Thursday, March 23, 2006

Competition and its alternatives

(Cross-posted from Xark!)

I offer this as proof that even really cool ideas can take a while to find their audiences, particularly when that audience is saturated by media in the first place. Anyway, thanks to the few Charleston bloggers I have found and added to my reading list, I've finally encountered something I should have been tracking for weeks: a Charleston City Paper guy named Jay Stecher. Apparently, Stecher has been doing a thing since Feb. 1 called "The Weekly Geekly" -- great name, eh? -- in which he rounds up local blogs and podcasts, etc.

The Weekly Geekly isn't a blog -- though it would make a natural one, hint-hint -- but it's already doing one of the things I hope to convince my bosses to do: draw attention to the work of people who are making their own media in the city we share. This is hardly a cutting-edge idea, but it's alien to the competitive-media-mind until you wrap your brain around some of the related concepts. In case you haven't noticed, newspapers traditionally hate citing the work of their competitors.

And this is one of those related concepts: in blogging, you don't deal with competition by trying to freeze out your competitors.

One of my favorite stories from ConvergeSouth was someone (I forget who) talking about how The (Greensboro) News and Record had improved its relationship with the local blogosphere by changing the way it dealt with staff-written stories that were developed from independent blog posts. The first N&R stories that were "inspired" by information originally reported on blogs routinely made zero mention of that fact. Bloggers cried foul.

What those bloggers probably didn't know was this: reinventing someone else's wheel so that you can say "Look! I made a wheel!" is a longstanding and truly stupid tradition in traditional media. Every paper I've ever worked for has done it, and as city editor, I used to tell people to do it.

Anyway, here's the thinking (or rationalization, take your pick): Readers want local news. Readers will define "local" as "staff written." So if the Associated Press or one of our wire services moves a story that is local to our market or touches on a local issue, we will "localize" the story. For you. The reader.

At a minimum, localization means that I'll take a story that deals with a national or regional trend or issue and make sure that there is information in that story that places the local situation in that larger context. The AP moves a story on freedom of information compliance, so I add some paragraphs that tell local readers what the rules are here. I don't have any problem with that.

Where I go off the reservation is when it comes to the second level of localization, which I like to call "theft." A wire service writes a story about something in our state, and we don't have it. So we assign a reporter to call all the same sources from the original story, then write the same thing using different words. When that story appears in print, there's no mention the original article.

And it's even worse if the source for the story is a direct competitor instead of a mutual wire service. Yikes! We've been scooped! We need to do this story right now!

We rationalize this by saying "Well, we need to verify the story independently," but this just isn't a meaningful response. Yes, independent verification is a good thing. But we run wire stories that we don't verify every day. We couldn't possibly meet such a standard.

The truth is, news organizations recreate existing news stories when they're caught flatfooted by other news organizations and don't want to admit it. I think it's dishonest, wasteful of precious reporting resources and disrepectful of our readers -- not to mention the originator of the story.

So when you hear that the Greensboro reporters weren't citing the work of local bloggers, you can understand why. The N&R reporters and editors were doing what we've always done as an industry. They were applying "traditional newspaper values" to their relationship with the blogosphere. And those values just didn't work in the new medium.

The N&R made peace with its local bloggers by changing the way it looked at them. Competitors? Maybe. But nature suggests that there are viable relationships between species that are something other than competitive. A better word is symbiosis. And a symbiosis between Big Local Media and independent local bloggers is a much more productive relationship for everyone concerned.

Greensboro solution? When an N&R reporter finds a legitimate story in a local blog, the reporter does all the necessary reporting as if he or she was starting from scratch. But when the story appears, the blog is cited. The blogger gets traffic, credibility and juice. The honoring of that work then reflects back on the N&R, building its brand within the local blogosphere. Everyone benefits.

As frequent Xark commenter Pam Morris (a brilliant and witty microbiologist) described it to me once, not every bacteria colony succeeds by out-competing its rivals for available resources. Some get along by handicapping their rivals' ability to compete. "They're really kind of evil. It's like a really bad corporate environment," she said (I'm quoting from memory).

I don't think that attitude has a long-term future with online media. If you base your product on claims of fairness, openness, transparency, whatever, then you just can't go around acting like evil bacteria. You can't see bloggers who write about your local market as enemies to be crushed. You can't even view your critics this way.

