Just run that past me again, Professor Negroponte, about the talking doorknobs

From The Independent, November 13 1999:

See, I love it when you can come back to things after ten years. Count the things that have come true.

Technology Editor

Doorknobs that talk, computers that you swallow and phones that don’t ring if there’s nobody to answer them will all be reality within 10 years, according to Professor Nicholas Negroponte, director of the world-famous MIT Media Laboratory, and one of the best-known of Internet gurus.
Addressing the theme of how computing will pervade our lives, Professor Negroponte said: “You may wonder about how computing could possibly affect something like a doorknob. But if you think about it, an intelligent doorknob would be a really useful thing.
“You would not need keys: it could identify you by your fingerprints, and perhaps confirm your identity by asking a question – ‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’ for example. Why would you need keys anymore?”
The smart doorknob could also accept parcel deliveries – and perhaps sign digitally for them; “and maybe it could let the dog out, and then let it back in while keeping out the other nine dogs following it.”
The technology required to do that is already sufficiently miniaturised, he said: such “embedded” systems could surround us. “We will have thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of embedded chips around us, all intercommunicating,” he predicted to an audience in London.
Professor Negroponte, author of the book “Being Digital”, espouses the view that anything which can be expressed as computer “bits” – such as words, images, video, designs, music – will eventually be transmitted in that form across the world, speeding up transactions and cutting costs. Human activity consists either of manipulating “atoms” – irreducibly physical objects – or “bits”, which contain ideas or symbols. His forecasts have been largely confirmed, especially by the move of music to new digital formats such as MP3 and the rise of electronic commerce.
As computers shrink and become pervasive over the next decade, the sort of information they can access will grow, he forecast. “I you want a really futuristic product for 10 years hence – you’ll have computers that you eat, one per day. It will contain devices and sensors which will record all your anatomical measurements, what’s going on inside you, and relay them to a black box that you wear on your belt. If it passes through you, no problem – swallow another.”
The value of such systems is evident if you consider the problems presently faced by doctors, he said: “Today, you go and say something is wrong, and you tell the doctor a story about how you felt perhaps 12 hours ago, which you can only imprecisely recall. From that, a doctor is meant to make a careful diagnosis and recommend a solution. This may be unfortunate timing after the Egypt Air crash, but I have wondered for a long time: why don’t we have black boxes? Then we could take them to the doctor, and they could read them to see what was wrong with us.”
Professor Negroponte also foresees telephone handsets becoming smarter. “Why do phones ring?” he wondered. “If there’s nobody there, no one will answer. Phones should be built smart enough to know if there’s nobody there. And if there is someone there, they should be able to answer them, like a good butler, and find out who is calling and why, and only then decide whether to get our attention.”
But there are still some giant steps to be made for the average user of computers, he admitted. “Who would have believed, ten years ago, that big segments of the population would spend between £1,000 and £2,000 on their own computers – and that those machines would reduce people to tears once or twice a week?”

I found the hacker… and I’m wondering where else he might be

So finally I had to take Stefan’s advice. Having upgraded to WordPress 2.8.5 over at the Free Our Data blog (where I’ve been having problems with a hacker who’s been inserting spam links invisibly into the end of the page), I …

Oh. And while I was writing that, I noticed – from the FTP transfer that was going on to do a second comparison – that there are a ton of spam pages in the site. Sodding hackers.

Anyway. I downloaded the entire blog content, and then ran a diff – that is, Filemerge (which comes with the Apple Developer Tools, free on your OSX install disk). It compares the content of any set of files, or directories.

Of course the site I’d downloaded was pretty old, and had been upgraded loads of times, so there were loads of files that were on the left (old) and not on the right (new). They just hadn’t been deleted.

Slogging on… I came across a WordPress page which explains which files have been deleted in the move up from 2.7 to 2.8. It’s a useful list and I was working my way through it. Slowly.

By now I’d got to blog/wp-includes/js/tinymce/themes/advanced/skins/o2k7/ and was starting to marvel at how deep WordPress is. When I came across a rather odd one – ui.php – which had the interesting opening:

Codz by angel(4ngel)

Make in China


Hmm, is it very likely that a valid WordPress file would really have that sort of comment? And more telling was that when you loaded it in a PHP editor with live PHP generation, you get this:

Yup, it's a hacker's login

Which in essence says: oh, lordy, you’ve been hacked.

Much digging around followed. It’s a fascinating file: it allows the hacker to download your database, and possibly upload chunks as well. I’m going to have to do an SQL dump now to see whether the content of older posts has been hacked (a favourite trick, apparently).

I also discovered a slew of website pages hidden in a directory called “Online” in the “Default” theme folder – which of course every WordPress install will generally have, so that’s a smart place to put it. (That also makes it a good one to delete.)

But as far as I can tell, the site is clean now. My best guess for how they did this is that it was one of the WordPress weaknesses via user registration – this one? This one? There are so many to choose from – and that it’s been sitting there for an age, just waiting to be exploited, or perhaps being exploited and I didn’t spot it. (Certainly neither Google’s indexing nor I discovered the hack of the /default/images folder – which is intriguing. Have you checked that folder lately?)

I hope this is the end of the tale. I’m not pinning everything on it though.

One other point: thanks again to Stefan Pause, who has helped a lot on this (what’s your site, Stefan?) I’m now alerted to the WordPress Exploit Scanner plugin, which will look through your site and find any suspicious CSS, HTML or similar. It reckons that there’s nothing suspicious in the older posts. Good-o, though I’d like to (and will) make sure myself.

Endnote: interestingly, Google won’t allow the ui.php file to be emailed, even in zip form. (I wanted to send it to my web host to explain what I’d found and tell them to search for it.) So obviously Google Mail’s already got some sort of hashing going on to detect malware being passed around. Impressive.

The hackers? Boring, really, that this sort of endless diversion from site to site is how they make their money. All that enthusiasm and knowledge and ability, turned to trying to persuade people lacking self-esteem to buy pills of unknown quality from sites of extremely dubious status. Isn’t there something better we could do with all our time here?

