More on today’s newspaper Twitter fail

I threw out a tweet today criticizing this Twitter post from one of my former employers:

 

 

What this tweet did for me was remind me that there was a State of the State speech, and I was interested in what the governor had to say (I’m originally from Wyoming, hence the reason for the interest). Unfortunately, it’s clear from this tweet that I’m not going to get anything about it on the WyomingNews.com website. And sure enough, as of 9 p.m., nary a word on the site about it.

But guess who did have a story? County10.com (no byline). And the Casper Star-Tribune (but only an AP version). And Jackson Hole Radio. And KOWB in my hometown of Laramie (shout out!).

I understand why this story isn’t online. Going back to six years ago when I worked there, print was very much king because it actually made money. Online didn’t, and thusly the philosophy was “don’t give the news away.” I actually LOVE that philosophy, because really, somebody has to pay to keep real news afloat. Journalists gotta eat, yo.

I would rather, however, that the WTE not use a medium that is only going to infuriate me because I don’t have access to their product. If I want that story, I have to get a copy of the print edition. No option for an online story, even one that might get me to watch an ad or pull out a debit card.

If you’re going to use social media to promote or share content, don’t be such a tease about it.

Take a break from the “Apple is a closed system” meme

For just a second, anyhow.

This post was sparked by a discussion on an online group I belong to. Said discussion was itself sparked by this piece in Gawker, which trots out the predictable anti-Apple arguments (Apple is creating a closed ecosystem for its products, etc.) The discussion turned to journalism and the fear that Steve Jobs somehow has media “under his thumb.”

Warning: post has rant-like qualities.

Ahem.

1. Apple is a device company, not a media company. There’s a large misperception that iTunes and the App Store are the major way Apple makes money. And while the company does make money off the iTunes store ($1.1 billion in the last quarter), they made more than $5.3 billion in revenue in the same quarter from selling iPhones (which are hardware devices).

2. iPhones and iPads are a tiny fraction of their respective markets (if you count the iPad as a computer, that is, not as a new class of tablet device). The iPhone has captured about 25% of the U.S. smartphone market, which is about 20% of the overall cell phone market in the U.S. So about 5% of cell phones in the U.S. are iPhones. It’s very hard to argue monopolistic power when a company is leveraging such a tiny portion of the market.

3. Is Apple actually trying to create its own proprietary network where it’s a curator of content? Sure, to an extent. But this is highly overstated — if you’re smart enough to open a Web browser on your iThing (either Safari or Opera), you get the entire Internet.

The iBooks store will feature books from the Apple store … but you can already get Kindle, Nook, Stanza and Olive e-reader apps for the iPad and iPhone (plus a few others that I’m forgetting now). The iPod app on the iPhone and iPad features music from your iTunes library … which you can either buy through iTunes or by importing .mp3 downloads or even music from CDs. (I hear a few people still have those.) And, on the books front, Apple supports the ePub format … which the Kindle does not.

(If you’re looking for a completely closed format, the Kindle is an excellent villain … but no one seems to be going after Amazon.)

4. Even if Apple were to preapprove every bit of content that appeared on an iThing — down to individual news stories — it would probably still have a market for its devices. Which is the entire point. Demand for the iPod/iPad/iPhone operates in an open market. If people don’t want their stuff, they won’t buy it.

Linux is a completely open and free system for desktops. It has about a 2% adoption rate in the U.S.

In my job, I use or have recently used computers running Mac OS 10.5, Mac OS 10.6, iPhone OS 3.1.1, Windows 7, Windows XP, Debian Lenny, Debian Etch, and Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope. None of them seem to have a monopoly on the market.

Look, there are plenty of threats to journalism out there. You can read about some here.

But I have a hard time thinking Apple is one of them.

OK, end rant. For a cool look at the future of tablet computing, check out this piece from Wired magazine. I especially like this quote (emphasis mine)

Compared to other kinds of information that computers process today, text has an exceptionally small footprint. With the arrival of the tablet, we have crossed a critical threshold: Where text is concerned, we effectively have infinite computational resources, connectivity, and portability. For decades, futurists have dreamed of the “universal book”: a handheld reading device that would give you instant access to every book in the Library of Congress. In the tablet era, it’s no longer technology holding us back from realizing that vision; it’s the copyright holders.

