s I talk to lump the CBC together with CTV, Global and Sunmedia as “corporate media.”  I am surprised and disheartened that many young people believe that all the networks, including the CBC, and the major newspapers jump to Stephen Harper’s commands.  (I am sure I can hear Harper saying, “I wish” especially when he is facing Terry Milewski.)

Like the rest of the audience, the 18 to 34 are titillated by Charlie Sheen’s self destruction and they did watch some of the royal tour by William and Catherine.  But they are also concerned about the future of this poor planet and the crisis that climate change will bring and know that the media on whatever platform isn’t doing enough coverage of those stories.

The current News International scandal, the closing of The News of the World  (as well as the likely cynical substitution by the Sun on Sunday) and the continuing revelations about the abuses of the media owned by Rupert Murdoch  (as well as the fact that Conrad Black is going back to jail in the U.S.) will do nothing to improve the trust in the media among younger people.

So it’s not just Kai Nagata that’s quitting the media. It’s the whole damned demographic.

The real story is not Kai Nagata, it’s an entire generation, that all important audience,  disillusioned by the metric driven nonsense that consultants tell managers this generation (that isn’t watching or reading) want.

The journalists in that generation who are quitting and posting on Twitter and in blogs that didn’t get as much notice as Nagata’s  are voicing what the rest aren’t saying (and isn’t that the journalists job?)

For my friends and colleagues who are still in the business and are still fighting from the inside, good for them, they might (might) make a difference (maybe).   However, we must remember the definition of insanity, if you keep doing the same thing over and over and get the same result, and you don’t change  what you are doing and keep doing the same thing, you must be insane.

While there are small victories in those internal fights, the important strategic battles are being won by the beancounters and metric mad managers (who are picking up their huge bonuses on their way out of the office each weekend).

Some of those young people, some still journalism students, and many who quit their jobs without publishing their manifestos,  who I follow on #futureofnews are working to create their own start-ups or exploring new forms of  entrepreneurial journalism or are struggling as two-track freelancers (both working for the current media and working to innovate).

So it is likely that if anything saves journalism. it will come from one of those quitters who are free to create a new model and mode of news delivery.  Maybe that’s why Kai Nagata touched such a raw nerve with the (the cliche) main stream media.

Twitter is an amplifier, and that’s revolutionary

It didn’t take long after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down today for a commentator to dis  the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution.

It  was so fast that it is almost as if the Daily Telegraph’s Will Heaven’s declaration that “twitter had nothing to do with the Egyptian revolution” was ready to go with the column all ready written on his hard drive.

Lastly, it was the real human bravery – standing up to hired, camel-riding thugs – and persistence of the protesters that led up to this moment. New Media, if it played a part, was but the smallest of tools in comparison.

Heaven is apparently echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s early contention that social media has little to do with social change.  In his original column in the New Yorker in September 2010, he used the example of the sit in movement in 1960, in Greensboro, when four young African Americans demanded an end to segregation by simply asking for a cup of coffee at Woolworths.  News of the sit-in spread by word of mouth and by the media of the day, newspapers, television and radio. And as Gladwell correctly points out, the Twitter revolution in Iran, was less important than the Western media initially thought and, so far, appears to be a failure.

Galdwell points out the 1989 Romanian revolution took place before the Internet, but fails to note that the Romanian revolution took place at the end  of the collapse of Communism in the rest of  Eastern Europe, spread again by traditional media, word of mouth,  in person or by phone, by radio (including broadcasts from the BBC and Radio Free Europe) newspapers and television.

The point of both writers, who seem have some sort of bee in their bonnets about new media, is that acknowledging the role of social media in the events in Egypt somehow takes away from previous revolutions or attempted revolutions. 

Huh?  

To use an American example, how does the work of Wael Ghonim  and his friends and colleagues in Egypt take anything away from Paul Revere galloping a horse through Massachusetts yelling the “The British are coming. The British are coming?”

It is clear that the young people in Egypt were able to organize themselves through Facebook, Twitter, text messaging. More important they were able to stay organized, even when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet. We will probably hear a lot more in the coming days of how that remarkable scene in Tahrir Square was kept alive through social media.

 If the technology had existed  on April 19, 1775,  Paul Revere, a prominent and well off silver smith, would have had the money to have the latest smart phone and would have used Tweetdeck to send that “The British are coming” to update his status on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In. That status update would have immediately retweeted and the status updates shared faster than the time it actually took Revere to saddle his horse.

By coincidence I have been reading  Stacy Schiff’s biography of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.  When Julius Caesar and his legions landed in Alexandria in October 48 BCE, the people of the city rioted.  The reasons were complex, resistance against an invader mixed up with the supporters of the various factions, supporting Cleopatra or her brother Ptolemy XIII.