Super-endnote: And then I find another file – this one at /wp-includes/Text/Renderer/Diff/ where there was one called online.php (a bit of a clue by now, because it’s all about “online” crap these guys are selling.)

The WP Exploit Scanner tipped me off – it notes that it’s a base_64 command, which usually means “something to hide”.

And so it proves: here’s the picture you get
Hacker control interface dropped inside WordPress

(You can see the full-size thing at Flickr.) And hey – what is it about hackers and the black backgrounds? Too much watching the Matrix, I think. Forget it, guys – you’re not The One, you’re pushing junk pills.

The hacker leaves more footprints… but how many sites have this problem?

Another day, another little hack on’s front page – once more adding spam links to it in invisibie links (using the stylesheet command div style="display:none").

What’s interesting this time though is that the person doing it has decided to be a bit more subtle. Rather than doing it all by hand, he’s clearly decided that automation is the thing.

And so the inserted spam-generating code is just one line of PHP. One line!

Ah, but it’s clever – it’s a base64_decode (ie, a string of encoded stuff) which is then enclosed in an eval() statement.

So PHP decodes the base_64 stuff and then does what it’s told by that statement.

And what it’s told to evaluate is to get the content of a URL:

Weberneedle, in case you’re wondering, is part of Weber Medical. Obviously, it’s been hacked.

The spam is pointing to two directories – and They’ve been hacked too. (Oh, Anats – the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing. You’re offering links to a lot more than singing, I’m afraid.)

But it would be interesting to know how many more sites weberneedle’s hacked directory is pointing to.

And the bigger question is: how many sites out there have been hacked? In the course of my experiences alone I’ve come across half a dozen. (And I’m still trying to locate and close the hole in our server that makes this possible, of course. It’s annoying, but not disastrously so.) How many millions (and yes, I mean millions) of sites are there out there which have been exploited in this way, and which are therefore pointing to stuff they never realised?

At some stage there’s going to have to be a massive clearup – but I can’t imagine it happening. You’d pretty much have to turn the web off and on again.

Cat and mouse with a hacker

Clifford Stoll once noticed a hacker breaking into a system he was working on because of a fractional difference in the totals for the timesharing accounts – something like 0.13cents, if memory serves.

Well, there’s a hacker attacking the Free Our Data site (not, apparently, blog), but we’re not on timesharing yet. Detecting what they’ve done is a lot easier: they stuff loads of pharma spam into the bottom of the front page (not, to repeat, the blog front page, nor any of the links).

The spam, which comes after the closing /html bracket, hides itself using “font style=’position: absolute;overflow: hidden;height: 0;width: 0” and then points to a slew of links at (I’ve nofollowed the link so search engines won’t go there.) However, if you try to access that directory, it’s blank. (Blank via curl too, so there isn’t anything at all.)

But if you try to access one of the links, especially via curl, you find a page that includes the text “Home Page of Eduardo Dueñez” with a load of guff generated by CMS Made Simple version 1.3.1. Hello, CMS Made Simple! Your stuff is used by spammers and scammers! Do you feel happier now?

(The real Eduado Dueñez lives here, by the way – he’s an assistant maths professor at UTSA. Might email him, actually.)

However, closer examination shows that it loads a Javascript (at that then redirects you to its pharma if you are not a search engine.

I’ve found this spam in there and killed it a couple of times, and it’s come back. That’s worrying of course – it suggests that this is drive-by, automated hacking that is done when the links are found to have been removed from Free Our Data, or against some schedule.

So I still have some way to go in discovering what’s going on. There seem to be plenty of other sites out there which have also been hit – so it must be an automated drive-by, at a guess.

But what? There’s a faint possibility that it’s a PHP hack – my own site (here) is unaffected, and uses a bit less.

How I saw what was going to happen to (Sir) Alan Sugar, and to the music industry in 2000

I thought you might enjoy these: the first appeared in The Independent in April 2000, and the second in July 2000.

Notable how many of these forecasts – for the music industry, notably not the book industry – have come true. Why, how farsighted of me to see things that were right in front of my face.

What I’ve always and consistently said is that the music industry should have worked with Napster: encouraged it to become a paid-for service (say, a monthly fee) and take a slice of revenue based on reproduction rights according to which songs are swapped.

Sort of what it’s ended up doing with Spotify, in fact – except this is nine years and millions of pounds/dollars of lost sales later.

But first, a little bit of Sugar to leaven your day. Remember, this ran in April 2000, and the article following in July 2000. Don’t want you getting the wrong idea.

Technology Editor

Alan Sugar really hoped that it would all turn out right yesterday. He even made a rare appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme, sounding uncomfortable answering questions about his Amstrad company’s new product.

Why? Because if Amstrad were a pop group, people would go about asking each other “What was the name of their last hit?”Alan Michael Sugar badly wants Amstrad (the name stands for AMS Trading, set up in 1968 when he was 21) to recapture the halcyon days of the 1980s.

Then, it seemed to dominate the consumer electronics market, making BSkyB’s satellite receivers, PCs which sold by the thousand, and a range of hi-fi and video systems which though never pretty (and sometimes not too reliable) had made the gruff, bearded Sugar into a household name and a media icon for the rough diamond who kept sparkling. The stock market loved him too: his company was worth £1.2 billion at its peak in 1988. This, for a man whose first electrical product (in 1970) was the £17.70 Amstrad 8000 amplifier which he later described aas “the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever seen in my life” and the 1976 EX range of radio tuners with a meter to indicate the sound quality – which always showed as perfect, no matter what it really was.

The trouble is that lately when the Amstrad button has been pressed, it has showed up anything but perfect. The hit computers of 1984, which sold hundreds of thousands, could not succeed today. After failing to merge with the handheld computer maker Psion in 1996, in 1997 he spun off the company’s most effective side, the computer maker Viglen, leaving Amstrad to focus on consumer electronics. Since then it has not come remotely close to hitting the big time.

