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 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.

Is “Color” the next big social app? And what about photojournalism?

For those who follow  #futureofnews on Twitter, and similar groups, there has been a lot of buzz in the past couple of weeks since the launch  on March 24, of a new (so far Apple only??) app called Color.  It’s called a proximity photo sharing social media app, and allows people close to each  other to share photos.

358-color_1881983a.jpgA combination of photo crowd sourcing and social  networking.

Most of the chatter is among the younger folks who tweet, follow and discuss the future of news, those who are digital natives, the true early adopters,  the indicator of new trends.

So much chatter that I decided to check it out.

While it is available as an Iphone app, the news release says it is available for the Android, but I couldn’t find it in the Android store and the front page of their website says new Android version coming soon.

So without an Android app I could find, I am going to have to go by the buzz.

My first impression at the  Apple App Store was that  was  that creators are  a kind of arrogant bunch.  On the App store and their press releases  it is “Color™  ”  


 Imagine trademarking the word “color?”  The company is based in Palo Alto, California, so one has to wonder how and why the US Patent and Trademark Office allowed it? I wonder how long that  trademark will last?  The trolls are probably already calling  their lawyers with everyone else not too far  behind.

The news release calls the program

Color™ is a miraculous, free application for iPhones and Android devices that allows people in close proximity to capture and have real-time access to photos, videos, and text simultaneously from multiple smartphones. Color is the best way of sharing an experience without the hassle of passing cameras around, emailing or uploading images and videos online.

And goes on to say

Every photo, video, and text captured by each smartphone through Color is instantly shared with surrounding phones also using Color. There are no attachments, uploading or post-production work required.  For the first time with Multi-lens, you will finally get to see and keep all photos from everyone at a shared moment, including ones that you are actually in.

One tech site has been calling Color™  the “next Twitter.

So back to the future of news. One has to immediately wonder if this yet another nail in the coffin of professional photography?  And what does this do for copyright? Are copyrighted photographs finally  dead and buried?

Well this his how the process  is explained by

What Happens to the Content?
There has been confusion about where the content generated by Color goes and how is it shared. Are the photos taken using Color archived? [ Color chief scientist D. J] Patil  [formerly of Linked In] explained that if you participate in a Color group, that content is not only shared in real-time with others in proximity to you, it also appears in the ‘History’ section of the app as an album. You can share albums, photos and videos using Twitter, Facebook, email or SMS.

So far, Color has no search or archiving mechanism on its website. So the only way that people who weren’t at an event are likely to see albums is if they’re been shared via the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

It’s just been a couple of weeks, so who knows?  And with a program being described as “miraculous” that is a lot to live up to.  The company also has $41 million in venture capital and the app (for now) is free, so where’s the return on the VC investment?

As for photojournalism, let’s wait and see.  

The company had its first real time use at a movie premiere.

The big test comes in a couple of days, when the Daily Telegraph uses it to cover the Royal Wedding. The Daily Telegraph and all the other British papers and wire services will have their best shooters covering the wedding, so the color crowd sourcing photo sharing will be a fascinating addition.

A couple of thoughts:

Color™  has been promoting at events like concerts, premieres, tech conferences (of course) and family events.

It’s not the best PR, but it looks like Color™  will enhance the social coverage of breaking news.

What if  Color™  had been available during the G20 disturbances in Toronto? During the G20  everyone had a camera or smart phone camera.  All those pictures of both the black hooded rioters and the subsequent police misconduct could have been shared with the participants, the onlookers, the journalists and probably the police photo units from multiple angles in real time,

Or the more recent student demonstrations in London?

What happens if there are people with Color™  equipped cameras during the next major disaster or a terrorist attack?  Or folks in Syria and Libya are right now downloading Color? 

There will be a lot of amazing photos produced on the breaking event. The pros, however, will still be needed to take the iconic images (that is, of course, it anyone wants to use and pay for them).

The one group that is going to be hit hard by Color™  are the paparazzi, already suffering and seeing their income drop now that everyone has a camera. Imagine the big star walks down the street and instead of being stalked by one pap, fifty cameras shoot and share the images.

Who knows. Stay tuned.


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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   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 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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Twitter is an amplifier, and that’s revolutionary

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article

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Thirty years in “new media” Part II The veteran strikes back

A reader of the part of one of this blog, might ask, “Did you really spend  thirty years in new media?”


The answer is a yes and I was into computers long before that.

In 1968, as a teenage page at the Toronto Public Library system, I was part of a summer experiment in the multimedia of the day, as libraries dipped their toes into the water of the new era beyond books.  We made a student science fiction film and as part of the project we filmed 1968-epoch computers being installed at the Ontario Science Centre, then under construction.

