MonthMay 2007

The downward spiral begins when you shrink.. like the Sunday Independent (updated)

Nine Inch Nails had a track with the wonderful title “The Downward Spiral”. Were they channelling, ahead of time, Tristan Davies and his wonderful shrinking Sindie?

He tells Meeja Guardian that

the new look paper would be “compact, concise, comprehensive”, with the “news values of a daily paper and the production values of a weekly news magazine”.

He added that New Review would replace what were “two quite flimsy magazines”. Books and culture stories will move to the New Review.

“The difference between the paper that we will produce on Sunday and the paper that we produced last Sunday are as big as when [The Independent] went compact,” Mr Davies said.

Roy Greenslade (whom when I was at the Indie we all used to hate because he had nothing good to say about the Indie; now I understand why) comments:

Somebody once asked what the Independent titles were independent of? The answer, of course, is readers. I predict that the revamped Sindy will underline that truth.

Talking to a friend the other day, we agreed that what the Indie needs is to milk its specialist writers and get them to write a personal column every day commenting on the news, or what they felt was news. Basically, get that niche of readers who really like those writers to keep reading. Because that’s where the Indie remains strong. It’s its general news coverage that’s weak. The analysis has always been good. But the waterfront’s too wide now. And the tide’s coming in.

Update: well, the readers who could be bothered to comment on the IoS blog (it has a blog? No, me neither) don’t seem enamoured of it. At all. Nor is Greenslade, of course.

When page views go mad, or drive you mad

So I was pointed to an interesting article about Monstermob, the evil geniuses who no doubt have a stock of white cats that they can stroke while going “Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa” (they were the people behind the Crazy Frog ringtone, since you wonder Johnny-come-latelies in the ringtone market – thanks James [his page needs some weird plugin] in the comments).

Read through it, past the most brilliant response by the writer, Louise Armistead to the Monstermob chief exec:

“Give me any track from any artist and we’ll play it on this mobile right now,” he says in a low Lancashire drawl that makes him sound almost bored.

Sound of Da Police by KRS-One, please.

For the first time, Higginson stops and looks uneasy.

“Is that a popular band?” he says accusingly. I nod smugly. “Well, it’s not on our system now but it will be tomorrow.” (It wasn’t.)

Anyway, I’m just getting into the swing of it all when I reach the bottom of the page. “Page 1 of 5,” it says.

At which point I stop reading. It may be true that you lose 10% of your readers with every paragraph (and there’s the lovely fact that the editor from the Society of Newspaper Editors then used that stat to make the flawed deduction that nobody reads the 11th paragraph of a story; in fact if that stat holds you’ve lost 65%, not 100%), but when it comes to clicking through on newspaper pages and having to wait for all the associated guff to load (I block certain adservers on my home router because they just hold up page loads to an absurd degree), life becomes too short. The Guardian’s practice, of giving it all on a single page, makes so much more sense here. People come to read? Let them read. If you need to serve adverts, you might find that the people who read to the bottom are the ones who are really going to respond to adverts.

But cutting stories into twitching tiny pieces in the pursuit of artificially inflated “page view” statistics is actually a great way of losing readers. One of the other tech sites – Cnet? ZDNet? – does this too, and it earns my immediate ire whenever I discover it.

Still, I’m definitely going to try that KRS-One line on someone soon.

Update: Monstermob is now having a bad time of it since then.. Tch.

When newspapers and media organisations repeat urban myths.. that’s bad, right?

The BBC 6 O’Clock news tonight had an item alleging that some Polish group had said that the Teletubbies might promote homosexuality, or something equally senseless. Then the newsreader said that “The evangelist Jerry Falwell was the first one to say this..” (That’s my memory of what he said, at least. Audio corrections welcomed.)

No, he wasn’t; and I had heard that on the BBC itself, in its obituaries progam. (I was doing the washing up. Judge for yourself if that’s an urban myth.) Here’s a story about it, which shows that it was one of those circular things: someone (in a pro-gay group) said it elsewhere, the Washington Post repeated it, Falwell repeated that.