So it mattered to Amstrad that people should notice the introduction of a product that he promised would “bring e-mail to the mass market for the first time” and “become the all-in-one communications centre in the home”. Days ahead of the launch, City journalists had pronounced that it would be “the most important mass-market electronic product since [Amstrad] kick-started Britain’s personal computer market 15 years ago… a revolutionary electronic device for surfing the Web.”

But as it turned out, it was none of those things. For £80 you get the “em@iler”, a fixed (rather than mobile) phone which will send and receive email and faxes. There is no subscription charge for the email service – but you will have to submit to adverts beamed to the phone’s small screen which you will not be able to turn off.

Attractive? Perhaps not when compared to BT’s Easicom 1000, launched last March. It costs £80. It sends and received email. You can also use its small screen to browse the Web – which you can’t with the Amstrad em@iler. BT claims to have sold 80,000 in the past year and expects to sell another 220,000 in the next 12 months. And you won’t get ads. Furthermore, these days one would not expect to have to pay for Internet access, since there are hundreds of subscription-free Internet service providers.

But forget all that; what did the City think? Unfortunately, the City hated it. “I can’t get excited about it,” a market-maker in Amstrad shares said after the initial stock-market announcement. Amstrad’s stock promptly lost one-sixth of its value, ending the day at 505p, after months when it had gradually risen.

So does this mean the end for one of the barrow boy legends of consumer electronics? Has Alan Sugar lost his magic touch?

When it comes to the Internet, Mr Sugar has always seemed cautious in an area where one must be a risk taker. A year ago he wrote in a newspaper column that the Internet revolution “could all go pear-shaped” – which could still come true, but is not the ideal stance from which to develop market-winning products. The development cycle for new Internet consumer products is now measured in weeks rather than months or years.

Mr Sugar remains confident. Millions of British homes do not have a computer or modem. He hopes to sell a million, and thinks that with the adverts, “If we run 20 ads a month and if we’re able to charge somebody 15p (per user) then we are in the money.” But if nobody buys the phones, then the money will stay resolutely away. The quality button may say that it is perfect. But underneath, the truth may be rather different.


Technology Editor

Unlike most of the people you will meet in these pages, Shawn Fanning never intended to achieve global domination. But also unlike most of the people here, he has truly managed to threaten an entire $10 billion global industry, without ever meaning to. If ever there were an accidental revolutionary, it’s Fanning. Though of course you won’t be surprised to hear that the catalyst for his position is the Internet.

Until late 1998 he was just another computer studies student at North West University in Boston. He had never written any software for the Windows operating system, but Fanning got interested when his roommate began complaining about the problems of using his PC to track down MP3 files – which compress CD-quality music into small, downloadable files – from Websites, and saw the chance to try his hand at his chosen profession.

To help his friend out he wrote a program called Napster (based on his Internet nickname, itself derived from his short-cut hairstyle). It was his first real programming challenge, one on which he worked for days at a time – often not pausing for sleep.

Once completed, and released onto the Internet in January 1999, it was a piece of magic. It can tell you what MP3s an individual user connected to the Net has on their computer – and start copying it from that machine if you want. No payment necessary or requested, either for the Napster program itself or, more importantly, for carrying out the download.

If you have a standard home modem, it will take you between 7 and 10 minutes to download a three-minute MP3-compressed song. A standard 45-minute album would require a few hours. Total cost to a British user, a couple of pounds.

Compared to a CD, there’s no discernible loss in sound quality: the MP3 algorithm is designed to keep frequencies that the ear is sensitive to, and ignore unimportant ones.

The big difference of course is that you haven’t paid £10 or more to a record company or retailer for the music, which you can now listen to endlessly and download into a palm-sized portable MP3 player, essentially a microcomputer dedicated to replaying MP3 files.

It’s not surprising that two things have happened. The music industry is having a collective heart attack at seeing its future revenue streams (which it insists are essential for developing and marketing new bands and artists) cut off; and computer users around the world are taking to Napster with delight. No more having to pay what they see as inflated prices for songs. In fact, no more paying at all, unless you want to spend the money to get the CD with lyrics, liner notes, photographs and the rest.

Clearly, the two business models cannot coexist. Either the record industry gets paid when you take possession of a track, or it has to find some new way of collecting its money.

Just in case you’re thinking it won’t happen to your company, consider that this is a key example of what happens when a conventional business based on making things which carry information collides with the Net. (The book industry faces a similar challenge; only the fact that reading from a screen is 50 per cent slower than from a printed page is preserving it from a Napster-like destruction at present.)

The other key lesson is about what succeeds on the Net. Even by Internet standards, Napster has been a phenomenon, with a user base of up to 10 million who have downloaded it since Fanning released the first version. And that number is growing, the company claims, by between 5 and 25 per cent each week. That makes its user base roughly equal to that of AOL, the world’s biggest Internet service provider. (AOL users can use Napster, just like anyone with Net access.)

Yet there is no business involved in Napster: no money changes hands, not even for the program, which is free. So what’s the lesson? It is this: on the Internet, if you can find something which lets consumers communicate with each other without mediation, it will explode. Imagine if you had been the person who invented email. Napster isn’t quite that, but among the younger generation, it’s not far off.

In December 1999 the music business took its first step against Napster. The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the big labels, sued the company for “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement”. That suit will finally come to court a week from today [WED] in a Northern Californian court.

Even before that, Napster had been sued successfully by the heavy metal group Metallica (ironically, Fanning’s favourite group) and the rap artist Dr Dre. They forced the company to prevent hundreds of thousands of fans from using its servers. (Many of those fans, it is thought, simply wiped all traces of Napster from their PCs and then downloaded a fresh copy of the program and logged in again under a different name.) Metallica fans were, to put it politely, annoyed. Bad PR? Absolutely, says Alan McGee, discoverer of the supergroup Oasis. McGee sold half of his Creation Records company to Sony but then got out completely last year, tired of working under a multinational. “”How stupid of Metallica to in effect sue 300,000 of their fans,” he remarked after the case.