(This was originally posted over at my personal blog. I’m thinking about doing a primer for journalists covering open/closed source topics. Interested? Let me know.)

CASE STUDY: Using Twitter to report the recent Taser case in Columbia

On March 18, around 5:30 p.m., a man was shot with a Taser on Ninth Street in Columbia. Here’s the lede from the Columbia Missourian report:

Police shocked a man with a Taser after he reportedly assaulted a Columbia police officer during an incident at Lakota Coffee Co. on Ninth Street on Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, the Missourian didn’t get this story posted until 6:39 p.m. March 19 — a full 24 hours after the news happened. The Columbia Tribune didn’t do that much better in its report — the first story the Trib published came at 12:51 p.m. March 19. It was later updated at 1:41 p.m.

So why does it take the Trib 18 hours to turn a significant crime story? And why does it take the Missourian even longer? Easy: Both pieces are one-source stories from the spokeswoman at the Columbia Police Department.

Full disclosure: I am the opinion editor at the Missourian, but I’m currently home on paternity leave with my second child. I’m pretty disconnected from the newsroom right now, though I’m still getting my usual load of news releases and inter-office memos via e-mail (i.e. I’m still on the listserv). I did not get in touch with the Missourian about this story or for this blog post.

I first learned of the story through Twitter when I saw this tweet:

He wasn’t the only witness either:

She saw it, too:

Clearly, there were witnesses, but none appeared in either story. That’s a shame, because Tasers are a controversial issue within the Columbia community and has been for a while. One group of activists is completely opposed to Tasers, saying they’re too dangerous and can cause accidental deaths. The other side sees it as a useful, justified and necessary law-enforcement tool. To both sides, this is news: It’s either another example of an unneccessary use of force, or it’s a good example of the dangers police officers face and a textbook argument for why we should be equipping them with the best tools for the job.

Whichever way you lean, it’s news. So why wait to report it? Why not report what you know as you know it, like she did:

And as for this one-source thing — why? Witnesses are clearly willing to talk about it:

Plus, news spreads quickly over social media (check out all the retweets):

Here’s how I would have done it if I wasn’t up to my elbows in diapers:

1. Report what you know as you know it: Confirm someone was shot with a Taser. Publish that. Then, start contacting witnesses. Get to the scene ASAP and start asking questions. Start making contacts on Twitter and Facebook — ask them to call the office or to let you DM them your cell number.

2. Continue publishing facts as you can confirm. If a witness saw a police officer get punched, put it in with attribution. You don’t have to wait for the official spokeswoman comment if you have an eye witness. But do be careful with the language — don’t make anyone guilty or a victim, just report the facts. Let the reader decide.

3. When the official spokeswoman is ready to tell the official side, add it to the story. And while you have her ear, ask her to corroborate your witness statements. If the stories differ, be transparent about it.

And most importantly — don’t just put the story on your site and hope people will come find it. Use those same social networks to get the word out that you have the story.

Take a break with The Copy Editor’s Lament (The Layoff Song)

If you’re a copy editor or have ever worked in a newspaper newsroom, you’ll identify with this. Enjoy!

Apple tablet could be a game-changer for e-readers

An interesting post over at Gizmodo have me thinking about e-readers again. I went to an e-reader summit a couple of weeks ago hosted by the Digital Publishing Alliance here at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

It was pretty clear that the folks in the room all thought that e-readers would be a part of their business model. What wasn’t clear is how large a part of the business model they would be, or how exactly newspapers would monetize content that’s being delivered on an e-reader. There were reps at this meeting from Sony and Plastic Logic (no one from Amazon, unfortunately) and there was a lot of talk about the next generation of e-readers, which would feature quicker page-turning and refresh rates, be thinner and lighter, etc. Color might be coming in 2011, and so on.

Well, if Apple really does intend to put out a tablet — and the signs point to it being a when, not an if — it would pretty much blow any current e-reader out of the water, simply because at a similar price point, the tablet would have massively more functionality than an e-ink device.

Beside the functionality, though, a tablet (being also a full-on computer) could also pave the way for multimedia presentations and new ways of creating and linking digital content. For current books, that’s a “meh” — are you going to provide photos of Victorian England to go along with Bleak House? (Well, actually, that sounds kind of interesting …) But it would be really interesting to see what newspapers and magazines can do to provide multimedia and interactive graphics on a device that’s close to an e-reader in size — something that’s got the read-in-bed capability that laptops and larger devices are lacking. It might eventually come close to the vision Roger Fidler and I had for our eMprint project at the Missourian.

