Sometimes the news can’t wait

A fascinating story in the New York Times about how NBC tried its best to keep the news of Tim Russert’s death from escaping into the wild so that they could make sure that his family knew about it. But Twitter and Wikipedia beat them to it. According to the Times story, Russert was pronounced dead at the hospital around 2:30 but NBC didn’t mention it on air for over an hour; on Twitter, the first mention I could find through came at 2:59. Two minutes later, Russert’s Wikipedia page was updated, by what the newspaper says was an employee of a Web services company that has several NBC affiliates as customers, but then not long afterwards it was reverted to the original.

One interesting note about the event: the employee who first altered the Wikipedia page has apparently been fired. A spokesperson for the company said that “a junior-level employee made updates to the Wikipedia page upon learning of Mr. Russert’s passing, thinking it was public record,” and that the Web services firm had “taken the necessary measures with the employee and apologized to NBC.” Was the person who changed the Wikipedia page committing an act of journalism, or divulging privileged information? I’d vote for the latter, but clearly the company wants to keep NBC as a client.

In any case, as the Times story notes, the lesson is that as long as there is news, people will try to share it. (Note: The NYT story says that NBC tried to hold back the news the same way the legendary King Canute tried to hold back the tide — but Canute (or Knud) didn’t really try to hold back the tide. He pretended to, so as to show the rest of his court that not even kings were as powerful as God or nature).

Breakdown: The power of online media

As I’ve said before, I don’t usually use this blog to promote the place I work (the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto). That’s not because I don’t think it’s worth promoting, but mostly because I figure the Globe does a pretty good job of that itself, and doesn’t really need my help. But every now and then there’s something special that I think is worth mentioning, and our series on mental health is one of those things. It’s a special package called Breakdown, and it involves feature stories in the paper but also on the Web, about how people and their families and society in general are dealing with various kinds of mental illness — from generalized anxiety to OCD to bipolar disorder.

Like most people, I have had experiences with the mentally ill, and not just on street corners or the subway but closer to home, with friends and even family members. Every case is unique, and sometimes there are happy endings — as in the case of Jesse, who developed a schizophrenic disorder in his 20s but managed to find treatment and now is mostly healthy again — and sometimes there are not, as is the case with Peter, a promising lawyer whose career and family life were destroyed by his bipolar disorder and repeated suicide attempts (although even that could be seen as a happy story, since he is still alive).

Not only is it an important and touching issue, however — it is also an excellent example of the marriage of powerful reporting and some great design, not just in the newspaper but also online. As a fan of all things Web-based I might be biased, but I think this kind of story (and others, like Ian Brown’s heart-wrenching portrait of life with his severely handicapped son) becomes even more powerful online, where you can hear and see Peter O’Neill talk about his life — and his most recent suicide attempt — in his own words, or listen to Jesse’s mother talk about her son while looking at photos of him as a child.

Is this another example of how only the traditional media can do this kind of long-form journalism? I don’t know about that. Another great example I came across recently was Networked Streets, an online journalism project from Ryerson University, co-ordinated by professor Vinita Srivastava, which looks at the experience of immigrant families in Toronto. Both the Globe’s package (as well as some of the other online documentaries the staff at the paper have put together recently) and the Ryerson project don’t just involve great reporting, but great design, layout, video editing and so on — all the things that go into making the Web an incredibly powerful medium for journalism.

Edith Macefield finally moves

(from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) Edith Macefield died at home, just the way she wanted. The Ballard woman — who captured hearts and admirers around the world when she stubbornly turned down $1 million to sell her home to make way for a commercial development — died Sunday of pancreatic cancer. She was 86.

According to the Seattle PI story, Barry Martin — the senior superintendent in charge of building the giant parking garage around her house — struck up a friendship with Ms. Macefield, and used to drive her to the doctor, pick up her groceries and prescriptions, bring her lunch and even cooked her dinner from time to time. Rest in peace, Edith.

