MonthSeptember 2007

..and replace the Portuguese police with British tabloid hacks

OK, I’m very impressed by the fact that a bunch of Britain’s finest hacks in full cry managed to track down the girl pictured by a tourist for being suspiciously young and blonde. I make that less than 24 hours from release to print to uncovering.

And of course she isn’t Madeleine. (Personally, I saw the photo above on a newspaper front page and said at once “Nope, it ain’t”. Impressive that the woman is still wearing the same hat.

Even so, let’s hear it for Her Majesty’s press. (To quote Hot Metal, that long-forgotten TV series.) Maybe if they’d been called in from day 1 rather than the police..

Hey, where did the Daily Mail post go from Community Care’s blog?

Martin Stabe pointed to a post on the Community Care blog which ripped into the Daily Mail for its (the Mail’s – come on) attitude to social workers. It promised much juiciness in an upcoming story.

Now, though, the post itself is 404. It lives on, of course, in Google’s cache (no guarantee how long that will last, so I’ve taken a PDF).

It starts uncompromisingly:

The Daily Mail is vile. Everybody, apart from its readers, must know that. But the problem is the sheer number of people who do read it – more than the Guardian, Times, Telegraph and Independent put together!

Many social workers, with their tendency to a more liberal and tolerant world view, prefer to just ignore the Mail and all it stands for. But the trouble is the Mail doesn’t ignore them back.

And so battle is joined, and it really is furious in every sense.

And now it’s gone, without a word. Why? I’m only asking.

So if we don’t have paywalls.. what happens when there’s an advertising crunch?

People like Jeff Jarvis have been leaping up and down with joy over the fact that the New York Times has torn down its paywall. Jarvis makes the very good point that part of the reason people wouldn’t pay for stuff was that it wasn’t *useful* content; it was just blather.

TimesSelect’s brilliant cynicism was that, when forced to find something to put behind a pay wall, they came up with content that was, indeed, uniquely valuable — the columnists and archives. But this was also content for which there was no significant ad revenue at the time (advertisers buy ads in food and travel but not opinion sections; there is essentially no endemic advertising for blather).

Now, as I posited earlier in my post about the iPod moment for newspapers, I think that blather – aka Phil Space and Polly Filla telling us the uncompelling tales of the navel fluff they discovered today, you’ll never guess where – is not going to sell well when someone does figure out the right sort of reader and format for us to look at papers on a mobile device. (No, it is not the iPhone.)

In which case we imagine newspapers which are all going full steam and stream ahead with interesting, factual journalism and interesting stuff from all over – for the definition of news is, of course “stuff I care about, stuff I want to pass on”.

This fleet of zeppelins will be kept aloft by the munificent benificience of the advertising community, who find it so delightful to be alongside stuff like we produce that they’ll pay good money for it. Even though the indication seems to be that people aren’t that easily distracted from what they’re doing on a screen; when Jakob Nielsen asked people to find out the current population of the US from the US Census Bureau webpage, they actively ignored the Javascript ticker that told them because it looked like an ad.

OK, so if we don’t get paid for anything on the site directly – we tear down the paywalls (which I agree are annoying as hell) – then what happens when there’s an advertising crunch? The last one isn’t so far behind: the beginning of 2001 saw a serious contraction which really hurt newspapers (particularly the Independent, where I then was; people lost their jobs).

The present credit crunch in the markets is already reported to be leading to tighter moneylending for businesses (though not, yet, consumers) which is going to lead to more tightening of belts. Which squeezes already-straitened marketing and ad budgets. Sure, you think things are good now; but not planning for how you cope with bad times is part of how you get into bad times. After all, the 1991 recession was what nearly killed The Independent – that, and taking on the expense of launching the Sunday Independent, which had seemed a shoo-in when ad revenues were rising, but as Stephen Glover recalls in his memoirs of the time, launched into the teeth of an advertising recession.

Yes, Alan Rusbridger did joke – probably accurately – that the income from TimesSelect probably wouldn’t pay the heating bill for the new NYT office. Then again, it must have paid something – it must have generated some profit.