The New York Times noted that it was an article in the National Liberty Journal, which Falwell published, that touched off the Teletubbies ruckus. But the article failed to mention that the Liberty Journal piece quoted The Washington Post’s outing of Tinky Winky, and that the gay press and several other mainstream outlets had cheered openly for a year that the boy in the purple suit, carrying a purse and bearing the homosexual symbol, an upside down triangle, on his head, was clearly the first openly “gay” character in a children’s program.

I recall faxing The Washington Post article to the National Liberty Journal back in February 1999. I had also faxed an article from a gay newspaper in which one of Teletubbies’ creators boasted openly that Tinky Winky’s character, which combines a deep daddy’s voice and mommy’s handbag, was a deliberate attempt to make children think differently about gender. The Liberty Journal editors decided to stick with the Washington Post as the main source, which seems like a wise thing to do. But in the end, it didn’t matter.

In the 10 years since, the press magnified and sustained the myth that Jerry Falwell “outed” Tinky Winky with no apparent evidence.

Meanwhile, thanks to L and Nick Miners for pointing out the urban mythology behind John Naughton’s cutting. But that prompts another thought: the person who sent it into the Daily Mail must have known it wasn’t true. It didn’t happen to him. Yet it’s written in the first person, without explanation or disclaimer by the Mail, on its Peterborough page (the one where they do user-generated content, which in the Mail’s case means doggerel and, apparently, urban myths, plus the occasional platitude. And maybe how to get chewing gum out of a refugee’s hair. Well, maybe not the latter.) Peterborough, taken from the Daily Telegraph diary of the same name, started out as a full right-hand page of readers’ contributions. Then it shrank. Then it moved to the (less-read) left-hand side. Now it’s about a quarter of a left-hand page. (And still too big at that size. But of course it’s undroppable, like Littlejohn. Sadly.)

So where does the Mail’s responsibility begin and/or end with such stuff? Does anyone check the Peterborough stuff for (a) stories (b) accuracy? One presumes yes for the former, no for the latter – anyone checking that one (who would have thought WOW! in the Mail newsroom) presumably Googled it far enough to realise it was fake.

At which point you say “Fine, leave it in Peterborough – we’ll print inaccuracies, because they come from readers”? (The Mail makes a lot of effort never to get anything wrong. And I’m not writing that ironically; it really does.) Why and when is printing and repeating urban myths OK if you don’t signal them as such?

While I really think that it would be nice if there were a hell so Jerry Falwell could be there (though as someone else pointed out on his death, he won’t know he was wrong, because he’s simply ceased to be), it would be nice to be accurate about the things he did say. Because there were enough that were hateful and lampoonable that one doesn’t need extras.

John Naughton and the urban myths

John Naughton has posted Don’t try this at home (adding “Thanks to James Miller for the clipping.”)

I’m thinking: hmm. If you go to the article, it’s a photo of a Daily Mail clipping. It begins: “Going to bed the other night, I noticed people in my shed stealing things.” Odd phrase, but it is the Daily Mail.

The guy phones the police, they fob him off, he then phones back and says not to hurry as he’s shot them.

So an armed response unit turns up and a helicopter and three police cars. “They caught the burglars red-handed. The policeman said: ‘I thought you said you’d shot someone.’ I said: ‘I thought you said there was no one available.’

Nice – except it should set off all sorts of urban myth alarms. First, it’s clearly in the Peterborough bit of the DM – the user-generated content. (Confirmed by the fact it has a reader’s name at the end.) And you’d have heard about it on the news. And he’d not have been in a position to have a chat with the police; he’d have been spending a long time chewing the pavement while the police made sure there were no guns in his house.

It’s a nice joke, but in the end a bit crap – making people think the police are that bit less interested. Classic Daily Mail, in other words, but I’m not sure it makes sense only to repeat it. Can anyone else confirm the urban mythology at work here?

I’d ask John on his blog, but it doesn’t take comments, and I’m never sure what the best email is for him.

Tribute bands are the new classical music: and here’s what I’d like to play..

