Journalism

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When  reported on the next-generation iPhone that had come into its hands, I was as curious as the next geek about what they’d found. But I didn’t think the ends justified the means.

The story begins,

You are looking at Apple’s next iPhone. It was found lost in a bar in Redwood City, camouflaged to look like an iPhone 3GS. We got it. We disassembled it. It’s the real thing, and here are all the details.

“We got it,” they said. How?

There was much speculation about that, but obviously — if the phone was a real prototype — it must have been lost by an Apple employee. That’s why I tweeted, “Some employee is in very deep shit for letting this happen: http://bit.ly/bVN5Ma” But others wondered. Was it planted by Apple? That’s what, for example, Howard Stern guessed on his show yesterday morning. He thought it was a brilliant marketing move by Apple.

But Gizmodo set their record straight, through a much-updated piece titled How Apple lost the next iPhone. After telling the story, at length, of how Gray Powell, an Apple employee, had left it at a restaurant (“The Gourmet Haus Staudt. A nice place to enjoy good German lagers”), Gizmodo unpacks the means by which the phone came into their possession:

There it was, a shiny thing, completely different from everything that came before.

He reached for a phone and called a lot of Apple numbers and tried to find someone who was at least willing to transfer his call to the right person, but no luck. No one took him seriously and all he got for his troubles was a ticket number.

He thought that eventually the ticket would move up high enough and that he would receive a call back, but his phone never rang. What should he be expected to do then? Walk into an Apple store and give the shiny, new device to a 20-year-old who might just end up selling it on eBay?
The Aftermath
Weeks later, Gizmodo got it for $5,000 in cash. At the time, we didn’t know if it was the real thing or not. It didn’t even get past the Apple logo screen. Once we saw it inside and out, however, there was no doubt about it. It was the real thing, so we started to work on documenting it before returning it to Apple. We had the phone, but we didn’t know the owner. Later, we learnt about this story, but we didn’t know for sure it was Powell’s phone until today, when we contacted him via his phone.

The apparent purpose of the story is to save Gary Powell’s ass, as well as to cover some of Gizmodo’s as well. It concludes,

He sounded tired and broken. But at least he’s alive, and apparently may still be working at Apple—as he should be. After all, it’s just a stupid iPhone and mistakes can happen to everyone—Gray Powell, Phil Schiller, you, me, and Steve Jobs.

The only real mistake would be to fire Gray in the name of Apple’s legendary impenetrable security, breached by the power of German beer and one single human error.

Additional reporting by John Herrman; extra thanks to Kyle VanHemert, Matt Buchanan, and Arianna Reiche

Update 2: I have added the bit on the $5,000 (in italics) and how we acquired the iPhone, as Gawker has disclosed to every media outlet that asked.

Yesterday the New York Times ran iPhonegate: Lost, Stolen Or A Conspiracy?, by Nick Bilton. The gist:

One big question is how much Gizmodo paid for the phone, and whether keeping it was legal. Nick Denton, chief executive of Gawker Media, which owns Gizmodo, told The Times the site paid $5,000 for the phone. But still bloggers wondered if it had really paid $10,000.

On Monday, Charles Arthur, Technology blogger for The Guardian, said paying for the phone could mean that Gizmodo was knowingly receiving stolen goods; on Tuesday, citing the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, Mr. Arthur expanded on his theory.

This helped the debate move on to more serious matters: whether the phone was “lost,” or “stolen.” John Gruber, blogger for Daring Fireball, pointed outthat in the eyes of  California law, there isn’t a difference. The law states:

One who finds lost property under circumstances which give him knowledge of or means of inquiry as to the true owner, and who appropriates such property to his own use, or to the use of another person not entitled thereto, without first making reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him, is guilty of theft.

The next big question — whether Gizmodo would turn over the phone to Apple — was answered after a long day of speculation on Monday over itsauthenticity.  Gizmodo has reported that it received a letter from Apple’s legal counsel…

Gizmodo complied and returned the phone. Yesterday I tweeted, “Re: bit.ly/d0P4Vo If you found a next-gen iPhone, would you return it — or use it to pull the owner’s pants down?” Thus far, two responses:

Of course, what Gizmodo did was an example of investigative journalism at work. Mainstream journals and broadcasters sometimes pay for stories, leads, video and audio recordings, photographs. That’s not unusual. But, as Charles Arthur writes, “As a reporter – and make no doubt, Gizmodo is reporting here, actually doing journalism red in tooth and claw – you inevitably end up walking close to the edge of what’s legal every now and then. Whether it’s being in receipt of confidential information, publishing something that’s potentially defamatory, or standing closer to the front line of a protest than the police would like, you occasionally have to put yourself in some legally-risky positions.”

