While the media are beating themselves up they’re ignoring their biggest enemy and the greatest villain in the Trump victory

The news media, mostly in the United States but also in Canada and the United Kingdom are crying “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa,” today over their failure to foresee Donald Trump’s victorious campaign for president of the United States.

In this case certainly, flogging yourself for your sins is somewhat justified.
Unfortunately, the pundits and analysts are already falling into a trap of their own making—the narrative already is that metropolitan media elites ignored the pain and rage of the mostly white voters in America’s heartland.

There already two widely circulated articles by Americans from small towns.

One is by Sarah Smarsh from Kansas in The Guardian: Dangerous idiots: How the liberal media elite failed working-class Americans

In many ways I agree with the media ignoring smaller towns (one unspoken reason is that that these days small town markets are considered too minor by the bean counters to even bother about.)

This is what I said when I posted a link to Smarsh’s article on Facebook:

This article about the failings of the American media also applies to Canada, with a media elite ignoring the realities of the lives of people living outside of Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. On the issues in northwest British Columbia (and I suspect elsewhere) I have to say that since I retired from CBC News in 2010 and came back here to Kitimat, BC my respect for the Ottawa press gallery has gone down by 95%. By that I mean mostly the commentators and columnists?—?for the CBC, Globe, and definitely the National Post who have become experts on the issue of northwest BC, the coast, First Nations and pipelines, who sit in their cubicles and pontificate expertly about things they actually know almost nothing about. Even when reporters came into town and I acted as an unpaid fixer, they stayed for two days, three at most, talked to the usual suspects and then flew out.

Another small town example is Joshua Benton from Louisiana on NiemanLab with The forces that drove this election’s media failure are likely to get worse.

Jeff Jarvis, metropolitan elite at the City University of New York puts it this way in A Postmortem for Journalism also writes:

Journalism has failed to listen to, understand, empathize with, and serve many communities—it sees only the mass. I include in that indictment its failure to reflect, respect, and then inform the worldview of the angry, white men—and women—who became the breeding ground for Trumpism.

There’s a lot of truth to that, and to the role of click bait, the painful transition to the digital world and the economic collapse of journalism.

But it’s just one narrative.

That’s because every media post-mortem I’ve seen so far show’s YOU’RE STILL NOT LISTENING.

What was the main thing that Trump supporters said? What was the number one thing that wasn’t racism, misogyny, and rage at the collapse of local economies, Islamophobia or parochial America firstism?

The number one thing was “authenticity.”

More specifically the Trump supporters say “He tells it like it is,” (even if he was actually lying).

I heard Trump supporters say that again and again and again throughout the campaign, “He tells it like it is.”

The Trump supporters hate spin.

Everyone, except corporate executives and political operatives hate spin. But spin today is part of the information ecosystem. There’s corporate spin, government spin, political spin. We’re all sick of the spin.

It was Donald Trump, an ultimate spin master who recognized he could spin himself to the presidency by hating spin.

As journalists we too often have to go along with it because we have no other choice.
So let’s put a lot of the blame on what happened squarely where it belongs?—?the message track public relations industry which now employs more people worldwide than journalism does.

Spin. Spin. Spin and more spin. As journalists you’re so used to the immediate enemy that you no longer recognize that how dangerous that enemy is.

So let’s ask a question. The term “implicit bias” is used a lot today in race relations. What if there’s an implicit bias in journalism actually in favour of spin because we’ve become so used it that it’s become second nature?

False balance didn’t start with the Trump advocates on cable news. False balance started when journalists accepted (or had to accept because they were overworked) the phony statements that come out every day from the media relations of whatever company or department or politician you’re dealing with today. False balance began when news shows felt they had to book smooth talking phony spokespeople (some of them former journalists) to get that side of the story. False balance began when you didn’t have the airtime or space to challenge an outrageous statement.

False balance began when you shoot a 30 second clip with a young woman (yes 95% of the time it’s a young woman who looks good on camera) who says nothing really about the story you’re trying to do but you have include the clip anyway.

It gets worse when message track media relations simply issues an e-mail statement that means nothing that you have to include in your story. You know it’s crap, but you use it anyway. The media relations department congratulates themselves on putting out another fire.

The audience at home, whether a well paid elite in a big city or a plant worker in a small town both say the same thing. “That’s crap!”

It begins to add up.

In working in a region where there are multiple environmental problems and multiple proposed energy projects the words you hear again and again are “cumulative effect,” the cumulative effect of too many environmental stresses or too many industrial projects in one small area.

Just like cutting down one tree doesn’t affect the forest, the first example of modern message track spin didn’t have any affect. Cut down ten trees and you begin to see gaps. Cut down a thousand trees and the ecosystem is under stress. Clear cut an entire forest and there is nothing left of the ecosystem. A hundred thousand spins, a million spins undermine the system, destroy trust and in the end are a threat to democracy.

We all know it but it’s time that it was said. The public relations industry has responsibility not only for the election of Donald Trump but also for Brexit. (Remember how Tony Blair “sexed up” the reasons for the Iraq war?)

It wasn’t always that way. Yes there has been PR at least for a century.

When I started out as a journalist 40 years ago, there were PR people but they had a different job. They knew (at least in the days of large news staffs) that the reporters would find out the story anyway. Their job was to put the facts, yes facts, in a corporate context.
If you were dealing with the police or the military, it was often the same. They would go so far, up to a boundary you knew and they knew they couldn’t cross. So you sometimes found your way around that boundary. Today most journalists don’t have the contacts or the time to recognize there is a boundary.

An example, on my first job on The Sudbury Star, back in 1975, if there was an accident, with a fatality or serious injury at one of the mines or smelters, I would quickly get a call from the PR department giving me the details. In those days they were smart enough to know that everyone in town would know within a couple of hours anyway.

These days in industrial towns the PR people (when they talk at all which is seldom) give a carefully crafted message track email that says little or nothing. Everyone in town knows something happened, but with the facts withheld, the rumours (often wild rumours) accelerate on Facebook. In some places the local PR people don’t even have the authorization to issue releases on their own initiative, everything has to be approved by suits in head offices tens of thousands kilometers away.

That’s not very smart. But that’s the way it is these days.

Then’s there the case of no balance, when a company decides not to issue a statement and hope the story might go away.

The story might go away but the public idea that it is all corporate crap doesn’t go away. Cumulative effect. Cumulative effect of media relations spin creates a demand for “authenticity” even if it is the phony authenticity of a Donald Trump.

We have to ask how much has journalism’s regurgitating of corporate and government spin contributed to the loss of our credibility?

It’s likely that more people began to believe fake news, not just because their social media feed is a conformation bias silo but because they’ve been fed faked up news for years by media relations and carefully crafted message tracks.

If responsible journalists, once they get over the mea culpa of today begin to sit down and really reconsider their role and what can be done under today’s economically precarious conditions, getting back to really challenging the message track agenda has to be high on the agenda, no matter how difficult it is or how little money your organization has or how little time they give you.

Giving up false balance spin has to be a priority not just for the off the wall fringes but for every bit of corporate nonsense.

For media relations, especially those former journalists in the spin rooms, it is time that you look in the mirror and realize that you, the public relations people, have become among the greatest threats to democracy and freedom we are facing today.

Also published on Medium

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:

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

WEPA42 PHEB 280341

ISSUED AT 0341Z 28 OCT 2012






ORIGIN TIME – 0304Z 28 OCT 2012






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


WEAK51 PAAQ 280334

834 PM PDT SAT OCT 27 2012












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.


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?


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)


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.


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.


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.

The road to serfdom: Use Apple software

Apple LogoAbout two weeks ago, with the usual great fanfare pioneered by the late Steve Jobs, Apple unveiled its Ibook 2 e-book software. The software has great promise, according to Apple, allowing the user to create the kind of e-book that authors have been waiting for, adding graphics, video, photo galleries, even 3-D.

The euphoria was short lived.  A tech blogger named Dave Wineman did what many people don’t do, read Apple’s End User Licence Agreement (EULA) and the alarm bells rang (if alarm bells can ring on Twitter). (I saw a tweet about Wineman’s initial post, retweeted it and posted it on Facebook)

Use Apple ibook software and create a work, and ask for money, and they own it and they own you.

For the past two weeks, the debate has raged, largely within the tech community and that’s the problem. While a couple of the tech writers may have written a tech book, it is absolutely clear that most of the people debating Apple’s move know absolutely nothing about the long struggle by creators to have some form of control over their work, to maintain the integrity of their work and not to get screwed.