And looking around, the most noticeable paywall I see is on New Scientist. If you want to read all the articles, you either pony up for a subscription or you subscribe to the paper mag. (Personally, I think it’s consistently terrific.) Nature and other scientific magazines follow the same path. Clearly, they’ve got a USP: what they do, nobody else does. Newspapers can’t make quite that case.

I just don’t want to be standing on the ground when one of these Hindenburgs catches fire, is all. Nor, of course, do I want to be in the one that does.

(Thanks to hydrogennow for the pic. Renewable hydrogen, eh? As opposed to which sort?)

Suggestions welcome for make & model of answerphone

We’ve got an answerphone – a BT Freestyle 2500. It’s rubbish. I don’t know how it is that BT keeps on choosing suppliers for its branded kit who are no good, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a bit of consumer kit from BT that has surprised me with its quality and reliability.

The rubbishness of the 2500 is unlimited. It’s a cordless phone with two bases. On either phone, no matter how close you are to the base station, it sounds as though you’re already somewhere around the orbit of Saturn: gentle whooshing all the time. People say “it’s a really bad line, isn’t it?” But it isn’t. As my experience with broadband shows, it’s actually a really good line.

And I checked by plugging in an old dial phone that happened to be lurking around, to the same socket that the BT Freesyle is connected to: a pure, untroubled dial tone. No whooshing.

It’s even worse with the Freestyle when you try to liste to a message someone has left. It sounds as though they’ve left it at the bottom of our road. “Moo mmm ub oo oob ub bub oo,” it goes, and we look at each other perplexed. “Was that a number or an address?” we ask one another. It’s no good. It needs replacing.

So, your suggestions please.

(Oh, and thanks for all the suggestions on the mobile network. I think I’ll stick with Orange – who I can beat down to £10 per month and a new phone. Suits me, since there’s no way I’m lashing out for an iPhone.)

My assertion: Daily Mail uses fake commenters on (at least one of) its stories. My evidence: below

In my previous post, I noted how the Daily Mail’s site hides comments that are unfavourable to one of its stories, and instead, in its “few comments” (which is all you see initially, unless you click on “View all”) showed comments that were favourable – or at least not vitriolic about it.

But the commenters’ names seemed a bit odd. Now, you can pretend to be anyone you like with the Daily Mail comments system – it’s not like The Guardian, where you have to register (though of course you can “be” anyone with that, but you have to create a consistent set of personae if you do). But if you’re going to give a full name and address, well hell, why make it up? Eh? Especially if you’re being complimentary about the paper you’ve come to read online and, um, compliment?

The three non-vitriolic commenters, let’s remind, were:

  • Amberdallas, Waco, TX, USA
  • Marcie, Tallahassee, Florida
  • Sue Timbers, Baldock, England (Update: I subsequently received separate evidence that Sue does indeed exist. My apologies for this misrepresentation.)

Do these people really exist?

-Is Marcie real? No way to disprove it: there are bound to be women called Marcie living in Talahassee.

-Amberdallas? Nobody of that name, and nobody named “Amber Dallas” appearing for a search around Waco. In my opinion, that’s fake. The Mail is welcome to rebut that by publishing the IP of the commenter.

-“Sue Timbers” in Baldock? A BT directory search shows nobody with the surname Timbers living in Baldock. A Google search turns up just two results – that story, and this one. My opinion? I don’t think Sue Timbers exists. Again, the Mail is welcome to rebut this by publishing the IP of the commenter. (Update: note comments above. Sue Timbers does exist and has commented at the Mail.)
Other, unfavourable commenters who give full names and general addresses are much more easily found. “Kate Smart” of north Wales pops up commenting there in the past. “Morgan [le] Fay” in Alabama pulls up lots of numbers on Google. There does seem to be an Angie [Angela] Bear in Elysian, Minnesota. (Although I can’t find a “Barrie Bichols” in either West Burton; and there’s only a “Nancy Jervis” who’s an alumnus author in Fort Lauderdale.) “Jessica Landreth” exists in Portland (she’s on Amazon). There are plenty of people called “Amanda Lucas” in Essex.