Many thousands of years ago on the time scale of both the Internet and journalistic practices, specifically in 1971, I wrote a story for a New Jersey newspaper about rural poverty, illustrated by a photo I took of somebody’s snow-covered yard filled with discarded appliances and half-disassembled old cars sitting on cinder blocks. I thought at the time that the photo was sufficiently generic to protect the anonymity of the home’s occupier. I was wrong. The owner called me up and let me have it. I was still a kid myself — just 22 years old — and it was a lesson that stuck with me.

A couple decades later that lesson was enlarged by “Notes Toward a Journalism of Consciousness,” by D. Patrick Miller, in The Sun, a magazine for which I had once been a regular contributor. (No links to the story, but its table of contents is here.) In it Miller recalled his work as an investigative reporter in the Bay Area, and how sometimes he had to cross a moral line. In his case it was gaining the confidence of sources he would later, in some ways, betray — for the Greater Good of the story’s own moral purposes.

Gizmodo poses the moral goodness of its own story against the backdrop of Apple’s fanatical secrecy:

And hidden in every corner, the Apple secret police, a team of people with a single mission: To make sure nobody speaks. And if there’s a leak, hunt down the traitor, and escort him out of the building. Using lockdowns and other fear tactics, these men in black are the last line of defense against any sneaky eyes. The Gran Jefe Steve trusts them to avoid Apple’s worst nightmare: The leak of a strategic product that could cost them millions of dollars in free marketing promotion. One that would make them losecontrol of the product news cycle.

But the fact is that there’s no perfect security. Not when humans are involved. Humans that can lose things. You know, like the next generation iPhone.

Thus the second wrong makes a write, but not a right.

Two years ago, in this post here, I wrote,

Still, I think distinctions matter. There is a difference in kind between writing to produce understanding and writing to produce money, even when they overlap. There are matters of purpose to consider, and how one drives (or even corrupts) the other.

Two additional points.

One is about chilling out. Blogging doesn’t need to be a race. Really.

The other is about scoops. They’re overrated. Winning in too many cases is a badge of self-satisfaction one pins on oneself. I submit that’s true even if Memeorandum or Digg pins it on you first. In the larger scheme of things, even if the larger scheme is making money, it doesn’t matter as much as it might seem at the time.

What really matters is … Well, you decide.

Gizmodo was acting in character here. That character is traditional journalism itself, which is no stranger to moral compromises.

I’m not saying that one must not sometimes make those compromises. We all often do, regardless of our professions. What makes journalism a special case is its own moral calling.

How high a calling is it to expose the innards of an iPhone prototype?

To help decide, I recommend the movie Absence of Malice.

Was malice absent in Gizmodo’s case? And, even if it was, is the story worth what it cost to everybody else involved — including whatever dollar amount Gizmodo paid to its source?

I submit that it wasn’t. But then, I’m not in Gizmodo’s business. I also don’t think that business is journalism of the sort we continue to idealize, even though journalism never has been as ideal as we veterans of the trade like to think it is.

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Why is Steve Jobs taller than Eric Schmidt in this picture? 0114_mz_cover

I’ve met both guys, and I’m sure Eric is taller than Steve. But maybe I’m wrong.

I’m having trouble (must be my night for that) finding believable height information on either of them. (WikiAnswers says Steve is 6’2″, which seems high to me. Still can’t find anything on Eric.)

The reason I bring this up is that photographs and illustrations tell their own stories.

Ever notice how photos in sports stories always show the winner making a great move or looking happy and the loser making a lame move or looking all dejected? The story is often more complicated than that, but this is how default journalistic story-telling goes. You match the photo to the story. It’s an illustration. A picture to match the thousand words.

This  picture, on the cover of this week’s issue of BusinessWeek, shows several things at once: how Apple currently has more stature than Google in the phone business. How these two former colleagues (Eric was for years on Apple’s board) are now competitors. Maybe there’s some back to back stuff.

Anyway, it’s a story. Vendor sports, of course.