The Apple ibook EULA is the road to serfdom for writers and if it succeeds, it is another blow against creative writing around the world.

After the initial post, more tech writers and bloggers took an even closer look at Apple’s EULA and it got worse.  Unlike conventional paper publishing, if Apple rejects and refuses to distribute the work, you can’t sell it elsewhere.

Here are the key clauses in the Apple Ibook 2 EULA.

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:

(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

Then Apple adds

Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including
without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you may incur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.

It quickly became apparent that Apple’s restriction also meant the author couldn’t sell the book (“the work”) as a printed book, without Apple’s permission and Apple presumably taking a cut.

Use Apple software and you become a serf, a serf to Apple, obliged, like the medieval peasant, to sell your product to your overlord, in this case, Apple.

Those blogs in the tech community that raised the alarm said that this could set an incredibly dangerous precedent, that a software company can use the licencing agreement to restrict or control what is created by that software or, like that medieval baron, take a cut of your production.

The Ed Bott report on ZDNet calls Apple’s latest attempt at controlling content  Apple’s mind-bogglingly greedy and evil license agreement

Bott asks:

Imagine if Microsoft said you had to pay them 30% of your speaking fees if you used a PowerPoint deck in a speech.

Bott also says that Apple software is an enhancement of the open source EPUB format.

 An Apple support document notes that “¦iBooks uses the ePub file format” and later refers to it as “the industry-leading ePub digital book file type.” But iBooks Author will not export its output to that industry-leading format.

Sascha Sagan is even more scathing with post on PCMag.com iBooks Author: You Work For Apple Now

With iBooks Author, Apple just made a hideous play to kill authors’ rights over their work…  it affects every single person who wants to use Apple’s new tool to get their word out. Like iBooks Author? Apple now owns you…

I’m feeling a personal terror here because I make my living as a writer. I’m writing this column now in Apple’s TextEdit. If Apple took the same approach to TextEdit as it does to iBooks, I wouldn’t be able to put my columns in PCMag’s Digital Edition (sold through Zinio). Apple would control how PCMag does its business.

My wife is an artist; she creates some of her work on a Mac. Could Apple then forbid her from selling it on Etsy or through an art gallery with a little-noticed clause in a licensing agreement? That’s what iBook Author heralds.

Up until now, Apple has kept creative tools divorced from the means of distribution… Apple has always made a distinction between enabling the creative process and selling the product of that process.

Apple’s iBooks Author erases that distinction. Apple owns the creative process of anyone who uses the tool.

One tech writer who comes to Apple’s defence is Paul Carr in his Pando Daily blog, seems to have a “get over it” attitude by saying Apple Restricting Sales Of Ebooks? Uh, Yeah, That’s What Apple Does by saying that the free Ibook 2 software is designed to attract a critical mass of new content into their iBooks store,” then Carr predicts “the company will probably relax their EULA restrictions, like they did with DRM in the iTunes store.”

Carr (and others) point out that there is a lot of e-book software out there and authors are “more than welcome to boycott Apple’s awesome new free software” but he adds: “But we won’t. We’ll pick Apple, and we’ll like it. Because this is Apple, and that’s what we do.”

Wineman has already responded to that in a follow up blog and says

If you don’t like it, don’t use it! Duh.
You’re missing the point. The issue is that this is a software EULA which for the first time attempts to restrict what I can do with the output of the app, rather than with the app itself. No consumer EULA I’ve ever seen goes this far. Would you be happy if Garage Band required you to sell your music through the iTunes Store, or if iPhoto had license terms that kept you from posting your own photos online? It’s a step backward for computing freedom and we should resist it.

One author, Holly Isle, has already started a protest by pulling her books from the Ibook store. In her blog The Apple iBooks Author Issue: Small things, and large principles

And the rule of software is this: Software does not get to dictate the use of output. Period. Software does not get to tell you WHERE you can sell what you’ve created, only that you have the right to sell it (in the cases where software requires a commercial license if you are producing for profit).

Software does not get to tell you, “If you create this work on our software and we don’t want to distribute it, we own the rights to the version our software created, and if you want another version, you will have to disassemble this one, and rebuild it from scratch on other software.”

A few days later, came the backlash from the Apple tech community. In the Apple blog Loop Insight, Jim Dalrymple asked what the fuss was about.

The fact is, none of it is true. I’m not sure if they just misunderstood or they jumped on a juicy headline, but here’s what the EULA is all about, as I understand it.

Apple is providing free tools for authors to create books. If you want to give away your book for free, you can do that. For example, if a teacher makes an iBook for students, they can give it to them at no cost and Apple doesn’t care.
If, however, you create an iBook using Apple’s tools and you want to sell it, then you have to use the iBookstore and give Apple its cut.
That sounds fair to me. Use Apple’s tools, sell your product, and give Apple the money it deserves for providing you with a way to make and sell a product.

He concluded with a complete and utter display of ignorance by saying:

The hubbub over the EULA seems like a whole lot of nothing to me, perpetuated by people that didn’t understand what they were reading.

That of course lead to a lively exchange in the comments section.

Actually it’s Dalrymple who doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Apple’s demand is unfair, unfairness that authors have been fighting for a century or more and, were, for a while, winning. Now the threat is back.

George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The problem with the tech writing/blogging world is that many believe in a continual reinvention of time, not exactly Groundhog Day but more like a Star Trek type temporal loop where everything begins again and again and again, but slightly different each time.

The techies, believing each new day is a new universe, don’t remember the past, and therefore are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

First, let’s take the argument that because a good portion of the population likes Apple products, authors will willingly give up their creative rights to this super-controlling mega-corporation. A mega-corporation that we now know from The New York Times produces those products in horrendous conditions in dark satanic mills in China.

NHLPA LogoI don’t want to use a stereotype but I have to wonder how many geek writers know anything about the history of professional sports. With Apple and the creative community, we’re getting into a similar situation that happened for generations in professional sports. Let’s take the oldest professional leagues: baseball and hockey. Young athletes wanted to play in the “major leagues.” The young athletes started in the minors, and to get into the minors they signed contracts that essentially made them into serfs, owned by the team and team owners. Even when they reached the major leagues, the original six in the NHL, for example, and became stars, they were still serfs. Many NHL stars (and some baseball stars) had to take off season jobs to make ends meet. They finally got so fed up they formed unions.

Now those players with the support of their unions get multimillion dollar contracts from the team owners. While a few say the athletes are overpaid, it’s a lot better situation than being underpaid serfs, owned by the team owners.

Authors have always been at odds with publishers over rights, over payments, over how a book is designed, published and sold. That will never change (unless publishers disappear altogether, which is possible).

For authors, unions are not a solution, especially in the United States, when court decisions in the 1930s, when creators were fighting the movie studios, ruled that to be unionized, creators must be employees. Laws in other countries are not as restrictive, but then Apple is in California, where those precedents were set.

The problem, ignored by the tech community, is how just how bad things are in publishing today, compared to say 25 and 60 years ago; how conditions for many authors have gotten worse through the years, problems that have little to do with the technical revolution of the past two decades.

An 1827 print of an author in a garrett, Death found an author writing his life, Designed & done on stone by E. Hull. via Wikipedia

For most of the nineteenth century and the first six decades of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of publishers, some small and some large, general and specialized, competing to sell books to the public and therefore competing for authors.

An author still had to have a good manuscript to sell to a publisher. If the publisher liked the manuscript, then the author had to make sure that the publishers’ boiler plate contract didn’t take that author to the cleaners. The publishers’ contract always tried to control as much of the rights as possible, and keep as much money from the author and in the publisher’s pocket as possible. There were always the young and naive authors, like eager jocks with an offer from the major leagues, willing to sell themselves to a serf contract just to be published. Hard lessons brought the rise of the literary agent as well as countless articles advising authors how to avoid being ripped off. It was all part of the game, tough contract negotiations are an accepted part of the free enterprise system.

Things began to change about a quarter century ago with the rise of the chain bookstore. The main problem for authors was that publishers no longer sold books to the public. They sold books to the chain bookstores. The chain bookstores tracked sales and decided, often on the performance of one single title, whether or not an author’s next book should be picked up. If a chain indicated that it wouldn’t pick up an author, that publisher wouldn’t look at that author. (Imagine that in sports, a pitcher has one bad inning, a goalie lets in a few too many balls or pucks  in one game, a quarterback has a bad day and throws interceptions and that’s it for their career)

Then came the corporate consolidation, hundreds of publishers shrank to a handful, all owned by large transnational media corporations. While the famous names of publishing houses remained, they were usually shells, each one a branch of one of the mega-corporations. That reduced the choice authors and their agents had in submitting manuscripts.