How does Fanning react to all this? With multi-million dollar lawuits looming he is presently incommunicado, at least as far as the press is concerned. But his opinions remain consistent through months of interviews. Is it intended to destroy the music industry? “It was… to create a music community,” he told ZD Net in March. “I thought it was pretty exciting just in terms of the technology.”

But isn’t it theft, what all those people are doing? “I can’t really discuss that,” he told the Observer in May. He thought the service would benefit independent bands without record label deals who could make their MP3s available for download without going through intermediaries such as, a commercial Website which very definitely does store MP3s – and recently had to pay the record industry $40m in a settlement which allows it to play MP3s of known artists through its site.

The decision was a small chink of light for the RIAA’s members. In 1998 it lost a significant case against Diamond Multimedia, which makes the Rio MP3 handheld player – effectively a Walkman for the MP3 generation. The RIAA sued Diamond and lost. “The RIAA suing us was the best piece of publicity we ever got,” says Nick Caddick, Rio’s senior European marketing manager.

The RIAA lost because, as happened before when the copyright industries sued over cassette recorders and VCRs, a judge ruled that there was a legitimate use for the products – making your own recordings of your own work. Because that legitimate use exists, the product cannot be banned, even though it can be used to abuse copyright, for example by making copies of records. It would be up to the record companies to police anyone making copies. They capitulated.

Similarly, Sony was sued by the film and TV companies when it introduced the Betamax VCR in the 1970s; the same argument was used and prevailed.

One of the arguments the company (formed last summer as Fanning was persuaded by his family to try to capitalise on his invention; in May it received $15m of venture capital funding) is putting forward in its defence is the same one: you could use it to give people access to non-copyrighted work. The fact that millions of people don’t use it that way really isn’t Napster’s fault, because it does not control what is downloaded. Nor does it store any music.

Not only does it have heavyweight arguments in its favour; Napster also has a heavyweight lawyer: David Boies, better known for his remarkable demolition job of Microsoft for breaking antitrust laws: he was the lead lawyer for the US Department of Justice. He won that case. Now he is again, in a sense, representing millions of consumers against powerful forces ranged against them.

Boies, who is in private practice, filed Napster’s defence against the RIAA case earlier this month. Besides various affidavits from members of the (independent) record industry declaring how pleased they are with Napster, he put up a number of independent planks on which the defence will rest. One is that the US’s 1992 Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) allows individuals to share a song with as many people as they want, as long as it is a noncommercial use. (The RIAA riposted last Friday that the AHRA specifically mentions “a household and its normal circle of friends, rather than the public.”)

But Napster is also hitting back, defending itself by alleging that the record industry is acting in an anti-trust manner: by blocking new means of distributing music (that is, online and directly between users) the industry is misusing its copyright privileges, Boies said; and under (an obscure) antitrust doctrine, that would mean the industry cannot sue Napster. (The RIAA was silent. Few people argue antitrust law with Boies.)

The RIAA’s principal riposte last Friday was that Napster “uses euphemisms like ‘sharing’ to avoid the real issue. The truth is, the making and distributing of unauthorised copies of copyrighted works by Napster users is not ‘sharing’, any more than stealing apples from your neighbour’s tree is ‘sharing’.”

The music industry has a basic problem with the whole Napster model. But in part that is because it has been so amazingly slow to realise what was happening in the digital landscape.

Besides the lawsuits, music business people like to deny that the public really likes MP3s. Last week, Nick Raymonde, the A&R (artists and repertoire) director at BMG Music, one of the biggest music companies, said in an interview that MP3 “is not a particularly good format technically” and “I don’t really see a lot of kids walking around with MP3 players yet”. As for Napster, he thinks it “a nuisance. I’d rather go and buy a CD. I don’t use it at all because, if it was a band I liked, I’d feel as if I was stealing from them.” One wonders who has it totally wrong: Mr Raymonde, or the millions of Napster users. There’s also the fact that the industry claims furiously that Napster is already depressing CD sales (one recent study claimed that CD sales within a few miles of US universities, where Napster is most commonly used, have fallen; the company riposted with studies showing rising sales.)

Belatedly, the record industry is moving towards an accommodation with the millions of people who are already online. But its problem is that while those moves might have made sense a few years ago, today they look retrograde. For instance, earlier this week EMI began offering downloads of work by Pink Floyd (including its seminal Dark Side of the Moon), Frank Sinatra and rap stars NWA, among 100 other albums and 200-plus singles.

Great; except that you’ll need a particular program to hear the music, and another program to make sure you’re obeying your download licence, and you won’t just be able to swap it around between computers (if you have more than one) and MP3 players. Basically it’ll be a pain.

But the real kicker is this: you’ll still have to pay for it. EMI intends to sell the digital music, via a new set of online retailers, for as much as the physical album.

An EMI spokeswoman said, “We want to learn what the users want, how they find the user experience.” Actually, it’s right down the digital road, at You get it for free and then you decide if you’d like the physical CD too.

The amazingly slow-moving and inept reaction of the industry led Carolyn Kantor, senior vice-president of, to say that “the music industry is a $40 billion industry locked in a $10 billion body.” By which she means that by resisting new forms of distribution that resemble Napster, it is cutting itself off from huge potential sources of revenue. “Progress is about embracing new forms of digital music distribution,” she told a London conference on the future of music in May. “Look at the film industry – it has found a way to take one product through a huge life cycle, where you pay to see a film, then you can see the film as pay-er-view on cable, then you can hire a video, and finally it’s on TV for free. But the music industry hasn’t created a model that let them make their money beyond the first release of the product.”

If Napster wins its case, the effect on the industry will be dramatic. MP3 sharing will become endemic. There is no technical way to prevent CD tracks from being turned into MP3s. Internet access is speeding up – so that in a few years, downloading a 5 Mb file (ie a four-minute MP3 song) will take less than a minute. That’s faster than it takes to actually transform the CD track into an MP3, meaning that using Napster will be preferable to buying the CD. The record industry’s only recourse would be to sue every Napster user individually. As McGee might observe, what a brilliant way to piss off your customers.

