MonthJanuary 2008

Journalism or “churnalism”? Nick Davies of the Gdn weighs in..

Over at the editor’s blog on Press Gazette

Guardian writer Nick Davies launches a searing indictment of what he calls “churnalism” in this week’s Press Gazette.

Citing new research carried out by Cardiff University’s journalism department – he claims that 80 per cent of home news stories in the main quality UK national newspapers are at least partially made up of recycled material from the PR industry or news agencies.

Which is kinda scary, no? Though I’d also say that at least a third of the press releases that come past me are recycling stuff that’s been seen in the mainstream press..

Looking at newspapers on a case-by-case basis, the study – which looked at 2,000 stories over two weeks last year – found that 69 per cent of home news stories in The Times were wholly or mainly made up of PR and/or wire copy. The proportions for other newspapers were: The Daily Telegraph: 68 per cent; The Daily Mail, 66 per cent; The Independent: 65 per cent and The Guardian: 52 per cent.

Phew! Interesting not-dealt-wiith question (at least, not in the blog post; maybe I’ll need to buy the UKPG): what proportion of the press releases coming in to the papers then got used? I did a study of my own stuff a few years ago, and found that 1 in 200 emails led to a story. And that was counting all sorts of stuff including mailing lists.

The research also claims that less Fleet Street staff journalists are now producing three times as many pages as they did 20 years ago.

An inelegant sentence, one has to say. There are fewer journalists, but if he’d put “fewer Fleet Street journalists are..” that would sound like some are just sitting around.

Is it just me, or are journalists on nationals writing lots more unchecked stories?

Damian Thompson, apparently, is ” the author of Counterknowledge: How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history.”

Seems like he’s surrendered to a bit of the latter himself with this daft post on his blog on the Telegraph about a claim – a claim, sod it, an unsourced “story” in the widest sense – about Muslims “invading” a hospital in Sydney. I don’t believe a word of it (but can’t be bothered to create a Telegraph account to poke fun at him). As Andrew Brown puts it so eloquently, “wtf?”:

Indeed, he asked if any of his readers could “stand it up”, since they are obviously better placed to do so than a leader writer on a national newspaper who has been a professional journalist for 25 years.

But this is a classic example of how teh interwebs are leading to crap journalism, where people hurry to post anything. Or perhaps it’s just making it more visible.


  • “Literary writer had to dumb down and write thrillers” – the Times. No, she didn’t “dumb down” at all: see the article in the Guardian.
  • “From today, feel free to download another 25 million songs – legally” – the Times.

    Qtrax, a digital service announced today, promises a catalogue of more than 25 million songs that users can download to keep, free and with no limit on the number of tracks.

    The service has been endorsed by the very same record companies – including EMI, Universal Music and Warner Music – that have chased file-sharers through the courts in a doomed attempt to prevent piracy.

    Not a scintilla of doubt. Or indeed fact-checking. (Update: actually, one of the people who was there tells me that they did try to confirm Qtrax’s claim with the four music companies, which were there at MIDEM, yet they didn’t confirm or deny until the next day.) For no, it didn’t have any agreements with the music labels. Perhaps more of a “misled the press” tale there.

  • Twins’ marriage annulled – no, it never happened. (Think about it. They come from the same town. They share a birthday. Wouldn’t those two facts alone make you wonder? And consider the source – a lord wading into the anti-abortion debate.)

And that’s just a few days. I’ve honestly created a new category on the Guardian Technology blog called “Undo” for total reverse ferrets on stories. Estonia was attacked by Russian hackers? Maybe, but the only confirmed fact is that one kid in Estonia has been fined, in Estonia.

People on otherwise sensible newspapers are writing stuff where they don’t check whether assertions are facts. No checking. Just the rush to be in there, to get onto Google News, to be indexed, to be read, even if the readers point out that you’re talking rubbish.

Journalists may rail against bloggers, but it would be bloody good if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot by doing precisely the things that we accuse the bloggers of – writing without knowing.

Some more on cochlear implants.. and their Daily Mail coverage

My wife, wonderfully, wrote a piece for the Mail on Sunday about child3’s cochlear implant; the article is now up there, though you’ll have to go via her site to find it – because she’s added more there which is great on its own. Two men (who aren’t me) who’ve read the article said it made them very emotional – so be warned, tough guys.

In other related news, I’m told that NICE – the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, the body which decides on health care treatment expenditure – has almost got to the end of the road (I think) on its consultation on CIs. It seems to be leaning (if I’m understanding the summary of the 300-page assessment paper) correctly towards simultaneous bilateral implants for those born profoundly deaf or deafened prelingually.