The combination of corporate consolidation and the chain bookstore raised the always difficult barrier to entry for new authors to almost insurmountable heights. In the long past, a publisher would take a risk on a new author as a long term investment, counting on the fact that a few of those authors would break through and repay that initial investment thousands of times over. And oh yes, those publishing houses were in business, so even the thousand of so copies printed of that new author’s book were designed so there was an easy break-even point.

All of that is long gone. No wonder kids want to get published for free these days, often it is the only choice they have.

The demands of the corporate bean counters at both the publishing house and the chain bookstore also meant the death of the “mid-list” book, the book from an experienced author which would usually makes the publishing house a small but healthy profit. The trouble was both the publishers and chain bookstores no longer wanted healthy profits, they only wanted hugely profitable mega best sellers.

With the rise of new technology, authors were faced with new problems. As first music and later video downloading hurt the bottom lines of the big media corporations, there was increased pressure for even more profitable best sellers from the hard copy product, books. More authors were dropped. Publishers put minimal efforts into books, especially minimal copy-editing and, of course, the public blamed the author, not the publisher, for all those typos.

By mid-decade after the millennium, new technology had begun to hit the book business. Independent bookstores were almost all gone. Now the chain bookstores and their overwhelming power is going. Publishers are left wondering what to do. Almost everyone now working in publishing have spent their entire careers in the business model of selling to the chains, not the public, They don’t know what to do as they face this brave new world and thus they go out of business.

By this time, most authors no longer care much about publishers. If publishers hadn’t been screwing all but their biggest best selling authors for more than a quarter of a century, the publishers might have had allies. They don’t.

Amazon brought the promise of e-books. E-books would liberate the author from the publishers. If publishers no longer did good overall editing, no longer did copy editing, no longer helped clear picture rights, no longer did even minimal publicity, and advances were dropping, why did an author need a publisher? Why not invest in the book yourself, pay for a copy editor, do the publicity, which the publisher left up to you anyway, take the complete risk in the marketplace and, if successful, reap all the profits (even when Amazon took its cut)?

I Books logo


It appears that the promise of e-books is not as great as authors hoped. The spectre of corporate control is once again haunting world of creative writing.

The tech writing community is failing to learn from history, long years of history. I wonder how many of the tech writers who ask what the fuss is about on the Apple EULA have ever read a boiler plate contract from a book publisher that comes close to asking for your first born?

It’s not just the EULA for the iBook software, that EULA is a precedent that leads to a road to author serfdom.

If Apple, which has the most attractive platform at the moment for selling e-books, gets away with that clause in the End User Licence Agreement, the idea will spread. Right now it applies to “free” software. How long before it applies to software you pay for, buried in a corporate EULA?

Right now Apple and Amazon take a cut of the book price. How long before they start demanding, just to get on the platform, as publishers used to do, a percentage of other rights?

The choice could soon be, work for free using free software (and somehow pay the rent, mortgage and grocery bills, an increasing problem anyway for creators that those well-paid tech writers always seem to say doesn’t matter ) or, if Apple succeeds, get your work on a platform that has the potential buyers, but at a likely increasing cost as years go by in terms of both income and rights.

That’s no different than the naive author who signed publishers’ boiler plate (or even worse work for hire) and then got nothing when the book became a hit movie.

That’s no different than a medieval serf forced to sell all their produce to their liege lord.

That’s no different than the farm kid who signed a serf contract so he could play in the NHL or the major baseball leagues.

That’s no different from the merchants in a neighbourhood paying a “percentage” to the local crime boss for “protection.”

The worst case scenario, and one probably no science fiction writer ever imagined, an author who creates a book has to pay a percentage to the software company and another percentage to every electronic platform, not only for book sales, but for every other rights sale.

It hasn’t happened yet, but history has shown time and time again that this is the kind of rights grab that corporations try for.

Tech writers and  tech bloggers get real. Learn from history, before you’re screwed as well.

That’s what the fuss is about.

(Disclosure I have an iMac and iPad, also three PCs and an Android phone).

Accuracy is the best neutrality. It’s all about the bitumen.

(I have cross-posted this editorial from my news site Northwest Coast Energy News because it also concerns journalism. Thus comments are disabled for this post. Should you wish to comment, please use the posting at  the original Accuracy is the best neutrality. It’s all about the bitumen. )

Memo to my media friends and colleagues:

Last Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, the District of Kitimat sponsored an “educational forum” here at Mount Elizabeth Theatre on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project which, if approved, would carry bitumen from Alberta  to the port of Kitimat and on to Asia.
There was an hour of presentations  covering all sides the debate, followed by a question and answer period.

The Enbridge educational forum in Kitimat, Sept. 20, 2011.  Left to right, Ellis Ross, Chief Counsellor, Haisla First Nation,  Mike Bernier, mayor of Dawson Creek, Greg Brown, environmental consultant and John Carruthers, President Enbridge Northern Gateway  Pipelines. (Robin Rowland/ Northwest Coast Energy News)

Throughout those two hours, the word used to describe the substance that could come to Kitimat through that pipeline was the word “bitumen.”   Panelists Ellis Ross, Chief Councillor of the Haisla First Nation,  John Carruthers, president of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines talked about “bitumen,” so did environmental consultant Greg Brown, they all spoke about “bitumen.”  The questions from the audience were about “bitumen.”

Of course, after a couple of years of hearings,briefings and educational forums on the Northern Gateway pipeline project, with more to come (especially when the Joint Review Panel’s formal hearings begin here in January) the people of Kitimat are used to the word “bitumen.” Everyone from grade school kids to seniors know the right words to use, especially since Kitimat is also the site of proposed liquified natural gas projects (which introduced a whole new set of terminology.)

When we talk about (and sometimes debate) the Northern Gateway project on the cross trainers and treadmills at the Riverlodge gym, the word used is “bitumen.”

While the Kitimat meeting was underway the rest of the continent, and especially the media  was focused on another pipeline project, the proposed Keystone XL project that would carry bitumen from Alberta down to Texas to be refined there.

So it was no real surprise when Open File Ottawa ran a short item by freelancer Trevor Pritchard on the debate over media use of the words “oils sands” vs the words “tar sands.”

Type in “Alberta tar sands” into Google, and you get 852,000 results. Perform a search for “Alberta oil sands” instead, and you end up with 334,000 results–not even half that. And if you change “Alberta” to “Alberta’s,” the gap widens even further.
So why do most media outlets tend to default to the phrase “oil sands”? Is “tar sands” pejorative? Or do both terms carry their own bias?

Pritchard pointed back to an article in the Tyee posted after the Calgary Herald attacked the late NDP leader Jack Layton for using the term tar sands.

Tyee quoted the Calgary Herald editorial (no longer visible on the web)this way:

Interestingly, the Calgary Herald didn’t so much take issue with the statements themselves, as it did with his vocabulary.
“It’s not what Layton said,” read an editorial from early April. “It’s the loaded and inaccurate language he used repeatedly, referring to the oil sands as ‘dirty’ and ‘tar sands’ — a word that’s part of the propaganda lexicon for radical environmentalists.”

Nearly two weeks later, the Herald was still ruminating about Layton’s and Obama’s language choices.
“Tar sands is inaccurate and pejorative,” wrote columnist Paula Arab.

In today’s polarized world, you might expect the Calgary Herald, in the centre of the Alberta oil patch, to be in favour of the term “oil sands”

However, most of the mainstream media seem to have bought into the idea that if the sandy hydrocarbons found in northern Alberta are called “tar sands” (it certainly looks and smells and feels like tar) it is pejorative, while “oil sands” are neutral. As comments on both the Tyee and Open File stories show, those who tend toward the environmental point of view consider the term “oil sands” energy industry spin.

Open File asked the Canadian Press for their take on the subject, since the CP  Stylebook (like its equivalent from the AP in the United States) is considered the usage Bible not only for the Canadian media for most non-academic writing in the Canada.

Senior Editor  James McCarten responded:

Canadian Press style calls for the use of the term “oilsands” (all one word), as it is both the official term used by the petroleum industry and the least susceptible to misinterpretation or misunderstanding. It is also in keeping with accepted style for terms like “oilpatch” and “oilfield” — consistency is a critical element of any effective writing style.
It’s also important to choose the most neutral term available.

