With the now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge driving off toward their (at the moment secret) honeymoon and with Prince Harry hosting the wee small hours party, the site for the Color sharing photos is up.
Problem one. It is on the Color.com website Royal Wedding page . That appears to show that The Telegraph, even though its logo is on the site, has ceded editorial control to the app company. That is never a good idea, news media companies have tried letting software companies run their sites for 30 years, since the first days of videotex and it has never worked due to the clash of cultures. The news media almost always yank back control as quickly as possible.
Also the site appears to be a raw feed and so who knows what photos could be posted and sent to the server and to nearby users’ phones?
The Telegraph does say that the “best” of the Color social media photos will appear in the paper and on The Telegraph site. So what’s the difference (apart from lens quality and resolution) from the photos are being sent to the social media sections of news sites all over the world by the public, using everything from smart phones to high end DSLRs?
As far as I can tell, there is no difference.
As a news app, Color needs a photo editor. And given current budget restraints, and potential legal problems with news sites using raw, unmoderated feeds, unlikely to be used except in exceptional circumstances.
A great app for sharing photos with friends at a wild party. (Now if Color was at Harry’s party, that would be a different story!!)
As I mentioned in the earlier blog, an app like Color might be useful in reconstructing the events of a disaster or an attack, but for the royal wedding there is a lot of chaff and straw and few viable seeds, a high noise to signal ratio.
My verdict: Not a miracle. Not ready for prime time. Certainly at the moment, not the next Twitter, at least as as a news app and everyone concerned with the future of news knows who critical Twitter has become to news coverage.
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.
A 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 readwriteweb.com
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.
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.”
A couple of days ago, the Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax, which holds most of the surviving artifacts of the ill-fated RMS Titanic, recreated the morse code radio distress messages as “real time” Tweets, exact minute by minute, almost a century later.
The museum’s idea was certainly an imaginative way of using Twitter in 2011.
The event has three lessons on the future of news.
First, the Titanic recreation mirrors the way news organizations and individuals today tweet in real time for breaking news.
Second while a news organization might have had the idea to do something similar, using the files in its morgue (that is if the beancounters haven’t discarded the archive or donated it for tax reasons to a local library or university), it was the museum that created this Twitter event, That shows again that news organizations are in stiff competition, not only with other news media and the bloggers and social media but with any organization with the imagination to do something about a news pegged historic event.
Third, this was a great news and social media story that the news media didn’t pick up. The only story I saw was an advancer from CBC.ca that I saw after the fact and so I missed the tweets. The reaction to those who know about the Tweets and retweeted or commented to #ns_mma or #Titanic were very engaged in the real time story. The media missed this one,.
I am one of those who has always been fascinated by the Titanic story, going back to the first time I saw A Night to Remember on television as a small child (and for some reason, that I was never able to track down, the Titanic story always made my mother very upset. She was born in 1914, two years after the sinking, so there may have been some sort of connection)
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.
One 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.
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
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, giving 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.
In 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 system, 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 “robinrowland.com 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”
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.
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
Let’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.
Some 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.
One 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 and 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.”
If only, if only, my colleagues say, if only the news media had started charging for content when they launched their first websites.
If only the media had charged, then none of the current problems of free content would have happened, the public would know that content costs money and the newspapers and TV stations would have a second, strong income stream and all would be well. There would be lots of good, high paying jobs and the money to do real journalism rather than celebrity silliness.
So now there is a search for scapegoats. Media managers who have shown that they are completely incompetent in running traditional print and broadcast are an easy and obvious target.
Others blame the tech community and a misunderstanding of the truncated quoting of Stewart Brand, “information wants to be free.”
Then came Wired editor Chris Anderson’s nasty tract, Free. The main flaw in “free” is the assumption that the concept can transfer outside the tech and science fiction communities. Unlike commodity (or atom) based corporations, for creative individuals and most of the media, “Free” usually doesn’t work outside those arenas, an inconvenience that the advocates of “free” constantly ignore. What is left is basically a schoolyard bully taunt: “So there, free is the future, so take your medicine and work for nothing.”
Most of the people who ask the question and provide answers were not around in the earliest days of online news media. So that is why there is a belief that if somehow the media had charged in the early days, today all would be well.
