Finding what’s lost, via the media

November 25, 2012

Nice piece in the Boston Globe about the search for a runaway child. It makes the point that the parents used social media cleverly, and hence new media was key to success. But they didn’t succeed until the story hit TV (old media) and then a whistleblower called the cops (old fashioned source).

In fact this is interesting I think precisely because the three techniques all worked together. The parents have produced  a guide to using social media to find runaways and set up a nonprofit, “Find Your Missing Child,” which seems like a great idea. Its interesting to compare also with the old technique of putting ads on milk cartons. Anyone know if there are any data on relative success rates? What works? Any evidence?


Watching the Detectives

September 9, 2010

There are really only three ways of getting information: look it up, ask someone or steal it. The third option is often referred to by euphemism; yet increasingly the grey areas that used to exist in this regard are gone, even if practitioners are finding that hard to handle.

The current News of the World scandal in the UK – over illegal efforts by journalists to break into the voicemails of public figures, and the failure of the police to investigate it – is a reminder of the reality and prevalence of information obtained by deception, and the problems around it.

Journalists, policemen, spies and investigators all know this, and all engage in all three methods to some extent. All know two dirty secrets: that the first two methods, legal and slightly dull, account for the vast majority of information that they get, despite the mystique surrounding their professions. They demand hard work and diligence. And: what remains, the covert acquisition of information by nefarious means, is far from glamorous, often illegal, unreliable, and not neccessarily worth the risk involved. Yet they often stick with old, trusted techniques, however lazy or dangerous or illegal. Sometimes, they can generate information no other method would, and sometimes that is worth the risk.

It isn’t always illegal to obtain all information by deception; it can’t be, as the statute couldn’t be drawn up that broadly. It is, however, illegal to deceive some people in some ways for some reasons (telling a bank official you are someone else, to get their bank statement or their money for example. But it varies widely and by country. It is hard to prove. And the exceptions are significant.

All four professions tend to believe that they are justified in taking information: the public good justifies it in their minds and indeed often in law. That seems to be one of the main issues with the NoW. It sees itself as a crusader for truth against elites, and so may well not have seen much wrong with cracking the voicemails of the rich and powerful.

Several things are wrong with this. Firstly, the relevant UK law – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – includes no public good defence. Secondly, it is hard to see that all the stories that resulted from phone hacking are in the public good. Most are low gossip. And if you think that the judgement of an elitist, then consider: who judges the public good here?

Another defence: “stealing” is seen as somewhat relative. If I break in to your house and take a necklace, that’s stealing. If you leave your front door open and I pop in and take a look at your diary, is that stealing? If I don’t deprive you of the thing, and don’t break anything to get in? Am I stealing if I overhear your conversation? Find a letter you dropped? Read a document you forgot to delete on a public computer?

Cracking a voicemail involves accessing the system with the right number and knowing the PIN code. The message is still there, and using someone else’s PIN – well, is that illegal?

Yup. The statute is relatively clear. Read the law.

Indeed, much of what used to be routine in the investigative world is indeed now illegal. Getting bank account data and mobile phone bills is illegal, in most developed countries. People go to prison and pay fines. Bribing officials or policemen to get information is also mostly illegal. Getting hold of peoples’ rubbish and using what you find – letters, phone bills – is harder since people have got wise and shred their mail. This encourages people to use quick, cheap, reliable tricks. And they fall in love with these, since they have an air of mystique, secrecy, intrigue.

The world of private detectives, journalists, intelligence officers and so on has turned to electronic information because it’s easy, people are careless, the law isn’t always clear, it’s often hard to prove wrongdoing, and the other avenues are tough.

Each believes they have the right. They work together very closely and the best in each profession respects the others. And each tends to believe that what it does is in the public interest.

That is one of the critical points. What precisely is the public interest? Who defines it? Anyone? The Met? The NoW? The reader? The courts?

The reality of the NoW case is that the paper seems to have been very aggressive in using available techniques against all possible targets, with poor judgement about when and why. It had the resources, the editorial backing and the management space. In this case, however, this wasn’t jusitified from an editorial, legal, or risk management viewpoint and probably wouldn’t even have got them decent stories. Voicemail is a blunt instrument.

The activities of the paper’s investigative journalists are stories of legend: but no-one is talking about clipping the wings of legitimate inquiry. This was low-end stuff, not the undercover work of the paper’s star reporters.

Why wasn’t it thoroughly investigated? Because it would have been hard, because there would have been an attitude of “worse things happen in the jungle,” because none of those charged with investigating will have seen it as wholly their job, because some will have seen it as a victimless crime. The evidence and investigation (despite what the TV leads you to believe) will have been tough to piece together. Who accessed this voicemail? From where? How? And should the police let everyone know they might have been hacked? How would they know?