“In the short term, the industry badly needs some transparency about its prices,” admits one music executive, who asked to stay anonymous. “People are going to want to know how much the artist is getting if they buy a song, rather than download it. For the fans, that might work. But as long as all you see is the single price tag, and you don’t know how much goes to the record shop and how much to the record label and how much to the artist, you assume nothing goes to the musicians.” That attitude has been fostered by artists such as Courtney Love and Chuck D (of rap group Public Enemy) who have publicly declared that it is the record labels who are the pirates, not the fans or Napster. A growing number of bands are also using MP3s – and some even using Napster – to distribute some of their music, aiming to make money from live performances, merchandise and spin-offs. The music becomes something you just do. It’s a future-oriented way of making money that the record industry seems calamitously unready for.

Napster too is preparing itself for the future: last week it announced it had hired – “stolen” was the nose-tweaking word it preferred – an executive from one of the record companies that is suing it. Keith Bernstein started as operations director on Monday, joining from Seagram-Universal, the world’s biggest record label and a sworn enemy of Napster, which earlier this year hired an A&M legal affairs executive.

For yes, what if the RIAA wins the decision? “We’ll appeal,” said a Napster PR. “There will be a lengthy appeals process. You know, these things can just go on and on. We’re going to be around for years.” The question now is, will the record industry?


What I learnt and didn’t learn from reading The Celeb Diaries by Mark Frith, ex-editor of Heat

So the other day I finally finished reading The Celeb Diaries, which purports to be a sort-of week-by-week (except sometimes it’s day-by-day, and sometimes month-by-month) diary of Mark Frith’s time as editor of Heat magazine – from right back in the days when it was struggling to sell 70,000 copies per week, through to its triumphant days when in one glorious week it managed more than 700,000.

So here’s what I learnt:

  1. Posh Spice gave him an interview that effectively saved the magazine on its relaunch because it was exclusive, and newspapers picked it up.
  2. paparazzi send you lots of photos all the time and you have to choose between them. Some of them aren’t very nice really.
  3. Simon Cowell smokes Kool cigarettes.
  4. PR people sometimes are helpful in getting stories, but sometimes they block you, which can be annoying.
  5. Portakabin wrote a legal letter to Heat pointing out that the word “Portakabin” should be capitalised and only applied to its products. Other similar-functioning things should be called “portable toilets”. At Heat they found this letter amusing.
  6. Some celebs are very talkative. Others aren’t. Film stars are very untalkative and try to control publicity about themselves.
  7. Heat goes to press on Friday night and is printed on Saturdays, which can be a bother when Big Brother is on because people get evicted on Friday night.
  8. Big Brother was – is? – very popular with Heat’s readers.
  9. Sometimes celebrities tell bare-faced lies to you in interviews.
  10. He doesn’t drink, except when he has real problems or wins a really big prize.

Things I didn’t learn from Frith’s book:

  1. what effect the rise of the internet has had on celebrity magazines. By the end (finally, in spring 2008, after editing since 2000) he’s quietly mentioning that circulation has fallen from its peak. But although he does mention too that Heat set up a website (, apparently) and that it would post stories there, there’s no indication of how important the growth of celeb-spotting websites is to Heat. Has it taken circulation away? Become an important source of stories? What? Nary a mention.
  2. what the real commercial pressures were on him. While everything was going up, you’d expect that he could do no wrong. He does mention that Heat was constantly chasing after OK! – the Richard Desmond-owned magazine which kept doing celeb buyups (such as Ashley and Cheryl Cole’s wedding). How is it that OK! had so much more heft with the celebs?
  3. what he really, honestly thought of the whole celebrity culture thing. He mentions a couple of times that he would think of the celebs he featured as like playthings – it brings to mind a quote from Shakespeare about gods and wanton children – but the suggestion is that at the end (around new year of 2008) he suddenly got sick of it all, as Amy Whitehouse and Briney Spears imploded. (The two of them, and the paparazzi pictures, seem – from the book’s narrative – to have driven him to early retirement.)
  4. any idea of what he thinks of the people he had to deal with. Is Simon Cowell a wicked manipulator, who thought Gareth Gates would be the winner of Pop Idol (Will Young won, you’ll recall), or just someone who likes a fag and lunch from time to time?
  5. how he really viewed the difference between national newspapers – especially the tabloids – and what he was doing. Celeb exposes in the tabs are fodder to follow up; but there’s hardly ever a clear idea of whether he viewed Heat as a vehicle for finding stuff out before others, even though he had ex-journos from the Sun and the News of the World working there.
  6. why he didn’t elevate Heat’s complaint that some models were dangerously (for their health, for mimicking readers’ health) thin from a repeated trope into a full-blown campaign. Did he propose it and get knocked back at the executive level? Did the idea simply never occur (even though magazines all over the place try campaigns of one sort of another)? Did he shy away from the political necessity involved?
  7. whether he liked (or thought of) the idea of including readers’ mobile-phone-snapped photos of celebs out and about.
  8. what his special skills are. He must have some – you don’t take a magazine from the ground floor to the penthouse and keep it there without being especially brilliant at something. I guessed that it might be keeping on the right side of people (PR people, celebs, staff, managers) and always being engaging and listening to them. (Yes, yes, I’d love to have that trait too.) But I’m only guessing – there’s no way of knowing what he really brought to the table.

Actually the list – both lists – could go on and on. It’s a breathless stream; I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone could be so puppy-doggishly enthusiastic and unworried as Frith. As I read further and further in, and noted how he seemed to avoid those difficult judgements – about Cowell, for example, who surely deserves some commentary on how he used or dropped winners of Pop Idol and, subsequently, X Factor (followed by some reflection on Frith’s part about how he was effectively doing the same as Cowell to the graduates of the Big Brother house) – a suspicion began to grow:

He’s not judging them – in fact he’s holding back all but the foolish detail – because he doesn’t want to get into anyone’s bad books. These are people who he might need to give him a job in the future.

