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Mar. 13 2010 — 1:10 pm | 38 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

New York

Reason to hate New York:

New York Cabs Gouged Riders Out of Millions – NYTimes.com.

Reason to love it:

Mar. 8 2010 — 2:25 pm | 548 views | 1 recommendations | 14 comments

Kouwe didn’t need anti-plagiarism software, just intellectual honesty

The New York Times

Image via Wikipedia

If you’re not familiar with the Zachary Kouwe story, you can read the Times‘ Clark Hoyt’s recap here. Basically, Kouwe, a reporter for the New York Times‘ Business section and DealBook blog, stole copy from wire service reports, press releases, and in a few cases, original reporting from the Wall Street Journal, which is how he was busted– the Journal’s editor, Robert Thomson, complained to the Times’ Bill Keller.

Some, including Craig Silverman make the case (or at least supply the facts for others to make) that plagiarism detection software might be a good thing for newsrooms to invest in, to scan their own reporters’ stories for potential sourcing problems. I have to completely disagree. But not because I’m worried about newsrooms turning all Big Brother on their own reporters. No, I think, as evidenced by Kouwe’s lame excuses, both to the media, and to the bloggers from which he stole, he knew what he was doing, and chose to continue doing it, due either to pressure he put on himself, or the newspaper’s editors put on him, productivity-wise. The problem is not one of software detection algorithms, but of human decision making.

Putting myself in Kouwe’s shoes for a second, he says he was filing upwards of 7,000 words a week, of hard-fact copy, for DealBook, the Andrew Ross Sorkin-founded business blog that’s in some ways become the flagship of the Times’ online business reporting. Now, honestly, for the type of bold-faced, big name stories the paper covers, any experienced business editor has to realize that one reporter can’t possibly turn in that much originally reported hard news, consistently, week after week. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Kouwe naturally scanned the wires, blogs, press releases, etc., to stay on top of breaking news; he also read what others had the time to report and posted relevant stories to DealBook. All of that is kosher; that’s how a blog works. But copying and pasting paragraphs of text into your editing software, without including the URL, or a note to yourself of the source, is not being lazy or sloppy; it’s the first step of willful omission of the sourcing, whether it happens in your Word document or WordPress backend.

What’s also not OK is that Kouwe, in his note to Teri Buhl (linked above, which Felix Salmon reported) tried to argue his way out of giving proper sourcing to Buhl’s story, months before his episode with the Journal. I have to assume this is because Kouwe felt the pressure from the newspaper’s editors to provide a certain amount of original reporting in his stories. So he justified copy/pasting excerpts of other people’s work by convincing himself that sourcing wasn’t necessary because he had thrown some of his own reporting on top of the original story. Kouwe had logged several years as a newspaper journalist. He knows that’s not how it works. But there is that pressure. Editors of  certain stripe do get annoyed/upset when you attribute reporting to a competitor, especially if they’re of the opinion that you could report the same details yourself if you’d quit being so lazy and pick up the damn phone. But, would Kouwe have called the sources for the story Teri Buhl writes about, if Buhl hadn’t wrote the story in the first place? Almost certainly not. Therefore, Buhl deserved credit for the scoop, even if Kouwe did new reporting on top of it. As did the Journal.

I would bet, with no inside knowledge, that the fiercely competitive Times, especially its Business section, especially DealBook, is loath to credit competitors, because it looks weak. So editors push for original-sounding reporting, and Kouwe massaged wire copy and blog posts to meet deadlines and word counts. Look, there’s only so many ways to report the figures of a deal. If Reuters or Bloomberg already wrote the perfect two sentence graf, why not quote it, attribute it, and be done with it? What’s the point of having a highly paid Times staff writer pull up EDGAR, get the 10-Q, do the math on the numbers, and write his own sentence? Surely he’s got other work to do, 6,990 other words to file?

I’m not absolving Kouwe. I’m just saying plagiarism detection software doesn’t get at the problem of asking a financial reporter to file 7,000 original words per week, on a dozen or more different stories, given the length of typical blog posts. Nor does it get to the problem of why Kouwe felt uncomfortable crediting blogs and newspapers for their reporting.