Just saying. Maybe there’s some fodder here for Jay & Dave at NYU.

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Three days ago Jonathan MacDonald witnessed an altercation in the London Underground at the Holborn Station, between — as Jonathan reports it — a uniformed Underground staffer an elderly man whose arm had just been released from doors that had closed on it while he was leaving.  The staffer was loud and rude, while the passenger was calm and gentlemanly. Jonathan also recorded the last of the event on video — and blogged the event, video and all.

Next blog post:

Fast forward 24 hours and the story has run as the leader on Sky, BBC, LBC, ITN (see sample news coverage here) and on the front page of the Evening Standard. This followed thousands of Tweets and Re-Tweets (including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, getting involved), 65,000 video views yesterday alone on YouTube and hundreds of comments on this and many other blogs. Plus, the guard has been suspended and is under investigation.

All I did was see something that shouldn’t be tolerated and used the ammunition we have in our hands – video/blogs/network.

I blog almost every day so this wasn’t any different. The content of this one seemed to grab attention though, and it was this attention that made things spiral. Hence, the main reason this story has flown is due to what happened on camera. We must remember that. It’s not me. I didn’t ‘invent the story’. I just blogged, like I do, and the Twitterverse powered the rest. Although charming to be the focus of the viral activity – I actually had the smallest part.

In that post Jonathan shows, with photos, how the story was played by the mainstream media. His summary:

The Twitterers, Bloggers and commentators were the only people who played this right. The stories were shared and eventually the press picked it up.

What we need is for Industry to learn the key techniques of Involvism that the Twitterers, Bloggers and commentators already implement.

So far there are seventy comments, including pros and cons about what Jonathan (jMac there) did, and his replies.

Most interesting to me about this are the stories being told, because those have always been the stock-in-trade of journalism, especially in newspapers. As I put it here,

The basic job of newspaper reporters is to write stories. In simplest terms, stories are interesting arrangements of facts. What makes stories interesting are: 1) protagonists (persons, groups, teams, “issues” or causes); 2) a struggle, problem or conflict of some sort; and 3) movement forward (hopefully, by not necessarily, toward a conclusion). Whether or not you agree with that formulation, what cannot be denied is the imperative.

Jonathan did his best as a witness. He also had a story to show and tell: the abuse of a passenger. That’s what he reported. As it happened, Jonathan caught the name (Ian) and the face of the Underground staffer, but only the back of the passenger (a man with gray hair in a business jacket carrying a leather bag). There are other stories to be told, of course. Read them in Jonathan’s comment thread

In the old media world, freedom of speech belonged to companies that bought ink by the barrel. In the new media world, it belongs to everybody with a cell phone or a keyboard. Get used to it. Or, as Jonathan did, put it to use.

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It helps to recognize that the is exactly what its name denotes: an association of presses. Specifically, newspapers. Fifteen hundred of them. Needless to say, newspapers are having a hard time. (Hell, I gave them some, myself, yesterday.) So we might cut them a little slack for getting kinda testy and paranoid.

Reading the AP’s paranoid jive brings to mind Jim Clark on stage at the first (only?) Netscape conference. Asked by an audience member why he said stuff about Microsoft that might have a “polarizing effect”, Jim rose out of his chair and yelled at the questioner, “THEY’RE TRYING TO KILL US. THAT HAS A POLARIZING EFFECT!” I sometimes think that’s the way the AP feels toward bloggers. Hey, when you’re being eaten alive, everything looks like a pirhana.

But last week the AP, probably without intending it, did something cool. You can read about it in “Associated Press to build news registry to protect content“, a press release that manages to half-conceal some constructive open source possibilities within a pile of prose that seems mostly to be about locking down content and tracking down violators of AP usage policies. Ars Technica unpacks some of the possibilities. Good piece.

Over in Linux Journal I just posted AP Launches Open Source Ascribenation Project, in which I look at how the AP’s “tracking and tagging” technology, which is open source, can help lay the foundations for a journalistic world where everybody gets credit for what they contribute to the greater sphere of news and comment — and can get paid for it too, easily — if readers feel like doing that.

The process of giving credit where due we call , and the system by which readers (or listeners, or viewers) choose to pay for it we call .

Regardless of what we call it, that’s where we’re going to end up. The system that began when the AP was formed in 1846 isn’t going to go away, but it will have to adapt. And adopt. It’s good to see it doing the latter. The former will be harder. But it has to be done.