After all, he was only 38 when he left Heat (to go where? Where has he turned up since? Answers in the comments please). There’s a lot more to do. Hell, I wouldn’t write a memoir telling all if I were in his position. But I might think, as I wrote, of how the landscape was changing, and perhaps even inject some of that into the book. (Update: he’s been appointed editor of Time Out – thanks Louise in the comments – as of Friday 24 July 2009 – just the time I was finishing off reading his book. Which reinforces all those suspicions, then.)

I find it hard to believe too that he really kept a contemporaneous diary of life on Heat. You have to be a severely organised person to do that; Piers Morgan’s alleged “diary” The Insider was demonstrably written well after the fact. (Morgan’s claim to have described Cherie Blair and her new-age guru as members of the “Axis of Evil” at a No.10 dinner before the phrase came into use is telling. Durr.) I think that Frith left the job and then had to slog back through the issues, and recall what things had happened when. If he did keep a diary, well, I’m impressed, amazed and even more surprised that it doesn’t have any sort of reflection. Most people are reflective in their diary. Also, most people when writing a diary don’t shift about between tenses within a sentence or paragraph in the way that Frith frequently does. Which to me is another clue that it’s a post-op job.

The one place where you really need Frith to have a bit of insight is in the days after the foolish and infamous “stickers” issue – the one which had giveaway stickers such as “I’m not on drugs, I’m bipolar” (an oblique – to me – reference to Kerry Katona, who denied repeatedly she was taking drugs while some, um, journalists on a tabloid got her bang to rights) and, calamitously, “Harvey wants to eat me” – referring to Jordan’s multiply disabled child.

Wow. The effects of that issue – which Frith, formerly of Smash Hits (and who brought pretty much that sensibility to Heat: have fun, take nobody seriously; except life isn’t like that) thought would just be a laugh – were nuclear. Suddenly the radio, TV and newspapers wanted to talk to him. The phone would ring. Reporters came to Emap to ask him questions. But he could get other people to answer the phone. He could get security to turn away the reporters. Even so, the pressure on him for a week or more was immense.

But in that time, he wasn’t pursued by paparazzi; he wasn’t doorstepped. Let’s crank it up: he didn’t have semi-professional photographers whose rent payments depend on selling a photo to magazines and websites around the world walking three steps in front of him taking pictures constantly and shouting his name – and swearwords – to try to get a photo of him. He didn’t have notes shoved through his letterbox. His relatives weren’t bothered. His partner didn’t get calls. Snatched shots of him walking to and from work weren’t posted with big circles pointing to his clothing mistakes.

In short, he never really found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of what he – well, created is the wrong word, but of the flames that Heat helped to fan. And so he never sits down and thinks “what the hell have I done to these people, if this is what it’s like for me?”

Instead it’s left to Amy and Britney, whose travails (and constant stream of papped photos showing Frith the underside of the world; he swears, for example, that he won’t feature anything about Kate Moss and Pete Doherty because he thinks they’re scuzzy) finally show him that it’s not fun any more. For him, that is. Obviously, for them the fun of ordinary living went out of it a long time back.

It’s a pity, because Frith could have given such a marvellous insider view: how you really turn a failing magazine around – including the extent to which better advertising and marketing play a part, and how much editorial budget makes a difference (for those celebrity buyups) – and then how you keep a small but dedicated staff going even while they’re constantly No.2.

But somehow the emptiness of the book is summed up, for me, by the jacket quote provided by Cowell. It’s the only such quote on the book – surprising, if Frith knew so many people and won so many favours; you’d think they’d be happy to be quoted. But no, Cowell’s sits alone.

And it is this: “Nobody knows celebrities like Mark Frith.”

Think about it for a moment. Why didn’t he say “Nobody knows celebrities as well as Mark Frith”? It doesn’t quite mean the same, what he said. There’s a subtle implication – if it’s indeed direct from Cowell – of “there are no celebrities who are like Mark Frith”. Or, equally, “Mark Frith knows celebrities, but not as anyone else does.” Which might include him, Cowell, who knows a few.

The more you untangle, the more tangled it gets. The more you look, the less there is. It’s entirely apposite for the book. You go looking for something but you find there’s nothing when you arrive. There’s no there, there.

A bit like modern celebrity, in fact.

At Centre Court: seeing Federer, and what Murray got wrong against Roddick

(No, that isn’t Judy Murray in the seat in front.)
On Friday I was at Wimbledon, at the centre court, to see the men’s semifinals. Thank you, Electronic Arts, which invited me and a few other journalists (from the Sun, Sky, Comic Relief and a few others) along for a chat and also, of course, to see the two matches: Roger Federer v Tommy Haas, and Andy Murray v Andy Roddick.

It’s been a long time since I was at Wimbledon. I attended every single day between 1985 to 1992 inclusive, and that included the Monday final of the doubles in 1992 when McEnroe won with Michael Stich. (Goes away to check. Yup. Correct. Memory doesn’t fail there.) I’d also attended the second week of every French Open in that period. In 1991 I went and reported on every Grand Slam event – Australian, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open. The 1991 US event was particularly notable for Jimmy Connors’s amazing run to the semifinals, where his strange flat shots befuddled player after player used to topspin madness. “Does Connors have the perfect game to play guys like you?” I asked Paul Haarhuis, whom Connors had beaten. The slightly testy reply: “If he did, everyone would play like that, wouldn’t they?”

But by then I’d got kind of bored with the game: it didn’t seem to have the zing and excitement I’d liked in the early years. So I just gave it up, pretty much cold turkey, and didn’t go back. But that was after six years of seeing every Wimbledon final from the press seats, which are slightly above and behind the Royal Box. A great place to be: saw Pat Cash climb up the roof to celebrate his 1987 win, for example.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago. I still wasn’t interested in tennis, which seemed to me to reach a nadir beneath words with Pete Sampras’s ascent: he turned it into a serve, volley, go home game. And he had the personality of a plank.