At The Big Money I was a regular writer of Today’s Business Press; a first-read 700 word summary of the major dailies’ business sections, which is still being written every weekday by my successors. We make no bones about what we do; we read articles, summarize or pull quote them, and direct our readers to the newspapers that wrote the originals, sometimes teasing additional facts or bits of interest that are present in the original story. We cite every publication, use ample quotes, and avoid rewriting the stories as much as possible. If we have observations or new reporting to add, we add it, but we make it clear where we’re getting our information from.

Kouwe, in filing so much copy for DealBook, was clearly being asked to do much of the same thing, in addition to any original reporting he undertook. Except somebody, either Kouwe, Sorkin, or editors at the newspaper, couldn’t stomach the idea of doling out so much credit to other outlets, whereas we at TBM write Today’s Business Press specifically to dole out credit to other outlets. It’s really not so bad, giving credit. It doesn’t cut into your brand equity or make you less trustworthy, especially when you confirm facts and add new ones. Links to bloggers or other media outlets aren’t just nice; they make the world go ’round. If DealBook is going to insist on covering the financial world with the breadth of a great business blog, it should staff up accordingly or accept the idea of being part of an ecosystem of scoops it reports, and attributions to other outlets whose scoops it wants to pick up. If DealBook is going to demand 7,000 words a week from Kouwe’s replacement, they should be prepared to see quite a lot of links, or hire a few more reporters to share some of that load.

Could Plagiarism Software Have Spared The Times an Embarrassment? [NYT]

Feb. 22 2010 — 5:55 pm | 95 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Bit-stained wretches

Have Gun Will Travel

Image by armadilo60 via Flickr

My former colleague Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote about me for Sunday’s New York Times: Op-Ed Contributor – Have Keyboard, Will Travel. It’s a short read, but the gist is this:

Dozens of Web sites have correspondingly sprouted up, posting articles written for free or for a fraction of what a traditional magazine would have paid. Into this gaping maw have rushed enough authors to fill a hundred Roman Colosseums, all eager to write in exchange for “exposure.” Paul Smalera, a 29-year-old who was laid off from a magazine job in November 2008, is now competing with every one of them. And after months of furious blogging, tweeting and writing for Web sites, Paul has made a career of Internet journalism, sort of.

Sheelah goes into some details of my financial picture and what the various gigs I’m doing pay me. It’s not entirely pretty, especially when you’re nearing basically 30, but hey, it’s reality for me right now. While I wasn’t amped about the chance to reveal my credit card and student loan debt, and paltry paydays, I did so for a couple, (I think) important and well defined reasons:

  1. I ask the same of my sources: I’ll be honest, I don’t know why anyone talks to the press. As Janet Malcolm says on my sidebar, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” We don’t have subpoena power. There’s no reason you have to talk to us. But invariably, I pick up the phone, identify myself as media, and ask people to spill their guts to me. And more often than not, they do. Sometimes it’s professional, sometimes it’s personal, and usually, it’s a mix, but the information they’ve given me, whether about an interest rate or a murder, wouldn’t have been known before. I always thank them and try to be respectful of their time. Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time badgering people into talking– not because I’m trying to get some kind of ‘dirt’ on them, but because I really think their contribution is invaluable to the story. The times I try hardest to get someone to talk is when I feel the story will be a disservice to them without their weighing in. If I’m writing about someone’s actions or thoughts, I want their voice in the there. So when Sheelah asked me to talk to her for her piece, I felt I owed it to her as a journalist myself. How could I ever ask anyone to do what I instinctually would not want to do (talk to media) if I refused to do it myself? So I did.
  2. I’m in the Lost Generation: If you’re in your early 20s and entering journalism, the narrative is that you’re foolhardy or you’re a digital guru. If you’re in your 40s, the narrative is that you’re an entrepreneur with a second act, or you’re a sad sack print refugee who’s been laid off or jumped ship to a new industry, after spending half a career toiling in this unfruitful enterprise. But I don’t see much written about my group: roughly 30-40, having clocked some solid years of labor, and watching the old world that inspired us to enter journalism fall apart in front of our eyes, even as we try to work every day. David Carr asked on Twitter, “Can I eat?” Unless that is an invitation to dinner, yes, David, I can eat. (And I’d be happy to eat on the Times’ expense account, so call me.)  What did you think was happening out here man? There’s a hard reality to the economics of the business for me: I’m invested in this career, having already changed careers once before, just a few years out of college. I could probably jump ship again and be making more in a few years in some other field, or doing something completely off the grid like running a charter boat in the Caribbean, but I’m still committed to this undertaking (funereal pun not intended). I’m learning more about it in the hopes of having a hand in shaping it for my successors. What would be “dead bang” scary to me, as Carr put it, is being about 45 and about three promotions away from the job I’d want to retire in, at a newspaper. What are the chances you make it all the way home?  Anyway, less has been said about my cohort than the ones above and below me, and so I understood why Sheelah, a member of it herself, wanted to focus on people around my rung on the ladder.