That would be quite a move, shifting from single to dual bilaterals. But it does I think offer the chance for those implanted thus in the future to have something quite radical: I think that implant manufacturers might consider “pre-processing” the binaural data, so that some of the processing that happens naturally in the spine as the aural signal travels to the brain (some of the information about location of sound is processed before it reaches your brain) could be done by your processor pack.

Meanwhile, we’re just happy, you know, with the single one. More than happy, in fact. It’s changed everyones’ lives.

In the Guardian: stop this online sharing now!

The music industry says that ISPs should stop people sharing its content online, and take action against them. I say: damn right. But also – take your turn in line, you guys. There’s people in front of you who’ve been suffering from the internet’s ravages for a long time already. Like newspapers, porn, cross-stitch and games consoles.

All this online sharing has to stop explains it:

No, we the print newspaper industry demand that ISPs stop people sharing our content over the internet. In fact, why not a “reading tax” on ISPs? The more of its customers visit a newspaper site, the more tax it should pay.


Next, pornography. You know, there used to be tons of top-shelf magazines, all earning a comfortable living. Then you know what? The damn internet came along and at a stroke destroyed their business model, in which shifty-gazed commuters had to go into insalubrious shops to get “content”. Now there are loads of internet sites (Google reliably tells me) where you can get free amateur porn – exactly the same sort of stuff that people used to pay for! It’s shocking (and what’s more, there are no unsightly staples in the middle of the pictures).

Unlicensed pornography trading has put paid to some of the best-known names in the industry. Name any porn magazine that isn’t 75% thinner now and filled with ads in the back for internet sites. This cannot be allowed to go on. Once again, ISPs bear a heavy responsibility for propelling big porn empires and small corner shops with dimly lit corners – not to mention the makers of high shelves – into penury.

And more. Enjoy.

Ooh, feel the anger: Fake Steve disses Lotus Notes

Yeah, I know Jack has covered this on the Guardian Tech blog, but seeing how I have form on this, it seemed worth noting. Fake Steve Jobs – aka Daniel Lyons – did a number on the possibility of Notes coming to the iPhone (the iPhone? Uh??).

The bit in the FSJ post that made me laff though is:

Have you ever seen Notes? It’s not software, it’s a form of punishment. Companies that use Notes have to staff not only a help desk but also a suicide prevention center — it’s that bad.

But he also dissed Ed Brill, one of the lead people in Notes.. er.. talking-upping. Who points back to an article from 1998 written by Lyons about how

Predictably, pretty much all the quotes on the FSJ blog go in the same direction.. like this:

It’s true. I worked at IBM a while back and everyone in my section (all 100 of us) hated Notes. For some reason, before my arrival, they had been allowed to not use Notes. But then the big man laid down the smack.

Or this from “IBMer”:

Best FSJ post ever! I am forced to use Lotus Notes and it’s got to be the most user unfriendly pile of crap I’ve ever seen. Of course the IT guys tell me that it’s “powerful under the hood”. So what? I use it as an e-mail client and hate the people who force me to do it more every day.

Meanwhile on the Ed Brill blog the comments are mostly one-way traffic… though I do like this one:

I’ve been a Notes Dev for 6 years and in that time I can’t recall once having an end user tell me how much they loved using it. In fact, the vast majority treat it like a burden they are required to bear.

And this one:

I’ve been a Notes dev for 9 years, and my users have never once complained about the UI of any Notes app. The overwhelming array of toolbar buttons and the crazy layout of menus, yes, but they’ve never complained about Notes APPS (other than mail.. a little).

But the one which clinches it, absolutely nails it, is this one on the FSJ blog:

This is the approved standard Notes reply, and seems to have been in use since the first version. “As for your comments on Notes x, I suggest you take a look at Notes x+1.” Well, maybe it’s a bit less crappy, but it’s still crap. Gimme a call when you’ve finished Notes 20….

Yeah. At work, everyone’s still on Notes x. Everyone who tells us how much better it is using Notes x+1. And no, I can’t be bothered to find out which version of Notes we’re using at work. It’s x, OK?

Latest Tech Weekly podcast is up… and a word for PR folk

If you’d like to hear what we all had to say, including an interesting injterview with David Edgerton (author of The Shock of The Old – whose point is that history isn’t driven by whizzy new technologies, but more prosaic ones) and with Andrew Wilding of Vividas, come get it (direct MP3 link).

