Fact Checking in the Internet World

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.

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…

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.

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.

Sucks to be a Blog Network These Days

Having come from the blog network space, I have a mostly unique understanding of the difficulties encountered when running a content business. There is always a war between traffic and community, profitability and loss, long term projections and short term realities. It’s not an easy business.

It’s even more challenging when you’re a blog network. Unlike more traditional style content companies like Newscorp (owners of MySpace, AskMen.com and FoxSports.com) or the New York Times, blog networks attempt to take a relatively new medium, a blog, and lump it together with other relatively new media – blogs. There’s no counter-balance of strengths and weakness. They are all blogs, possessing the same inherent strengths and weaknesses.

One of the core problems with the “traditional”, if there is such a thing in the space, blog networks – and really any online media – is that the business model almost always comes back to advertising models of revenue generation. Historically, the advertising market has come and gone in a predictably cyclical way.

As expected, the advertising model is taking somewhat of a hit during these difficult economic times and only in the past two days, two major media players in the blog network space have had to cut pay, create layoffs or otherwise cut costs due to an impending, or in some cases already present, decline in online ad revenue.

Gawker Media, the second largest blog network and home to industry favorites Gizmodo, Gawker, Valleywag and Lifehacker has announced a restructuring of staff – laying off 60% of Valleywag staff, as an example, and increasing the staff on their flagship properties. Consolidation is the name of the game in this case.

Likewise, b5media (with whom I worked for several years), had an internal memo leaked (and TechCrunch published) describing a complete revamp of their compensation system “to reduce costs”. Many bloggers are taking significant pay reductions as the company streamlines their burn rate.

This on the heels of AOL/Weblogs Inc layoffs and pay reductions a few months ago and the very public walk-out of Profy staff when pay was to be reduced shortly thereafter.

Let me be clear. If you’re in the content space, you are dealing in a non-tangible asset. Therefore, the economic rules of asset valuation do not apply. There is no “market price”. There is no assessment value. There is no depreciation. If anything, content can appreciate over time. Typical rules do not apply and in a market where investors, advertisers and publishers are trying to identify concrete ideas and assets that they can count on as a sure investment, non-tangible assets will always take a hit.

Publishers, particularly publisher networks, have to look around and identify means to continue to generate non-tangible assets cheaply (yet fairly), and I imagine some models might end up looking to non-tangible compensation (such as community benefits) to acquire new publishers and content.

Problem is, bloggers have this idea that they can be rich by blogging. Some are smarter and think they can simply “make a living” by blogging, without ever uttering the rich word. Truth is, unless you’re a few important people in the world, it’s not happening. It won’t happen. There are other meaningful ways to benefit from blogging, and most of them are non-monetary.

Entrepreneurship in Perspective

It’s pretty easy to be self-obsessed when you’re in a startup, or immersed in the world of startups. Tune in to TechCrunch50, the Silicon Valley startup pageant that wrapped earlier this week — sparring with DEMO, running simultaneously down in San Diego, and you’d think nothing much else was going on in the world — “More on hurricanes, war, election year, and trillion-dollar bailouts . . . later in today’s program.”

Seven years ago yesterday, things got put in perspective real quickly. I was attending a morning panel session on raising capital at Accenture’s Reston, VA headquarters, organized by the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce. The details of the panel have long since faded from memory. I remember local VC Don Rainey was on the dais — at the time running the VA office of Durham, NC based Intersouth Partners — because I was in the middle of asking him a question, when my wife Cecilia interrupted me (happens at home a lot; in public, not so much). She was managing the event, and stepped up to the mic to let everyone know “there’s been some kind of attack on New York,” and everyone had best just go and check on their families.

My recollection following that moment remains quite vivid. Very first thought (after the interrupting thing): what presence of mind Cecilia had, to quickly transition the context of the meeting to the important one — family — without causing panic. Then she and I immediately devised our plan: she would continue to try to reach our daughter in DC, while I would drive down to pick up our son at school. Come what may, our family would be together.

I remember how details of the attack were just trickling in over the radio — a plane or planes, one or both of Twin Towers — as we sat anxiously in our cars, crawling through the crush of cars trying to exit the multilevel parking garage. I remember the constant beeping of failed cell-phone calls from an overloaded system. I remember getting my son with me in the car, trying not to alarm him. I remember finally hearing that our daughter was okay.