Here’s how she closes:

He also writes a blog for a Web outfit that pays him $250 a month to try to generate traffic for its site. He is making progress; some larger Web sites and even print publications have asked him to contribute. “What are the goals now?” he said. “I don’t even think about it in those terms right now. I’m just happy to be writing regularly. I’m treating it as a month-to-month thing.”

While most people are worried about getting paid for their work, I’m more concerned that journalists might be the digital-age equivalent of monks illuminating manuscripts, a group whose skills will soon disappear. Still, Paul and many like him press on, hoping that things will get better. And maybe they will.

I am worried about getting paid. And I found it really funny that Sheelah made a reference to monks, given that my blog is called Living Through 1500, a Clay Shirky reference to the rise of the Gutenberg printing press era. But I take her point. It’s harder to do old-fashioned yet immensely important journalism from where I sit. On Friday I was at the paidContent2010 conference at the New York Times building (strangely, probably as Sheelah’s story was being edited, a few floors above my head) and heard Arthur Sulzberger brag about sending David Barstow on a six month assignment to write a story about the Tea Party movement. It’s a pretty great story, but I wonder, as my colleague at The Big Money, Marion Maneker commented to me later, if the Times got their money’s worth on that one. Not that the article wasn’t superb– it was. But it seemed there and gone in a flash. Couldn’t the website have done more–with the article, with the voices, with the reporter’s notes?– to really make sure Barstow’s piece got the attention it deserved? What would.. yes I’m gonna say it… What would Gawker have done with that material?

There’s a lot of talk about the death of media, death of journalism, etc. Don’t put too much stock into it. A lot of really good people are trying really hard to do good work. And the industry is being forced to purge itself of a lot of really bad habits it picked up when printing press were also licenses to print money. In the long view, I’m more convinced than ever that  journalism will be here. It may not be in a form we recognize today, but people will always pick up the phone and get other people to tell them important things they’re not supposed to talk about.

Feb. 19 2010 — 11:58 am | 100 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Cable as a dumb pipe

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 4:  Comcast Chairman...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife Comcast and NBCU chiefs want to team up, but that doesn't mean it's the right or only move in the playbook.

I’m at the paidContent 2010 conference today, and roughly halfway through, everything I’m hearing from the panelists is reinforcing an idea I’m still trying to give some shape and form to in my mind: the idea that primary revenues for media needs to come from somewhere other than subscription and even advertising models. I’m not saying those models don’t work or aren’t important, components. But neither one replaces the simple newsstand or corner box as a low-barrier, no-thinking-required flagpole for newspapers to get penetration and ultimately revenues from the casual reading public.

The conversation as of late has shifted away from friction–the idea that websites that charge have to offer a quick, easy way to pay in order to convert readers. Part of that is because the friction has indeed been reduced somewhat as of late, but mainly because worrying about friction is a like worrying about a problem that does not yet exist. If the only reason people weren’t paying for news online were friction, the thinking goes, well, we could fix that.

Well I would maybe argue that all friction is there until there is no friction at all. Why aren’t cable companies, in other words, paying websites for the content they deliver to homes, they same way they pay carriage fees to the cable channels they deliver to homes? What if the money pipe were reversed?