“Tarsands,” while at one time the industry’s chosen term, has been appropriated in recent years by opponents of the oil industry and has taken on political connotations, so we choose to avoid it.

To which commenter Raay Makers responded:

So let me get this straight: CP deems the term preferred by the petroleum industry “neutral,” while the term “appropriated” by opponents of the oil industry isn’t. They obviously have misconceptions of the meaning of the term neutral.

An hour after I read the Open File story,  I turned to CBC TV News and watched Margot McDiarmid’s item on the Keystone debate.  In her first reference to the Keystone pipeline, McDiarmid used the term “oil sands bitumen”  to describe what would go through the Keystone to Texas.  Relatively accurate. But then at the end of her item she said “oil” would be flowing through the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat.

Even though I worked in radio or TV for three decades and know the necessity to keep things as simple as possible  in a short item, I was appalled.  To describe the bitumen that is going  through those pipelines simply as “oil” is misleading and inaccurate.

If you’ve sat through briefings, attended hearings and read the documents, it is clear that bitumen behaves differently in a pipeline from conventional oil, whether it is crude oil or refined oil.

That difference is at the heart of the debate over both pipelines. It appears that no one outside  of the local media here in Kitimat and media along the Northern Gateway route seems to understand that difference, not even at the centre of the current debate about the Keystone XL in Nebraska.

So I checked. What term is the media using to describe what will flow through the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines?  The media is all over the place, calling it oil, crude oil, crude, tar sands oil, oil sands crude, oil sands bitumen.

I first checked the CBC.ca site:

Max Paris in the written story tied to McDiarmid’s item uses “oil sands bitumen,”  the CBC interactive uses “oil sands crude.”

Today’s New York Times uses the term “oil pipeline” to describe the Keystone project.

In a Nebraska local paper, the Omaha World Herald, reporter Paul Hammel describes it as “a crude-oil pipeline”

In another local paper, the  Lincoln Nebraska, Journal Star   reporter Art Hovey uses “oil.”

An Associated Press story today, (at least as it appears on the Forbes site) is totally inconsistent, with the web friendly summary speaks about Keystone XL carrying “tar sands oil,” but the main body of the story calls it “oil.”

Reuters uses the term “oil” in this story 

An editorial  from Bloomberg uses “oil” in the lead

On first look, it might seem wrong to allow TransCanada Corp. to build the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

It goes on to eloquently describe the situation in Alberta’s sandy hydrocarbons

What’s more, a new conduit would seem to only encourage the further development of the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta. This is a dirty business, to be sure: Vast tracts of spruce and fir are cleared to make way for open-pit mines, from which deposits of sticky black sand are shoveled out and then rinsed to yield viscous tar. For deeper deposits, steam is shot hundreds of feet into the earth to melt the tar enough that it can be pumped to the surface. Then there are the emissions associated with mining Canadian oil sands: It produces two and a half times as much carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases as oil drilling in, say, Saudi Arabia or west Texas.

Bloomberg as you might expect from a business site, goes on to give the argument for building Keystone XL in terms of jobs and the economy (and in a much more measured way than the strident columnists in the Postmedia chain here)

Bloomberg concludes

Keep in mind, the U.S. is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of pipelines carrying crude oil, liquid petroleum and natural gas. One of these is the Keystone 1 pipeline, which already carries crude from the oil sands. Yes, these pipes sometimes leak — spectacularly last year when almost 850,000 gallons of oil spilled from a ruptured pipe in Michigan. Far more often, when leaks occur, they are small and self-contained.
After the public hearings, the U.S. should give TransCanada the green light — and then make sure the company manages pipeline design and construction with care.

Get the picture. As far as I can tell, no one, no one in the major news media is accurately describing what will flow through the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines. Again the accurate descriptions come from  the local media in northwestern BC who have attended years of local briefings and hearings.

Oil comes from oil sands, right? Here is where the use of the term “oilsands’ leads to misleading coverage.  It is where senior editors at CP and other senior editors at other news organizations are wrong.  Saying oil or crude will flow through these specific pipelines does lead to  misinterpretation and misunderstanding and it comes directly from the ill advised use of the words “oil sands.”

Say “oil” and, although it is a generic term, most people think of the substance you put in an engine, ranging from the thick, black gooey stuff that goes into a two stroke boat engine, through the lighter oil that goes into your car or the even lighter oil used by model makers. “Petroleum” would probably be a better generic term.
James Dean in GiantSay crude and  most people would think of  James Dean covered in the crude from the gusher in Giant or similar movie scenes. Or for those old enough to remember, they think of the opening of the Beverly Hillbillies when the “bubbling crude” comes out of the ground at Jed Camplett’s farm.

So what is going through the pipelines?  While Enbridge uses the term “oil” in its promotional brochure on Nothern Gateway (pdf file), in the briefings here Enbridge officials always talk of “bitumen.” They know that the people living in Kitimat, again whether supporter or opponent, have done their home work. Everyone here  knows it won’t be “oil” in the pipeline.  But it seems that the public relations branches of  Enbridge and TransCanada  still believe they can spin the media into reporting the pipelines will just be carrying oil.

So what is going to be in the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines? Read the documents filed with the Joint Review Panel and you find out it is “diluted bitumen”  (The bitumen from those sandy hydrocarbons in Alberta has to be diluted or it won’t flow through the pipeline.)

Documents filed with the Joint Review Panel by Stantec, an environmental consulting company based in Fredericton, New Brunswick,  hired by Enbridge, and frequently retained by the energy industry  uses this definition:

diluted bitumen A hydrocarbon consisting of bitumen diluted with condensate in order to reduce viscosity, rendering it suitable to be transported via a pipeline.  In addition to condensate, other subjects can be used as a dilutant (naptha and synthetic oil)

So what is condensate?

Again as defined by industry consultant Stantec condensate is:

condensate:  A low density mixture of hydrocarbon liquids that are present in raw natural gas produced from many natural gas fields or which condense out of raw gas if the temperature is reduced below the hydrocarbon dew point temperature of the raw gas.

(Another angle the media has ignored about the Northern Gateway project. While it carries diluted bitumen west from Alberta, there is a twin pipeline that carries the condensate east to Alberta.)

What to call the pipelines and the product?

So let’s talk about Northern Gateway and Keystone XL first.   These pipelines are different from the other pipelines that Bloomberg and other media say crisscross North America.

These pipelines will be carrying diluted bitumen, not oil, not crude.

When the public think of oil they think of a lubricant that enhances flow, not a gritty substance that has to be diluted before it can move. Diluted bitumen is a mixture of sand and soil and crude hydrocarbons, with various petrochemicals added to so that that mixture can actually get through the pipelines.

The use of diluted bitumen is raising all kinds of questions.   There were questions at last week’s forum on the effect of the friction from the sand on the stability of the pipelines.  There were questions at the forum about the corrosive nature of the condensate added to the bitumen on the stability of the pipelines.

These questions do not arise when it comes to conventional pipelines which have been built for the past century.

While there have been major oil spills for decades on land and sea, there has never been a major spill  of bitumen in either a pristine watershed or the ocean.  There has never been a major spill involving this mixture of  bitumen and condensate.

Unfortunately, the ultimate answer to the question of how dangerous such as spill could be, will only be found out if there is disaster.

A photo map of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (in yellow) showing its route close to the Kitimat River, site of the town’s water supply. (Enbridge. Filed with the Joint Review Panel)

The Northern Gateway Pipeline follows the route of the Kitimat River. One of the most frequent questions is what happens to the town’s water supply if the pipeline breaks.

There are thousands of pages on the Joint Review Panel website that show that Enbridge and their consultants have done all kinds of tests, modelling and contingency planning to support their stand the pipelines  and the tankers are as safe as possible. There are documents from environmental groups and others that take the opposite position.

So to maintain its already shaky credibility the media must be accurate.  Accuracy is the best form of neutrality.

So here are my style/copy suggestions:

The media should call what is going into the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines  “diluted bitumen” on first reference and “bitumen”  on subsequent references.

It is NOT accurate to call it “oil.” It is not really accurate to call it “crude.”

It is  crude oil mixed with sand and the condensate chemicals.  To call what will go through the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipeline simply as oil  or crude is leading to gross  misinterpretation and  complete  misunderstanding.

The media should continue to use oil when they are referring to conventional oil flowing through a conventional pipeline.