There’s also discussion at the Guardian blog.

And a quick word for PR people: interviewees, yes, we like them for podcasts. Andrew Wilding’s PR showed some neat footwork in getting him in front of us to talk about the idea of whether streaming is better than rental (iTunes.. movies.. yes?). We’re interested if you’ve got someone who can do short, pithy, pointful interviews. Helps too if they sound like they just had a shot of caffeine too, but it’s not obligatory…

My latest at the Guardian: MacBook Air, Oracle/BEA, Sun/MySQL. Pick one from three

Which was the most important event last week, in terms of those which will affect you, the gentle reader? Was it Apple announcing the MacBook Air? Was it Oracle buying BEA Systems? Or was it Sun buying MySQL? Read on.. (so I’ll give you a clue..)

Oracle splashing the cash on BEA Systems? The former, of course, is Larry Ellison’s huge database company, which has been on an acquisition path for years. BEA System, which you may not have heard of, makes “middleware” – software that tries to smooth out the problems of getting different systems (particularly databases) within a large corporation to cooperate.

The Wikipedia entry does its best to explain what BEA’s products are, if not what they do. There’s no doubt that what BEA does is really important to lots of companies that you and I probably do business with all the time. Perhaps, for instance, its software (or the lack of it) is the reason why we’re told that “the computer’s gone down” or that “we don’t have any record of your ordering that” or “it says here that you have ordered it but from a different address”. (And of course “what it says here” is always assumed to be the more accurate version of real life.)

But does the utility of the software to those organisations translate into impact on your life? Will Oracle owning BEA make a difference to you or me? I don’t think so. Money isn’t everything. Consider, after all, whether the biggest IT merger of recent years – AOL and Time Warner – has had any effect on your daily life. It was a $164bn deal, enough to stuff even a couple of Northern Rocks in if they had wanted to.

Difference to all of our lives? None, I’d say. Honestly: Time Warner still does content, and AOL has withered away. Fewer people use AOL now, but that wasn’t because of the merger.

Return here to leave your disparaging (or encouraging) comments…

(I was going to have some pictures from Flickr but it’s too much of a pain to wade through the stupid interface to find out what URL you need to link to; that, plus the hassle of working out whether you need to say who something is by, and what all the other weird hieroglyphics mean. Sod that. Just imagine the pictures for now, OK?)

So farewell then Bobby Fischer. You were right about the computers

Back in 1972, when the world was convulsed (or so it felt) with the doings of two men over a small board with 32 black and 32 white squares in Reykjavik, I was getting into chess about as much as I ever would. Played against my father, played at a chess club locally. Wasn’t that good, but good enough to enter a national tournament (we were living in Malta at the time, so “national” would roughly equate to sub-county in the UK) and get 4.5 out of 9.

And Bobby Fischer was playing Boris Spassky, and I devoured the papers to learn the latest twist – how he hadn’t turned up for the second game, the dissection of the overhead lamp (revealing two dead flies – the perfect grainy detail that most people writing a fictional account would overlook), the intervention of James Slater (who I’d not heard of) to up the prize fund.

It was amazing, the biggest show in any town; as convulsive as, just under a decade later, the matches between Borg and McEnroe would be in tennis. Like McEnroe, Fischer had that self-destructive streak, doing stupid things that got him defaulted, arguing with organisers, yet also able to pull remarkable things out of nowhere. I followed the games, but to be honest they were far too deep for me. The test of how well you understand a game is whether, given a position, you can figure out what the next move should be. I hardly ever could. But it was an interesting experience. My father (my most regular chess opponent; when we first began he’d start without a queen; then it was a rook; then a bishop; then level) and I bought all the instant books that came out from the match, and read them and played some of the games through, trying to puzzle them out.

To be honest, for me at least it was like being a dog trying to understand quantum physics. Chess at that level isn’t any less comprehensible than club chess; all the pieces are visible, all the possible moves are known. But the top players can see both the broader sea of possible moves and simultaneously focus on the few that will yield dramatic results. In a way, they’re like mathematicians, who also tend to peak in their 20s or 30s.

As the Guardian noted about Fischer, chess was the game that kept him sane; the rest of the time he was just mad. In the years since his virtual disappearance, there have been repeated rumours that he would pop up on the internet chess servers, play games showing flashes of his old brilliance, and then disappear again.

But he did have one really, really good idea which grew out of his frustration with the fact that increasing computer power meant that whoever had studied openings to death – whoever, basically, had the best computer analysis – came into a match better prepared. Because every match starts with the pieces on the same squares, you can analyse for any move. Use a computer and you can analyse the game, and your opponent, into dusty draws.