Reading Nick Carr’s splendid rant about the idiocy of those who think that iTunes and its ilk are the apotheosis of the music industry, because “they have split music down to its component piece.. the [individual] track” brought together a couple of thoughts for me.

The other evening I went to a friends’ house, where they were giving a recital – a string quartet. As they’re professional players – one half of the Alberni Quartet, in fact – and one of them was playing a Stradivarius, and as supper was laid on as well, you could say that it was about as good as “going round to a friend’s house to listen to some music” gets.

Interestingly, they played two complete pieces (Mozartr and Schubert) and then, as a sort of mini-encore, played the fourth movement of Ravel’s F major quartet. I love the piece (particularly the second movement, but hearing the fourth on its own was almost jarring.

(Enjoy the second movement. Go on, you’ll like it, even though it’s not the Alberni doing it:


But classical players are a shrinking pool. Except… ask yourself, what precisely do they do? Re-play music written by someone else, precisely. Which is exactly what tribute bands do. There are dozens of them – read last Friday’s Guardian article, the copycats who got the cream. And they go out and they slog away, re-playing music written decades ago in some cases, note-perfect, intonation-perfect.

And the names are so splendid. Green Dayz. B-Muse. I think I’d enjoy the job of lead guitar in B-Muse. The guitar work’s not that hard. It’s just the vocals might be a stretch. And I’d have to wear a syrup. And stand in a trench. But at least with their repertoire, you could cook up a storming gig every night.

Weird to think that rock music has created its own spinoff classical universe. But that’s what classics are, aren’t they? The group doing repeating Genesis’s Supper’s Ready is doing a 20-minute piece, one-off, and the audience will know if they go the slightest bit wrong.

Just another week in PR-land.. oldest to newest

Spotted on Fullrunner’s “What The Trades Say”:

*GCI* has hired Suzanne Ellis, formerly a senior account director at Firefly Communications. At GCI, Ellis will work on Dell’s account, reporting to chief executive Mark Cater. Cater tells PR Week that Ellis will be expected to “expand GCI’s technology and consumer technology portfolio”.

*Firefly Communications* has hired Christine Wilkie, former head of the tech team at GCI.

Both PR Week, 4 May 2007. (This has been sitting in my drafts box. Life went on. They’ve probably arrived and left by now.) Does this make the two companies even, or is it sort of like Premier League football teams swapping players, or did they do some sort of thing involving music and chairs?

Meanwhile Andrew Smith is trying to remember who sent the first bit of PR email in the UK. He thinks he was the second. (Read his blog for the first.) You know, Andrew, it’s a bit like saying “Do you know who I am?” in the old folks’ home – people are liable to take you away…

Sudoku trivia.. what’s the least numbers for a solvable grid without guesses?

So anyway, this morning’s Guardian sudoku has 20 numbers filled in out of the potential 49. That seemed low – 24 or so is more common, I think.

But it wasn’t impossible, and I didn’t have to resort to guessing at any point to finish it. Which brings me back to the question I ask myself from time to time, but can’t think of a way to figure out a priori: what is the smallest number of numbers that one needs filled in on a sudoku grid to make it solvable without guessing?

thelondonpaper’s “difficult” sudoku frequently beats me where the Gdn one rarely does, so clearly there are levels of difficulty even with roughly the same number of already-given squares. But how low can you go?

Anyone know?

And then you remember.. what makes you want to do journalism: asking the uncomfortable questions

A long, really long time ago I was a reporter on Computer Weekly, in the days when you could swat really quite large animals with it, rather than anaemic spiders as is now the case. One of the stories that I got into in depth there was BT’s Customer Service Systems (CSS) project. Great fun it was (though too far back in time for Google to turn up anything useful; but it’s the reason why, when you call 150, that BT can give you service) finding out what was going on, and going wrong in the sprawl of the project; and great journalistic fun it was too listening to the PR people from BT (generally only one, but anyway) being very insistent about how things weren’t at all how my contacts were all telling me it was.