As an editorial assistant at CBC Radio News  1977-79 I had used a very primitive computer system  assigned to its then internal wire service.  By primitive,  its memory  was the equivalent of an amoeba compared to humans.  You had to type a story, perfectly, on a green CRT screen, because there was no memory to save your work. When the story was ready, you pushed Enter and it was dumped to punch tape, then sent over a regular teletype circuit.

I arrived in London in December of  1980, born of British parents in a then British colony, and thus a dual citizen, following the track of  other  generations of young Canadians. London was the place to advance a career.  London did that for me, creating a media geek rather than a foreign correspondent. So I began my 30 years in “new media.” 

Another aim in going to London was to do research for a couple of planned books.

Over Christmas I worked in a crazy pub, the Duke of Kendal, and then in January 1981, after registering as a researcher at the British Library, I landed a job in the  mail room of French Travel Service, an independent rail tour service affiliated with SNCF, offering package and independent rail tours to France.  The job paid the rent and let me do my research at the British Library.   There was one unexpected bonus.   FTS was one of the British  travel companies that was experimenting with the UK developed Prestel videotex system. Although I had nothing to do with the Prestel reservation system, it fascinated me and I was looking over peoples’ shoulders as they operated.

Lesson 1: IT should always be the servant,  never the master. Know your hardware and  software

The computer chap at FTS (there was no IT in 1981) was a tall man with a black beard, in an area, London Victoria, of  mostly clean shaven business types.  The computer reservation system was a main frame in a clean room on one side of the small office.  The man appeared to be  incredibly arrogant and he began every conversation  I overheard with the managers and their secretaries, all shorter in stature,  (he never lowered himself to speak to me).  Towering over them, he would say: “You don’t know much about computers, but…..”  And he would get his way.

In retrospect, it was then I probably decided that I had to know more about computers.  Perhaps because I was an avid reader of science fiction and guessing that computers would be a big part of the future, a year later, back in Toronto,  I would take a basic computer course at (programming  punch cards) and with that basic understanding of all hardware and software I was using.  It is not just that if you know the basics of  the system you are using, you will not be intimidated by the  IT personnel, you will know enough, as some one who is working in the media, to be tweak the system and be creative.

After a couple of months, and wrapping up the research at the British Library, I answered an ad for  someone with computer experience (rare in 1981) at Universal News Services, the UK public relations wire (later part of the PR Newswire empire) UNS  was also experimenting with the British videotex system, Prestel.   Rather than sending out the news releases by teletype, the releases would be easily available for newspapers editors outside of  London on a TV screen, information retrieved from a central mainframe computer.

It wasn’t exactly a leap into the future. Given the strength of the National Graphical Association (one of the unions later broken by Rupert Murdoch) I would  type the stories on a typewriter, and the an NGA member would enter it into the computer just as they would send out a news release by teletype.

Lesson 2  What goes around comes around I  There ain’t no such thing as  a free lunch

UNS promised the newspapers a “free”service, meaning they weren’t charging for what today would be called page views. (Some Prestel service providers did charge and soon found they had few clients– an indication of the shape of things to come).   British Telecom was still charging for both the phone lines that went to the Prestel mainframe and a usage metre. Newspaper clients didn’t understand  the difference between what today would be called bandwidth and the actual content and so UNS constantly got letters of complaints from newspaper editor who did not understand that difference, just like someone today, perhaps a teenager,  with a mobile phone in 2011 who spends time with a free app and doesn’t know about bandwidth charges.

Lesson 3  What goes around comes around II. Life in 140 characters.

There wasn’t much you could say with the limited Prestel system, but one venerable news organization did adjust very well,  creating short snippets of news. Which is why I blogged in  March 2009, that the Economist invented the tweet without knowing it. 

After a few months at UNS, I was invited to lunch at the Canadian High Commission in London, which was recruiting Brits working in Prestel to come to Canada and work on the competing, Canadian developed Telidon system.   After a little wine, some good food and persuasion from the diplomatic corps, I decided to head home. A few months later I was back in Toronto,.

My first job was with the Southam Infomart project. Southam was then the largest Canadian newspaper chain. How Southam ran Infomart was probably the first example of how a large media corporation  can completely screw up a project. (Knight Ridder was running its own experiment in the US and their project was shut down about the same and I have no knowledge how KR ran their videotex project. However, from the few online comments I have seen, it appears KR did not make the horrendous mistakes Southam did)

I was there just a few months, before there were a series of layoffs, the project was failing and  failing quickly.  After a couple of months of  unemployment I was hired by the CBC’s parallel teletext experiment Project Iris.