The public isn’t stupid.  If you ask a Grade Three student in Kitimat about bitumen and condensate you’ll get a pretty good answer. If the media has to produce sidebars,  graphics, interactives, explainer items,  to explain what bitumen is, the sooner the better, so that those taking part in the debate and those reporting it know what they’re talking about.

Tar sands/Oil sands

It is clear that the Canadian  media managers who decided in the mid 2000s that the term “oil sands” was more neutral than “tar sands” blundered.

Yes the environmentalists do use “tar sands” and for some it can be pejorative.  But if you have ever seen the stuff it certainly is tar.

Just as Enbridge uses “oil” in its brochure  on Northern Gateway but says the real thing “bitumen” in meetings, “oil sands” is the preferred energy industry spin term. The use of the term “oil sands” reduces media credibility.

Using “oil sands”  likely amplifies the general belief that the “corporate media” is in the pocket of big business and thus reduces the credibility  of the shrinking numbers of  hardworking reporters left working in the field.

Jointreviewbriefing_June_16_2011.jpgHere crowd sourcing and social media help. There are postings both on Open File and Tyee saying the terms “bitumen sands” or “bitumen-bearing sands” are proper neutral terms. I have used the term “sandy hydrocarbons” in this article, I came across it in a briefing document some while ago and it stuck in my mind (though I can’t remember where I saw it).

It is up to public editors, ombudspersons and style book editors to make the call here for their organizations.   I believe that if the media starts using “bitumen sands” as a technically accurate and neutral term for what is found in northern Alberta, the readers and viewers will  quickly accept it.

Staff of the Joint Review Panel brief residents of
Kitimat on the process, June 16, 2011.
(Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News

The big picture. Why isn’t the environment in the style books?

There is a bigger problem that I discovered when I was looking into this issue.  I checked the Canadian Press Stylebook to see what the editors said about the environment and found nothing. Absolutely nothing.  There are chapters on business news, entertainment, sports, even travel, but nothing on environmental coverage.

A very quick check with copy editor friends seems to have come up with same result across the media. Media stylebooks don’t consider the environment important enough to have a full chapter. (I may have missed some of course, the check was very quick) yet environmental stories are in the news every day.

The Associated Press was founded in 1848, in part so the New York newspapers could cooperate in getting the latest business news from Europe, first from ships and then from the transAtlantic cable.  So business news has been essential to the media  for at least a century and a half.  This, I believe, has created this historical, and probably   unintentional, institutional bias that favours word usage preferred by business.  If  media style books had  environment chapters then the question of  oil sands/tar sands would  have been considered more thoroughly and the “neutrality” of “oil sands” questioned.

Who knows what other environmental issues have been considered only superficially because stylebooks don’t have a chapter on the environment?

Reporters in the field  are often left angry and frustrated by rulings from public editors and ombudspersons who may, despite their efforts, err on the side of  “neutrality” rather than “accuracy” especially in this era of extreme polarization.

Media managers often take the path of least resistance, especially if they are being inundated with complaining e-mails and letters.

A stylebook chapter on the environment should stress accuracy over neutrality. Thus it serves the public.

A rigorous chapter in a media style book on the environment (and also on science which is also lacking) would give guidance to reporters in the field, editors at the desk  and allow managers to tell the complainers with agendas just how the issue has been examined.

This site has always used bitumen to describe what will be in the Northern Gateway Pipeline. From now on it will use bitumen sands in copy, and will use tar sands and oil sands in direct quotes as appropriate. I hope the rest of the media will follow.

Disclosure: I worked for CBC.ca from 1996 until I took early retirement in 2010. I have also freelanced for both Canadian Press and OpenFile.

Glossary of terms used in Stantec environmental report (PDF excerpt from original file)

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.

How in world could anyone misquote my Tweet? BUT AFP DID!

If this journalist wonders about the state of the profession (which he loves or thinks he does) and how low it has fallen,  he has to wonder how in the world (to be very, very polite) can anyone with an ounce of  intelligence misquote a tweet, my tweet.  It’s only 140 characters!!!!! And any computer can copy and paste, right??? It should be easy to quote a tweet, right? Wrong!

As an  author, I regularly check myself in Google and to my horror I have found that a misquoted tweet from me has gone around the planet,  thanks to AFP, appearing in newspapers in Canada  and the world (thanks AFP).

So back to the beginning, I was following the debate about Elections Canada, which has the misfortune to enforce an antiquated law meant to promote election fairness across this vast country. Elections Canada reminded Canadians that it was illegal to reveal election results from one time zone to another.

Most of the debate on Twitter was about ordinary citizens doing the revelation by tweeting.  But, of course, the news media around the world are not bound by Canada’s rules and can report the results freely.  We’ve seen this on U.S. television for decades. On the last election night, when I was still working  for CBC, one of my jobs was to note sites and blogs that published the election results and write a story (that of course would not have gone up on the CBC election site until the polls closed in BC).  The first, if I remember correctly, for 2008, was a TV station in Atlanta.

So in the midst of the online debate, at 09:28, April 21, I tweeted

The Elections Canada ban is irrelevant. Watch for tweets from @bbcbreaking, @CNNbrk, @reuters, @AP, @BNO #elxn41 #novotetweet

 But when AFP wrote the story, the wire service moved only the first few words, not the complete quote.

The earliest use after my Tweet that I can find is  the Calgary Herald   and this is how AFP reported it:

Author Robin Rowland, tweeted from Kitimat, British Columbia: “The Elections Canada ban is irrelevant. Watch for tweets.”

which is not only a misquote, but a distortion of what I wrote.  (One also has to wonder why even when the new owners are cutting Post Media to the bone, why the Calgary Herald had to rely on AFP for a Canadian story???)

From there the story appears on Yahoo, (and sites that pick  up a feed from Yahoo), The Age in Australia, The Bangkok Post , Dawn in Pakistan, the MSN tech site,  (and MSN Finance), France 24, Univision,  and Inform.com.   And that’s just what I found on Google. Who knows what papers ran the story and didn’t put it up on their websites?

We’ve all mistakenly misquoted people in our careers, usually due to badly scribbled notes.  There have been cases of cut and past plagiarism (either accidental or deliberate).

But a cut and past misquote of a 140 character tweet?  That can only be described one way:


Update: 2046 PT  The story is still appearing, just showed up in a Google search showing Maxis, a Malaysian telecom has it on a news page.

Update 2   April 24  1345  PT.  The story is showing up in “past 24 hour”  Google searches, now mostly appearing  on aggregation sites.

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“Real time” news tweets, the sinking of the Titanic

A couple of days ago, the Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax, which holds most of the  surviving artifacts of the ill-fated RMS Titanic,  recreated the morse code radio distress messages as “real time” Tweets, exact minute by minute, almost a century later.

The museum’s idea was certainly an imaginative way of using Twitter in 2011.

The event has three lessons  on the future of news.

First, the Titanic recreation mirrors the way news organizations and individuals  today tweet in real time for breaking news.

Second while  a news organization might have had the idea to do something  similar, using the files in its morgue (that is if the beancounters haven’t discarded the archive or donated it for tax reasons to a local library or  university), it was the museum that created this Twitter event,  That shows again that news organizations are in stiff competition, not only with other news media and the bloggers and social media but with any organization with the imagination to  do something about a news pegged historic event.

Third, this was a great news and social media story that the news media didn’t pick up.  The only story I saw was an advancer from CBC.ca that I saw after the fact and so I missed the tweets.  The reaction to those who know about the Tweets and retweeted or commented to #ns_mma or  #Titanic were very engaged in the real time story.  The media missed this one,.

I am one  of those who has always been fascinated by the Titanic story, going back to the first time I saw A Night to Remember on television as a small child (and for some reason, that I was never able to track down, the Titanic story always made my mother very upset. She was born in 1914, two years after the sinking, so there may have been some sort of connection)

So I went to Twitter and captured the recreation of the sinking of the Titanic. Here are the tweets in reverse chronological order.   Larger versions will pop up on a click)

In this sequence, about half way down, the news media becomes aware of the sinking and starts asking the overworked radio operators at Cape Race in Newfoundland for details.


