Monday 30 May 2011

The UK's The Telegraph is reporting an important case involving Twitter releasing details of some of its accounts to a UK-based plaintiff on the order of the Superior Court of California in the San Mateo County.

Twitter has released the name, address, email address, telephone number and geographical location of the users behind five accounts. Twitter says it notified the defendant and that he declined to contest the order. Zee, a blogger at The Next Web, says that this is "key".

South Tyneside, a local authority in the northeast of England, hired a US law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, and filed a complaint in California in an attempt to uncover the identity of a person or persons calling himself (or themselves) "Mr Monkey".

Mark Stephens, a leading media lawyer who has represented Julian Assange, said it was inappropriate for a local authority to bring a suit in this manner. But the council through a spokesperson said it had a duty of care to protect its employees.

David Potts, a former Conservative leader who now serves as an Independent councillor said some of the claims made on the blog were "disgusting". Potts is one of those claiming defamation. The other people claiming defamation are the council's Labour leader Iain Malcolm, Labour councillor Anne Walsh, and Rick O'Farrell, the council's head of enterprise and regeneration.

According to the BBC:
Mr Potts said: "This is a deeply tawdry, perverted and seedy little blog that has been in existence for quite a while.
"It's no longer active, as I understand, but the information is still on the internet for all to see.
"This was a blog that didn't just affect councillors; it also affected council officers.
"We have a duty of care, as any employer does whether public or private, to defend not only our commercial interests, but also the interests of our employees.
"That's why we took the action, that's why we're pursuing it so aggressively, and I have no doubt that we will get there, and we will win.
"There have been many, many disgusting claims, which I won't repeat in order to protect my family and friends - allegations of corruption, sexual deviancy, of drug use."
The most recent post on the blog is dated 30 July 2009. It gives notice to readers that "From midnight tonight Mr Monkey will no longer be posting any new material on his blog".

Zee at The Next Web says that "there is a time wherein the person served with the subpoena, [Ahmed Khan, a UK council whistleblower,] in this case, can contest it.  He chose not to, so the subpoena request proceeded, Khan waived his right, and Twitter revealed the information.  If Khan had chosen not to waive his right, it would then be for the claimant [Tyneside Council], to convince the court to grant an order compelling Twitter to disclose the details. And for Khan to convince the Court otherwise".

Sunday 29 May 2011

O the enduring power of stories to enhance the features of things obscure, things half-understood, things kept out of view by the powerful entities that surround us and that suppress evidence of their power by gaming the media. Questions such as the one many are asking in light of the continuing silence of WikiLeaks, that hactivist posse of outlaw data handlers that has disconcertingly hit the deck following the emergence of multiple attacks on its integrity and the personal safety of its founder: 'Who is Bradley Manning?' A 20-minute video produced by 10 reporters at the Guardian lifts up the cover on this particular tome of secrets and goes some way toward explaining why Manning released classified military information to WikiLeaks and why he then gave himself away to the lurking presence in this drama: Adrian Lamo. Like Lamo, Manning is not a particularly heroic figure and one who is likely to be viewed by society as deeply flawed and slightly unpleasant.

One thing the video achieves is to show part of the reason why the US administration is intent on linking Manning and Assange together in a sort of conspiracy to spy on the US. It's an important achievement by the filmmakers as it reduces the burden of opprobrium that can reasonably be placed on the administration's shoulders. Manning's small-town background and his homosexuality neatly tie in with his aspiration to attend a prestigious US technology school, such as MIT in Boston. A kid from the boondocks in Oklahoma with a high IQ and an interest in computers from an early age, since his father bought him one, is likely to want to rub shoulders with the elite along the banks of the Charles rather than stay on Main Street with the hicks and their ingrained suspicion of anything out-of-the-ordinary. A military scholarship was the only way out. So he went to Boston. Did he meet Assange while he was there?

The picture at the top of this post shows Manning at an IT event in Boston surrounded by like-minded geeks. Manning is small of stature, is gay, and is smart. Therefore he was persecuted in the military and, the video tells us, was on the brink of discharge due to unfitness for service when staffing shortages led his superiors to deploy him to an operating base in Iraq. A peer in the video says he was completely unsuited to the military culture. He wanted something better.

Another peer describes the lax security amid the culture of copying in Iraq. There was plenty of opportunity to copy material and remove it from the secure confines of the operations room. This is mitigating evidence, as it says that Manning was not the only one in Iraq who did the wrong thing.

In December, Manning will be tried in a military court. It will be interesting to see what kind of information emerges at that time in the press to provide more detail about the administration's plans for Assange. Can the boys in Alexandria, Virginia, on the prosecution side establish a manifest link between Manning in Boston with Assange the white-maned Aussie globetrotter?