Yes, there was one day and just one day, when, if the media had got its act together, it could have started charging for online news, September 1, 1993. The trouble was that there were no major media on the Internet in a big way come that September.
I was present at the creation of online media
I was working in “online media” long before the launch of the World Wide Web, back in the days of videotex and teletext from 1981-1985.
The Internet played a role in my science fiction short story Wait Till Next Year, published in Analog in November, 1988 (although I got some of the tech details wrong).
I got my first Internet account in August 1993. Note I am a very early adopter and got in just before the Internet tsunami a month later in September 1993.
I co-wrote the first book on Researching on the Internet, published in the fall of 1995. So I was researching the state of the internet, the web, and the media at the first moments of news on the web.
I was the third employee assigned to CBC News Online, April 1, 1996.
The cold, hard fact is that web evolved with free content. It had little to do with Stewart Brand. So when the media first ventured onto the web, the media had to play by the rules at the time. Those rules appeared to say, “commerce on the Internet is a no- no.”
The Genesis of the media on the Internet
In the beginning, (in 1968-1969) US Department of Defence created ARPANET.
And DOD saw that it was good.
DOD said let the military and the scientists communicate.
And the military and the scientists communicated.
And DOD saw that it was good. The American was getting a good return for their money.
But then there was darkness on the face of ARPANET,
DOD saw that too many people had access to the ARPANET and most of the users didn’t have security clearances.
DOD said in 1983, we will create a separate MILNET and give the scholars ARPANET
In 1984, the National Science Foundation created NSFNET.
And DOD and NSF saw that it was good.
Thus TCP/IP spread to universities around the world.
And the scholars saw that it was good.
The techs improved a system called UUCP and created protocols for e-mail, ftp and newsgroups.
The campus deans said let us have more access to ARPANET, NSFNET,TCP/IP and UUCP NET via private sector telecoms who can do the wiring.
Verily the private sector telecoms wired the universities and the laboratories and created dial up for scholars in their homes.
The telecoms reaped great profits of gold and silver and precious things from those wires.
And DOD and NSF and the scholars and the techs and the telecoms saw that it was good.
NSF decreed that NSFNET and ARAPNET shall be free from commerce, for it was the will of the community that the networks are for education and the spread of human knowledge.
And so NSF said we shall cast out UUCP NET because it can be used for commerce (but we will still use the free software they developed).
And thus UUCP NET was cast out.
The telecoms and the nations of the world far from North America agreed that this networked system was good and created their own networks.
And they all saw that it was good.
Thus it came to pass that the universities which had journalism schools gave their students access to what was now known as the Internet.
And lo and behold it appeared to be free (although their accounts were paid for, in part, by tuition fees). The students were taught that the Internet was educational and thus should be free for all.
At the same time their elders in journalism who loved tech were using another system called CompuServe (which the elders had to pay for with their credit cards).
The journalism students and j-professors came on to CompuServe said “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy. There is this wonderful thing called the Internet and it is free.”
It came to pass that Tim Berners-Lee at CERN created the World Wide Web.
And all saw that the World Wide Web was good.
So the professors, and the students and the reporters and the editors, all of whom loved tech, all rejoiced when they saw the World Wide Web. For they thought they had found the perfect way to deliver the news.
Out of a whirlwind came Netscape.
At first only the techies loved Netscape.
Then Netscape said we shalt have an IPO.
In the year of our Lord 1995, on the ninth day of August, the IPO came to pass, and it was wonderful and the Netscape stock set a record on Wall Street.
So Netscape became front page news and was high on the evening newscasts.
The media barons and all priests and scribes of the news temples saw that much gold and silver was going to Netscape and asked “What is going on?”
So the barons and the priests and the scribes summoned those of their followers who were techies and said “Tell us, what is this Internet? What is this World Wide Web? Why is Wall Street giving gold and silver and precious things to Netscape?”
The techie reporters and editors said to the barons, the priests and the scribes, this is the Internet, this is the Web.
The techie followers showed the barons, the priests and the scribes their personal websites. Thetechie editors showed the barons, priests and scribes the under the table news sites they had created. They told the exalted ones this World Wide Web is perfect for delivering news, you can have text, you can have pictures, you can have audio and you can even have video.