In short, the uncomplimentary commenters seem to exist. The ones who aren’t, who might be tracked down, are suspiciously hard to find.

Perhaps the Mail, which is generally really good at tracking down fakery, would like to make us all feel more comforted by putting our minds at rest. Because it would be awful to think that in cases where the paper version is out of tune with its readers’ feedback that it tweaks the view passing readers get of what its commenters actually think of the stories that appear there. And it would be dreadful to think that it fakes comments.

How the Daily Mail online hides adverse reader comments about its stories: a case study

Zara Phillips is fit. You can probably take that in both senses of the word, but principallly she’s an Olympic horsewoman, and you don’t get to be an Olympic pretty much anything without being exceedingly good at it — and strong, and, well, fit. Riding a lot tightens muscles you might not know you had, including around the stomach. A friend who’s been riding three times a week has lost a ton of weight, and was hardly lardy to begin with.

So what is the Daily Mail’s story of September 14? “Zara Phillips shows off her fuller figure as she prepares to defend European title“.

Usually impeccably dressed in a fitted riding costume, Zara looked out of sorts in a white vest and ill-fitting cargo-style shorts which hinted at a fuller figure than usual for the world champion sportswoman.

Uh-huh. A top rider doesn’t look like a catwalk model in between events? Perish the thought. Lordy, she’s fallen afoul of the Daily Mail Rule: she is female and she is not skinny-but-not-too-skinny. (Because if she was too thin, the Mail would be saying “Friends fear for too-thin Kate”. What do you mean, which friends? Any snapper is proud to call himself a “friend”. If he’s said “Alright Zara?” and she hasn’t actually spat in his face, he’s a “friend” for the purposes of stories like this.

(Though you have to be pasting the link – as I was – to see it, the images are labelled “BigZara”. Mm-hmm. I was going to pull in from the Mail site but thought there might be a row about copyright, which would be distracting.)

Let’s leave alone for a moment though how absurd this story is. What do the readers of the site think? There are tons of comments on this story. The Mail has a system whereby it shows you a couple of comments, and if you want to see the lot then you have to click on a little button.

So what comments are visible before you click the button? At the time of writing, they are:

She looks gorgeous and, most importantly, healthy. – Amberdallas, Waco, TX, USA

Looks like muscle and womanly curves from here.- Marcie, Tallahassee, Florida

Normal… and lovely! – Sue Timbers, Baldock, England

OK? Nice and calm. Now click on the full comments – 36, as I write.

The first three:

• I am so fed up of everyone complaining of how many thin women there are in papers and mag and then as soon as you get someone who has a NORMAL figure in one all the writers describe her as ‘fuller figured’ or having a ‘paunch’ or of putting on the pounds. Hounestly you either like people thin or normal, make up your minds! – Laura, London

• I find it hard to understand just how we women are supposed to look. Keira Knightley is very slim and there are countless articles criticising her for being “skeletal”. Zara, who is a champion horsewoman, is of average size (something I’d think ought to be recommended for a sportswoman) and is described as “fuller figured”, which is apparently a bad thing. Is there a certain weight bracket that we all ought to fit into? – Lorrie, Manchester

• The term “fuller figure” implies she is fat, which she most certainly is not! That’s muscle and she looks healthy and normal. Not at all like the “starving refugee look” so in style among the VIPs of the media world. Good for you Zara! – Morgan Le Fay, Alabama, USA

And it continues in that vein. The lesson one takes away: the Mail’s online readers – which it’s chasing with a determined drive – do not like these stories. They perceive the hypocrisy inherent in them and they’re calling the Mail’s bluff, extremely loudly.

The interesting questions that remain:

  • will this feed back into the print edition and the decisions they make about the stories they run?
  • who chooses the comments that get displayed (because there must be some decision about it – that’s no accident that the most emollient are the ones shown
  • is there any chance that those first two people from the US really exist?

The X-Factor: the new frontier in misleading reality TV

Let’s just get it clear first that Simon Cowell is brilliant, a master of the pithy putdown in this latest series of the X-Factor. I’ve started building a list of his dismissals, in fact, because they stand alone, marvellous epigrams. OK, it’s not Oscar Wilde but hey, we live in the modern world. A couple of samples from last Saturday’s episode:

“What were you like before you had singing lessons? … I think the word ‘refund’ comes to mind.”