Lesson 4  Engineers know nothing about content. Neither do the sales force.

Although Southam was a content company, a  newspaper chain with a storied and respected history in Canada, Southam abandoned management of their first new media experiment to the techies, in this case a group of  former IBM middle managers (who kept telling us, the content staff, “This is what we did at IBM.”) The other key figures were the sales staff, who  somehow convinced Sears to put its soon to be released 1982  catalogue on  the system, despite the fact the graphics were primitive. So the majority of the company effort was an early experiment in e-commerce.  Only there was no audience for the service, there were no sets in homes. Bell was planning to offer the service but even then we asked  who would take it (although we were optimistic it would take off).  Even then I had to wonder, what were they thinking?  At least in the UK the Economist  created readable content for Prestel.  The news content at Infomart didn’t even come from Southam, they picked up a raw feed from the Broadcast News wire, without stripping the headers and with no index so a viewer could find stories.

As for CBC Project Iris, it too was managed by engineers, since the funding came from an agreement between the Department of Communications and CBC Engineering headquarters in Montreal.  Unlike Southam,  Mother Corp  did not cede editorial content control to the engineers, so there was a  small, but very real newsroom repurposing CBC content for the service, which did have an audience, 200 test homes.  Later we also had an American audience, since CBS was also testing teletext and one of the test sites was WIVB in Buffalo, with 50 test homes, which meant each audience (if it wanted) could see each other’s feed. So the CBC project continued long after the Southam project died, until it was killed by Brian Mulroney’s budget cuts.

So thirty years later, what goes around, comes around.   Media and content organizations are still  often under the thumb of engineering departments, but now they are outside vendors and engineers, whether it  is Google’s arcane search algorithms,  page or layout design created for the web or tablets or phones by software engineers with no background whatsoever in content.

Then there is Steve Jobs, until recently the CEO, but still the godfather, of Apple, giving295-cestab1w.jpg desperate media companies offers they cannot refuse, demanding that they charge for content  on the Ipad so Apple can get its  30 per cent cut,  content that Apple says it can censor at will.  Of course, there were dozens of tablets at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, but the question is how many of those tablets will survive the evolutionary competition and whether or not one tablet succeeds by giving the media companies a way of saying no to the godfather from Apple.

Lesson 5.   Apps, brought to you buy the butterfly effect.

285-butterflyrose.jpgIn physics,  chaos theory is summed up by this phrase. “Sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” (or if a butterfly flaps its wings in one area, it triggers a hurricane across the world) In the days of videotex, there were no homes with sets in North America.  So the companies experimenting with the technology had to make some money. So they came up with the  idea of putting videotex sets in malls as sort of electronic guidebooks.   One of the best commercial clients for videotex in the early days were restaurants. The content could be produced easily, menus were mostly text and restaurant pages did not really need the photographic quality graphics that made the Sears catalogue project a failure. So the idea was to have a guide to the restaurants in a large mall or perhaps even  neighbourhood.

How do you make it easy for people to use the system? The engineers came up with a brilliant solution.  Touch screens.

The problem was that in the period 1980-1984 touch screens in malls  and offices were a total, utter complete and costly failure. Why? Because  idiots, whether they were teenagers or adults who hadn’t grown up, were constantly stubbing lit cigarettes onto the touch sensitive part  of the screen.  A single cigarette could destroy a computer system costing thousands of dollars.  The videotex booths disappeared from malls almost as quickly as they had appeared.

So think about this.  Over the past 30 years, smoking has been banned indoors, in malls, and in offices,  because of the proven  connection between cancer and second hand smoke.  With little historical memory of the videotex failure, it is perhaps a lucky coincidence that second generation, PC based touch screens began to appear in government and corporate offices at about the same time as smoking bans.   The success of large touch screen systems allowed the development of apps on smaller smart phones and tablets

Smoking bans likely not only made the air cleaner and saved lives from second hand smoke, the bans also brought you the apps you finger on your Android phone or your iPad tablet.

One last note, today there are apps for your smart phone using the GPS interface that will let you find restaurants nearby and the  menus, so the concept was right, but 30 years too early.

So when you’re developing a technological innovation, remember success or failure may depend on  something that has absolutely nothing to do with how fast your hardware is or how good your code is. It may depend on something like a ,bunch of  executives lying at a congressional hearing in Washington about the addictive properties of nicotine.

In North America, most of the videotex and teletext projects in both the United States and Canada died between the fall of 1984 and the spring of 1985. The official reason was budget cuts, whether the project was in the public sector or the private sector.  The main reason, of course, was that the growth of  the personal computer made the videotex system obsolete and the growth of multichannel cable television was quickly becoming highly profitable, especially due to carriage fees on cable channels, and teletext was just not  worth developing.