Read this carefully: I'm not talking about a future in which there is no competition. I'm suggesting instead that we start developing new attitudes and relationships. It is possible to be both competitive and cooperative. Think I'm just an unrealistic hippie selling psuedo-socialist Kool-Aid? Allow me to introduce you to The NFL.

My bosses crossed the first of these bridges in May 2005, when my posts at our Spoletoblog routinely cited the work of bloggers for The Charleston City Paper. Some people in the building were disturbed, but my boss wasn't.

"I told 'em that's just the way this new world works," he said.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The campaign against Wikipedia

(Editor's note: This post began as a news item at Xark!, but grew into a stand-alone essay.)

I first noticed this back in February while speaking about Web trends to a Public Relations/Business Communications class at a local college. When I asked about Wikipedia, everyone who spoke expressed a clear message: Wikipedia, to them, was not so much a resource as it was a threat.

Multiple students reported they had been told by their instructors not to use it -- ever*. Some spoke of professors who routinely threatened to punish anyone caught using it. And even my host allowed that her attitude toward the online encyclopedia was less than charitable.

Last night, speaking to a group of high-school journalists, I got similar responses. In these instances, I detect not only scholarly skepticism, but something more. Something bordering on scorn.

Like the college students from last month, these high schoolers knew that anybody could edit Wikipedia, though none of them expressed any understanding about how the system functioned, what a wiki is, or how a community of editors becomes a self-correcting entity, etc.

It's a disconnect. I see Wikipedia as a way of thinking about information and virtual community. They see it as a free-for-all. Their teachers see it as anarchy.

I call this a backlash. Wikipedia came out of nowhere, fast, to become the largest encyclopedia in history. Some academics, who as a group are used to controlling such things, were horrified by the wiki concept -- and financially threatened by the open-source, free-info, non-profit model that keeps Wikipedia a living, growing document. Rather than checking it out further, a segment of academia appears to have united against it.

From a PR standpoint, the big blow came in December when John Seigenthaler wrote a widely publicized piece citing inaccuracies in a Wikipedia article on his life.The founding editorial director of USA Today called Wikipedia "a flawed and irresponsible research tool" in a column that reflected the attitude I've noticed among some academics -- that whatever else Wikipedia may be, it also is a sandbox for malcontents, anarchists and children who run around with scissors. In other words: Not For Serious Adults.

In the wake of the Seigenthaler column, big-name bloggers and technorati, including Dave Winer and Adam Curry, came out with their own criticisms. Making matters worse, Wikipedia founder (or, as the case may be, co-founder) Jimmy Wales got "caught" editing his Wikipedia bio and taking out references to his early collaborators.

Wikipedians got their say in the ensuing coverage, but from an outsider's perspective, it seemed like the Wikimedia Foundation -- a concept I dearly love -- was suddenly in public-relations damage control mode.

Here's my take:

The idea that Wikipedia is less accurate because it doesn't have top-down editorial control is, itself, inaccurate. A better question would be, When do we know it to be accurate? The whole concept of a collaborative information project is based on the idea that community collaboration will identify and correct errors -- in public. Traditional media also involves editing and fact-checking, but it does so before publication and without transparency. Yet traditional media routinely stumble when it comes to correcting the errors that slip past those all-too-human pre-pub controls.

"Does Wikipedia have errors?" isn't a meaningful question, but "what errors will an individual Wikipedia entry contain in the snapshot of time that I see when I call up the entry?" is a question that actually takes us somewhere.

Wikipedia asks that we correct the errors we see -- and, unlike the popular stereotype of Wikipedia as an irresponsible Wild West of disinformation -- Wikipedia as a process includes multiple feedback loops that address vandalism, inaccuracies, biased writing, etc. It assumes that people are adults.

The question, then, is not whether Wikipedia has editorial quality controls (it does), but whether those controls work fast enough.

That's an open-ended question (fast enough compared to what?), but I contend that a wiki-model encyclopedia will probably correct its errors far faster than a proprietary encyclopedia. My reasoning? Top-down, for-profit editoral control pays a few people to ride herd on a large range. It cannot mobilize as many corrective resources, as quickly, as the Wikipedia community can.