And: “Girls, I’ll be honest. It was a complete and utter mess. It was like four cats’ tails being trapped in a door simultaneously.”

Sheer genius. Who would have thought that such pearls could drop from the lips of this 25-year-old record company executive interested in go-karting appearing on TV for the first time as a contestant on Sale Of The Century in the 1990s??

Thing is, though, that what you see on X-Factor is so not what the contestants get. You watch some of the tuneless wonders (see above) and wonder: how can’t they know? Cowell says as much from time to time.

The reason that the tone-deaf ones don’t know is that they think they’ve been picked because they’re good. And the reason they think that is because the people who are good get picked, and the ones who are average get binned. And the ones who are awful get picked. Except they don’t know they’re awful. They’re full of delight because they got picked to go in front of the big four and the others – the majority – didn’t.

Read this person’s experience from the auditions, posted in April:

When I eventually went into my audition there was a bored looking young man and some teenager who used to be on Byker Grove (apparently), both of which probably know nothing of music or talent. They ignored me when I walked in, whispered to each other while I sang and then refused to give me an explanation of why they wouldn’t put me through. A friend of mine, also talented, had a slightly nicer judge who explained that they couldn’t put her through coz they’d reached their quota for the day (30 girls only). So the hundreds waiting outside were gonna be told ‘no’ even if they were the next Leona Lewis. This is unacceptable when they put middle aged men in purple sequinned jackets and tone deaf people trough just for laughs.

I really wish people would wise up to this kind of commercialism and stop making Simon Cowell millions. Lets start demanding quality TV with professional talented people being paid for what they are trained to do. I didn’t spend £30,000 at Drama school to be treated like that.

I think that the “quota for the day” people were probably lying – they just didn’t want to say “you’re not bad or good enough to get the top-level audition”.

So imagine that you’ve sat there and seen loads of people told not to bother. There are thousands there and they’ve been turned away, but you’ve been chosen – after singing a few notes – and now you’re going to be up in front of the people who could make you a STAR. And all your friends keep telling you that you’ve got a great voice, and you’ve practised “Our Love Will Go On” so much in the shower. And now it’s your turn to sing and you sing and Simon’s talking and he’s saying…

“You sang it in about 7,000 different keys.”

This is the thing: they sift out the middle stuff. But does the X-Factor mention this at all? Nope. What you see is not what the competitors get. (Still, do go and watch the Sale of The Century.)

Does that mean we’ll give up watching X-Factor? Naah. Even if none of the winners has yet amounted to anything. It’s the schadenfreude that’s entertaining. (We’ve got hopes for Leona Lewis, but if her album isn’t going to be released until November, won’t everyone be saying “Leona who?”)

McEnroe vs Borg: the 16th match…. in Tesco? And words on Henman

Sharp marketing by Tesco: an ad aiming for people who are, well, my sort of age (though my wife, younger, says it works for her too). Showing on lots of TV sets near you if you’re in Britain. Watch it for the brilliant final shot.

(Or watch it on YouTube.)

(As I recall it their rivalry ended with McEnroe 8-7 ahead. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

And briefly some words on the departure of Tim Henman: he’s a much, much better player than so many people have given him credit for. The problem though that he had was that people couldn’t identify with the emotions he felt; there wasn’t enough heart-on-sleeve for their liking.

So millions of people who have no idea at all of what it means, physically and especially mentally, to play at the very top level of any sport – hell, people whose idea of hard intense exercise is climbing the stairs – were rude about his accomplishments. Sorry, but he was a really good player who could have got a Slam had he not run into Sampras, and Federer, and been desperately unlucky to run into an inspired Goran Ivanisevic and rubbish weather in one of his six Wimbledon semifinals. Six. You have to be so tough mentally to do that. People never understand this aspect of pro sports: that you’re going up against people who have just about the same abilities as you, so that every single point you’re having to fight and fight to win it. All through the match. All day, every day. That’s your professional life: being meaner and more determined than the person you walked onto court with.