The barons and the priests and scribes decreed to their techie followers and editors. “Thou shalt build websites for our news operations.”
So the techie news people and the tech techies laboured mightily and created websites. They presented the websites to the barons, priests and scribes.
The barons, priests and scribes looked at the websites and saw that they were good. So they told the news people and techies that they had done a great service and would be rewarded from the gold and silver we get from this new World Wide Web (although the barons, scribes and priests, like all their kind, were lying and did not intend to really reward their followers).
The techie news people and the tech techies trembled and quaked but bravely told the barons, priests and scribes, “No, oh exalted ones, that is forbidden. It has been decreed from on high that there will be no commerce on the Internet.” And they were sore afraid.
The barons, priests and scribes said to themselves, “What the fuck is going on?”
So that’s the story.
From creation to evolution
There are two key points.
First, as is well known, the Internet did evolve from military, scientific and university communications systems which were, on the surface, free, although, of course, largely paid for by the American taxpayer and university endowments
The culture of free exchange of information is the basis of scholarship, but is, of course, paid for behind the scenes, by government, foundation and endowment funding. Thus the culture of freeinformation existed at the core of Internet use at the time the media first began to be interested in putting news on the web.
Second, in the early 1990s, before the rise of the independent Internet Service Providers and the expansion of services by the telecoms, large and small, the main communication network for the Internet in North America was the NSF Backbone, the high speed Internet communications network run by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which as part of its policy, forbade the use of the backbone for commercial purposes.
Thus in theory, and the conventional wisdom believed, no one using the Internet for commercial purposes, and that would have included charging for news, could use the main North American Internet information communications backbone.
But, in reality, the situation was a lot greyer and not so black and white.
I kept all my research material from the time in 1993-1994 (which I recently donated to the York University Computer Museum)when I was writing Researching on the Internet.
Here is what a couple of the leading books of the time said (books which most libraries, I suspect, discarded long ago and so are no longer available to those who lament the media if only)
Internet Companion A beginners guide to global networking Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C Ryer, Addison Wesley, May 1993, put it this way:
Probably the best known and most widely applied is NSFNETs Acceptable Use Policy , which basically states the transmission of “commercial” information or traffic is not allowed across the NSFNET backbone, whereas all information in support of academic and research activities is acceptable.
It sounds somewhat complicated, but you need to remember the original Internet began as US government‑funded experiment and no one expected it to become the widespread, heavily used production network it is today.
It’s going to take a while for commercialization and privatization of these networks to occur. The Internet as whole continues to move to support‑‑or at least allow access to‑‑more and more commercial activity. We may have to deal with some conflicting policies while the process evolves, but at some point in the Internet future, free enterprise will likely prevail and commercial activity will have a defined place, making the whole issue moot, In the meantime, if you’re planning to use the Internet for commercial reasons, make sure the networks you’re using support your kind of activity.
Another book, just a little later, Kevin M Savetz Your Internet Consultant The FAQs of Life Online. Sams, 1994
Commercial activity isn’t allowed on the Internet? It’s purely an academic and educational network, right?
People who advertise and sell stuff on the net should be flogged, right?
Yes and no. As mentioned earlier in this book the Internet is composed of a variety of different networks. Each network has its own set of rules, called acceptable use policies.
Certain networks [particularly the National Science Foundation network, the NSFnet, have strict acceptable use policies that ban most types of commercial use.
On the other hand, another backbone network within the Internet world has been finding considerable interest among commercial internet users‑‑the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). The acceptable use policies of CIX are much more broad and advertising and selling are both within its purview. So although commercial activity isn’t allowed on certain parts of the Internet, it is allowed on others.
People who advertise on the Internet should only be flogged for heinous violations of Internet culture, such as sending unsolicited junk e‑mail or posting commercial messages to Usenet groups that aren’t supposed to be used for commercial messages.
In the same book, another writer, Michael Strangelove, answered the question (key for the media in retrospect and somewhat prescient as well)
Is advertising allowed on the Internet?
…many people see internet as a noncommercial, academic, purely technical environment. Not so: today about fifty per cent of the Internet is populated by commercial users, The commercial Internet is the fastest growing part of cyberspace,
Businesses are discovering that they can advertise to the Internet community at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. With tens of millions of electronic mail users out there in cyberspace today . Internet advertising is an intriguing opportunity not be overlooked. When the turn of the century rolls around and there are one hundred million consumers on the Internet, we may see many ad agencies and advertising supported magazines go under as businesses learn to communicate directly with consumers in cyberspace.
