Sunday, August 26, 2007

Google Special Comments

There has been a fair amount of discussion about Google's new news experiment by which they will publish comments on stories they aggregate from "those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question."

The chatter has mostly been about Google's criteria: whether it is undermining journalism and/or giving a PR gift to disgruntled subjects. But I haven't seen any discussion of what I'd say is the fundamental issue: Does Google know what it is getting into?

I agree with those who say that in not going far enough with the initiative -- open it up to everyone -- Google is choosing to empower a class that is already empowered, and which journalism exists to check. But why curtail comments and create a clunky infrastructure for authenticating "legitimate" comments that only seems to invite charges of favoritism?
Does Google really want to take a position on publishing or not publishing pushback from entities which have nothing to lose in the PR game, like Hezbollah or Al-Quaeda?

Fear that this is a unfettered megafone are unfounded, since making public statements will be challenged by, well, everyone. Global PR and marketing powerhouse Burson-Marsteller sees the pitfalls. It is a potential opportunity to take a second bite at the apple, they advise, while urging clients to be cautious:
"Clients have a great opportunity to extend the story, clarify their point of view, or correct misinformation when commenting on articles aggragated (sic) within Google News. However, given that manual intervention is required to facilitate the comments being published, a lag time may be experienced. Additionally, posting a comment may extend a story, which may or may not be desirable. Lastly, Google reserves the right not to publish all comments. Therefore, clients should not rely solely on Google News comments as their only means of responding to published news reports."
PRSquared seems to think Google will not be nimble enough to make it a great place to get in a word edgewise. "... let’s see if they can meet the challenges of Speed & Depth. Maybe they can pull it off."

Much Ado About Nothing?

This may be much ado about nothing. But the model Google has chosen seems strikingly old media. It vets submitted comments and can, at its own discretion, decide not to publish any of them. Can anybody say "Letter to the Editor (non-subjects of stories needn't bother)?

Has Google consulted with global media companies who, on a daily basis, earn the wrath of people and entities they report on? My own knowledge of the process by which one such company, Reuters, has evolved in its policy on publishing corrections and general commentary is enough to give anyone who wants to play feedback editor pause.

Does Google really want to take a position on publishing or not publishing pushback from entities which have nothing to lose in the PR game, like Hezbollah or Al-Quaeda, or a dozen or so US presidential candidates who'd love to get the last word? Or are they counting on the sort of self-restraint counseled by BM?

Having created an automated news portal many swear by and deftly avoiding criticism from content owners by directing traffic to their sites, is Google intentionally taking only a half step towards creating a community and, at the same time, making itself a target?

Has anybody seen a story on Google News that includes a comment from a subject of the story? I'd love to see how they intend to implement this, but such stories aren't highlighted (probably sensible) so it's trial-and-error finding one. Link, anyone?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Denial is a River in Vietnam

Even if there weren't so few platitudes left in the White House manual to engulf and devour public opinion on the Iraq War, a comparison -- any comparison -- by President Bush to Vietnam would seem loopy.

Especially since Bush himself rejected that comparison not so long ago.

Especially since books about the Vietnam War have titles like "The
Making of a Quagmire

Especially since, in a mere couple of generations, the country from which we cut and ran and left to be overrun by our enemy has emerged as a stable nation and trusted trading partner.

Especially since when we stopped fighting over there the only people who followed us here were peace-seeking war refugees who have coalesced into one of the most quickly assimilated ethnic groups in this nation's history.

Especially since someone so well versed in history might be expected not to start a war that could be compared to Vietnam.

There is nothing left except desperate, mangled Vietnam War history lessons and hiding behind the skirts of grieving victims and victims to be, all to avoid shame from which there is no escape.
A lot has changed in 40 years. The Republicans of the pre-Nixon 1960s ran ads in the major newspapers criticizing the Vietnam policy of Lyndon Johnson that contained catchy phrases like "The United States should not be the world's policeman." Liberals of the day -- who hated the war more than anyone -- bled for the oppressed peoples of the world and believed US might should be used to liberate them. Now Republicans are pimping for regime-change and goading liberals -- who hate this war more than anyone -- to bleed for the Iraqis that they have lined up for the firing squad.

Blame where it Belongs

At least public anger now is directed squarely at the policy makers and not the people in uniform. This, too, is an enormous change: Vietnam War draftees were called "baby killers" by some protesters simply because they didn't make a difficult decision to flee to Canada, whose government and people openly welcomed draft dodgers, instead of serve. Our all-volunteer forces are collectively referred to as heros even though not a single one of them has to serve.