Yet my friend Jenny Colgan was right about one thing: people will prefer Andy Murray. Reason being that he’s more emotional on court: he lets you empathise with him. You can see what he’s thinking, to some extent (though generally what a tennis player is thinking is “Right. Next point. Win it. I’ll serve to the forehand/backhand/body”). That ability to empathise with the emotion was one of the things that kids liked about McEnroe. Which is why he’s still used in marketing and adverts today. As above. (Fantastic that Borg doesn’t say a word. Which is of course the point too.)

Plus Murray has the potential to be one of the top three players in the world if he can get past this year’s injury.

Now that’s what I call broadband, No.5824 (kb/s)

So the BT Openreach man came along to see about our spotty broadband, which I’d pretty astutely – I reckoned – narrowed down to being either the router or a tree outside resting on the line.

He tried it, agreed the line was very noisy. And then dug into his van, from which he pulled out a 15-foot pole – quite a neat trick from a 10-foot van, you have to admit. (It’s telescopic. Ta-daa.) And then he whacked the phone line by the tree with it to see if it made any more noisy by doing that.

Nope. Not a thing. No effect. Decision: it’s not the tree.

But it wasn’t the router either because he couldn’t get any sort of speed with his trust BT™ Voyager™ USB modem. Where’s the problem then? He took apart the master socket where the line comes into the house. “Not BT wire,” he said languidly. Eh? “The wire – isn’t single-core. That’s not done by BT.”

Which was his big clue. He tried the line where it reaches the eaves of our house: connected at about 5megabits. Wow – that’s better than we’ve seen at pretty much any time.

After a bit of looking about and testing, he pulled out something called the BT Hawk – a bit of kit that measures line impedance, yet seems to be able to say where the impedance changes (can’t find a Google ref, only brief mentions) – connected it to the master socket and said “there’s a big chance in impedance about five metres from here.”

And then we decided that since someone seemed to have added a rubbish line to the master socket, which could be the problem, we should eliminate the rubbish bit. Bit of drilling through the brick, from his cornucopia of a van, and some proper single-core BT wire (why four wires if only two are used? But I didn’t ask), quick new spliced-in junction box to the good cable that had been provided, and bang – 5-megabit steady-as-a-rock broadband.

Seems someone – the previous owners? – had spliced in some old alarm cable, with multi-core wires, in order to put an extra extension into the master socket. And that splice screwed the whole thing up. Tiny; you’d think it would make no difference; yet for some reason it changed the whole characteristics of the line.

So he tried it on his Voyager, and then looked at my Netgear router. “You’ll probably get a better speed out of that – much better than this old Voyager.”

He was right. It’s been up at 5 megabits since I connected this morning. YouTube like it oughta be. No fuss, no muss.

Gee, it’s even kinda boring.

Moral: the BT Openreach bod knows more than you.

Added moral: kudos to Freedom2Surf, my ISP, who proved rather elegantly that smaller is better in customer service terms. This morning (Fri) they called to check whether the fault was indeed cleared, and when I said it was, said they’d keep it open for five more days and then if I had no more issues they’d confirm it as sorted. When’s a big ISP done that?

The iPod moment for newspapers won’t be good news for some parts of the papers

Alan Rusbridger, who gets to fire me if he so chooses, has a theory that newspapers are headed for an “iPod moment” just as the music industry was back in the beginning of 2001. I agree with him. Thinking about it though, there are going to be some downsides; I haven’t seen his analysis of what’s going to happen, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t include some of what follows. Because if I can think of it, a successful editor who spotted the importance of the web a while back certainly can.

Back at the start of 2001, there were portable devices which could hold some songs: they either held very few songs and were small, or held loads of songs and were big and clunky. (Examples: the Diamond Rio players vs the Creative Labs ones.) The iPod trumped them because it was small and could hold loads of songs – plus, of course, it had a terrific user interface. (Phil Schiller’s team still doesn’t get enough credit for inventing the scroll wheel.)