I’d say more here, but I already said it over there.

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I don’t go to TV for Journalism any more, even though I’m sure there’s plenty left: needles scattered thorugh a haystack of channels and program schedules that have become so hard to navigate on satellite and cable systems that it’s just not worth the bother. So, while I wait calmly for TV to die (and it will, except for sports), I go to other sources, most of which are on the Web, but some of which are still in print.

The New York Times, for example. This last week we took a bus down to New York, where we visited museums, went kayaking in the Hudson and did fun family stuff. Each morning we were greeted by the Times, which still astonishes me with the quality and abundance of its Good Stuff. We saved a bunch of it to haul back and read on the bus along the way. I still have the stack here. They are, let’s see…

The Times’ treatments of serious subjects — say, for example, President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court — are both essential and unequaled in their thoroughness. For any subject I care about, I’d rather mine the depths of the Times’ coverage (that last link leads to dozens of  pieces) than take on faith the opinionating — or even the in-depth coverage — of all but a handful of other papers; especially those with sharp axes to grind. (Even though I often enjoy those. The Wall Street Journal‘s especially. Here’s WSJ take this morning on Sotomayor.)

The Web and the World are well-met by an easily-navigated website and a fine newspaper. I can think of many ways the Times could do a better job; but right now few if any others (the Washington Post, primarily) are in the same league.

Which is why I’m annoyed by the likes of Bloggingheads, and the Times’ video section in general.

For example there’s this: “Hanna Rosin, left, of Double X and Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School debate the sincerity of President Obama’s anti-torture pledge.” I like both these talking writers, but not in a she-said/she-said setup that sinks down into the lame argument culture that Deborah Tannen argued against (unsucessfully) long ago.

There’s some great stuff in there. This piece about Venezuela’s Motorizados, for example. And I suppose this David Pogue take-down of the Verizon Hub is fine; but I’d rather scan Pogue’s review (even though it does drag my eyes across two pages, so I get “exposed” to all those ads I turn to white space with AdBlockerPlus).

But why imitate bad TV?

Television, almost from the beginning, suffered from the need to turn programming into advertising bait: packing material to fill time time slots between spot breaks. What the New York Times is doing with Bloggingheads is imitating one of the most annoying conventions of a dying institution. The Times can do better than that. So can the blogging heads that don’t talk nearly as well as they blog. (At least not in this format.)

In Dave Winer and Jay Rosen‘s latest Rebooting the News, Jay points out that debugging, which works so well for software and hardware, has not been part of the culture of BigTime Journalism. (The proximal example involving the Times and Maureen Dowd is summarized well by Scott Rosenberg.)

A larger issue for me is a structural one visited by David Carr in his review of Newsweek’s wholesale changes. Sez Carr,

The makeover represents a rethinking of what it means to be a newsweekly, but no redesign can gild the cold fact that it remains a news magazine that comes out weekly at a time when current events are produced and digested on a cycle that is measured with an egg timer, not a calendar…

More notably, the new Newsweek will no longer attempt to re-report and annotate the week’s events — an expensive, unsustainable approach to making a weekly news magazine. The magazine will not scramble the jets and deploy huge resources to cover a breaking story unless, as Mr. Meacham put it, the magazine is “truly adding to the conversation.” Instead, the reimagined magazine will include reported narratives that rely on intellectual scoops rather than informational ones and pair them with essayistic argument.

The wonky, government-centric DNA of the magazine is dominant in the new execution, which may have been the idea. The first redesigned issue includes an interview of President Obama by Mr. Meacham; a feature on the retired life of the last president; a look back at the last treasury chief; a profile of the speaker of the House; and a column by George F. Will, who will always be George F. Will no matter what typeface you render him in.

So, what’s “the conversation” Meacham is talking about? Whatever it is, it shouldn’t exclude the helpful voices that come from outside Newsweek’s customary sphere. Much of Dave and Jay’s conversation in their Rebooting podcast is about the subject of listening. They come at it from the angle of empathy, but that’s what real listening requires. If you’re really listening, you’re not ignoring, and you’re not preparing a dismissal or an excuse to pivot off the other party’s points to more of your own. To listen is to accept the speaker as a source.