Lesson 6.  Experts are often blind to the world around them.

Over the past 30 years, companies and governments have often been blind sided by an  “unexpected” technological development.  The latest example, of course, is Wikileaks, which, in retrospect, could have been foreseen as a by product of putting all records in electronic form.

The videotex and teletext systems began development in the UK (Prestel)  and Canada (Telidon) in the mid 1970s.   

The statement attributed  to Thomas J Watson of  IBM, that the world would only need five computers is an urban myth. In the 1950s and 1960s, IBM  was concentrating on large expensive mainframe machines to be used by  universities and corporations.  It was clear the a machine that would rent for between $12,000 and $18,000 a month (in 1953 dollars) would be totally inaccessible to the general public.

Even by the 1960s, that there was a growing public interest in computers and there were visionaries who began looking for a way to involve the public, create a market,  give access  to information and even make a profit.  The solution was videotex.  The computer keyboard had already been developed.  Add some memory, make the keyboard a little smarter, connect it to a TV set (already in every home) and then by phone line to (usually IBM for videotex and DEC for teletext) mainframe computer, and lo and behold, the public would be introduced to the world of personal computing.

So when I first became interested in videotex in London in the winter of 1981, and when I returned to Canada in the fall of 1981, I was told by the companies I worked for on both sides of the Atlantic and by other people in the industry at meetings, that all the experts believed it would take 20 years of slow but steady improvement of the keyboard-phoneline-mainframe system before there was a viable personal computer system

In 20 -20 hindsight, Monday  morning quarterbacking, the failure of videotex was certain. Steve Wozniak had introduced the first Apple II personal computer in June 1977 followed by the Apple II Plus in June 1979.  I had actually considered buying an Apple II Plus in the that summer of 1979 before I headed for London.(it was too expensive especially for an impoverished freelancer)  As I was working in videotex, IBM, the maker of the mainframes used by some of the videotex 96-osborne1.jpgsystem, was already working on the development of the personal computer. In August 1981, as I resigned from UNS and went for a two week vacation in Greece, IBM launched the first personal computer.  There were competitors, the Atari and Commodore systems and the Tandy TRS-80, the “Trash 80”  which many techy journalist of the era fell in love with and CP/M machines like the Osborne I bought in 1983, while I was still working at CBC Project Iris. The introduction of the IBM PC XT in March 1983 ( I saw it at a trade show in Toronto that month) with its amazing 10 megabyte internal hard drive, which was the first truly consumer friendly PC, meant videotex was doomed.

As I said, what goes around comes around. It’s thirty years later and what, apart from the tablet, was hot at the Consumer Electronics Show this year?


 One big item was a real old fashioned idea, obsolete for  more than a quarter of a century, connecting your television set to a computer system, and giving it a keyboard.  Of course, it is a high definition set and one of  the reasons to connect to the Internet is to download movies, but the system also allows the user to have complete access to the World Wide Web.  If  one of those experts from 1981 had been caught in a time warp and suddenly reappeared in a living room  in Christmas 2011, where the family gathers around to watch a downloaded movie on an HD set and check their e-mail at the same time, that expert, with no knowledge of what had happened in the previous three decades, would have thought their prophecy had proven true. (And given that the telecoms want to charge more for all that bandwidth to download  a movie, that too might bring back memories for our time traveller).

After Project Iris was killed by  Brian Mulroney,  I kept my connection with developing tech with my new Osborne.  I wrote my first book, King of the Mob, on that four inch screen.  In October 1988, I joined CTV News as a writer on the CTV National News.

Lesson 7.  Beware of software executives bearing gifts

At CTV at that time, 1988 to 1994, the TV news writing software was awkward and primitive, compared to the expanding and consumer friendly software creating for the growing PC and Mac markets.  A company named Columbine had created a mainframe based software for tracking commercial sales and placement.  The company threw in the news writing software as an added inducement for bean counting corporate executives to buy the commercials tracking system.  While Columbine may have had some expertise in tracking commercials,  the news writing software was a mash up.

Add on software, is, in most cases, a very bad deal.

There is exactly the same situation with Novell Groupwise, which is certainly not the best e-mail client in the world, but because it’s added to the Novell’s networking software, which seems to work well, many companies force their employees to use Groupwise, even though there are much better products on the market.  Why would any company in its right mind, spend all that extra money licencing Groupwise per workstation in addition to all the money they pay for the Novell’s networking software, when there are better products available such as Thunderbird?  Not to mention, Gmail. During the CBC lockout, we created a duplicate of the CBC Groupwise system using Gmail, at no cost  (and it worked better)

Lesson  8.   Managers should always consult that people who actually use the hardware or software.