Those were print books aimed at the newbie Internet user.
But it also means that if the media had had the foresight to get on the Internet in the earliest years of the 1990s, they would have had to become part of the proposed Commercial Internet Exchange.
But in 1991, 92, 93, online in a newsroom was confined to what was called in many American (and Canadian) newsrooms, the “geek in the corner.”
The situation was already changing even as those books went to press.
Here is how Wikipedia explained the changes.
The interest in commercial use of the Internet became a hotly debated topic. Although commercial use was forbidden, the exact definition of commercial use could be unclear and subjective. UUCPNet and the X.25 IPSS had no such restrictions, which would eventually see the official barring of UUCPNet use of ARPANET and NSFNet connections. Some UUCP links still remained connecting to these networks however, as administrators cast a blind eye to their operation….
In 1992, Congress allowed commercial activity on NSFNet with the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1862(g), permitting NSFNet to interconnect with commercial networks. This caused controversy amongst university users, who were outraged at the idea of noneducational use of their network
So, the US Congress had opened up the Internet to commercial activities in that country.
The geeks, bearing content
Most of the media was still clueless and didn’t jump to the opportunity, even if they ran Sunday feature stories on the geeks or closing items on the evening news about this thing called “The Internet.”
It is likely that the vast majority of executives with their eyes on Wall Street and paying consultants pushing 1970s media models had no idea that they employed a “geek in the corner,” much less what the geek was doing.
Apart from tech companies, both hardware and software’s growing giants plus the small office start ups and computer science grad students with big ideas, which made up most of Strangelove’s “commercial activity,” the private sector around the world was slow to take up the challenge.
The CBC, as Canada’s public broadcaster, had, at least in those days, a mandate to experiment and innovate. So in 1993, CBC began an experiment working toward streaming radio on the Internet, in cooperation with the Communications Research Council. But as an experiment and coming from a public broadcaster there was no thought of charging for the service. (The history of the early days of CBC.ca shows the kinds of problems that executives faced. And it was a lot harder for the private sector which was expected to make money and even harder now in the era of bean counting consultants and their talk of profit centers).
When business executives finally realized that the Internet was open to commerce, the news media was one of the first industries to make a major effort to invest on posting their material, most of it repurposed on the World Wide Web. The move was most often driven by those managers and employees who were still around from the videotex and teletext days, who saw web based news might succeed where the 1980s projects failed. Usually, these experiments were not sanctioned by head office and the money came from a little creative budgeting.
That meant the content had to be free, right from the beginning.
There’s one factor, that today’s audience metrics obsessed media bean counters have never considered when they say “If only. ” Their all important audience. The audience for online news in the mid-1990s were Internet and Web early adopters and most had adopted the culture of free information. In those early days, no media was willing to make an investment in online content that was actually worth paying for. Most of the news was repurposed from existing print, radio or television, which was readily available (for a price, of course)
So when the first media pioneers ventured on to the Internet in the mid-1990s (including CNN, NBC, the CBC where I worked, the Raleigh News and Observer, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and others) the media was caught in an evolutionary feedback mechanism.
To attract the early adopter audience, the news had to be free. The audience that might have paid was not yet online (although the richer business types were using proprietary electronic services–which meant they didn’t need to pay for web content either. That pre-web willingness to pay for business information is why the Wall Street Journal paywall has worked while others failed).
Where was the money to come from? The early click through rates for the first banner ads (which many in the audience actually objected to) were dismal.
Development of good websites cost time and money and the media was already facing the culture of free. (I predicted trouble for newspapers when I was interviewed by Craig Saila for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in fall 1996, an article published in spring 1997 www.clueless.@nd.hopeless.ca (Registration required) (Also available on Craig Saila’s site)
The headline pretty much sums up the attitude the students of the time had to media management which was failing to adapt to the fast changing environment.
Looks like the students were right. The Ryerson article was just about the media that had had the courage to venture on to the web by the fall of 1996.