To be clear, the technical challenge of the meter here would not be much of a challenge at all. The real challenge is the business model for this, and the massive psychological shift it would take for content providers, users and the cable companies. But I think it’d be brilliant if I got my cable bill every month and had a couple nickels charged to me for access to the Times, CNN, PBS, whatever. Net neutrality is obviously a big concern in this model. But good legislation (ha!) could help level the playing field between sites that remain free and sites that ring the meter on a user’s Internet account. I wonder if Google as high-speed ISP might not attempt something like this.

As far fetched as this already is, I’m certain it will never happen. Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal clearly shows where the cable cos minds are. They have no interest in being dumb pipes, and plowing profits back into better speeds and technical features. They all want to be content companies now, too, controlling every link in the supply chain from shooting the pilot to streaming the video to your iPhone. That’s why no matter how dumb some of the things Google has done as of late have been (Buzz) I agree with Farhad Manjoo that Google’s ISP plan is brilliant. It’s putting pressure on cable and phone ISPs in a way that hasn’t existed for years and years. Here’s hoping it’s not one of the 60-80% of products they launch that eventually fail.

Feb. 18 2010 — 6:29 pm | 763 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

NBC canned Conan, but Twitter Tracker lives on at the Olympics

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 10:  Chairman NBC Unive...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Remember when right in the heart of Late Night Wars II: Jay vs. Conan, NBC’s Dick Ebersol trashed O’Brien in the New York Times? Ebersol is “chairman” of NBC Universal Sports. “What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan,” he said. At the time, Conan also took some shots at Leno in his monlogues that were hilarious and in astoundingly good taste for someone going through such a public betrayal and dumping. What did Ebersol said of Conan’s Leno jokes? It was, “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings.” Oh, that sloshing sound you hear in the background? It’s just Jeff Zucker’s water being carried.

By the way, what is it called then, Dick, when you steal the ideas of a guy you fired? Conan had a pretty funny bit called “Twitter Tracker,” a sort of death-metal voice-over recap of some very bland celebrity Tweets, unworthy of the attention bestowed on them. It was a wry commentary about celebrity, probably eight levels above Ebersol’s head. It was also one of many of Conan’s late night ideas that Ebersol probably found out of touch with the great swaths of middle America that Jay Leno so resonates with.

Yet Ebersol’s NBC Sports have taken the same idea and made it a featured (and serious) part of their Olympics website. The complete lack of humor behind the Olympics Twitter Tracker would normally be an indication that Ebersol was behind it. But, chances are this was actually a low grade decision by an NBC employee– perhaps one with a secret allegiance to Conan? So yes, I know Ebersol wasn’t thinking about Conan’s Twitter Tracker when they unveiled the Olympics one, but the lazyness of not finding another name for the feature that didn’t directly stem from Conan’s joke speaks to the disdain for which the redheaded one probably had to deal with from NBC brass who never understood his brand of humor.

In Conan’s Tonight Show glory days, Twitter Tracker even had its own Twitter account and website. The account has since gone dormant and the website sadly redirects to NBC.com, from where all traces of O’Brien have been scrubbed as if he was a Soviet commissar.

NPR talked about the Olympics’ Twitter Tracker’s “strange poetry,” but I think the feature is more like a karmic payback. Twitter tracker (by the way, I know it’s a bit that NBC owns of course, so it’s not really “stolen” as I wrote above) is one of the skits that NBC thought wasn’t helping Conan connect with his audience. Conan earned a $35 million buyout and a shot at new, friendly network home, thanks in part to that skit.

One of his favorite things to rib NBC about once he was an outs was that Ebersol’s Olympics are estimated to be costing NBC $250 million in losses. He never went directly after Ebersol, but after the pasting he received at his hands in the press, you have a feeling he wouldn’t have minded if someone else made the connection. Meanwhile, Ebersol, having disposed of Team Coco, is infuriating sports fans everywhere by tape delaying an Olympics happening on North American soil, simply to goose primetime ratings. Twitter track that, Dick.

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    About Me

    I'm here to participate in an experiment. I live professionally by two maxims:

    "Bad manners make a journalist." -Oscar Wilde

    "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." -Janet Malcolm.

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