Tag Archives: journalism

TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism

The TechCrunch/Last.fm controversy has been all over the net over the weekend, and there’s not much that I can add to it factually. The one thing I will say, though, is that TechCrunch has behaved irresponsible: not so much for the original story – everyone gets it wrong sometimes. But when you get it wildly wrong like this, what you don’t do is use weasal words to try and cover up the fact that you’ve got it horribly wrong. For example:

“From the very beginning, I’ve presented this story for what it is: a rumor. Despite my attempts to corroborate it and the subsequent detail I’ve been able to gather, I still don’t have enough information to determine whether it is absolutely true. But I still don’t have enough information to determine that it is absolutely false either. What I do have are a lot of unanswered questions about how exactly Last.fm shares user data with the record industry.”

In a word, this is bullshit. It’s Daily Mail-style journalism, posing a statement as just “asking questions”. And even when Schonfeld got a detailed statement from Last.fm on exactly what data it gives to record companies (answer: no more than they could get just by looking it up on the public Last.fm site), he doesn’t retract the story.

TechCrunch got it wrong, and instead of retracting the story and apologising, it’s trying to wriggle out and say “it’s only a rumour”. Sorry, but that’s bullshit. And please, please, I hope no one brings up that old chestnut of “it’s only a blog, we don’t have to adopt proper standards for reporting”. The moment you can have a serious effect on a company or individual, you owe it to the world to be sure of what you say.

One thing though: This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.

UPDATE: One of the great things about the web is that companies can put their own take on a story across well. And Last.fm has done this very nicely indeed, in the pithily-titled post “TechCrunch are full of shit“. As one of the commenters on the original TechCrunch post put it, “Mr Arrington, this is why you get spat at, yeah? Is it starting to make sense now?”. Stronger than I’d say it, but still understandable…

The Jeff Jarvis conundrum

I have a certain amount of sympathy for Ron Rosenbaum's post about Jeff Jarvis. Like Ron, I used to be an avid reader of Jeff's blog, and liked it a lot. And, like Ron, I've become disillusioned by Jeff and his arguments over the past year.

Let's make this clear from the start: a lot of what Jeff says is right.I have absolutely no need for Jeff to "save" me. I have no idea how long exactly Jeff has been involved in online publishing, but I doubt that he could describe me as a print zealot. I first worked as an online-only journalist around 1998 (when I was first dedicated online editor for MacUser) and although I've moved back to print a couple of times (follow the money!) since then, I'm currently, again, only working day-to-day online.

However, as Ron says, somewhere over the past year Jeff has become increasing reluctant to accept criticism, instead concentrating on smearing anyone who criticises him. Arguments which are still in play are dismissed out of hand as "old hat", and anyone who raises them as a "curmudgeon".

I think that one of the commentors on Jeff's supposed-rebuttal, "Chris", puts the way I feel about it best:

"It is possible to simultaneously believe …

1) That Jeff always has a lot of sharp insights and has kept coming up with them for many years;

2) That Jeff has become progressively more infatuated with his
stature and that his opinion of his own brilliance and deep
significance just keeps growing;

3) That print journalists need to hear the tough insights Jeff offers; and

4) That Jeff hasn’t come close to a coherent answer to the question
of where revenue is going to be found to sustain anything close to the
level of journalistic thoroughness to which we’ve grown accustomed.

I live in California, a megastate with an extremely poorly run state
government that has grown steadily more dysfunctional. Nevertheless,
over the past five years, the print journalists covering Sacramento
have been cut by at least half. At important hearings on things like
overcrowded prisons or failing schools, hearings where the future of
the state is being shaped, sometimes there are no journos in sight.
Before long, the Sacramento Bee, the L.A. Times and AP may be the only
ones with regularly staffed bureaus in the capital of the nation’s
largest, richest state.

This is not healthy. For all Jeff’s smarts, I’ve never seen him
offer a single insight into how this sort of common journalistic
decline will be addressed — or at least a single insight that I thought
had a practical chance of success."

Chris is completely right – and unfortunately, Jeff has spent a lot of time not answering this question, and accusing anyone who raises it of being "a curmudgeon". While Jeff has been happy to dish out the rhetoric, it appears that when someone uses the same tools against him, he gets more than a little thin skinned.

Journalism is picking up the phone

My friend Danny recently reminded me of one of the smarter things that I’ve said. I’m glad Danny keeps track of those odd moments of lucidity, because I tend to forget all about them.

This particular gem came out of an argument we had years ago about the difference between blogging and journalism, and, as I put it, “journalism is picking up the phone“.

There are two points to this. The first is that journalism involves research. It means more than just putting down what you think about something or doing a cursory Google search. It means actually making the effort to find out to find out some facts about what you’re writing about, seeking out some experts and quoting them. For some kinds of journalism – notably news – that’s all there is to it: if what you’re reading is something that’s “said by you” rather than someone else, you’re failing in the job.

But it also implies something more than that. Saying that journalism means “picking up the phone” means that journalism is a social thing. Most of the job isn’t writing – it’s finding and cultivating sources, getting to know people, and getting to that point when you can pick up the phone and talk to someone about what you need to know.

As Danny points out, this means that lots of things which bloggers do are really journalism, and, contrariwise, lots of professional journalists don’t really do journalism. Opinion columns, rewrites of feed-driven news stories, lifts from others are all not journalism: there’s no aspect of “picking up the phone”.

That’s why I find stuff like the Telegraph’s multiple-screen news room and constant feed-driven input (direct into journalist’s brains in version 2.0) worrying. It encourages journalists not to get out, not to get to know people, not to nurture and develop sources. It just encourages them to rewrite the same stuff that everyone else is writing, never leaving that glorious high-tech news room.

Print is dying, right? Not so fast

Don’t expect this story to get coverage from those who always seem to be claiming that print media is dying. The Economist, the venerable newspaper (which looks like a magazine) has seen revenues, profits and print circulation all rise:

"The Economist Group’s chief executive, Helen Alexander, has signed off from her 11-year leadership of the publisher by unveiling a 16pc rise in American print advertising for its flagship title and a 23pc increase in operating profit.

The Economist’s double-digit growth comes at a time when US news media have been under pressure. Time magazine, the market leader with 3.3m readers, saw sales fall away sharply last year as prices were increased to make up for falling advertising revenues… The Economist’s circulation has doubled in a decade, including a 9pc spurt last year to 1.3m copies a week."

Of course, some of those healthy profits have to do with The Economist’s web site. But even here, it bucks the trend: rather than make everything available for free, its archives are only available to subscribers or readers who have to sit through an irritating Flash ad.

Of course, The Economist’s print strategy is simple: steal a bigger slice of the smaller pie. Rather than just run to a growing market (online advertising), it has decided to also concentrate on getting a bigger share of print advertising, too.

How does it do it? Simple: By producing content that’s better quality, better-researched, and better written than anyone else. No blogs, no Twitter, just better (and harder) work.

Will the success story of The Economist be taught in journalism schools? I doubt it. The new, shiny and cool tends to be more exciting to those in college than dull stuff like writing to a tight style, making lots of phone calls and nurturing contacts.

But hey, that’s enough of this curmudgeonliness – let’s concentrate on things like Twitter, which has a bigger user-base (1.9 million) and has never made a single cent from any of them. Now that’s a success story that the young ought to emulate…