AP battle over, copyright war still on

The Associated Press has apparently decided to fold its tent and exit the blogosphere copyright battlefield, at least for now. According to a statement by Rogers Cadenhead, the newswire and he have reached a settlement of some kind, in which the AP has agreed to not pursue further action against him over excerpts from AP stories posted to his site The Drudge Retort. A statement by the Associated Press said:

“The AP was able to provide additional information to the operator of the site, Rogers Cadenhead, on Thursday. That information was aimed at enabling Mr. Cadenhead to bring the contributed content on his site into conformance with the policy he earlier set for his contributors. Both parties consider the matter closed.”

As Rogers notes in his post, however, the AP declaring the matter closed does nothing to resolve the larger conflict between how AP interprets fair use and how thousands of people are sharing news on the web (a conflict that — if it were to go to court — the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others say AP would likely lose). I am inclined to agree with Salon founder Scott Rosenberg, who says:

“What this means, I’m afraid, is that the AP/Drudge Retort matter has not been the resolution of anything at all, and that we are likely to see a larger and longer conflict unfold, between the AP’s efforts to nail down its rights to smaller and smaller bits of its content and the desire of bloggers (and their readers) to quote headlines and brief excerpts.”

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Girl Talk’s new album: Pay whatever

The latest artist to try the “pay what you want” album release idea is Girl Talk, a club DJ whose real name is Gregg Gillis. His latest compilation of remixes and mashups is called Feed The Animals, and is available through a link on his MySpace page or through the website for his record label Illegal Art. Regardless of what you pay, you get a zip file of the entire record as high-quality mp3 files (320kbps, which is pretty good). If you pay five bucks or more, you can download uncompressed FLAC files, and $10 gets you the files as well as a copy of the CD when it comes out in September. This reminds me of the recent Mission: Metallica offer.

If you offer to pay nothing for the download, you get sent to a page with a form that asks you why you are paying nothing, and then gives you a series of check boxes, including:

— I may donate later
— I can’t afford to pay
— I don’t really like Girl Talk
— I don’t believe in paying for music
— I have already purchased this album
— I don’t value music made from sampling
— I am part of the press, radio, or music industry
— Other reasons

It’s interesting that one of the options is “I don’t value music made from sampling.” As the name of Girl Talk’s record label suggests, sampling and mashups of the kind he is known for are in some ways on the edge of what is legally permitted (and have been the subject of numerous lawsuits in the past, including the one over DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, which was a remix of the Beatles White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album). Some might think it’s a little presumptuous to charge for music that is essentially just a remix of other people’s music, which some Girl Talk fans may already have paid for.

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Yahoo: Deadwood or deck chairs?

The trickle of Yahoo executive departures has turned into an all-out flood, it seems, with at least two more senior VP types headed for the escape pods, and another — Brad “Peanut Butter” Garlinghouse — widely expected to join the exodus. But is this a much-needed clearing of the decks in order to put the good ship Yahoo on the right course, or is it rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? In other words, is Sue Decker clearing out the deadwood, or setting fire to the furniture? There seem to be plenty of opinions on both sides.

According to commenters at Silicon Alley Insider (who appear to be Yahoo insiders) Qi Lu — who was executive VP in charge of search and ad technology — is either a genius (with 20 patents to his name, according to Kara Swisher) and the guy whose talents helped get Yahoo’s fancy new Panama engine up and running, or he’s the guy who is most to blame for the lateness of Panama in the first place and the lacklustre performance of it after it finally launched. Or maybe Yahoo doesn’t need any more search geniuses now it has gotten in bed with Google?

As for Garlinghouse, he’s the guy who diagnosed Yahoo’s problems as “spreading the peanut butter too thin” in an infamous memo that got widely leaked in 2006. Was that just a play for power within the Yahoo executive suite, or was Brad really sincere about the company’s need to change? Whatever his motivation, it appears that Yahoo will be changing without him, according to TechCrunch and PaidContent (Kara says he hasn’t quite decided yet). Given that he’s in charge of Yahoo Mail, Messenger, Groups and Flickr, his departure would leave a pretty large hole. Does Yahoo have the bench strength to fill it?