Plus, is Wikipedia really inaccurate? Again, accurate compared to what?

Nature decided to compare Wikipedia to Britannica, considered the Gold Standard of traditional enclopedias. Its finding? On a survey of 42 science articles, Britannica was more accurate.

But how much more accurate? Not much. The Nature study found an average of four errors in its Wikipedia entries... compared to three errors, on average, in a Britannica entry.

The debate goes back and forth, with some Wikipedians contending that the average Wikipedia entry is 2.6 times longer than the average Britannica entry, then doing the math to produce a lower error rate. Yada yada yada. I don't care. Framing this as a competition between Wikipedia and Britannica misses the point.

The more telling comparison is between Wikipedia and Google, because when you consider how I've come to use Wikipedia, it's as an alternative to general web search engines. Wikipedia is just as fast, far more relevant and much more accurate in the information it returns. Viewed as a form of curated search, Wikipedia looks a lot less threatening.

In this sense, Wikipedia is a through-point, not a destination. And, ironically, this was exactly how my teachers told me I was supposed to use an encyclopedia Back In The Day.

Not only are we comparing Wikipedia to the wrong standard and failing to understand it as a process and a community, we're also missing the most valuable points of the accuracy debate by taking Wikipedia out of its natural context: the larger Web. Dave Winer has been cited by Wiki-haters for his criticisms, but that's far from the complete picture. Consider this Scripting News post from December, in which Winer addresses the Siegenthaler case and the larger ethical question of who-should-edit-what (emphasis added):
Ross Mayfield sees the pros and cons of editing your bio page on Wikipedia. Here's my take on it. No, you must not edit your bio page, or any page about a topic in which you have an interest. It's impossible to disclose that interest, so the poor reader has no idea how to credit what's on the page. This is the weakness of Wikipedia, in fact of all wiki. But his point about the knowledge you have about yourself is an important one. Imho, the obvious answer is that your page, on your site, edited only by you, should be linked to from the equivalent Wikipedia page, in a consistent and prominent way. Your review of a page about something you're involved in is important, but it must be clear to the reader that they are reading something that's interested. Ultimately, this combination of wiki and blogging is going to be the answer. It's how Jimmy Wales will be able to tell us he doesn't think the stuff on his Bomis site was porn and how his Ferrari cost less than most SUVs, and how Adam Curry can tell you all about himself and edit everyone else out. Now the question is, who is qualified to edit the Wikipedia page?
That's a great question, with multiple possible "correct" answers. But Dave Winer's perspective demonstrates how wholistic thinking trumps simplistic, out-of-context analysis. Lets see Wikipedia for what it is, what it can be, how it fits into its environment, and encourage people to use it properly.

Exactly. So what if I can't cite Wikipedia the same way I would a static source? It's still immensely valuable to me.

Should we take what we find at Wikipedia at face value? No. Duh. But let's restate the question: Should we take ANY information we find, online or otherwise, at face value? Answers, please, on a post card.

Ultimately, the Wikipedia controversy, if it can be called that, is about how we feel about control. I know where I come down on that subject, and it's right where Jimmy Wales was when he spoke to USA Today in December: "'Any place where the general public is allowed to freely express their opinion without having any sort of prior approval from authority — it is dangerous,' Wales says. 'Free speech is dangerous. But it's also incredibly powerful and useful.'"


(* March 8 editor's note: I've been thinking about the sentence where I wrote that some students said they had been told not to use Wikipedia "ever," and I feel I should clarify this statement. I wasn't taking notes, but the more I think about that sentence the more I worry that it is misleading. They were certainly told not to use Wikipedia in the limited sense of citing it in a footnote. And at least one student mentioned that a teacher had told him that it was OK to go to Wikipedia so long as he didn't use any information he found there. My interpretation of their comments doesn't change, but I think the wording in my original sentence overstates the level of explicit prohibition. Restated, it would be this: they're free to read Wikipedia if they choose to do so, but they are not to use it in their assignments. -- dc)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Katrina Tapes

What's really all that new in the AP Katrina video story?

In a word: Video.

The failure of the Katrina relief effort isn't news. Americans learned back in August and September that the government response to the Katrina disaster was inadequate. And though bias-warrior conservatives tend to blame the media for all negative perceptions of their champions, Katrina swept those arguments away like so many shacks in the 9th Ward.