The “iPod moment” – which happened, let’s guess, was underway around the beginning of 2004, when the Guardian’s G2 section had a piece about “the iPodders”, noting how people had these things – meant that suddenly people began to realise that they could carry huge tracts of music with them, rather than being tied down to playing small amounts on a portable CD or MiniDisc, or having the full lot at home on their hi-fi.

(And in passing, the iPhone is not the “iPod moment” for phones. It’s too big; it doesn’t redefine what we do with phones. It’s a smartphone with a cute interface.)

Logically, there’s a device coming our way which will be able to hold and “play back” (visually of course) huge amounts of text while being portable and convenient. That already exists in the form of paper, but it’s hard to search through paper or create “playlists” of favourite writers from across multiple papers. I have to carry a laptop and read my news feeds; if I wanted to download all the papers for every day, I’d need to set up a lot of fancy scripts to pull in the text of the stories. Feasible, but boring.

Imagine though a light A4-sized product that runs (for ages) off batteries, and has a very readable screen (100+dpi at least; 150 is better for really good-quality small print). And which can store a few gigabytes of data. The latter’s easy – some Flash memory, thank you, sorted. The screen’s much harder, though various people are closing in on it.

OK, given that, you have a product that you can fill with content. (USB port should do it. Wi-Fi too, though you’d need to be able to turn it off; too power-hungry otherwise.) You can get that content from newspapers – perhaps PDFs (nice and simple, and papers generate those in their production process, generally). Newspapers and magazines will want it to be one direction only, into the gizmo, rather as with the iPod. Don’t know how easy that’s going to be to arrange, though, unless this thing has some special data format it reads..

Papers will be sort of happy: they can have adverts and maybe there’ll be ways for people to click on them and give feedback about what they’ve read. (So you’ll need some sort of output. Maybe even a web browser. Except with a 150dpi screen, any web pages you see now will look teeny-weeny.)

But it’s inevitable that some parts of the paper will lose out badly in a “we know what you read” world. That already happens online: the Telegraph follows, for the edification of its reporters, which stories people are clicking on. Woe unto those who aren’t popular online. Even when you get to screens which can give you tabloid (at best; A4 more likely) pages to read, you’re going to find that some things just won’t get read often.

What things? Well, I think some of the opinion columnists whose work amounts to no more than random blogging are going to struggle. There’s a lot of Phil Space stuff going on. Long news items will strain peoples’ reading patience (as happens already, but they fill the paper nicely). When the Independent and Times moved from broadsheet to tabloid, the longer pieces were the first to suffer. When you move to A4, that’ll happen again. Short and snappy and grabby will be in. Long and trivial and doesn’t speak to a lot of people will be out.

The effects on papers’ economics are hard to guess at. But I do think that they’ll be adverse – that rather as the music industry has seen the destruction of the album, partly through the (lack of) efforts by artists who haven’t come up with more than two tracks worth listening to, and those each 3 minutes long (excluding remixes). Now, people just go for tracks. I think that in the same way, newspapers will find themselves driven down towards “the article” – as happens already online, and was happening already. The difference is that consumers were heading towards the “track” thinking before the iPod came along: remember compilation tapes and CDs? Burning compilation CDs? That’s track-based thinking. The iPod just magnified it. The effect on journalists will be radical.

In the same way, the iPod moment for newspapers will last a while – and mean that lots of things that presently make up the “album” of the newspaper fall by the wayside, perhaps quite quickly.

For me, it’ll be the racing results, share prices and other little bits. And pretty much all of the football, except the scandals. Though actually once I can tune football out, I’ll ignore it completely.

A quote, actually, from that 2004 Guardian piece: “The iPod, the place where storage becomes magic, now helps us say for sure: it’s all over,” says Paul Morley, whose book Words and Music appeared last summer, just as the Pod pioneers were setting out on their journey. “The physical presence of the popular song is gone. It’s time for the next thing. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising. Nothing to put away in shoeboxes or spare cupboards, and be embarrassed about. A chip inside us and inside the chip a route to all the music that there ever was.”

And soon, the same for the words and podcasts and videos that journalists write. And from any of them. It’s going to be really interesting. And full of turmoil