(Cross-posted from my other blog)

How not to build an iPhone app

I don’t know if it’s the AP’s status as a co-op, or its decentralized nature, or its ties to traditional (old) media, or what the problem is. But once again, they’ve proven that they just don’t get it when it comes to new media.

The AP launched a stylebook app for the iPhone/iPod Touch today. Which is pretty cool on the face of it. But there are two things that make it a major bucket of fail:

1. It costs $28.99 (for comparison’s sake, the print edition of the same book is $12.89 on Amazon.com).
2. It doesn’t dynamically update. Check the snippet from the news release below:

The 2009 AP Stylebook app is available for $28.99 from the App Store on iPhone and iPod touch or at http://www.itunes.com/appstore. Annual releases for the app are set to coincide with the release dates for the Stylebook print edition. As a bonus, 2009 AP Stylebook app users will automatically receive an upgrade to the 2010 AP Stylebook app as soon as it becomes available.

I did a quick search for “dictionary” on the App Store and turned up more than 50 results, many of which were free or cost $0.99. Even complicated dictionary programs, such as Latin-English or English-Chinese, didn’t go above $3.99. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was on the high end, at $24.99, but comes in seven languages. (I’m aware that the stylebook is more than a dictionary, but please … it’s got something like 3,000 entries, total.)

I’m just really not sure of who the market is for this. Most journalists I know who use the stylebook daily have several sitting around a copy desk, paid for by the newspaper. I had a previous experience with the AP when I attempted to buy their online stylebook for our newsroom; they had no clue what a “concurrent license” was and insisted that $25 was a fair rate, even with our university bookstore charging $10 for the print edition.

But, most of all, what irks me is the utter lack of dynamic content. It’s an app on a phone that connects to the Internet — AP, seriously, you really can’t provide updates automatically?

Big chunk of fail.

UPDATE: Breaking down Washington Post’s social media guidelines

The much-debated social media guidelines from the Washington Post have now been published online at paidcontent.org.

Now that we have the full document, let’s dissect it to see what’s good, what’s bad and what needs revision.

Here’s the opening graf:

Social networks are communications media, and a part of our everyday lives. They can be valuable tools in gathering and disseminating news and information. They also create some potential hazards we need to recognize. When using social networking tools for reporting or for our personal lives, we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists.  The following guidelines apply to all Post journalists, without limitation to the subject matter of their assignments.

The emphasis in that graf comes from the Post, but I agree wholeheartedly with it. My last blog post, which one friend constructively criticized as being long on passion, may have given the impression that journalists should be able to say anything they want to say on social networks. I don’t believe that at all. Journalists should still behave as professionals at all time, not get into petty arguments a la Perez Hilton.

Using Social Networking Tools for Reporting

When using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, My Space or Twitter for reporting, we must protect our professional integrity.  Washington Post journalists should identify themselves as such. We must be accurate in our reporting and transparent about our intentions when participating.  We must be concise yet clear when describing who we are and what information we seek.

When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment.  We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.

Our online data trails reflect on our professional reputations and those of The Washington Post.  Be sure that your pattern of use does not suggest, for example, that you are interested only in people with one particular view of a topic or issue.

Nothing here really stands out as a problem. Social media outlets are a wonderful resource for story ideas, sources, crowdsourcing, etc. etc. As for the line about “impartiality of our news judgments,” that could be taken a number of ways, but I take it as this: Be fair to all sides, and let all viable voices be heard. That doesn’t equal objectivity, it equals fair and balanced (which, despite my disdain for Fox News, is a slogan the entire media should adopt).

Before we move on with this analysis, let’s take a moment to discuss objectivity. For one, it’s an ideal, not a hittable target. In traditional newspaper journalism, we teach our reporters starting out to write in an inverted pyramid style: Most important stuff first, then trail off with what’s less important. But isn’t the process of determining what is most important and what isn’t subjective?

Rather than pay lip service to this impossible ideal, which the journalism community has done for decades, social media has given us, the journalists, an opportunity to be real people again. We have the ability to interact with our readers and share insights. That’s not something you can do with a two-dimensional hunk of newsprint. Making those personal connections will go a long way toward keeping professional journalists in business. After all, would you rather have a news discussion, or would you rather have someone on high telling you that’s the way it is? The industry’s circulation numbers are the best answer to that question.