353-titanic2-thumb-450x626-352.jpg 356-titanic1-thumb-450x582-355.jpgOne last note, During the CBC lockout, I wrote a blog about the Titanic’s musicians and how badly they were treated by the White Star Line,. See  On Contract on RMS Titanic

UPDATE  Jeff Jarvis has written a broadside about the media and business plans,  Hard Economic lesson for news.  I don’t agree with all of what Jarvis says, it is probable that too much of an emphasis on economics is what got the news media in trouble long before the Internet, But Jarvis does say:

* There is huge growth potential in increasing engagement.
Facebook gets roughly 30 times the engagement of newspaper sites,
Huffington Post’s engagement is also a multiple of newspapers’. If we
are truly community services, then we must rethink our relationship with
the public, becoming more a platform for our communities, and that will
multiply engagement and, with it, audience, traffic, and data. We have
not begun to extend and exploit the full potential of the value news
organizations can have in relationships with their communities: more
people, more value, more engagement equals more value to extract.

The Nova Scotia Museum’s Titanic recreation is one example, as I said, where imagination does create reader/audience engagement.

The news media, however, following tired standard operating procedures and so the news media failed. In this case,. following and reporting on this story would have cost just pennies and increased reader engagement on a news story that has fascinated for 99 years.


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Thirty years in “new media.” Part I A new perception

If someone, and that someone is me, can spend almost of all of a thirty year journalism career in what’s still being called “new media” and then take early retirement,  isn’t it time we started calling the silicon-based multimedia something else?

The word “new” in “new media” has become a slogan,  no different from a  consumer product such as shampoo where there  always is a “new and improved”version with a tweak here and a thunk there.

“New” is part of the problem, “new” is the reason why most media executives have failed to come to grips with  the current crisis of falling revenues, dwindling audience and distrust of our work.  Those  transnational media managers, editors and executive producers are all under the impression that all they have to do is hire yet another consultant to find the right bottle for the new formula shampoo and all will be well.

After a decade of that kind of stumbling,  it can  definitely be said that’s wrong.

From the perspective of  being part of thirty years of  technological innovation, challenges, responses, successes and failures, if the new media is to survive and thrive, a different (not new) perspective is needed.

Change the word, change the perception, change the response.

We are living in the era of evolving media.

If  we stop thinking that the latest innovation (today it is the iPad and competing tablets, tomorrow who knows what it will be) as a  new toy, but as new (or even invasive) species in the media ecosystem, then, uncomfortable as it is for quite a few us, then, if  survival matters, and it does, then adaptation is the key.  In the era of  rapidly evolving media, repackaging fails, because repackaging is not adaptation.

It also means facing the unknown, something most of today’s  media  managers are loathe to do.  So when I say “we are living in the era of evolving media,” the “we” I am referring to  the people who, as a friend, then an editor with the London Sunday Times, once quipped, actually “commit journalism,” the ones who have to face the unknown and the routine,  the reporters, editors, photographers, videographers, web designers, and even the few managers who haven’t been purged or retired from burn out, who love and believe in the principles of
journalism (no matter how hit and miss those flawed human beings actually implement those principles). More and more that includes “the people,” “the public”, the “ordinary citizen”  with mobile phone cameras, tweets and blogs–who actually report rather than rant.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

285-butterflyrose.jpgLet’s look back at the evolution of ecosystems: To the Cretaceous, the last great age of the dinosaurs and the time when  there was the sudden explosion of new varieties of  flowering plants,  the angiosperms, which pushed into the ecosystems then dominated by ferns and conifers. It truly was a time, to quote Mao Zedong from 1957 in a different context of : “Letting a hundred flowers blossom…”(the thousand flower was a later, urban legend, misquote, just like “Play it again, Sam,” rather than “Play it Sam,”)

What Mao said (and quickly relented when the campaign became a threat to his power) was   “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.” 

So using this analogy, evolving media will bring that progress in the arts and sciences (forget about socialist culture, at least as it existed in the 20th century) but over a longer time scale than the quarterly results report period so beloved by the financial markets.

The first primitive angiosperms probably appeared sometime in the first age of  dinosaurs, the Triassic, about 200 million years ago, but had little impact, perhaps evolving in isolated areas or islands, until (at least according to the current fossil record) 100 million years ago, there came some sort of tipping point and there was the explosion of flowering pant species from the tiniest flower to great new deciduous trees.

Consider the Internet, the Web, Facebook, Twitter,  Foursquare, phone and tablet apps,  the new flowers, as part of an media ecosystem undergoing rapid evolutionary change, with more to come.

The large scale appearance of flowering plants then triggered evolutionary changes among animals,  insects,birds, dinosaurs and quite likely mammals. So it is inevitable there will be new “species” of journalists emerging now and in the coming years.

In the short term, the prognosis for the news media is not that good.  The world is in economic turmoil, and the financial and corporate sectors, trapped in mid-Twentieth century models that no longer work, are failing to adapt.  Governments are also failing to adapt to escalating challenges.

 As for the media, the corporate level is also trapped in  mid-Twentieth century models that no longer work. On the level of the actual news story, the media workers, the ecosystems are also in turmoil, those  Cretaceous new flower species are spreading through the ferns and conifers, and crowding them out.

In the long term, I am optimistic for the future of  real journalism, the kind that tells significant stories about people and events, and for those who “commit journalism,” whom ever they may be.  After all, the emergence of those first significant flowers 100 million years ago, led eventually, to William Shakespeare writing in Rome and Juliet, “a rose  by any other name would smell as sweet.”  The disappearance of some of those fern and conifer species led to fields of  beautiful flowers and trees with juicy apples.

Some form of journalism will survive even a probable crisis of climate and civilization, just as life, including flowering plants, eventually recovered from the impact of the asteroid that shattered planet Earth 65 million years ago.

The Epic of Media

So imagine that someone far in the future is  producing a documentary about the media crisis of the early 21st century,  modelled on the dinosaur epics, first pioneered by a public sector broadcaster the BBC, and now a mainstay on Discovery and National Geographic, especially during the November sweeps.

Storyline: Now to the evolutionary flashback.  The giant, apex species, brought down by the tiniest newly evolved  species

First the weather forecast,  so beloved by media  consultants. Over the coming months and years, unsettled, with storm warnings and sunny breaks.  Long term outlook, increasingly volatile weather and climate patterns.

The transnational media, giant trees  that dominate the landscape today are threatened by the tiniest of creatures, call it a tweet.  This is not unlike another  climate and evolutionary disaster of the early 21st century, in British Columbia and elsewhere in the west, the pine beetle’s destruction of the forests.  Thanks to climate change, most winters are no longer cold enough to kill off the pine beetle the voracious insect flourishes as it eats its way through and destroys the forest, pine tree by pine tree.

The  tiny 140 character tweet may be the media equivalent of the pine beetle for the giant, often consultant run,  stock market  directed media corporation.  News breaks on Twitter, most often from tiny BNOnews or a wire service, sometimes  from another big news organization and occasionally from a citizen.  If the story is significant it is immediately retweeted and picked up by the wires and those 24/7 satellite and cable news organizations that still actually cover news rather than airing screams. Yet, sometimes as much as eight hours later, network and local TV will blare “Breaking News” and turn off an audience that already knows all the details of the  ancient story from Twitter. 

A decade or so ago, the Breaking News graphic on CNN, in the days when
CNN was a real news organization, meant “stop, look and listen .  Now, Breaking News has become so much a cliche that we see actors portraying phony reporters covering “Breaking News” Boxing Day sales for furniture chains.  No matter what, unimaginative TV news operations insist on continuing with the same old pitch.

287-dinosketch.jpgSome corporations never learn. Now we see overuse of the Twitter alert for routine news stories, even when the same news organization has Twitter accounts for the routine.  That overuse only diminishes the brand and all the public has to is unfollow the overused alert.

So to update the old newspaper saying, “There’s nothing as old as yesterday’s news,” to “There’s nothing as old as last hours news tweet.”

So the great apex trees, weakened by  tiny enemies, crash in the raging storm.  The sun comes out and with the overhead canopy gone, at least temporarily, new species and existing adaptive species  reach for the sun and thrive.

So new species are filling the ecological niches freed by the decline of the apex media tree.  Like small animals and plants,  the hyperlocal species  are the first to take advantage of the new space. Some of those species will thrive, others  will be driven to extinction by a failure to truly adapt to the new conditions.

Species that once thrived in the apex canopy now have to adapt to the new environment, creating competition for existing niches (as for example, when  laid off or retired photojournalists create new competition for existing wedding and commercial photographers).

Just as the rise of the flowering angiosperms created new niches and become aggressive invaders, the media environment is facing newly evolved and perhaps more adaptive species.