Well, blah. Fischer suggested a tack that would confound the computers: FischerRandom. Mix up the pieces on the back row at the start of the game. (The king has to be between the rooks, so you get 960 possible variations, apparently.) Rules are here – and keep some ideas from standard chess, such as opposite coloured bishops and so on.

Voila! At a stroke, the wonk who spends all the time just analysing openings has been neutralised. Once again you have to use your mental energy working from first principles, trying to see moves and possibilities. I think it’s the best possible idea that could be applied to human chess, since even with computer help nobody could prepare for what their next match would throw at them.

The irony, of course, is that computers would excel at FischerRandom – aka Chess960 – since they’d be able to figure out the decision trees far beyond people’s abilities (though their general strategic algorithms might be troubled by the lack of the standard starting positions, and those which rely on big opening books would have to toss them out). But it would make the games between humans more interesting, because more random. (Intriguing to see that there’s a project which is trying to analyse it to death, if I’m reading it correctly. Oh well. Some people can’t leave a good thing alone. It’s in our natures.)
And it’s that inability to rely on a specific set of opening moves that I find so attractive about go – the ancient Oriental game. You have a 19×19 board (so 381 places, more than four chessboards’ worth), and it starts empty – so that within 20 or so moves you’re certain to be playing an entirely new game, if not to the universe then almost certainly to you. It’s a slow, subtle game, and computers can’t get within spittting distance even of good club players. Opening theory is general, and computers get so badly lost in the opening phases that the game’s pretty much lost for them by the time the real fighting starts.

I wonder if Bobby Fischer ever tried go. Though I doubt it would have kept him sane. Nothing could.

A rapper with a cochlear implant? Yup, there is

How remarkable: sifting through the stuff that passes through my newsreader, I came across this report about the rapper Foxy Brown and her cochlear implant (which I’ll extract because these Yahoo-Reuters reports vanish after a while. Boo, rubbish):

A judge says she wants more information before she decides whether to let rapper Foxy Brown get out of jail and go to California for repair of an electronic ear implant. Acting state Supreme Court Justice Melissa Jackson said Thursday she wanted proof of Brown’s claim that deafness looms unless she goes to Los Angeles’ House Clinic for treatment and for repair of a defective cochlear implant.

Brown, 29, revealed her hearing problems during a court appearance in late 2004. Her petition says her condition is worsening in jail and her hearing faces serious harm unless she has the cochlear implant reprogrammed and repaired.

(You’re wondering why she’s in prison?

The judge had put her on probation after she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault of two manicurists at a Manhattan nail salon in August 2004.

Then she broke her probation.)

The Washington Post had an article too in January 2006, pointing out that People You May Know (If You’re American) also have CIs:

Rush Limbaugh has one; so does former Miss America Heather Whitestone McCallum. Hip-hop singer Foxy Brown, who recently disclosed her hearing loss, is considering joining the ranks of the cochlear implanted, too.

No tales that I’ve come across of people who’ve been implanted from a young age who are famous. Well, not yet. Give it time…

In today’s Guardian Tech by me: Apple’s keynote, the DNE of Scrabulous?, and slower broadband growth

Guardian Technology is out again. Writing up the Apple keynote without having seen the darn thing – instead working off the livebloggers, and the press releases that fell into the inbox afterwards – was an interesting challenge. (Bobbie Johnson was writing it for news and also giving it up for the podcast.)

So I offer you Apple pushes film rentals and takes to Air. I plumped for the key point of it being the Apple TV/film rentals thing, so my intro is:

Apple on Tuesday revamped its attempts to colonise American living rooms, announcing the launch of online movie rentals in standard and high-definition formats and a revamped “Apple TV” to play them on which does not require a separate computer.

The MacBook Air, while interesting, is definitely not a mainstream thing; not like iTunes or the iPhone. By making Apple TV standalone, it’s trying to reach everyone. Whether that can succeed, when cable companies and (in the UK) Sky have a real lock on the market, well..

Other pieces: Is Facebook’s Scrabble game going to disappear?: “It might, because Hasbro, the toymaker which owns the rights to the famous board game in the US and Canada, has served a shutdown notice on the site which provides the Scrabulous feature to Facebook.” Surf that zeitgeist, people.

And finally: Broadband uptake slows along with progress on speeds: “As richer countries reach saturation, there’s little sign of the roll-out of enhanced fibre-based networks”.

(Via GU: Charles Arthur.)