I can’t count the number of times that media managers, based on talking to consultants, fast talking software sales people and sometimes even IT people, impose software and/or hardware on staff without asking them to see if it actually works for what the company wants to do with it.   One of the few times that staff were consulted was at CTV News, when management brought us in to see what they thought was a great piece of TV news writing software, to replace the much hated Columbine.   It was a good piece of software, but as the sales people enthusiastically ran through its features, my techy alarm bells started ringing, and so I began asking questions, about how the lineup editor and the producer would communicate if one was at the main desk and one in the control room and how the writers would work with the lineup editor.   What management didn’t realize was until I the user and techy guy, began asking the questions was that the vendor was presenting software that was really good for a small local station, (the vendor’s client base in the US) but totally inadequate for a network news operation.  They didn’t buy that software.

In the fall of 1993, I began co-writing the first book on Researching on the Internet. It was a rather exciting time to be writing that kind  of book, just as  Mosaic and later Netscape,  opened up the World Wide Web.  It was also the time that both PC and Mac were taking off, with hundreds of small  new companies in fierce competition with each other, just to survive.

Lesson 9.   Software vendors will always promise you the moon, the stars, and a galaxy, far, far away.

Software sales people haven’t changed in a quarter of a century.   They promised you the moon with a 10 megabyte hard drive PC in 1983 and now in 2011,  with mobile phones on the genius level, compared to the computers that  actually sent NASA to the moon, they promise you the stars.  Whether it’s 1983 or 2011, the software guy who comes to your office or greets you at a trade show  (even these days, it is still usually a guy) is wearing a company polo shirt and nicely faded blue jeans, sounds more like a  California surfer dude than a geek, has a big smile, is so good looking that he’s may be also registered with Central Casting and so really loves his tech that he really believes that his product is the greatest thing since the invention of  the silicon chip and COBOL (look it up on Wikipedia).

Caveat emptor.   That’s Latin for “let the buyer beware,” which  leaves one wondering, given that the Romans were such good engineers, if there were  tech trade shows in the Coliseum when the gladiators had a day off.

The surfer dude salesman’s supervisor also wears the company polo shirt but sports dress pants, is in his late 30s, maybe wears glasses, sounds more like a professor and is geekier than his sales staff. He was probably the good looking kid at a trade show long, long ago and far, far, away and stopped going to the gym when he was promoted or married or both.  His role, of course, is like that boss in an auto dealership,  with the sales manager offering you “the deal”  the sales person can’t.   If you were wearing a media badge, that usually meant the software was free.   For  anyone else,   the manager has visions of the ten thousand workstation contract.  The pitch is always the same, whether it is 1983 with the first PC, the multitude of tablets at the CES 2011 and the new, new thing at whatever trade show is hot in 2021, our software is the greatest thing since the creation of the universe.  After a while, to  the jaded veteran, it all sounds exactly the same.

There is one lesson that holds true, for hardware or software,  in 1983, in 2011 or 2021. Never buy Version 1.0. Never!  (At least, in the beginning,  in 1983, Version 1.0 was usually stable, if incomplete with minimal features. These days with the rush to market and pressure for profit, Version 1.0 is actually closer to Beta  0.56 Build 1066 ).

Lesson 10.   One of the great failures of the mainstream media was its lousy coverage of the software industry

Again, with 20-20 hindsight, it is easy to see that an early indication of the coming failure of the mainstream media was not in its adoption or failure to adopt new technological innovations, but the media’s failure to cover the software industry as it was then covering the police beat, city hall, provincial or state and federal governments.

When I was asked to write Researching on the Internet, I had already been following tech for a decade. I knew everything was changing at high speed.  The solution was not to create a software manual, impossible in any case, because unlike Version x.x of software, the web wasn’t static. My idea for book (especially since it was written in a time of transition) was to give the reader some basic principles so that they could work with the web as long as possible.  The idea was right, because Researching on the Internet stayed in print and selling (and making me a profit, the book “earned out.” long after the actual  software had been replaced by new versions)

So with that in mind, when I approached software companies, my questions were similar to  those I   often asked as a reporter, to police, to city hall, to the big industries in town and in the locker room.  Software companies traditionally held their developments secret so as not to reveal them to competitors, which is perfectly understandable.   The problem was that most  software companies were used to uncritical coverage as they announced their latest products.  They were not expecting even the mildest kind of  critical question even a local sports reporter whose was perhaps too close to the home team might have  asked a hockey coach about his plans (or lack of them) for the coming season.