288-stump2.jpgOne aggressive  invasive species is Wikileaks. Wikileaks enters that investigative niche largely abandoned by the increasingly  too specialized apex media species.  Like other invasive species, Wikileaks, also disrupts the ecosystem. Wikileaks is not the same kind of species  Again imagine  a tall and solid investigative fir tree,  now old and rotten. Wikileaks, perhaps, it is too early too tell, is the media ecosystem equivalent of kudzu or purple loosestrife that fills the place emptied by that fallen tree.

Another example is where one established species takes advantage of a gap in the ecosystem, in this case Jon Stewart, who provides news on a comedy show in a way that many young people, and some of their elders, consider more credible than the main stream media. It was only Jon Stewart who raised the  despicable hypocrisy of the Republican  party’s filibuster on the bill providing assistance to 9/11 first responders in New York, which lead to the article in the New York Times comparing Stewart to Edward R Murrow.

Some journalists objected on Twitter and blogs to the comparison, but if the major news media had not abandoned the investigative niche, in some ways pioneered by Murrow, among others, if the networks and the major newspapers had covered the story, that comparison with Jon Stewart would not have been raised.

(At least in the entertainment environment, another new and aggressive species is Netflicks, which is perhaps a more efficient distribution system that traditional broadcast television and cable . Or multi-terabyte tablets and phones will destroy broadcast television as we know it, at least for entertainment, but that could free bandwidth and air time for more news. On the other hand, one species which flowered briefly and then disappeared was the colourization of movies. The old black and white films still  play on speciality channels while the colourized ones are not often seen).

Just as the development of flowers created new species of insects and birds,  the new media species increase competition

One example is the rise and now possible fall of  the content farms like Demand Media.  Demand Media takes advantage of search engines and the sudden availability of  staff (warm bodies from the dying main stream media) in the media ecosystem to create quickly produced, cheap and superficial content.  The Demand Media content appears  on search due to  taking advantage of Search Engine Optimization.  That superficial content, however, clogs the system, and brings complaints from the public, users who are looking for substantial content, who complain to Google, which in turn rewrites its search algorithms to emphasize quality content and downgrade the content farms. 

In this new ecosystem, the person in the right place in the right time with a mobile phone, still or video camera, the citizen tweeter and some bloggers, the citizen journalist joins the ecosystem.

Nothing is certain.  If the tablet is a new ecosystem, some of those media species who have a symbiotic relationship, with the tablet, games and books, are thriving. The adaptability of newspapers is, at the moment, uncertain. Given the figures at the  end of 2010, magazines appear to have flowered briefly and now are withering and the question is will the magazines adapt to the new tablet environment?

Why can’t many of  the big media corporations adapt?  Once corporations took real risks, sending ships to out to the end of the world or building transcontinental railways (often with government support). Or  in the case of the media, sending reporters to fascinating places to find fascinating stories at home and abroad.   Today the companies, especially media companies,  perhaps have evolved to be too highly specialized, often an evolutionary dead end, few making true long term, evolutionary investments.  

To use a climate analogy,  the modern media corporation is like a species that is adapted to four seasonal nutrition opportunities, the quarterly earnings report.  Most of corporate worker bees have one reluctant aim, to make sure the queen and the drones are well fed and get their bonuses even if the company is bankrupt.

The media climate is changing,  results from four seasons are no longer reliable. Now, more adaptive, omnivorous species are entering the ecosystem, more able to adapt to the changing, volatile climatic conditions.

So whether it’s a  freelance on a shoestring, a hyperlocal effort, a small tech start up, one of the last family owned newspapers,  a giant private sector corporate media chain or a public broadcaster,  the solution to survival is to understand that there will never be a return to the equilibrium of twentieth century media. 

A technical innovation will come out of nowhere just at the moment you believe when you’re all caught up.

The trouble is that the large corporation is too often eager to simply make the newest innovation, as one online pioneer commented to me, “part of the big machine,” and thus the machine, part of the old ecosystem, stifles true innovation.

The race will start all over tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. That “new media” may become part of the system, it may last a year, it may last a decade, or may be replaced in six moths.  Think evolving media.

Think evolving media

Whether you are 22-year-old entrepreneurial multimedia independent or the 70-something CEO of a giant media corporation you must work on evolutionary time line. By evolutionary I mean adaption and survival. That means you have to eat today to see tomorrow but you must also (perhaps like migratory animals) think beyond the horizon, rather than hoping the next season will bring some extra goodies.

Some hints (and it will be painful for the executive class, but then everyone else has been working with pain for the past few years, so why shouldn’t the executives?).

  • Put some of your budget aside for contingencies a decade ahead and  also budget for shorter term unexpected technological innovation.  Keep moving the decade date ahead  and refreshing the budget as the years go on.
  • Prepare and budget for investing in complete utter and total failures. Prepare to understand that no one is to blame for a technology that looked good one year and flopped the next. That is the way of the world today. Don’t look for scapegoats in executive row, the IT department or your staff geeks. Move on.
  • Stop following the crowd.   Remember the 60s. “Do your own thing,” see what works and what doesn’t for you and your audience. Again be prepared to fail and fail again. Chances are you will actually succeed.
  • Do follow the crowd once a critical mass is apparent on the horizon.  In the 1990s, many news organizations hesitated to jump on the web. Those companies paid for their mistakes,  some never really caught up, for others it took a decade or more, all forgetting he who hesitates is lost.  Most news organizations were quick to recognize the potential of Twitter, but once again those who got on Twitter early now dominate.  The tablet, no matter what form it eventually evolves,  is the delivery system of the coming years.  There are still far too few good, well-designed news apps out there at the moment and the audience is already gravitating to those that are available.
  • Trust your own people. In 30 years in “new media”  (wherever I worked) I was told time and291-airplant1.jpg time again by know nothing managers to attend a session with an expensive consultant only to find out that our staff  usually knew more than the consultant.  In 90 per cent of cases, consultants are a waste of time and money.   In ecosystem terms, consultants are like epiphytes, air plants, that look good, often with  pretty flowers,  on a tree branch or trunk but are essentially parasites, living off the tree itself.  If you want your staff to listen to the latest guru, pay for them to attend a conference  where they can get the same canned speech at a much lower cost, and may find an even better idea in a small seminar or a corner booth.
  • Look for adaptability, not age.   Innovation goes in cycles.   Your best assets are those who  are/were working at a time of innovation and were early adopters at that time, whether they are now 20, 40 or 60. One large and well known news organization is notorious for an unofficial policy in their future planning meetings for excluding staff over the age of 40, believing the under 40s would have the new ideas.  Unfortunately while many on the committees were part of  one or another digital generation,  had grown up with the web,  most came on board  during  relative technological  stability and so hadn’t faced the problems of  instant adaptability and innovation.  At the same time, the youngest staff, in their early 20s, and many of whom are part of a new innovation cycle, had already been laid off in last hired, first fired, short sighted cost cutting policies.  So  the “planners”  proceeded to reinvent the wheel and make costly mistakes their ignored elders could have warned against, while not embracing the new tech that the lost 20-25 year olds were already using.
  • The editorial assistant, the intern, the “cub reporter,”  is your newest asset and a crucial long term investment. Last hired, first fired for  younger media employees may have worked during a temporary downturn in a relatively stable environment, but in this time of rapid change it is, for any company, self-defeating standard operating procedure foolishness. The “kid” answering the phones knows more about the stories “younger audience” wants than all those consultants you hire.   The recent purges of editorial assistants by many major news organizations, as a short term cost saving measure, is just one example of the corporate media’s blind evolutionary decline.  Revolving unpaid  internship after unpaid internship, the cruel uncertainty facing many young people, is another indicator of  the  long term spiral into decay.  If  disillusioned young people drop out  while the energetic ones strike out on their own,  there a fewer and fewer fresh ideas that can renew and revive your moribund  main stream media.
  • Compete and cooperate at the same time;  just as ravens and wolves, both predators, often cooperate in the hunt and then compete for the spoils.  The 19th century newspaper barons in New York who founded the Associated Press were fierce competitors and at the same time knew when to join forces to make sure all their customers would get news, something that today’s over specialized, short sighted and self centred media barons forget as they pull out of  wire services and other cooperatives.
  • Respect the eco-audience.  The audience,  which supposedly is all important to the media, is part of this ecosystem. The media largely ignore the hard fact they and the “audience” are part of one integrated landscape. Instead, the metrics obsessed media relies far too much on marketing and demographic surveys and studies from the fantasy worlds created by many economists. That current reliance, the audience narrowed again and again by the corporate bean counters,  increasingly excludes more and more of the public. That deliberate exclusion is one of the roots  of the current distrust of the media. That exclusion creates a feedback mechanism, the more people excluded for business reasons, the more the wider audience even in the demographics demanded by the advertisers and sought by the media, distrusts the media and drops out or goes elsewhere (for example the huge American audience for the reliable reporting in the Guardian online).