With all other self-interest and self-defense rationales debunked (though "They attacked us!" is still on the hit parade, thanks to lead singer Rudy Giuliani), Bush and his acolytes tell us the world is better off without evil Saddam even though he was only as evil as he ever was when he gassed his own people before the Gulf War, or when in 1994 when Veep-to Be Cheney told us we were savvy not to topple him and leave a ... horrible ... power ... vacuum ... that ... would ... leave ... untold ... numbers ... dead). They scurrilously scold the rest of us for not caring about the untold horrors that they are certain will transpire against people they put into jeopardy.

No Shame

The gaul continues with a new political ad airing now by a group lead by former White House spokesman Ari Fleisher in which a badly wounded Iraq veteran tells us "If we pull out now, everything I've given in sacrifice will mean nothing."

There is nothing left except desperate, mangled Vietnam War history lessons and hiding behind the skirts of grieving victims and victims to be, all to avoid shame from which there is no escape.

So as we await the return of a hopefully energized Congress the White House is going double-down. The rationale for war is now to make some sense of the death of every soldier, sailor and marine who has already fallen by killing more of them. It is to angrily insist that someone else's son or daughter jump into the raging river to save innocents you have thrown in.

The cynics among us might think this is just a play for time. Send in more IED fodder to forestall judgment day for the disastrous consequences of an incoherent policy until the next administration takes over and the whole sorry mess can be blamed on a Democrat who lost the war only because she lost her nerve.

The ugliest truth about the Vietnam War is that it was, after all, only about establishing US resolve. It backfired, of course, because once you are in a quagmire there are no good choices: stay in and drown, leave and accomplish nothing at great cost. This is the comparison one would think Bush would most like to avoid, but he makes it himself: "Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price for American credibility. But the terrorists see it differently."

But there is a bright side to the invocation of the "V" word from the Oval Office. At least nobody from the right can knock us for calling Iraq "Bush's Vietnam" anymore.

Historians: note the time.

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Fear vs. Hope

Times Square Hustle & Bustle, 2005

You can't dismiss fear out of hand, because bad things do happen. I think New York Mayor Bloomberg has it exactly right: he quantifies terror threats to more common disasters and tells people to get over it. It's real, but get real, according to "I'm not a candidate" Mike.

I also happen to think that Obama did make a genuine bad mistake in the uTube debate by saying he'd be willing to meet without precondition with a host of America adversaries. He fell into a trap, period. Does that disqualify him? No. But it is a demerit.

On Pakistan, Obama wasn't bold, and was foolish. We all expect, no matter what our political stripe, that the president will do anything to protect us (including torturing people). Who has ever been impeached for propping up a dictator -- or taking down an elected Commie? And as Biden has pointed out, the president has the explicit authority to do what Obama threatened. But floating the balloon has unhelpful consequences all its own.

We like to think we are high-minded but everyone wants to survive and America has extraordinary powers to do so. Kerry, as many Democrats before him, failed because he did not cut the figure of a tough guy. Hillary has an extra chore convincing voters she is, you will pardon the expression, a tough guy. She is doing it with posture and nuance and the limited ire she is drawing is proof she is succeeding at this. Obama is being too overt, perhaps because he has no record to draw upon. But it is a gamble he has to take.

But I don't think savvy alone will do it. I guarantee events will conspire to challenge the non-doomsayers. Even "Thank you for saving me from the draft" Bill might not have won in "wartime."

Anyone who hasn't placed an early bet on "I'm a tough guy when the going gets tough" might just look like a pussy on the home stretch

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Incredible Shrinking New York Times

The New York Times, starting with today's edition, has slashed 1-1/2 inches from the width of the paper "to the national newspaper 12-inch standard," it says on a front-page box. The move save on newsprint and "in some printing press locations, makes special configurations unnecessary."

The paper has retained a six-col layout and the cramped feeling of narrower columns is felt immediately; it seems as though their width is about the same as when the paper was 8-col.

Fewer Letters Fit To Print

The change appears most dramatic on the editorial page: editorials are the same width, which means that letters to the editor have lost an entire column. A special explanation is made here:
"As you can plainly see, the available space for letters has been reduced by about one-third.
There's no question that the smaller paper is easier to wield, though I suspect that the ancient technique of folding opened pages in half and reading it in quarters -- the better to turn pages on the crowded subway, a skill I learned when I was 10 years old -- will become a lost art.