Then I read a piece by Martina Navratilova about some guy called Roger Federer. Specifically, this:

I was lucky enough to play mixed doubles with him in Hong Kong at an exhibition in January this year. When they asked me if I wanted to play doubles with Roger, I asked, “great, how much do I have to pay you?”. It was a real treat because he was simply a joy to be on the court with. Then he asked me to practise with him and I got to hit for 45 minutes just one on one, which was phenomenal because I really got to feel how he hits the ball.

When Martina says things like that, everyone should listen. If she wants to be on the court with someone, that’s someone worth paying a lot of attention to. When I was covering the circuit she and Steffi Graf were the only two women whose press conferences were consistently interesting, because they were. So – why the fuss about Federer, Martina?

When he hits his forehand he can hook it so that he can go cross-court or down the line, tailing away from you because of all the topspin. He can hit a forehand cross-court so that it jumps at your body, which is effective on any surface but particularly on grass because it’s almost as though he’s inducing a bad bounce because he makes the ball jump differently and that’s what his kick-serve does as well.

He’s got spin on everything, he’s got a heavy slice that stays low, he can float the ball so that it stays low and just dies on the court so you have to create all the pace, or he can knife it so that it skids through. On his groundstrokes he can hit it harder or can hit a cross-court ball that looks like it’s going to be no problem until it suddenly takes off in the other direction after it bounces.

Well, that was good enough for me. So I started watching again. And indeed, Federer is the magic that she said.

But until Friday I hadn’t seen that magic live, and the difference between live and on TV is huge, let me tell you.

Centre Court, of course, is its own special place: far more intimate than you realise from the TV. And indeed, when Federer plays, the magic is there. I was sitting at a place diagonally off one corner, quite high up (so you can confirm the line calls easily), which means it’s hard to see whether the court is open for a pass (that you can see far better when you’re directly behind the court).

With Federer playing Tommy Haas (who always sounds to me like he should be the lead singer of a German heavy metal band), the principal difference between them was the noise when Federer really smacked his forehand. It was a whipcrack, and zinged across the court. Haas gave a good account of himself – as with most pro matches, the difference was only in a few points here and there.

But it’s what the TV doesn’t show you that’s interesting. Such as how between points, if he’s receiving serve, Federer will get any ball down his end from the ballgirl/boy and slice it up the court, lazily floating along with the combined langour and intention of a cruise missile.

Then there’s the way Federer looks slightly grumpily at the court where he was when he lost a point, as though it’s somehow the court’s fault he mishit that forehand. Well, it might have been. But it’s more like a habit.

And boy, do the players have habits. I’d forgotten how they love to do the same things over and over again. Wimbledon could be retitled The Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Challenge. Towel between points: Andy Murray is the champion here. He was wiping his face with the towel even though he had two sweatbands on his wrists. (Pity the ballboys and girls who had to run out to him between every point with the towel outstretched. In their future lives, they’ll make great parents for needy children.)

Which brings us to Murray against Roddick. The expectation was that Murray could win this, since he had a 6-2 record against Roddick, and had previously beaten him handily in three sets at Wimbledon a year or two back.

(Let me just point out to those who might wonder if I know anything about this game these two posts from this blog:

First, in Sept 2007:

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.

Second, July 2005:

Murray is going to be top 50 within a year, top 10 – likely five – the next one. Talent will out. He made Johansson look quite ordinary for a while at Queen’s.

But Roddick, who has lost a stone recently (so I’m told), wasn’t interested in the past. He came out slamming his serve down.

It’s when you’re up against a big server that your mental strength is really tested, because you have to keep waiting for the little chance to pop up that will let you win the point, break point, game, set.

Roddick was thudding the ball in. But here’s the contrast between Federer and Murray. Haas was bombing his serve too: 126mph or so. OK, so Roddick had about another 10mph on that. But Federer was returning the serve on the baseline. Murray was about three yards back from the baseline.

What you love, if you’re a big server, is a lot of space to aim into. It gives you a feeling of freedom: you can relax. You know where the other person’s going to be, so you can pick your spot and aim for it.

That was Murray’s first big mistake. He didn’t vary where he stood. Even if he had sometimes stood on the baseline – even if it was going to be hopeless – that would have made Roddick think a little bit. If he had stood further back sometimes, so he’d have more of a chance to run at the ball, that would have made a difference. As it was, he remained in the same two places – one for first serve, one for second serve – through the match, and that didn’t help him. It didn’t put any doubt in Roddick’s mind. By contrast, in 1991 I saw McEnroe beat Becker at the Australian Open by basically standing on or even inside the baseline to return serve – bang it back and rush the net. An amazing strategy, and it worked.

Murray’s second big mistake: he wasn’t forcing the rallies. Once the points had gone beyond serve-return, Roddick was typically standing about a yard behind the baseline, driving the ball, being aggressive so that he could dictate the points. Murray, by contrast, was a couple of yards behind the baseline – and it seemed to me that quite a few of the attempted passes that landed in the net failed because he hit them just that bit further back: the ball had begun dropping. Sure, that ignores all the great shots he hit, but tennis at this level is a matter of inches (even less: the Hawkeye call in the fourth-set tiebreaker that would have given Murray a mini-break-back was perhaps half a centimetre out), and you can’t afford to give free shots.

So both those mistakes are essentially the same thing: not

The umpire’s warning in the fourth set for “audible obscenity” was daft – Murray had tried a crosscourt backhand pass, missed it wide, and yelled “No, go for the pass!” (He was down my end, my side, facing away from the umpire.) It was ridiculous; Murray was right to complain, but he held it down well. McEnroe of course would have had the referee on the court in an eyeblink. Times past.

Things you don’t see on TV: when Murray is serving, he takes three balls, and always knocks the extra back to the ballboy/girl with his racket between his legs. Always. (Why do pros take three balls? Because they want the two least fluffy ones. They pick the two least fluffy of the three.)