In a word: Video.

It wasn't subtle liberal framing by CNN or CBS News or the NYT that sank Bush in September: It was video of the President saying "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie." Plus video of the President trying to look Presidential by hugging two black storm "victims" at a fictional "aid station" on the Mississippi coast. Plus video of a passerby shouting "Go fuck yourself!" to Dick Cheney during a live news photo-op.

For all the media sturm und drang, the post-Katrina days were a period when the images the White House engineered to deliver its message just looked... phony. People might not have been able to put their finger on what was wrong, exactly, but it didn't take a rocket surgeon figure out that the reality of the unfolding tragedy just didn't jibe with the official response.

But that was then. What's the big deal now about the video of these of these pre-landfall FEMA briefings?

It's not that we didn't have solid evidence that the federal response had been bungled. And we've had plenty of evidence that the White House had gone into bunker mode, refusing for months to cooperate with Capitol Hill investigators. We knew last week that the White House report on the Katrina response managed to point no fingers at the Oval Office. It's all there if you want to read it. But few do.

The facts in those stories have a fatal flaw: they're just words. Written words. And in the war of the written word, there is no end to the parsing and the framing and the sense that the real truth lies somewhere else, beyond some media curtain, obscured by partisan interests and secretive agendas.

Informed media consumers are aware that video is at least as easy to manipulate as words, and that pictures can, in fact, lie. But the power of the image is undeniable. Why else would the question of whether Bush did a photo op with Jack Abramoff take on such high-stakes importance? Even if such a photo recorded nothing more than a meaningless "Thanks for your support" moment, in political terms such an image represents a tremendous weapon for the President's opponents.

So this is the meaningful part of the Katrina briefing-video story: non-partisan people who see it just won't walk away with the impression that the President of the United States was all that involved or concerned. There's a hollowness to his promises of federal support. There's a visual difference in the urgency expressed by the emergency officials seated cheek-to-jowl around a conference table and the president, seated beside an advisor and a cameraman, alone in a room at the ranch where he was spending his vacation.

No amount of journalistic balancing can undo the impression that such a video presents.

Such impressions can be misleading, and so far, hammering on this point and blaming the media -- again -- seems to be the best the Right can do.

"WE'RE BACK TO HEARING ABOUT KATRINA, which is a pretty good sign the media is trying to gin up an other anti-Bush swarm," Glenn Reynolds wrote at Instapundit. "Katrina taught the media that if they all swarmed Bush at once they could do harm even if -- as turned out to be the case -- much of what they reported was outright false. I've noticed a lot more of that since. The Bush Administration is quite capable of making its own trouble with PR -- see the ports issue, for example -- but it's also quite clear that the media is doing this sort of thing for entirely partisan reasons."

Entirely partisan reasons? I think that entirely misses the point. The show we're watching could be titled "The Bureaucracy Strikes Back." The White House strategy has been to scapegoat its underlings. It just didn't figure that the underlings would be smart enough to tape the proceedings -- and keep copies.

John Hindraker at Powerline plays lawyer tricks. We haven't seen the videos in their entirety. The clips were edited "in a way obviously intended to make President Bush and the administration look bad." Do the clips show the President misled the country? Hindraker's answer sounds an awful lot like "It depends on what your definition of the word 'is' is."

Hindraker parses with excruciating care the sourcing of AP phrases like "and Bush was worried too" while focusing enormous attention on the difference between "breaching" and "overtopping." Apparently, to Bush loyalists, the difference between one and the other proves that the media is bad and that Bush is blameless, although I honestly can say that after reading his arguments carefully I reached this conclusion: If one of my kids rationalized a failure of that magnitude with such threadbare word-play, I'd laugh while I whupped his sorry butt.

Anyway, none of this amounts to anything more than a temporary rhetorical fallback position for the partisan Right. When it's just words in play, more words can usually blunt their effect. But words can't undo the effect of images, as the Rodney King riots illustrated vividly in 1992.

There's still a lot of Bush administration tenure ahead of us, and for close observers, this may be little more than a footnote.

But to casual TV consumers, this looks an awful lot like that last, heavy straw.