"Don't worry. We are making up for the lost space in the printed paper by expanding the letters section on our Web site, where space is not an issue, and looking for ways to add space for letters on our pages."
I'm going to take a wild guess that someone who aspires to get a letter in the NYT will not be heartened to know that his chances of getting published are now better, but only online (where a copy of every letter published in the printed paper appeared anyway). Is this the right message: paper space is better doled out to four editorials and not to reader feedback?

The NYT is just following the lead of the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Washington Post, USA Today and others but this is all a bit sad, in an admittedly silly way. Changes in icons are difficult to quickly accept, especially if the reasons for the change are just practical. The New York Times has been in my home all of my life. My parents brought it home every day and there was (perhaps an urban) legend in my family that my mother's father read each edition from cover to cover.

Get Them Young

The NYT was a presence for me even in a Queens elementary school, where students were expected to subscribe on the cheap, a New York Times program that addicted generations to come in a manner that could make cigarette companies sit up and take notice. We were taught the paper's conventions about story priority, the elegance of the news pyramid and, yes, even how to hold and read it like a straphanger, with one hand.

I have not accepted the not-terribly-many changes at the NYT easily (I am still getting used to their softer ledes). Though I now appreciate the move to six columns and larger type I thought when they were introduced that they were affronts to tradition. I was in college when the standard two-section daily exploded with specialty content sections. I was not impressed -- and annoyed I had more paper to control on the subway. But by the time Circuits was scaled back to within Business -- demoted from a section it too briefly comprised on its own -- I had become a complete convert and disliked the retrenchment.

There's no question that the smaller paper is easier to wield, though I suspect that the ancient technique of folding opened pages in half and reading it in quarters -- the better to turn pages on the crowded subway, a skill I learned when I was 10 years old -- will become a lost art. The NYT itself jokes on the Editorial page that the new smaller size "will alleviate subway overcrowding" because "(a)nyone (even the mayor) reading it on the train will now take up less space."

But it might have the opposite affect. Because the pages are a bit smaller riders may feel emboldened to open them in full since the wingspan is now 12 instead of 15 inches. And, sadly, the smaller mass does make the paper a little trickier to perform New York Times Origami and coax it into submission by that nearly indescribable method of shaking and bending and pulling taut and having it collapse under its own weight I learned a long time ago.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Citizen Journalist Arrives in Full

Remember the name Mark LaCroix.

Lacroix, a guy who lives in Minneapolis, carried CNN and blew away local coverage for the first crucial 20 minutes of today's collapsed bridge story, proving compelling, articulate live accounts after sending about five pictures of the destroyed span -- about what a pro's first dump would be. He even had the presence of mind to send CNN a filer, only a week old, of the intact bridge. CNN's producers didn't think to immediately make use of that image until LaCroix mentioned it in passing to a surprised Wolf Blitzer, who asked on the air that it be broadcast immediately.

Because of LaCroix, CNN's coverage was superior to that of their local affiliate, whose on-air anchors were reduced to time-killing babble over the ambiguous video of a fixed-position (likely security) camera somewhere off in the distance, which did not even cleraly show the collapse as well as it did a nearby intact span.

LaCroix's work is on the CNN online story, of course, a capture which shows a car teetering over an edge and others resting tenuously on cracks. Nothing that anyone produces later will match these.

Earlier this year there was chatter about whether the Virginia Tech student cameraphone video of shots being fired -- out of camera range -- signaled the turning point in citizen journalism.

That happened tonight, at about 6:40, central standard time.

User generated news material is trickling into the news stream at an increasing rate. CNN was a pioneer in this vein, of course; in the early 1980s, with the sudden proliferation of household video cameras, it asked its viewers for tapes of bad weather and the like and got some pretty good stuff. But it was all a novelty until the proliferation of digital and the Internet.

Within 30 minutes of the bridge collapse, for example, Lacroix had taken his pictures and transmitted them to CNN in Atlanta, where they were quickly identified as newsworthy (I have no idea what vetting process CNN uses, but it sure works). This is light speed, journeyman work even by a well-equipped professional.

Only today, by coincidence, Reuters touted its own inroads in the use of UGC pictures. Tom Szlukovenyi, Reuters's Global Pictures Editor, blogged that their own nine-month "You Witness" partnership with Yahoo! "is doing well."Singled out by Reuters was a "rare selection of pictures shot in North Korea by reader Nora Stribma" that were displayed on the front page of their site.

But the real promise of UGC will be in breaking news, as CNN demonstrated tonight. Journalists are almost never at the scene of breaking news, but someone almost always is. Mr. Lacroix has set a very high bar for citizen journalists to come.

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