I remember meeting with an executive of one then prominent software company, who turned pale at some of my pretty innocuous questions, and quickly palmed me off to a PR person, who simply repeated how good their products were and showed me to the door. (It later turned out that the company’s financial position was not as good as it claimed and it was later sold).

One area that was generally ignored by the mainstream and the computer press  (the latter dependent on advertising from software companies) was  softcide. Softcide was a common practice during the boom of the 1990s where one company with deeper pockets, bought a company with a better product, then killed that product, so that the next so-called “upgrade” resulted in angry customers being offered the inferior product, while support for the better  and now orphaned software was abandoned. The business press was even worse, usually caring only about the stock price and not the actual management of these companies.

It was only when some of those outraged customers,  computer writers, former employees and sometimes current and anonymous employees  who were branching out on their own began blogging with inside scoops on the software industry did the mainstream media catch  up (and even today the MSM is too often dependent on those bloggers.)

In 1994, I returned to CBC where I would work as a TV lineup editor, then  web writer and producer and later photo editor.  I watched as online news started as a hole in the wall closet office experiment, then a small team working and changing on the go until, like all other online news operations,  it was finally folded into the corporate machine


Lesson 11.  Team should mean team

Team has become a cliched buzzword.   Software companies and your ISP sign off their messages  with the X Team.  So spammers take advantage of the team cliche.  (I have received auto spam from the “ team,” not bad for a one man operation.)  At the same time, television news, using the same  cliched buzzword, promise “full team coverage,” as does every other TV station in town. Not to  mention the newspapers.

One has to wonder why the executives, whether in software or the media, are so blinkered that they actually believe that the public pays attention to this constantly repeated nonsense.
A good newsroom has always been a team, going back 150 odd years or more to the first major newspapers. Software with its often millions of lines of code is also a team effort.

In many cases, bean-counting management, applying cost benefit analysis, have undermined team efforts in both industries, with staff cuts, ignoring morale problems and by creating bureaucratic headaches. while creating a message track of a team effort.

Like all cliches, like all message tracks, the team analogy is based on truth.  In the 30 years that I have worked in new or online media, the system worked best when the IT staff were present in the actual newsroom, rather than on another floor or even another city.  In a couple of cases, it was one single person who was  working with us in developing projects.  In another case,  the IT staff,  programmers, network administers and hardware geeks were crammed into a small office with the news staff, because there was no room  for them anywhere else.

In all three cases, the majority of the IT staff saw what we were trying to accomplish and worked their butts  off to help us to make sure their system they had created did what was supposed to, especially in cases where there problems getting stories up on the web during breaking news and the miracle workers created instant work around.

Unfortunately, when the IT people eventually had their own office, they soon lost interest in what the newsroom needed and their aim was to fullfil the IT department’s priorities and the demands of IT culture.   It got  even worse when bean-counting management consolidated IT network and technical support in call centre in a city hundreds of miles away with people who never actually had any concept of what the media staff were trying to do.  (At least the call centre was in Canada, not Bangalore or Kuala Lumpur).

IT culture at its best can  be creative, at its worst it is a bureaucratic nightmare. Unless there is a symbiotic relationship with the actual productive staff, when the IT culture is separate from the newsroom culture, the system breaks down.  It’s as if the journalists are the leopards and the IT staff the lions, the journalists are the Orcas and the IT staff the sharks, similar creature in an  similar environment, but with different and often competing goals.

The worst case of IT disconnect came in 2001.  At one major news organization, the IT staff had scheduled a network upgrade for September 13,  2001.  The idiots were so blind that the network upgrade went ahead regardless of the events  two days earlier on September 11 and the entire system slowed to a crawl. IT honchos were rather put out at the escalating calls of complaint, starting with front line news staff and escalating to senior news management, when the network upgrade didn’t work properly

The journalism programs at Columbia (Tow Center for Digital Journalism ) and New York University are currently working on a programs/curriculum that will create “journo-programmers” 

(See also Nieman Labs  Boston Hack Day Challenge and  Educating the journo-programmer. )

I was one of the first journo-programmers myself .  After I returned to Canada from London, I took a programming course at York University. It being 1981. I programed using punch cards. The course was invaluable and because I always had a basic understanding of how computers worked, I was always able to adapt to new innovations.

There’s one problem, however, with what Columbia and NYU  are attempting. There is no mirror image  curriculum where the IT people are trained as programmer-journos  (or programmer-doctors, programmer-cops or programmer-millwrights etc. ). While it is a good that a young journo-programmer knows, the basics of code and/or how to run a server, it is not going to do that young man or woman  much  good when they come up against corporate IT and their priorities.  The journo-programmer may know what he/she is talking about but if history is any guide, in most cases, they will be ignored by IT.