One commenter at Silicon Alley Insider makes an interesting point: everyone says that Yahoo is too bloated with executives and top-heavy and management-centric and so on, but then when the company shoves some people out the door (or fails to respond when they decide to leave) everyone says the rats are fleeing the sinking ship. The big question is: do Sue Decker and Jerry Yang have a vision for whatever’s left once all the departures are done with?

Yahoo’s Ymail: Don’t really get it

I was talking with someone at work about Yahoo’s much-heralded launch of two new email domains, Rocketmail (which is actually an old domain resurrected) and Ymail, and despite much back-and-forth about it, I still couldn’t really see the point, and in fact still don’t. I mean, I’m familiar with the rationale given by Yahoo, which is that there are lots of people out there who haven’t signed up for email because they can’t get their name, or their favourite nickname, or whatever. And maybe there’s some truth to that. But how many of those people could there possibly be? Is this really a market segment that is crying out for Yahoo’s help?

A couple of other things that struck me: 1) Are people really going to switch that easily from [email protected] or whatever (or [email protected]) to a new Ymail or Rocketmail address? Every time I’ve switched from one email to another it’s been a gigantic pain in the ass, and I have vowed to never do it again — there are all those people you have to spam with your new mail. It’s a nightmare. That’s why I got a Gmail address in the first place, so that when I changed Internet providers I could just redirect my mail to that address. I personally know of several people who pay two ISPs, simply because they don’t want to give up their old email address.

And those are the old folks. Point number 2) Anyone younger than about 30 doesn’t seem interested in having an email address period, let alone caring whether it’s [email protected] or whatever. My teenaged daughters and their friends never use email anyway — they text message (in which case all you need is a phone number) or they use Facebook messages as a way of communicating. I send them email and they never get it. Do they have email addresses? Yes, and they are a combination of their names, underscores, numbers and nicknames, and so on — and they couldn’t care less. Not exactly a huge market opportunity there either, I wouldn’t say.

In a lot of ways, Yahoo seems to be fighting a war that has already been won — which, given some of the other things that have been going on at the company over the past couple of years, probably isn’t all that surprising. I was trying to think of an analogy for this latest campaign, and it’s a little like the company has decided to announce a new kind of typewriter where the keys don’t stick as much, or a better version of the pay phone, or a new video-tape recorder. In other words, WTF?

AP and the Media Bloggers Assoc.

Is nothing ever simple in the blogosphere? Apparently not. I thought the Associated Press copyright-infringement debacle involving Rogers Cadenhead and his site The Drudge Retort was just a ridiculous move by a short-sighted traditional media organization, trying to somehow shove the social-media genie back into the bottle. Don’t get me wrong — it’s still all of that. But now, it’s also turned into a murky tale involving conflicts of interest (or allegations of same) and the somewhat tangled history of something called the Media Bloggers Association.

The conflicted part comes from a post by Mike Arrington at TechCrunch, in which he notes that Saul Hansell — blogger and technology editor at the New York Times — has written three posts about the brouhaha, each of which seems to be arguing that bloggers have gotten it all wrong, and the latest of which says that Digg co-founder Jay Adelson supports the Associated Press, which turns out to be… well, wrong. Saul also says that he finds it significant that:

“Mr. Adelson, a leader in the Web 2.0 world, takes a view that is a bit different than the content-must-be-free orthodoxy that has been thrown around so violently.”

I for one don’t recall any “content must be free” orthodoxy being thrown around, violently or otherwise, although it’s possible I may have missed something. I do recall a lot of people writing about the chipping away at the concept of ‘fair use’ that the AP’s case against Drudge Retort represents, which I think is something quite different. In any case, Mr. Hansell was also instrumental in another part of the controversy, which started with a somewhat huffy post by Media Bloggers Association founder Robert Cox, who says he got involved in the Cadenhead affair after Rogers asked him to help (on the advice of Culture Kitchen).