I remember my heart going out to the thousands, and their families, who would never be okay.

What I was not thinking about were the consequences the terrorist attack would have on my startup at the time — client/server systems providing music and information in hotel rooms. (The hospitality industry sank like a stone after 9/11, as did our prospects for success.)

Then, at some time, days or weeks later, I remember an oddly comforting feeling of being united with people I’d never met.

Things had really gotten into perspective, for a while anyway.

The Business of Openness

Over the weekend, a big stink was raised over AP News attempting to squash the use of material by bloggers, even flying in the face of fair use. As backstory, the Drudge Retort, a parody site of the Drudge Report, used a very small excerpt of an AP story as part of a larger story published on Drudge Retort. AP served a takedown notice claiming infringement of copyright law.

The repercussions of that action were felt far and wide and caused the AP to sorta, kinda back down off their “heavy handed” approaches.

Last week, Startup Nation served us with a takedown notice of sorts claiming that the excerpt used on Steve’s 6 Steps to Successful Small Business PR was illegally used when the reality was clearly fair use and included a link to the original Startup Nation story. We declined to take down the excerpt but did correct the omission of

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tags.

That’s one business tactic to prevent infringement of intellectual property rights. Most larger blogs respect copyright and trademark laws and make every effort to follow good practice, as we do here. Most larger blogs recognize the hard work that goes into creating content and wish our own IP rights to be protected and respect that line with others. It’s not an issue with us.

The New York Times has taken a completely different approach to business and intellectual property rights. Instead of assuming an antiquated approach to content preservation, they have flung the doors wide open almost begging people to use their content. See, the Times has figured out the magic rule of distributed authority where, regardless of content consumption, the authority always trickles back to them.

This is a winning strategy in an increasingly open world with data exchange being valued highly.

According to the Programmable Web story, not only has the Times invited people to use their content – for free – but they have created a robust API for doing so. Developers love APIs and no better way to make people want to use that content but to make the API fun by producing data in lots of formats, including my favorite, JSON.

End of the day, the Times will win the battle of business openness, if only in principle. They are making data easy to access, fun to access and useful to access. Winning Recipe.

Early Adopters Are Useless

We are early adopters. We use. We try. We evangelize. We bury. We filter.

That’s what we think anyway.

In reality, we are pretty useless.

Late last year, Amazon released the Kindle to the joy and enthusiasm of many early adopters. Robert Scoble, the poster child for early adopters, gleefully got his Kindle on the first day and wrote about how beautiful it was and how it brought him great pleasure. One week later, he hated the Kindle listing a laundry list of problems from usability to the inability to send gifts to other Kindle owners.

Increasingly, I’m seeing common people (read: non-tech early adopters) who own and love the Kindle. And the numbers bear that out, if we’re to believe TechCrunch’s statement that by 2010, Amazon will have sold $750M in Kindles or 1-3% of the company’s total revenue. (Update: For clarity, the TechCrunch article cites a CitiGroup analyst and is not the authoritative assessment of TechCrunch. My point is, that’s where I heard the number in the first place – regardless of the original source.)

Brad Feld, a few years ago, wrote an amazing article titled The First 25,000 Users are Irrelevant which talks about the effect of early adopters on companies and products. As the oh-too-typical scenario goes, TechCrunch or Mashable covers a new product, there is a surge of traffic, registration or sign-ups for private beta invites from early adopters, or “tire kickers” then they go away. Some remain and become “evangelists” for the company or product, but most people don’t even care. Later on, if the company has mainstream staying power, the real buy-in will happen organically and without the say-so of the early adopters who largely came and went.

See, we like to tell people we are filters. We like to think we are influencers and powerful. We like to think we have an inside angle on what works and what doesn’t work, but we are just small insignificant people in the grand scheme of things, and largely irrelevant.

Amazon knows this. They don’t really care about us. And that’s why they might hit the $750M mark by 2010 and completely bypass the early adopters, placing their Kindle directly in the hands of mainstream commuters and book lovers.

Update: Corvida at SheGeeks thinks this is generational and writes a thoughtful and intelligent argument about this. However, I’m not convinced that everything is generational. I think early adoption is also a result of personalities.