By all means watch the latest tech shows, like the BBC’s Click.  But also sit back and watch one of those dinosaur shows on a science channel, and imagine yourself in one of those changing, evolving changing ecosystems and then plan your media business accordingly.

Forget “new media”  think  “evolving media.”

Garbage in Garbage out: How bad data will cripple the future of news

(Note I haven’t been doing much blogging for the past several months. I took early retirement from CBC News and moved back to my old hometown of  Kitimat, British Columbia, a process that took much longer than I anticipated and is still ongoing as I wait for electricians to finish some electrical upgrades on my new house. I am now resuming my quest to find hints on the long term future of news and so the blog and related projects will slowly appear here.)

The old adage from the earliest days of computing, Garbage In Garbage Out still holds.

The beleaguered news industry is obsessed with metrics, too obsessed in my view. That obsession also seems to be based on the idea that the data being gathered is good data, not junk. 

Yet this week, up popped on my iPad a sad example of what is wrong with the efforts to save journalism, sad because it comes from one of the United States’ most respected journalism schools. It is a survey, a survey that shows just how out of touch with reality some studying the future of news are, a survey that is so seriously flawed that when I was teaching journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, in the 1990s, I could have used as an example to teach students what to avoid.

When I lived in big cities, and being part of the generation raised on print, I would devour the morning paper along with my breakfast, mostly the Globe and Mail in Toronto, but  in the  various other cities I have lived, also the Ottawa Citizen, the Times and the Guardian in London, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, the Vancouver Sun and The Province.

Now, in Kitimat, British Columbia,  there is no newsprint waiting on my doorstep at dawn.

The iPad (as opposed to a netbook computer) is the next best thing.  I can prop the tablet up on the breakfast table and still get my morning news fix (I mean update) without having to go to the computer in my home office.  I check the Globe and Mail, AP, the BBC,  New York Times and the Daily Telegraph. I enjoy the Guardian’s Eyewitness best of the day  photo gallery. (And I would actually consider paying for a Guardian iPad app, but for some mysterious reason, it  is  only available for the iPhone and I’m an Android user.)

So there I was Saturday morning, scanning the Associated Press app, when there appeared at the bottom of the screen, a very enticing ad.


Since I am interested in shaping the future of news, I tapped.

The first page was both a further enticement and the usual academic disclaimer needed when surveying  human subjects.  The survey was from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the best institutions south of the border,  so I was quite optimistic.

There were warning signs. The disclaimer added a further enticement for ongoing participants, but only to Americans,  saying that to win the goodies, an  iTunes gift card, you had to be United States resident over 18.


I am interested in shaping the future of news. So I tapped.  The first screen came up. My heart sank.

The first question asked for the subject’s five digit US zip code.


That meant immediately that everyone outside the United States didn’t count. I filled in the field to let me see if  I could continue.  I could, but now the survey has no idea where I’m from.

So much for shaping the future of news.

Here’s the first problem, just the day before the ad popped onto my iPad, on Friday, October 22, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Morgan Stanley estimates that about 13 million Apple tablets will be sold this year, out of 15 million total tablet sales world-wide.
For 2011, Morgan Stanley estimates that Apple’s number will rise to 30 million, while non-Apple tablets will skyrocket to 20 million.

So assuming the figures are correct (and if you check these other links, the Morgan Stanley figures appear to be in the right ball park), 15 million people around the world use tablets at this moment.

iPad Impact: Tablets contribute to PC market pain

iPad/iPhone shipments drive up Apples Q4 profits

Tablet Sales to Hit 19.5M in 2010,

 Associated Press, even though it is based in the United States, is a world-wide news organization with staff, stringers and affiliates in every spot on this planet. Even if a lot of those 15 million users don’t read the Associated Press app, you must assume  that the majority of the people get their news from their tablet and many use multiple news sources.

So how can a genuine survey aimed at shaping the future of news exclude the majority of  iPad users?

When I worked for CBC.ca, (which unfortunately doesn’t yet have a news app) our audience figures showed consistently over the years that 20 per cent of our  web audience came from the United States and another 10 per cent of the audience came from the rest of the world.  The BBC site has a huge world-wide audience, and I can only presume that is reflected on the audience figures for the BBC app on the iPad.

When Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke about the future of news in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture earlier this year, he said:

More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times. This readership has found us, rather than the other way round.

So as a Canadian, I sighed, it looked like just yet another case of American exceptionalism and parochialism.

Unfortunately, it got worse.

The next question asked the birth year of the participant. But the drop down menu stopped at 1994, excluding everyone younger.


Again one has to ask what is going on here?   We know from multiple studies that news reading habits are formed at an early age.  Yet the university survey is excluding everyone under the age of  16. If a lot of  12-year-olds are suddenly getting excited over the journalism they see on their iPad, good news for shaping the future of news, you would never know it from this survey. (I hope a lot of 12-year-olds are getting excited about news on their iPads)

So why the exclusion?  I wondered for a moment if it was the US law  where for many internet activities magic age is 13. So if so, the survey is still excluding three years of users. Or one must ask is it something to do with the giveaway of the iTunes gift card, rules set by who. Apple?  A university ethics committee? The state of Missouri? The state of California? Then why not 18​?

Are these giveaway rules skewing and distorting the survey?

One more note, about the United States resident restriction, especially if it is tied to the giveaway. Again it conflicts with what we do know about web journalism and probably tablet journalism.   That people who move away keep in touch with local news by checking hometown web sites and often that it  is a huge part of a news site’s web audience (even if the corporate side is reluctant to point it out to local advertisers). So once again this survey is excluding all those American ex-pats around the world who may be reading the AP and New York Times apps. And what about all those members of the American military deployed overseas,  most of whom technically are not on US soil, checking their local news on tablets? Do they count?


Finally, while the questions were fairly routine, asking about how I consume news on paper, on my smart phone and in my iPad, I detected a bias (or perhaps over simplification) in the questions.  It may be an urban bias, despite the fact that the University of  Missouri in is in the heartland of a largely agricultural state.  (I was at Missouri for a beautiful August week in 1993 when I attended IRE computer-assisted reporting boot camp).  There was no way I could tell the survey that journalism on paper is not as available in the far Pacific northwest as it is in downtown Toronto, New York or St. Louis. It assumes an almost “either or attitude,”  that the one reason you give up a newspaper on paper is to switch to electronic delivery because you just love your iPad.   Yet there are other reasons, for giving up reading papers on paper. A lot  of the more environmentally active refuse to read paper (even though the electronic versions are probably just as bad for the environment).  As mentioned, for many people today, your home town paper isn’t delivered in Kandahar or Kuala Lumpur or Kingston-upon-Thames.

There is also a second factor, it is much easier to read a newspaper on the way to work in a city with a good public transportation system, where you can read the paper on the bus, subway or train. So how much has commuting habits to do with consuming news on a smart phone or tablet?

It’s unclear if AP has anything to do with the survey (i.e. Was the ad on the AP app paid for by the university or is  it a “house ad,” with AP participating and working with the data? Perhaps someone can clarify in comments)

But this is clear, with the crisis in journalism, this type of survey is not a help, it’s a hindrance.  If it’s American parochialism,  same old same old  will continue to fail with a world-wide audience and increasing world-wide tablet sales. If it’s the iTunes giveaway setting the survey parameters, it’s a bad as any survey that  is paid for by a corporate sponsor with a pre-determined outcome.  If it’s because of a lack of budget due to current restraints that make it impossible to crunch numbers from 15 million tablet owners, then the survey should have been done like someone like Pew who can look at the planetary picture.

Garbage in, Garbage out has no place in shaping the future of news.

:  I can get Canadian news, via The Canadian Press (an organization I occasionally string for) via the AP app on my Android smart phone.   But the Local News function on the AP Ipad doesn’t work, My Ipad insists that I live in Manhattan, not Kitimat.

Two days after I made the initial post, on Oct. 27, 2010, I sent a note via my Ipad to AP tech support asking why can I get Canadian news on the Android and not on the iPad? I got a reply  “A Customer Support representative will respond within the next 24 hours.”
It is now Nov 14 and I still haven’t had a reply,

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