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TimesPeople: Nice, but not enough

The venerable New York Times has launched a new social-networking style feature to its site, called TimesPeople. In its early incarnation, it involves downloading an extension to use with Firefox (interestingly enough, the site doesn’t seem to care about Internet Exploder users — only going after the early adopters, apparently). Once you install it, you get a toolbar that you can use to save or recommend stories from the Times website, and other users with the extension can see what you’ve saved. In other words, a kind of plugin for the New York Times cognoscenti. On the TimesPeople information site, it says that with a future release, no browser plugin will be required.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Times — I think adding social-browsing and social-networking elements is a great idea, and I don’t want to dissuade either the NYT or anyone else from giving them a shot. But the NYT effort feels like it doesn’t go far enough. Why? Because the service contains exactly what it says on the tin: TimesPeople, and only TimesPeople. In other words, it’s for people who just read the New York Times, and all they really care about is what other people who read the New York Times care about.

I’m not saying that isn’t a valuable thing — at the Globe and Mail site, we do something similar by allowing users to click a button and recommend a story, and then see the most recommended (and most emailed, and most commented) on a “most popular” aggregation page. And I think that has value for regular readers. But what about connecting the site to the rest of the Web? The Times has taken a step in that direction with its integration of BlogRunner on its technology page, but there is so much more that could be done. And while TimesPeople connects one way (through RSS feeds of saved content) it doesn’t look like anything feeds back in the other direction. Why just show people the popular NYT content — why not the most popular from elsewhere? Why not integrate something like Scott Karp’s Publish 2.0 tool?

I guess my problem with the feature is that, like so many of the things that mainstream media sites such as the Times do (and I’m including the Globe in this), it plays to the traditional — and, I think, flawed — “portal” strategy, which assumes that everyone comes to the site as a destination and spends most of their time there, and is only interested in what happens there. I think that describes a relatively small (and declining) segment of the online population.

Record industry becomes broken record

The global music agency known as the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (hey guys, how about updating the name?) has come out with what it says are some depressing numbers for worldwide music sales for 2007, and — perhaps not surprisingly, given the group’s history — it is using the new figures to lobby ;for legislation that would force Internet service providers to nab illegal music downloaders.

According to a report in the Times of London, the agency said that sales of music last year fell to their lowest level since 1985. That year, total sales of recorded music hit 1.8 billion units (i.e., albums). In 2007, the IFPI says that the equivalent of 1.86 billion units were sold, down from the previous year’s 2.09 billion.

According to the industry group, last year’s numbers include paid-for downloads of individual tracks, with 10 downloads equivalent to one traditional album. CD sales fell by 13 per cent last year, the IFPI says, although it’s not clear whether that number refers to actual sales or to the decline in shipments to music retailers.

Naturally, the IFPI blames rampant file-swapping through peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent for the decline in sales (despite the fact that several studies, including one sponsored by Industry Canada, have shown that downloads don’t lead to a sharp drop in music purchases, and may in fact lead to an increase in music buying by downloaders). Although the industry group mentions the rise of paid downloads — which climbed by almost 35 per cent on average — it seems almost like an afterthought.

As it has for the past year or so, the IFPI used the sales announcement as another opportunity to push ISPs to police the downloading of music files, and lend their support to the idea of a “three strikes” law — which would see Internet customers cut off after three cases of illegal downloading. Virgin Media, one of the largest ISPs in the UK, has already started voluntarily sending its customers letters when asked to by the British Phonographic Industry (the British version of the IFPI).

According to the Times story, IFPI head John Kennedy said that the group “wants ISPs to reveal details of their customers who illegally share music and possibly cut off any subscriber who breaches copyright three times [and said that] providers should engage constructively, before the tools of legislation or litigation were invoked to require them to act.”