Journalism without sources is not worthy of the name. Journals today have more sources than ever. And the abundance of sources requires better jouralism than ever. Much of this journalism will have to be original rather than derivative. He-said/She-said fighting-heads is derivative. Worse, it suggests a structure that is inherently narrow and even misleading. It assumes the issues can be reduced to pairs of competing views, each from a single source.

We are still only at the beginning of journalism’s great Reboot. It’s hard for big old papers like the Times to be the boot and not the butt that the boot kicks. There is so much to protect, and that stuff is so much easier to see than the sum of stuff that’s still left to pioneer.

Yet the frontier is much, much bigger.

This weekend I heard second-hand that the Times is on its way to rebooting the late Times Select, by another name. In other words, it’s thinking about putting its content behind a paywall again. And, in so doing, leading the way for the rest of its industry to do the same.

I hope this isn’t true, though I suspect it is, for the simple reason that it’s easier to protect the known than to pioneer the unknown.

Toward the end of Dave & Jay’s podcast (at 32:45), Jay reports that he dropped off  Howard Kurtz’s Relaiable Sources, as had Dave. Neither found it to their liking. Which makes sense to me, because Kurtz’s show is television. And television is a highly mannered game. Those manners are fast becoming anachronisms. Jay’s critique of elitist journalism — what he calls the “Church of the Savvy” — is as much about manners as it is about other skills required for mastering The Game.

That game is, as Jay puts it, insideous, because it’s manipulative by nature. Manipulation and reporting are not the same. You might find manipulation in conversation, but it’s not a healthy thing, even if getting manipulated works for you.

Jay says that the power of The Church of the Savvy is in decline. He gives good reasons, to which I’ll add one more: it’s adapted to television, and television as we know it is a near-absolute anachronism.

Last night I had a long talk with an old friend who is a very wise and quiet investor. A measure of his wisdom is that he’s navigated his way through the crash, and is being very smart about what’s coming along as well. While our conversation ranged widely, it centered on television. His take is that TV is a Dead Thing Walking. From the investment standpoint, you short the satellite guys first, and then the cable companies. There are many good business reasons, starting with the abandonment of the medium by advertisers (for all but, say, sports). But the primary problem is that the audience is walking away. They’re going to Hulu and YouTube and other workarounds of the Olde System. There will be many more of these than the few we already have.

It would be wise for survivors among other Olde Systems not to ape what’s failing about television. Among those failings are forms of journalism that never were. Also the convention of locking up content behind paywalls and indulging in other coercive subscription practices. Nothing wrong with subscriptions, of course. You just don’t want them to be self-defeating. Times Select was exactly that. So are all cable and satellite TV deals. (A la Carte hasn’t been tested, but will be, as a desperate measure, probably much too late in what’s left of the game.)

The bottom line isn’t that the Net is changing everything, even though that’s true. It’s the need to comply with the nature of the Net itself. That nature is both cheap and immediate. The cost of connecting is veering toward zero. So is the distance it puts each of us from the rest of us, and the digital resources we require. There will be costs involved. There will be businesses in providing resources. But they won’t be the old scarcity games. They will be abundance games. That is, games played on a field defined by abundance and to a large degree comprised of it as well.

What’s scarce are talent, originality, and the arts to which both are put. We need to find new and Net-native ways of determining value and paying for it. That’s what the VRM community is doing with EmancPay. If anybody from the Times (or any journal tempted to lock up their content rather than to reboot the market in more creative ways) is reading this, talk to me.

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Does fine wine have traffic?

Dave naming Jay Rosen Blogger of the Year made me think of wine. As I said in a comment to Dave’s post, Jay is a sommelier of fine links. Especially in his tweets. They are always interesting, always helpful at driving a Larger Understanding of What Journalism Is At Its Best, and What Journalism Is Becoming.

Jay is also a helluva fine blogger.

The best blogs — to me, at least — are ones that enlarge your understanding of the subjects they visit. They are less about attracting visitors as they are about attracting interest — in subjects, rather than in themselves. They have high substance/vanity ratios. While some may make money from advertising, that’s not what they’re about.

They also challenge conventional wisdom and popular beliefs, including their own. The second sentence of Jay’s latest post starts with, “But I’ve since realized…” To grow is to change. Who wants to be who they were ten years ago, much less say what they said back then?

Anyway, I gotta go off and run more errands. Just wanted to pause in the midst and say amen to a good choice.

Merry Linksmas, everybody.

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