You only realise how you’ve missed that feeling when you get it again. And I feel like I have, over Operation Ore. Until a few weeks ago, I thought – like you probably did or do – that it was a stunning success for the police, in which they nailed a stack of paedophiles bang to rights. Weirdly that bang-to-rights list seemed to include Pete Townshend, fabulous Who guitarist. But, you know, people are strange, that sort of thing.

Then I got a call one day from Barry at PC Pro magazine, offering an article by Duncan “Zircon” Campbell about it, saying that while yes, Ore had caught a number of really horrible paedophiles, there were a number of people who had been charged – and frequently convicted, though if you’re charged with viewing child porn then there’s not much difference since the police will go around to your employer and your friends and so on – where there simply wasn’t enough supporting evidence to suggest that they had been viewing child porn. Things like no images on their hard drive; no evidence of accessing the porn sites; and peculiar patterns whereby their credit card had been used to buy access to sites yet they’d not gone on to access it. Which is kinda strange, isn’t it? But what the police had overlooked was evidence of fraud on the site: such as repeated transactions from the same IP address using different cards to sign up but not access a site. Like you’d expect from a fraudster, not a porn-seeker of any ilk.

To which you say – oh, come on, they were found guilty, they musta done it.

Well, not so fast. Courts and court processes are rather different from the way you’d try to frame an argument. “I didn’t” doesn’t stand up very well. Though equally “you did”, in legalese, can be a long way from the reality of what you did do if a computer is involved.

But I’ve also discovered, on getting into the topic, that there’s a well-oiled PR machine which is very insistent that Ore was, or is, a success, and that anyone or anything who says otherwise is misguided, wrong, and did you know that.. off the record…?

Bing! goes the little bell in the back of my head. I remember that, for sure. Big organisations? Protecting reputations? Whispers about some uncomfortable facts that would embarrass the big organisation? Renewed PR efforts? Oh, yes, it’s deja vu.

Background? Read

There’s something underneath all this, and parts of it don’t smell savoury at all. But today I got a call from someone who has collected a chunk of data about all this. I feel energised. Asking difficult questions about big things that you thought you knew about is a fundamental task in journalism. I think it’s time to ask some fundamental questions about a number of the Operation Ore cases.

It’s only possible once a year: Borat, and then the Eurovision judging

We watched Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen is without doubt the bravest person I’ve seen on film in millions of years. And hysterical.

But to move from watching that – from between our fingers – to the judging and point-allocating and general toshness of the Eurovision song contest, which now seems to include everyone who doesn’t have a coast adjoining the Pacific Ocean, was simply to move from the sublimely ridiculous to the completely ridiculous.

Though I think Terry Wogan is falling out of love with the competition. He couldn’t bear it, I think – seeing his old, old friend being turned into some sort of eastern European plaything. Aw.

DRM for babies

Gary ran into an interesting problem with the DVD that the ultrasound person gave them from his wife’s 20-week pregnancy ultrasound scan. (Yes, a DVD. When we went for an ultrasound, we got a grainy photo. They went private. This is what you get for going private.)

So we came home, watched the DVD about 100 times, and then decided to make a backup of it. And we figured our respective mothers would appreciate a copy too. So I stuck the DVD into my DVD recorder, hit One Button Copy – a brilliant invention, I reckon; it copies the disc to the hard disk and then wallops it on to a blank DVD – and nothing happened.

Hello, DRM!

It wasn’t deliberate DRM, but it was DRM nonetheless. Because the doctor used a Sony DVD recorder, and Sony’s a big fan of DRM, the disc he burned was copy protected automatically. Which means that if you have mainstream copying hardware or software it can’t be backed up, and it can’t be copied.

I like the idea of accidental DRM, but it’s all the same in effect: you can’t make backups of things that you own. Which tends to lead one on a search around the net for something that *will* let you back that up and make copies (to send to your parents, who’ll put it in to their DVD and say ‘aww, he’s got his mother’s.. placenta right in the way of the picture).

Point being that you make pirates out of people who would otherwise be entirely happy. By building this stuff into the machines, you make people fight it. What consumer ever chose DRM?