"Without information you cannot make informed decisions," wrote Manning at one point to Lamo during their online chat. It's a sophisticated response to an unusual situation, and mirrors almost exactly ideas present among journalists when they have their thinking caps on, when they're thinking about the real reason for their business. In Australia, the High Court said pretty much the same thing when it established a de facto First Amendment for this country during a famous court case involving the ABC and a New Zealand prime minister who felt that he had been defamed. Without political reporting there is no responsible government, the High Court said. Manning's mind is clearly his passport to the realm of the angels.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Jay Rosen, the news commentator, turns his gaze on his blog onto what he calls the "neurotic" relationship between the mainstream media and bloggers. The MSM, he says, "others" bloggers and in so doing tries to defend its ancient prerogatives. But people aren't listening, it seems. The media continue to be in financial trouble. Circulation continues its downward slide. Alternatives proliferate. And social media more and more allows what were formerly faithful readers to talk to one another. And Rosen underscores the cause of his dismay by linking to a pithy cartoon which, he says, illustrates exqusitely what the problem is.

In the cartoon, a husband and wife are in bed with their laptops. In the first frame they voice a lack of regret about the recent demise of the news media. In the second frame, while the husband points at a cute video on his screen that involves a cat kissing a porcupine, his wife glances out the window and says: "Why are there black helicopters hovering over the house?" The subtext? "We warned you," the media is saying. If we're gone, your liberty is at risk.

I think there are two things that should be added to Rosen's post. The first is that while the MSM are foolish to describe bloggers as biased and socially inept loners doing their business is the basement of their mother's house, the fact is that most bloggers do not do original research before writing - unless it is using material that is available online already. I posted a few days ago about a person saying in a comment to a recent online column that journalism is just about aggregating information already available in cyberspace. It's not. And most bloggers only use what is already in cyberspace for their writing. Few actually make calls, find relevant subjects to interview, or venture out for a day or a week to a distant locality in order to gather the material required to write an original story.

So the MSM are overegging the mixture with their characterisation, but the result still tastes something like a cake.

The reason bloggers don't do much original research is that it's hard and costly. I may not be a pimply teenager in mum's basement, but I'm going to baulk at driving 300km and spending a day off work in order to get one interview for a story that might require five. Just finding those other four interview subjects might take weeks. It might take another few weeks to get one of those people on the line so the final interview can go ahead. These are the reasons journalism costs money. Time is money. At the end of the day, the journalist who spent five hours waiting for a contact to call back still has to eat dinner.

The second thing that needs to be said is that not all newspapers have fulfilled their trust with complete honesty. If journalists are resorting to highminded tropes (such as illustrated by the cartoon mentioned above) you'd expect them to always be highminded in their work. The fact is that they're not. There are some newspapers that are known to be sensationalist. Fair charge. There are some newspapers that are known to be biased one way or the other along the political spectrum. Again, fair charge. And as long as these traits are visible to at least some - the more observant reader, for example - then the media's claim to be somehow upholding democracy is going to be compromised and their special plea to the dwindling readership - "Please read me! I'm important!" - will lack volume. It's sort of like the triangle faintly heard amid the din of the brass section during a concert performance: you can hear it, but it's not the main feature.

So Rosen is wrong: journalists do things that are uniquely important. But Rosen is also right: the media have to lift their game or else they will continue to risk being thrown out of the main game.

And just back to the cartoon for a moment. What does it mean? If society becomes so severely polarised that government is no longer possible, does that mean the generals will emerge from their bunkers and ride atop tanks down Main Street? Possibly. There's a risk. But probably not.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Going back to Annabel Crabb's post 'Finding a coin for the journalistic juke box', published two Fridays ago, I wanted to comment on this one comment in particular. Lots of the extant comments were of the "we're not going to pay" type, with a few saying that "money is not the only reward". In the first case we just don't know how consumers will treat media, if all media do the same thing (if a few go behind a paywall they will of course lose readers). In the second case, with respect, it's a crock, because it's really about respect.

But the comment that stuck in my mind was Gregory's, in which he said that he will never pay for "content" that he "look up easily" himself. He goes on to describe in a bit more detail what he thinks is involved in journalism:
I will pay for someone else to troll through the evergrowing pile of data and pick out the good stuff, then catogorize it and put it into a searchable index form.
And I just sigh inwardly.

What is involved in writing a story? Do you just search Google and collect a bunch of material already in the public domain (with or without rewriting to avoid abusing someone else's copyright)?

No, not a bit of it.

Here's an example. In late March I drove for two hours south of where I live in my car to meet a government employee at his place of work. We talked for two hours on the record (that is, with a digital recording device running to capture what was said). I drove back home (picking up lunch at McDonalds on the way) and loaded the recordings to my computer. I then transcribed the whole of the recordings to text, manually (there's no other way to do this).

Then I sat on the story for a while, thinking about treatment. What direction should the story take? Should I get opposing views?

I contacted a private company eventually that is involved in the same product development as I spoke to the government guy about. Over two weeks or more we swapped emails and even spoke on the phone a couple of times trying to line up an interview with their spokesperson. I expect to talk to them tomorrow.

Meanwhile, on the story development side, there were other phone calls with potential interview subjects during the two months that have passed since I did the original interview. Lots of internet searches. A few more phone calls. A Twitter convo that turned out to be a dead end. A Twitter convo that raised a quote. More emails, more phone calls, more dead ends. A possible promise of an interview.