So – some will see this episode as a serious breach of the law by politically motivated people that felt they could act with impunity and worked in cahoots with the police. Others will regard it as an inevitable product of new challenges around electronic security and privacy. A third group will see it as journalism on the edge (for good or ill).

There is some of all of these, but in the end this was a professional failure at every level. This was poor investigative technique deployed to gather poor stories by lazy journalists who couldn’t be bothered to do real investigative work: develop sources, dig dirt, and get smart.

There’ll be more of this. Corporate, political, commercial interests will play happily with the people that do this work because they love it, and believe it right to expose the private lives of public figures. They always have done and they always will. We should make better laws and police them better, because the existing system doesn’t work. Meawhile. buy a shredder, don’t use email for difficult stuff, and don’t leave voicemails.


Facebook beating Google

March 17, 2010

Facebook got more hits than Google search last week. There are some big lessons in there for news: increasingly this is how people encounter it – not via a “web site” (get hip, daddio), let alone a “home page” (where’s your STEREO, grandad), or even via search (That is so 2009).

They find it via social media. It is the first place they go in the morning (maybe after the bathroom, maybe not) and the last thing at night. facebook users prefer broadcast media (video and audio), says Hitwise in a separate piece of research. “A colleague pointed me to an article in the New York Times suggesting that social networks are creating a water cooler effect,” writes Hitwise’s Heather Hopkins, “and actually boosting viewership of broadcast media. Is Facebook the new water cooler and if so, how can print media capitalize on this trend?”

“Does this mean that social sites are going to overtake search sites on the internet? Not so fast … we might be seeing a see-sawing back and forth. In 2007 it was MySpace that was ahead of Google,” says one blogger. And these things do go up and down; social media has its moments and may be absorbed into different trends. Nonetheless – broadcast has cleaerly done a better job than print of responding to this. Oh, and Twitter is far less significant on this scale, by the way, despite the fond hopes of old media.


Finding the news through Facebook

February 4, 2010

Facebook is increasingly being used as a way of reading the news – real news about real-world events, not just the tedious meanderings of self-obsessed friends.

ReadWriteWeb has an interesting article on the use of facebook as a news source. “Hard numbers have now confirmed that Facebook is already the biggest news reader on the web,” it says.  Hitwise has some good stats and a good graph. Last week, Google Reader accounted for .01% of upstream visits to News and Media websites, about the same level as a year ago. Google News accounted for 1.39% of visits and Facebook 3.52%.” Any facebook user will have noticed that friends increasingly link to news; and that news producers increasingly encourage staff to use Facebook as a means of distribution. “Facebook was the #4 source of visits to News and Media sites last week, after Google, Yahoo! and msn,” says Hitwise.

Many people use RSS readers like FeedDemon to read news; but for the casual browser, these are a bit intense and clunky. Facebook is easier: you encounter what your friends suggest, and that element of casual surprise that is part of the news experience is reproduced.

Facebook is increasingly aware of this, and targeting the phenomenon. “Late last week Facebook threw its hat in the ring and called on users to use its service as a news feed reader,” says ReadWriteWeb.

“Last week, Facebook’s Malorie Lucich posted to the company blog encouraging users set up their Facebook accounts for news reading. Lucich suggested becoming a “fan” of news organizations that publish to Facebook, then adding those connections to a dedicated “list” that only displays updates from news sources.”

Other news on social media use: a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that blogging is (predictably) less fashionable and microblogging is (predictably) more fashionable, especially amongst the young. “Since 2006, blogging has dropped among teens and young adults while simultaneously rising among older adults. As the tools and technology embedded in social networking sites change, and use of the sites continues to grow, youth may be exchanging ‘macro-blogging’ for microblogging with status updates,” says the survey. Meanwhile, “Both teen and adult use of social networking sites has risen significantly, yet there are shifts and some drops in the proportion of teens using several social networking site features.”


Journalism Online tests one-click paywall tool

February 3, 2010

Journalism Online's new venture

The one-click pay-to-view tool could transform some areas of journalism. We accept it for music and other online goodies; why not for news? (That isn’t a rhetorical question – there may well be good reasons why it doesn’t work for news).

The Guardian’s PaidContent has some screen shots and detail here on how it may work, based on a project by Journalism Online.

But: at least one industry veteran is very pessimistic about the prospects. 

Newspapers lost their last chance to hang together when it became clear yesterday that the wheels seemingly have come off Journalism Online, the ambitious, global pay-wall initiative launched last year by serial entrepreneur Steven Brill,” writes Alan Mutter, the venerable Newsosaur.

“After a year of trying to persuade publishers worldwide to join the universal content-vending system that he envisioned, Brill told the New York Times the only committed client he could identify was a Lilliputian daily in Lancaster, PA. Brill said more affiliates are on the way for a service he christened Press+.”