 

The Power of Bloggers

I subscribe to a handful of blogs that are completely unrelated to my niche. The reason behind these subscriptions are varied: historical niche coverage that I’ve done (for instance, politics when I got started), friends or associates, really killer blogs related to specific sports teams, etc. There’s different reason. Largely, though, my RSS reader is a smattering of technology news, analysis, business, etc combined with a growing number of search feeds from Technorati, Google Blog Search or Icerocket.

One of the blogs I do subscribe to is Outside the Beltway which is one of the few political blogs that stuck after I stopped covering politics. Occasionally, James covers a topic that has crossover into the Technosailor market. This was one of those posts.

I still think the political space is different than the rest of the blogosphere and is a bit myopic (okay, a lot!), but there’s some great stuff. In his article, James notes that back when he began blogging in 2003(?), bloggers liked to write about blogging.

Unfortunately, it’s still that way today. Am I doing it now?

Largely, he makes a good point inadvertently, that the great blogs today are blogs that have something to say. They might be seen as “media”, depending on the niche. They might be seen as Journalists, depending on the niche. In the tech space, I’d call Gigaom a journalistic property, more than a blog. TechCrunch is largely a media organization, but I do question the journalistic legitimacy of a “publish now, correct later” site (something that Mike acknowledged in a Mesh Conference keynote last year and numerous other times as well).

I don’t want to get broiled down in the question of what is journalism and what is not? I don’t really want to discuss the “media merit” of any site, really.

More importantly, there is an evolution that takes place where a blog goes from a blog to a media property. It’s hard to tell, at least for me, what that point is. Is it when a site gets more than one author? Is it when there is a certain “rate of fire” on posts per day? Per week?

Is it pageviews and eyeballs? Is it simply a nomenclature thing where the Editor stops considering and calling the site a blog and starts referring to it as something else? Is it advertising? Is it the presence and participation in a network?

What’s the difference? Where is the line?

I think it’s obvious that some sites are “media” while others are not, but where and how does this evolution take place?

I expect other people to have different theories than I do, and that’s okay. My feeling is that it’s a combination of all of those things, but mostly it’s how the site is “sold” to readers? I see Technosailor.com, for instance, as a media property. Yes, it’s a blog? But is it?

We’ve recently refreshed the layout of the site to be more of a newspaper look, thanks to a large degree of influence from Huffington Post and The New York Times – both significant, and undeniable, “media outlets”.

Is that enough though? Probably not.

I’ve also hired other writers and contributors with an eye on hiring more as I’m able to recoup costs via advertising and other sponsorship. This is another ingredient, or at least that’s what Google News believes, since it does not accept any sources that don’t have multiple authors.

What’s the difference? Where is the evolutionary point?

Google File System: Much To Do About Nothing

Google had a much-hyped announcement tonight that, frankly, I’m missing the point of. Techcrunch covered it. Scoble Qik’d it live. I was one of numerous who took the bait out of curiosity and watched the announcement live until Scoble turned off his camera, or something.

honestly, folks, I don’t see what the point is. The product manager for this new service began the party by talking about how Google App Engine (Link dead until launch time) would be “easy to use and easy to scale”. The presentation then showed a very nervous developer trying to write up a simple Hello World script in Python.

Ok, here’s my problem. For the growing number of non-technical entrepreneurs, python is neither easy to use and the demonstration does not demonstrate easy to scale. At some point, the presenter stated that anyone could build applications using Google’s infrastructure that could be as big as Google’s own apps.

Forgive my cynicism.

This, my friends, is an Amazon S3 “me too”. There is not innovation here. There is nothing ground breaking here. It is yet another case of Google deciding that it can do things better than everyone else but with the exception of Search, Gmail and Google Adsense (the latter being questionable these days), I wonder how many of Google’s initiatives are really all that groundbreaking.

Then there’s the question of privacy. Google’s ever present incursion into deeper parts of lives should make every privacy nut cringe, and turn those who are not privacy nuts into privacy nuts. With the adoption of OpenSocial and now providing a platform for application development, Google’s hand continue to delve deeper into our deeply guarded private lives.

I’m skeptical here folks. From what I’ve seen, nothing is easy to get into here. Companies are not necessarily better off for using this infrastructure. The concept of threaded processes and optimized platforms for optimized content goes out the window with an S3 or a Google App Engine. And… The privacy concerns are very real.

Hold the phone. Let’s see what happens here.