Fact Checking in the Internet World

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Photo credit: Adam Crowe

Like many other industries, journalism has undergone a vast paradigm shift in the last decade. Like advertising, the music and film industries, marketing, public relations and virtually all other professional fields, journalism has had to adjust to a new “immediacy” brought about by the Internet.

Now, by all reports, most people get their news from online sources and, while “online sources” are often venerable traditional media sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post, more often than not, blogs have become major sources of breaking news, and exclusive reports.

In fact, it was Pakistani IT specialist Sohaib Athar, now more famously known by his Twitter handle @reallyvirtual, who unwittingly live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid while Libyan rebels send on the ground status updates where traditional journalists have limited or no access. (Andy Carvin of NPR, known as @acarvin on Twitter,  has become somewhat notorious for his months-long curation of such tweets out of Libya, Egypt, Yemen and other Middle East hotspots).

There is no denying that the social tools available today have changed the face of journalism. Yet, despite these boons, it troubles me that basic principles of journalism seem to be consistently ignored.

At the end of the day, the practice of journalism (as with any industry) will evolve (and always have) with the tools and technology of the day. However, though practices may change, principles should never change.

One such principle is fact-checking. No matter who you are, or what era you’re in, fact-checking is rule number one in journalism. Don’t report until you have three independent sources is a good rule of thumb that is often ignored.

Case in point. The Wall Street Journal‘s All things D[igital] posted an article the other day titled, “Confirmed: Twitter Plans to Announce Photo-sharing Service This Week“. By all accounts, and history bearing witness, All Things D has been a reliable source of technology news since it’s inception. Founded by media moguls Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, it later became part of the WSJ family and has maintained a high level of journalistic integrity and excellence for years.

But something troubles me about this article. With a headline like this, it seems strange that this paragraph would then be included in the article:

I am indeed aware that D9 is the conference put on by this very site, but was not able to get sources to confirm the image-hosting announcement on the record. Twitter spokespeople did not reply for a request for comment on the matter.

Of course, the news did in fact turn out to be a true story and Twitter did announce on their official blog that they would be partnering with Photobucket to offer an image hosting service.

Notwithstanding, everyone seems to agree that this play has been a foregone conclusion for a long time. And TechCrunch did write a story speculating on the service. But even in that news announcement, there was no real substance with Alexis Tsotsis concluding the article with:

I’ve got no details on what exactly the photosharing URL shortener will be if any (Twitter has owned Twimg.com for a long time) or what the Twitter for Photos product will look like. Just that it’s coming, soon. And if they’re smart they’ll put ads on it.

No sourcing. No fact checking. No confirmation.

While the need for speed is certainly required in today’s immediate, persistent news cycles, it bothers me that articles are being written claiming confirmation when no confirmation exists and that articles are being written from a speculative perspective (no issues there, just call it that!) and being held up as fact.

Though the Twitter news ended up being accurate, I plead with All Things D and all other internet publications to do yourselves and the public a service and stay the main tenets of journalism. Respect is at stake.

AOL, 2006 Called and Wants Its Content Commoditization Strategy Back…

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Photo by jdlasica on Flickr
It was a Monday like any other Monday. After a weekend of too much drinking, low-key football-centric Sunday celebrations (Go Packers!) and an early night to bed, I woke up this morning in the way I normally do on a Monday: Cursing ye gods of Mondays past, and hoping the day would not turn into the inevitable case of the Mondays that they all do.

Wearily, I reached for my laptop to find out what the Monday morning tech news buzz was and my eyes flew open in surprise: AOL had acquired the Huffington Post for $315M in a hybrid cash and stock transaction. This only a few months after TechCrunch had been acquired, also by AOL, for an undisclosed amount.

It was a deja vu kind of moment this morning as I saw the stereotypical business model of the mid-2000s flash before my eyes. In those days, everyone thought they could make money purely on advertising and content. Crank out the content, get more eyeballs, get more ad dollars, PROFIT!

The problem was (and still is!) is that the more content that is produced, the less valuable it becomes. It’s really very simple economics. More importantly, the advertising world has two buckets… maybe three if you put Adsense by itself in the lowest bracket. You have direct-buy, expensive, high-return type ads. These are most often purchased by big companies with big advertising budgets like Apple, Cisco, etc.