According to Schiff, at the height  of the crisis between December 48 BCE and Caesar’s final victory in March 47,  Rome heard nothing from Caesar.  It is not clear from the book why or how there was no communication, since even at that time,  large sail-driven freighters regularly carried grain from Egypt,then the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, to Rome.  One other reason for unrest that year was that the Nile flood was disasterously low and the harvest had failed.  That meant few, if any, shipments of grain to Rome. As well the December-March period is not the best for sailing between Alexandria and Rome.  But some merchant ships probably reached Rome. Any news they carried would have been rumours. It is likely that since in the beginning, things weren’t going well, Caesar was besieged in the royal palace by the citizens of Alexandria, that he couldn’t (or didn’t want to) get the news out. Compare that with getting the news out of Egypt today, even when Mubarak tried to cut off communications.

Even a century ago, with the steamship and the telegraph, that news would have gotten out.  Even if a city was under siege, there would still be a way for a journalist or diplomat to get to a telegraph or cable head. Accounts of nineteenth century correspondents are full of  harrowing tales of going hundreds of kilometres to get that telegraph point.

On  Sunday night, half a world away from Tahrir Square,  the Superbowl was in its final moments, the Pittsburgh Steelers  were desperately trying to gain the lead from the Green Bay Packers, when  the power in Kitimat failed.  No lights, no TV.   Just a few years ago, for the people  of Kitimat, it would have meant  scrambling to find a battery powered radio (or as one guy did, going out in the snow to turn on his car radio).  As for me, I just launched Tweetdeck on my Android and within a minute or so there were a dozen tweets giving the final score Packers 31, Steelers 25.

The power was out for three hours, on for an hour and half, then out again for almost seven hours overnight.

The game over, the house dark, (luckily dinner was ready),  Tweetdeck was active on my Android, so updates from Tahrir Square came up every few minutes.  That is the difference, that is key. In the past,  from the time of  Caesar to the American Revolution, you would have had to wait until a sail-driven ship arrived with the news.  After the telegraph, most people would have had to wait until the morning newspaper came out.  Beginning in the late 1920s and even  today, news would come through the radio (television is irrelevant during a power failure).  Even the Internet was not a factor,  even with two laptops with battery power, the router is powered by a plug in the wall.

Now with a smart phone, I could still keep up with  events around the world.  So someone tweets from Tahrir Square, someone else retweets it, a news organization picks up that tweet, and sitting in a darkened town thousands of kilometres away, I get that news.

I was tweeting the blackout, which resulted, the next morning, my former colleagues at CBC Radio calling me  in my dark, cold (no heat) house for an update that they could air to CBC listeners.

Technology is a tool, and a tool can be used by anyone. So the critics who say an authoritarian government can try to use social  media for propaganda and the secret police can use it to track down dissidents are correct. A  desperate government, like Egypt, can try to cut off the Internet and world telecommunications, but that will likely fail.  In today’s wired world, with a myriad of sources and providers, and millions of tech savvy users, it is less likely that all communications will be entirely shut down. In the old movies, you see someone climbing at telegraph pole to cut the only line to the outside world.  Today there are not only cell phones, but good old land lines that were used for good old dial up  connections.  Then there are satellite phones and who knows what’s coming next.

US President Barack Obama just said the Egyptian revolution happened at “blinding speed.”  That’s what social media does, it accelerates and amplifies events.  So Malcolm Gladwell, yes, there have been revolutions and protests since the dawn of civilization, but social media is the game changer,  it’s the difference between earphones from an MP3 players and a giant amplifier that fills a stadium  or city square with sound.   To use an old tech analogy,  the trumpet sounds, and thanks to Twitter and Facebook that fanfare is head around the world in real  time.

UPDATE

There has been a growing debate on the role of social media and what happened in Egypt. 
Skeptics vs what they call cyber utopnians.
Jay Rosen of   New York University, a participant in the debate, has created  a curated summary. with lots of links

The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article
 

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Link farm April 20 – Apple takes Fiore’s cartoon app – and other news

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Nieman Journalism Lab

Apple approves Pulitzer winner’s iPhone app; cartoonist
now free to mock the powerful on cell phones

The media business (Robert Picard blog);  Search for alternative media business models hampered by narrow thinking

Journalism 2.0    NPR executing the ultimate distribution strategy

Columbia Journalism Review Robot journalism and the future of digital media

David Brooks New York Times  Riders on the storm
Does the internet undermine the commons. New study says no.

The study:
Ideological segregation online and offline,  by Matthew Gentzkow and Jessie Shapiro

EFF  Facebook reduces your control over personal information

Steve Berlin Johnson  Old growth media and the future of news