Back to the analysis …

Using Social Networking Tools for Personal Reasons

All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens.  Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.

What appears on Twitter and what appears in the pages of the Washington Post are totally different animals. One is endorsed by a journalistic institute — the other lends insight into how the journalist framed a story. The public is absolutely smart enough to get that. The partisan critics out there will argue the opposite, and that’s fine. The partisan critics are going to argue anyway. Let ’em.

Here’s the thing about journalists: They all have opinions. It’s called being human. If a journalist spends hours and hours researching a particular subject, talks to all the players, sits through meetings, and otherwise takes in tons of information, OF COURSE he or she is going to form an opinion. Remember the idea that opinions are kind of like belly buttons? So why are we pretending that these opinions can be shoved aside long enough for the news to be framed?

To paraphrase the late, great George Carlin, I want my bullshit front and center where I can get a good whiff of it. In other words, I want to know right away what bias is sneaking into my news. Example: I can watch and trust Fox News if it’s covering something non-political, like a bank robbery or a wildfire. But once that discussion turns to the political party that make it possible for that bank to be robbed or that wildfire to spread, I know I’ll need to hear from a few other sources to make up my own mind.

What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account.  It is possible to use privacy controls online to limit access to sensitive information. But such controls are only a deterrent, not an absolute insulator. Reality is simple: If you don’t want something to be found online, don’t put it there.

This is just good advice for everyone. Privacy controls fail. So keep your most personal stuff offline.

Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.  Post journalists should not be involved in any social networks related to advocacy or a special interest regarding topics they cover, unless specifically permitted by a supervising editor for reporting and so long as other standards of transparency are maintained while doing any such reporting.

What exactly is meant by “involved”? If I’m following a special interest group on Twitter, does it mean I support those views, or am I keeping an eye on it in case I can find a story idea? Again, the key here is transparency. I’m fine with a certain amount of bias in a report on two conditions: 1) It’s transparent; 2) The alternative arguments are given fair representation. As I argued in my last blog, objectivity as a business model is something newsrooms have preached for years. And how’s that working for us now?

Post journalists should not accept or place tokens, badges or virtual gifts from political or partisan causes on pages or sites, and should monitor information posted on your own personal profile sites by those with whom you are associated online for appropriateness.

No argument here.

Personal pages online are no place for the discussion of internal newsroom issues such as sourcing, reporting of stories, decisions to publish or not to publish, personnel matters and untoward personal or professional matters involving our colleagues. The same is true for opinions or information regarding any business activities of The Washington Post Company. Such pages and sites also should not be used to criticize competitors or those who take issue with our journalism or our journalists.

Now, I think personal pages are a wonderful place to discuss sourcing, reporting decisions and the like. It is not the place to air office politics and other dirty newsroom laundry (Full disclosure: I went down this road once myself, complaining about a manager I had a following out with. And although everything I said in that blog I had already said to his face, I should have kept it between him and I. It didn’t effect any stories or coverage decisions, and thus I should have found a less public way to vent).

Newspapers, by and large, are so good about explaining the decisions that go into a news report. Heck, the Post has been a major leader in that over the years (the Angler series on Dick Cheney comes to mind). We do this through ombud columns, live chats, Q&A’s, etc. etc. So why does this need to be confined to the Post’s site? Why can’t this discussion happen elsewhere, too?

Conclusion

The Post and other newsrooms that will no doubt embrace these guidelines are embracing and applying traditional values to nontraditional media. And until those journalists realize that the technology of Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, et al is changing the way we can and should cover the news, they will continue to see readership shrink and their institutional place among journalism’s elite erode.

And this is coming from a guy who used to pitch huge, emotional fits in the newsroom about the importance of adhereing to objectivity. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I often learned the most about a subject through several filters as opposed to a single, sterilized filter. Objectivity takes the voice out of the news, and that voice is what makes news matter to people. It’s what helps us understand and relate. It’s what shows us that there are people who think similarly and that others can have a different take.

The best thing we can do as an industry is give up this ideal of objectivity, continue covering the news with the same enthusiasm for a fair and balanced report as we have for objectivity, and let readers get their two cents in.