Most of the news media were late comers and took almost a decade to catch up in page views with the early starters. The late comers couldn’t charge for their content because 95% of those early online services, their competitors, were free. Neither were putting that much money into real web content.
There was one day that all the media could have made sure they could charge for content. September 1, 1993.
For it was in September 1993 that the Internet (not yet the web) took an evolutionary leap from a government, military and academic information network and communication system to one used by the public.
In September 1993, America Online, then the largest paid service, opened a gateway to Usenet, the “newsgroups” of the Internet for its subscribers. It was a time for those who then thought the Internet was their exclusive domain remember with horror, called by some the tsunami or the beginning, as described by Wikipedia as the “Eternal September,” when their private party ended.
Yes there were a few news organizations with a presence on CompuServe or America Online on September 1, 1993 but far too few and the content was far too thin.
If the media wanted to charge for content, after September 1993, when the thousands of AOL subscribers ventured on to the adolescent Internet of the time and embraced the culture where they expected free content, it was already too late.
A tectonic collision occurred that September, the leading edge of one continent collided with another.
Invasive species penetrated the long balanced media ecosystem and disrupted it beyond imagination. So will evolutionary forces work, will the news media adapt to the new environment?
(Note I haven’t been doing much blogging for the past several months. I took early retirement from CBC News and moved back to my old hometown of Kitimat, British Columbia, a process that took much longer than I anticipated and is still ongoing as I wait for electricians to finish some electrical upgrades on my new house. I am now resuming my quest to find hints on the long term future of news and so the blog and related projects will slowly appear here.)
The old adage from the earliest days of computing, Garbage In Garbage Out still holds.
The beleaguered news industry is obsessed with metrics, too obsessed in my view. That obsession also seems to be based on the idea that the data being gathered is good data, not junk.
Yet this week, up popped on my iPad a sad example of what is wrong with the efforts to save journalism, sad because it comes from one of the United States’ most respected journalism schools. It is a survey, a survey that shows just how out of touch with reality some studying the future of news are, a survey that is so seriously flawed that when I was teaching journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, in the 1990s, I could have used as an example to teach students what to avoid.
When I lived in big cities, and being part of the generation raised on print, I would devour the morning paper along with my breakfast, mostly the Globe and Mail in Toronto, but in the various other cities I have lived, also the Ottawa Citizen, the Times and the Guardian in London, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, the Vancouver Sun and The Province.
Now, in Kitimat, British Columbia, there is no newsprint waiting on my doorstep at dawn.
The iPad (as opposed to a netbook computer) is the next best thing. I can prop the tablet up on the breakfast table and still get my morning news fix (I mean update) without having to go to the computer in my home office. I check the Globe and Mail, AP, the BBC, New York Times and the Daily Telegraph. I enjoy the Guardian’s Eyewitness best of the day photo gallery. (And I would actually consider paying for a Guardian iPad app, but for some mysterious reason, it is only available for the iPhone and I’m an Android user.)
So there I was Saturday morning, scanning the Associated Press app, when there appeared at the bottom of the screen, a very enticing ad.
Since I am interested in shaping the future of news, I tapped.
The first page was both a further enticement and the usual academic disclaimer needed when surveying human subjects. The survey was from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the best institutions south of the border, so I was quite optimistic.
There were warning signs. The disclaimer added a further enticement for ongoing participants, but only to Americans, saying that to win the goodies, an iTunes gift card, you had to be United States resident over 18.
I am interested in shaping the future of news. So I tapped. The first screen came up. My heart sank.
The first question asked for the subject’s five digit US zip code.
That meant immediately that everyone outside the United States didn’t count. I filled in the field to let me see if I could continue. I could, but now the survey has no idea where I’m from.
So much for shaping the future of news.
Here’s the first problem, just the day before the ad popped onto my iPad, on Friday, October 22, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Morgan Stanley estimates that about 13 million Apple tablets will be sold this year, out of 15 million total tablet sales world-wide.
For 2011, Morgan Stanley estimates that Apple’s number will rise to 30 million, while non-Apple tablets will skyrocket to 20 million.
So assuming the figures are correct (and if you check these other links, the Morgan Stanley figures appear to be in the right ball park), 15 million people around the world use tablets at this moment.
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.
TTC 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 transit 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)
It 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).