Wikileaks goes under?

February 2, 2010

Wikileaks, a site that encourages whistleblowers and leakers, has run out of money and may close. “To concentrate on raising the funds necessary to keep us alive into 2010, we have reluctantly suspended all other operations, but will be back soon,” the site says. Wired has the background here.

“We have received hundreds of thousands of pages from corrupt banks, the US detainee system, the Iraq war, China, the UN and many others that we do not currently have the resources to release. You can change that and by doing so, change the world. Even $10 will pay to put one of these reports into another ten thousand hands and $1000, a million.

“We have raised just over $130,000 for this year but can not meaningfully continue operations until costs are covered. These amount to just under $200,000 PA. If staff are paid, our yearly budget is $600,000.

The site enables users to upload leaked material and have it published anonymously. It has broken some big stories, including one about an alleged Kroll report on Kenya. One can argue that simply uncritically posting leaked documents can be irresponsible, but in my experience the site’s owners were reasonable people to deal with, and maintained controls on what would and wouldn’t be published. And their mission seemed to me interesting and useful. It has said that its “primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.”

I support the site and hope others will too. Donate here:


Web brings new audience for issue groups

February 1, 2010

A fascinating piece from Nieman Journalism Labs on the new role of NGOs and online media. It focuses on Avaaz, a group I am now working with.

“The Internet opens up new means of communications for major NGOs. But does it also make their position vulnerable to a new breed of web-native upstarts, who understand the power of technology more fully? Denise Searle, who has worked with some of the world’s best known NGOs, explores…

Audience and influence are traditionally the ways that both media and NGOs measure their effectiveness. The internet has transformed the way that both can tackle the basics: getting their message across. For non-profit organisations, it has lowered the barriers to reaching people, raising money and transforming ideas into action.

“The problem is that today’s fast-moving internet isn’t an easy fit for all NGOs… Organizations that are known and respected in the real world often face competition for attention from a range of other sources and perspectives in the virtual world….”

“All this indicates that if humanitarian and development NGOs want to attract and retain visitors in the increasingly crowded and competitive online world, and turn them into supporters, they need to provide timely, easy-to-find information, genuinely involve their audiences, and keep up with the latest trends. This is a tall order, particularly when many of the web destinations competing for their audiences’ attention have commercial muscle behind them…”

“How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz…? Will these digital-savvy communities start mobilizing online to ask hard questions about why, despite years of effort, international development and humanitarian NGOs have not made poverty history or achieved social justice? And how will they be answered?”


Reinventing news

October 3, 2009

Dan Gilmor, a US techno-pundit, has some fabulous ideas for turning journalism into social work in a manifesto for how he would run media if he ran it.

Sample: “Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. Every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know,” a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting.” (Like, will I have a job next week? Where did I leave that pack of Marlboro Lites? What is that smell from the news desk?)

Some good ideas mixed in with some the muesli. Some.


FT’s Murphy aims to go global

September 24, 2009

Paid Content interviews Paul Murphy of the FT on his plans for the paper’s lively (and free) online venture, Alphaville.

FT Alphaville – comprising a UK finance blog, live stock commentary and an analyst community – is growing to cover Wall Street and other markets, but remains outside FT.com’s pay wall. The blog’s founder and editor Paul Murphy, who just relocated to New York, from where Alphaville will now be run, says the aim is to “create a 24-hour global financial blog” that’s free to all. “

“ Murphy says the expansion need not end there: “The plan is to go global… We’d like to replicate the way the investment banking industry works.” Does that mean hiring more journalists? “You could; really we have to follow reader demand. There’s clearly demand in the US and a growing demand in Asia.” Watch this space.


Charging Online is Fine, But What About the Ads?

September 24, 2009

A good (very thought-provoking) survey of online advertising by Jennifer Saba at Editor and Publisher.

“Newspapers “never really had their eyes on online ad revenue in the first place,” says Mark Potts, author of the Recovering Journalist blog and CEO of GrowthSpur, which helps hyperlocal and community sites generate revenue. “It was supplemental to print, and rarely had its own distinct strategy. I think newspapers never took it seriously enough or got around it the right way. They got caught up pursuing traditional advertisers online.””

New strategies: reduce classified’s slice of the pie. “At Scripps, that change means taking a different approach to selling and targeting advertising. It boils down to one simple question posed to current and prospective advertisers: Who do you want to reach?” It also means moving beyond basic banner ads.

Read this, even if you don’t know your CPM from your CRM – it is worth it, as the seeds of what may make the news industry pay are containe within this: pragmatic, careful, entrepenurial, imaginative use of the medium to do what it does best: create an audience.


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