Many corporate IT people still believe that anyone who calls to report a problem is the cliched dummy who puts their coffee mug in the CD drive holder and knows nothing about the system. I say many because I and my geek colleagues always made it a point to find out who were the better and more responsive IT people and when possible went directly to them.

We always joked that best training in dealing with corporate  IT was watching M*A*S*H.  Unfortunately, in too many cases, these better IT people soon left either  because  media IT salaries were low compared to other areas, because other companies recognized their talent and hired them away,  they left because they couldn’t stand the stultifying bureaucracy or were fired  because their bosses didn’t want employees who were smarter than they were.
 I have always thought that at any company, no matter what the product or service, all IT staff should be made, as a condition of employment, to start at the bottom, at least for a month and work in their company’s main product or service line.  However, that dream for the working staff (and perhaps a nightmare for the IT staff) will likely never happen.

Throughout my career, and this is a good reason to have journo-programmers, if we could avoid working with the IT people on the other floor, we did our own work arounds.

Of course, if the news staff and the IT were truly a team,  then there wouldn’t be these kinds of problems.

It soon became apparent at those news organizations that were early on the web that they had to quickly expand their staff beyond the pioneer geeks. 

 That’s when the in the broom closet IT staff created the first template systems, which then grew into in house and later outside vendor supplied Content Management Systems.   Those Content Management Systems meant a whole generation of  journalists, working on the web, never actually had to understand the nuts and bolts of how the system worked. They simply showed up for work and wrote their copy or uploaded their photos and video in a system that too them was not too different than the typewriter of an earlier generation.  (That is if the system actually worked.  Again senior management was too often seduced by the promises from software vendors, bought expensive CMS systems that were not suitable for the news, TV  or magazine media)

Lesson  12.  Be aware of the innovation cycle and be prepared for it.

As everyone who works in the media knows, the business is mired in a deep crisis and that crisis is getting worse as new innovations seem to appear almost every day, with corporate news executives flopping around like fish out of water in their efforts to catch up.
 After about a decade of relative stability from the late 1990s to the late 2000s after the introduction and then the maturity of  the world wide web, in the past few years, came Facebook, then Twitter, then the smart phone, then Foursquare, then the iPad and now Quora.
This is reflected on the Twitter feed #futureofnews.  I quickly noticed something about those posting on #futureofnews (I admit that this is unscientific and anecdotal, but perhaps someone looking for a PhD dissertation can quantify it). 

There is, as far as I can tell, an age related reverse bell curve, on those who are posting, either on #futureofnews or #journalism and discussing the survival of the news media.  The majority of posters are either in their 50s and 60s or in their 20s,  students and young journos.

 There are people I met at the Computer Assisted Reporting Conferences in the heady days of the early 1990s, or who appeared on the early CAR and Online news lists like Dan Gillmor, Steve  Yelvington, Danny Sullivan, Steve Outing,  gurus from then and now like Don Tapscott and  other slightly later pioneers like Jim Brady (@jimbradysp) and Jeff Jarvis On the rising side of the reverse bell curve are the younger side,  people in their 20s,  like Adam Westbrook and Cody Brown.

Why is that?  News management these days might like to believe that anyone over 40 is obsolete as far new media technological innovation is concerned.

Not so. My contemporaries, call us the over the hill gang or the geeks from Cocoon, if you wish, were part of a innovation cycle, where we had to adapt to something new every day.  While there are people in  their 30s and 40s on #futureofnews, they are usually not the most frequent posters. Most of those people came into journalism in the relatively stable and mature period of the world wide web from approximately 1996 to 2006.

It is the generation from 18 to 28 that face the greatest challenges. It is a time of economic crisis for  all of society and even more so for the news media, at a time  of  technological innovation that is proceeding at warp speed.  (After all the previous generation, my generation, faced innovation at a time of prosperity and apart from a couple of downturns, economic stability)

That is why the new generation journalists or journalists-to-be are most frequent posters  on #futureofnews and that is where the most productive feedback and mentoring occurs between the previous generation that faced an innovation cycle and the current  generation.

I am not optimistic that the current (mostly aging) corporate news management can adapt to both the economic downturn, the increasing pace of technological innovation, and for the west, especially the United States, too long comfortable at the top of the heap,  growing international competition.

If only a few executives come to realize that we are in a period of evolving media (as I discussed in part one  of this blog) some of the better media will likely survive.

As for the long term survival of  traditional journalism that tells the world both what it wants to know and also what it needs to know,  it is likely that, if anyone saves the craft and the profession, it will be someone who right now is 19 or 21 or even 28, who will discover the key to future success.