Then another interview was conducted on the record. A win, at last, two weeks ago. (But with a caveat: the interview subject wants me to run the clips I use from the conversation by him for an OK before publication.) Now I'm sitting here wondering if I need another point of view to balance out the scale of judgement. (Balance is, we're told at journalism school, a virtue.)

So, Gregory, we have here hours of real work over a period of two months in order to generate content that is completely original and unprecedented (as far as I know), and that will never be published on the internet (I guess, although this publisher occasionally puts up my stories online as well as in print). Go figure, Gregory. Go and try to find this information ANYWHERE and I will pay for your petrol for a year. Journalism is not about "aggregating" "content". At its best it's about doing the hard yards with intelligence and a sense of responsibility: to your readers, to your editor, to your interview subjects, to their organisations, to yourself.

And unlike opinion, it's not cheap.

Monday 23 May 2011

Bob Gould is dead. A hundred tender feelings and a thousand distant memories crowd the mind at hearing the news that one of Sydney's most famous booksellers has passed away. Bob Gould was really a one-off of a human being. He was totally unique. And he occupied a signal station in my personal record beginning - as so many stories that we read seem to do - when I was an undergraduate. I was living in Glebe just behind the big Grace Bros store which is now a Mirvac shopping centre. Then, there was no gargantuan parking station with its lofty pedestrian bridge leading back toward the front door of Glebe's legendary food strip. In those days there was a printing shop owned by a bloke who sailed at my dad's club, a low-rise parking area, and mostly-empty streets that echoed down to Ultimo like the chambers of doom. You could hear people walking from two hundred metres away.

I used to ride my pushbike into town down Broadway and George Street of an evening; jostling for space with a hundred busy cars I would pull up opposite Hoyts near Town Hall and enter Gould's emporium, and while away hours fossicking for treasures among the comics just arrived from the States and the eclectic collection of fiction published in San Francisco in the 1960s.

Later, when I worked as a salesman for a publishing company, I would visit Gould's shop in Leichhardt where a similar chaos reigned. There, lined up near the shop's entrance, sat a long series of tables stacked with LPs sporting the garish covers of disco legend, and the unseemly plethora of bands competed sadly - like all the items in Gould's have done since the beginning - for the shifting attention of the lazy shopper. I sold Gould a few books. But the mainstream range of titles I was tasked with purveying was not completely suitable for his clientele. People didn't go to Gould's to buy Wilbur Smith. They went because they wanted to be surprised and because - you never knew - Gould might just have in stock the title you had been searching for for months.

I would later pass by Gould's Newtown bookshop on my way to lunch or a movie when I worked at Sydney Uni. The format was of course the same. The stock refreshed from second-hand sales. The system chaotic. The vibe was one of handled-paperback grunge and a kind of Sisyphean mnemonic: a hundred years of good intentions stacked to the roof inside a structure with all the charm of a country barn. What lies ahead for this typically Sydney emporium I don't know. I do know that the city will be poorer if it disappears, and we will have lost one more link with a strange past that deserves our considered attention.

Pic credit: candytrip.

Sunday 15 May 2011

On a post by Annabel Crabb at The Drum, I made a comment (just one among 52 that were made yesterday). Her post is about reader payment for journalism. There were a couple of follow-up comments to mine but the real debate is yet to start due to media managers' ongoing concerns about alienating readers and losing traffic to competitors.


The print media everywhere is currently trying to work out how to "monetise" what is more and more often being called "content". For freelance journalists such as me, who write stories and get paid a per-word rate for it (e.g. 75 cents a word for 800 words), this uncertainty translates into difficulty getting income. Some publications have cut their freelance budgets, or eliminated them entirely. Other publications voluntarily offer a rate that is inadequate for the purpose of recompensing the freelancer for their work.

Paywall models have appeared. There's The Times in the UK where you can pay 1 pound to get access to the website for a day. This model has been criticised for being too restrictive. Then there's the more recent New York Times model where you get sent to a subscription page after exhausting a certain number of clicks per month. Stuff, in other words, is being tried. The fact is that display ads online are not compensating publications for the loss of printed ads.

At some point readers are going to have to pay to read a story, if only to prevent freelancers from being squeezed out of business. The fact is that if you value a quality story you should consider who made it, how much time it took to make it, and the specific skills involved in making it. It takes time and effort to acquire the skills needed to write a good story. It takes time and effort to write the story (writing is the least part; there's also finding and contacting interview subjects, lining up interviews, research, interviewing, transcribing, and administration).

Maybe there needs to be a universal payment engine, not one owned by a specific publication. A universal engine of this kind could be used many times daily by readers as they negotiate the internet. A couple of clicks could serve to deduct the few necessary dollars or cents from an account linked to the reader's credit card, for example. But it would have to work on all websites. All websites would have to agree that this would work for them, and put the requisite link on the story page. It has to be quick, hassle-free, and universal. I know that Google has thought about this. There's also been a group of media owners in the US who have thought about it.

But basically readers have to be more appreciative, in a financial sense, of the work involved in producing what they consume. Briefly, the better a story is, the more time it took to write. A freelancer may have a dozen stories "on the go" at any one time. Each day he or she touches on many of those stories. It takes time. It takes effort. And it's a highly-skilled craft that takes time to learn.