The second type of advertising (putting aside alphabet soup forms like CPA, CPM, CPC, etc) is generically called “remnant advertising”. Remnant ads make up the vast majority of internet advertising. It’s cheap to buy in bulk (and in a less targeted way), doesn’t usually pay a lot and, in general, is a good way to do commodity advertising.

This is what we did at b5media. I’ve not spoken much about my time at b5media because, frankly, it disgusts me where they’ve come. We actually had a good product going and things went awry. I won’t place blame. But what I will say is… we built that company on commodity advertising, commodity content, and had a tough time growing the company. I left with over 350 blogs in a dozen “channels”, each channel being a grouping of 20-30 blogs around a topic like sports or entertainment.

It was easier to try to do ad sales for a group of blogs on a topic, than it was to do targeted, lucrative advertising.

The problem with the b5media model, along with the Weblogs Inc model that sold (ironically also to AOL), the Gawker model, the Glam model, and now the AOL model, is that the content quality sucks. When I pick up a magazine or newspaper, I would not liken most media to The Atlantic or The New Yorker, both of which are highly intelligent publications that put out content that is exceptionally tuned and academic. The quality of the content is orders of magnitude higher than most newspapers or magazines (obviously including this blog).

Those publications are rare and can get private money from subscriptions, etc. The advertising route is the cheap route, and the route that business models go when they aren’t good enough to charge for access (a more reliable revenue source).

For the record, commodity business don’t normally pay their writers anything comparable to what their “colleagues” at uncommoditized media organizations get paid. That’s because, their work is not valuable unless it is in bulk.

Going back to the $25M Weblogs Inc acquisition in 2005, AOL has gone down this road of commodity content before. They even killed off a bunch of the WIN properties keeping only the ones that were truly valuable – like Engadget. They are taking a different approach and buying individual high-productivity sites now – which is better – but then their strategy is one that involves combining these sites, at least on a content integration level, into a mass-produced, commoditized content machine.

So is it really different?

Embargoes, Corporate Blogs and Getting a Story Out

Over the past few days, the way the news is done (as told by blogs) has been challenged once again. Mike Arrington, in a moment I can only assume was brought on in frustration by another mismanaged embargoed story, declared unilaterally that TechCrunch would agree to any embargo and proceed to break it thereafter.

Marshall Kirkpatrick came out on the other side re-assuring the public that Read Write Web would honor embargoes.

This morning, Jeremiah Owyang, who I skewered recently over sponsored post opinions, started asking some great questions around the communications of “hot” stories – that is, stories that companies deem newsworthy and seek coverage from bloggers on.

Jeremiah wonders why companies don’t disseminate this information themselves? The answer is: They do. Everyday, thousands of press releases are sent out, most of which fall on deaf ears.

Companies, realizing the difficulty in communicating online in an internet age, have turned to blogs as things they must have. The problem, however, is that traditional communication tactics have been applied to a corporate blogging strategy (you do know the difference between tactics and strategy, right?).

In other words, most corporate blogs are boring. Nobody reads them. Nobody cares. And so, most companies handling their own “news” stories will fall on deaf ears. It’s a numbers game. Get the story to the top blogs in the space that cover the genre of product or service, and you get the most eyeballs. Get more eyeballs, the percentage of sales go up.

The Corporate blogs that are effective are the blogs that participate in the larger community. They not only promote their own products, but they have a distinct outwardly looking mentality that helps their readers be better people, business people, marketers, wives, husbands, internet citizen, etc. They enable community, which benefits their own business.

Most corporate blogs have not figured this out. Instead, they are used primarily to shill their own products and services and let’s be honest, everyone hates getting spammed. Thus, the corporate blogs are not read and the companies are left relying on bloggers such as Mike Arrington to get their messages out.

In an ideal world, Jeremiah’s concept would be best. Businesses would have respected and competent media arms that could disseminate and challenge the community and cause effective bounce in their online presence.

If you’re a corporate blogger, I’d be particularly interested in your thoughts on this.