If they want help of an old veteran, I’ll be glad, grasshopper, to tell them more tall tales of punch cards and four inch screens and hand coding html news stories.   The world is different, but as I have said what goes around comes around, so I write  in the hope that the Tao of News will give them some ideas on how to be flexible and adaptable in the few of the latest new, new thing,  how to deal with bean-counting managers and corporate IT call centres, so they can do what’s really important, cover the news.

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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.”

“Good old Twitter.” Crowd sourcing at its best


Breaking news! And the news media is far behind, and perhaps doesn’t even care. So a perfect form of crowd sourcing comes to the solution on Twitter.

Toronto’s public transit system was once, many years ago, one of the world’s best, boasting of its success with the slogan ”the better way.”

Then came the Mike Harris neo-Conservative provincial government in the 1990s, an ideologically blind bunch who did something that no one, not even in the United States with its aversion in many jurisdictions to public spending,  had done, downloading the costs completely to the citizens of then Metropolitan Toronto, leaving inadequate funding for the system.

Since then service has deteriorated.  The subway system is plagued with frequent signal failures and service is stopped almost daily as Toronto Fire responds to yet another “smell of smoke at track level.”

So  how do the millions of daily transit users find out what is happening on the system?  The public address system is so bad, so unintelligible, that it has even spawned satirical commercials — for products such as insurance.

For years, if there was a problem, it was often impossible to find out what as going on. You were stuck on a subway platform with perhaps hundreds of other people, wondering what was happening. Or even worse you’d be waiting in the cold and snow for a streetcar or bus that, it seemed, would never  come…

Along came Twitter, and Twitter talks to smart phones. So the Toronto Transit Commission  began sending out service alerts from @ttcupdate.

152-bradross.jpgTTC Communications chief Brad Ross @bradttc, also tweets, including updates on  service interruptions (and gets a growing number of service complaints.). But those tweets are few and often late.


TTC chair, Adam Giambrone, a politician, and the usual on-camera spokesperson for the public transit154-adamgiambrome-thumb-200x161-153.jpg system also tweets at @Adam_Giambrone including updates of service interruptions. But those tweets are few and often late.

If you’re standing on a crowded platform, looking at a subway car stuffed like a sardine, and the public address system sounds like an alien transmission that would take Mr. Data an entire episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to decode, what are you  going to do?

Get off the platform, go upstairs since cell phones don’t work on the subway system and wait for a tweet from #ttcu, the public transit crowd sourcing alert system.

That’s what happened today. I had left the downtown Y after a late workout and was heading home at the start of the rush hour when an overcrowded train pulled in. I was waiting for the next train since I couldn’t get in a car.  The train never moved. There was a garbled, low volume announcement. People started getting off the train and heading upstairs. So I followed and as soon as I was near the entrance my aging Treo 700 tweeted.   #ttcu was getting updates from stranded passengers all across the system.  (For chronological order read from the bottom up. For people outside Toronto YUS stands for Yonge University Spadina subway line)

155-ttcu1.jpgIt was clear that going home by subway wasn’t an option, so I left that station and headed a few blocks south on Yonge St. to grab a streetcar, my Treo tweeting all the way down. The customers who were able to tweet apparently getting their information from the drivers  rather than the public system.

As I got on the College streetcar, frustrated passengers who had left the subway were asking the driver what was going on. “I don’t know, they’re not telling me,” the driver said.

“According to Twitter, there is a major signal failure on the Yonge line,” I said.

“Good old Twitter,” a woman quipped.

People were calling home, telling loved ones they were taking an alternative route. It was not until I had been on the College streetcar for about 10 minutes, approaching Parliament Street that the I received the first official  tweet from the TTC (number two in this grab), at least a full half hour after the first public tweet on #ttcu.

The #ttcu tweets told us more than the official ones, that the transit system had started a system of “local  control” to get some service moving with the signal system still down.

And the problems continued even after the TTC (see above) had tweeted an all clear.


So here is an example of crowd sourcing and social media as it works best. Fast accurate, information ahead of anything official, or  anything from the media. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, during a major power failure in downtown Toronto, at least two TV stations in their live coverage were quoting #ttcu as a reliable source.

And there’s more to it than that, for a journalist #ttcu can be like the old police scanner when someone reports a streetcar diverted or bus held up due to police activity, it’s time for those people on the desks around the city to pick up the phone and find out if it is just another fender bender or another gangland shooting. (yes #ttcu was first to report a gang shooting a couple of weeks ago, even though the actual tweet was simply because a bus was held up by a street blocked by lots of cop cars).

If you’re waiting for a streetcar that never comes, it is hyper-hyper local news. But it’s certainly news you can use (news that you can use that those million dollar news consultants never dreamed of).

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