And then we have Murray’s third mistake, which isn’t so much of a mistake as a failing: his second serve, specifically on the ad (15-0) side. Too much of the time it was too slow, and Roddick could wait for it – expecting it on the backhand, where it would come again and again – and whack it down. From the moment that the first serve plonked into the net (because Murray wasn’t tossing the ball quite high enough) Roddick controlled the point. Too infrequently did Murray mix it up with second serves down the centre, or into the body. (Can’t find a page with that sort of analysis anywhere that would show where the serves landed and so on. Let me know in the comments if it exists.)

Oh yeah, and let’s go back to all the mindless rubbish that was written ahead of the game about Roddick’s tactics:

They last clashed in Doha in January, when Murray easily came out on top 6-4 6-2.

The memory of that defeat led [Larry] Stefanki [Roddick’s coach, and a long time ago John McEnroe’s coach) to suggest on Wednesday that Roddick could try less aggressive tactics this time in a bid to upset the Scot’s rhythm.

Complete rubbish, and utter mind games intended to lead Murray and his team astray: Murray may say he doesn’t read the papers, but it’s a bet that someone there does and that they might make a mention to him in some roundabout way. At least Jeff Tarango – a former player – does himself say that’s rubbish advice, but there’s plenty of papers that just repeated it. Perhaps the nationals need to hire a few people who’ve actually played the game to analyse this stuff.

Anyway, all of this leads us to the final, where we get Mr Five Times Already against Mr Been There Twice But No Titles Yet. It’s hard to see any simple way to pick anyone but Federer here. They’ve played many times, and Federer has the winning habit. The last time Roddick won was in March 08, when I think Federer may have been still recovering from glandular fever.

I think Federer will not make the mistakes that Murray did: he will try to break up Roddick’s rhythm, he won’t give him a consistent place to serve at, and his ground game is awesome to behold.

Anyhow, I’ll be tweeting it at @pokpokclap. Follow me if you’d like.

Tim Carron Brown sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ jail for 312,000pd VAT fraud (updated) re Omedian, Companytv, Second Sight Ltd, Anstruther Management

Tim Carron Brown – who pretty much deserves his own category here, doesn’t he? – was sentenced at Bournemouth Crown Court on the afternoon of Friday 26 June 2009.
(Image: HMRC)

He was sentenced to two and a half years, serving half of this time in prison, and disqualified from being a company director for eight years.

He was sentenced on the charge of cheating the Public Revenue, namely HM Customs and Excise, later HM Revenue & Customs, by dishonestly accounting for Value Added Tax (VAT) and/or monies charged as VAT in relation to four limited companies. An offence of cheating, contrary to common law.

The four companies, through which the fraud was committed by Carron Brown as a Director, are: Companytv Limited; Second Sight Limited; Anstruther Management Limited; Omedian Limited.

All of these VAT registered companies were run from a rented property in Waddock, Dorchester, and previously from rented property in Ickham, Kent. He was arrested in August 2006.

(Separately I’ve been told that there’s an application for bankruptcy proceedings against him, but haven’t confirmed that.) He was also subject to Bankruptcy Proceedings instigated by Lombard North Central (apparently a financial/leasing/loans organisation). He was made bankrupt at Weymouth County Court on 1 June 2009.

Relating to that, I’ve received a press release from HM REvenue and Customs:

Dorset VAT fraudster jailed

A Dorset based fraudster who illegally reclaimed £312,000 in VAT (Value Added Tax) was jailed for two and a half years at Bournemouth Crown Court today.

Following detailed investigations by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) officers, Timothy Colin Carron Brown (aged 52) pleaded guilty on 22 May 2009 to an offence of cheating the public revenue.

Peter Avery, HMRC Assistant Director Criminal Investigation said: “This sort of scam requires detailed planning on the part of the criminal and immense dedication from HMRC officers to unravel. This calculated attack on the VAT system not only robbed the exchequer, and therefore honest UK taxpayers, of public funds, but is also unfair to those respectable businesses that diligently abide by the rules.

“Tackling VAT fraud is a priority for us and we will not hesitate to pursue those who commit this type of offence. Anyone who has information about suspected tax fraud can call our 24-hour Customs’ hotline on 0800 59 5000 or email”

Upon sentencing His Honour Judge John Harrow said: “I take the view that you invested a substantial amount of time and energy into the business ventures, and the companies were set up for a legitimate purpose. However you exploited the VAT system by fraudulently claiming VAT repayments of £312,000. This was taxpayers’ money and despite what was said (by defence counsel) it (the fraud) did have a degree of sophistication.”

Judge Harrow then commended the main investigating officer: “For the degree of hard work and investigation skills in this case.”

The VAT fraud involved Carron Brown submitting VAT repayment claims in relation to four VAT registered limited companies. The claims were not legitimate and he was not entitled to the repayments.

Carron Brown used a number of methods to perpetrate the fraud. These included reusing invoices for which he had already reclaimed VAT; submitting false invoices and records, and trading between his own companies to reclaim tax on purchases but not accounting for the corresponding sale.

The fraud was committed between 2001 and 2005. ‘Nil’ returns were rendered once officers began to probe into the companies. Carron Brown used the proceeds of this crime to fund a seemingly affluent lifestyle. HMRC and its prosecutors will pursue confiscation proceedings. The case was successfully prepared for prosecution by the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office (RCPO).

Here’s the explanation of the offence from HMRC: “VAT registered businesses must charge VAT on the selling price of any goods and services that are liable to VAT. This is known as ‘output tax’ and must be paid to HMRC.

“VAT registered businesses can reclaim VAT paid on their business purchases. This is known as ‘input tax’.

“In simple terms the amount of VAT that can be reclaimed as a ‘VAT repayment’ is the difference between the VATable sales (output) and VATable purchases (input).”

Update: the Dorset Echo has a piece about it:

It was proved that Brown submitted illegitimate VAT repayment claims for four VAT-registered limited companies for which he was not entitled to repayments.

Investigators found Brown used a number of methods to perpetrate the fraud, including reusing invoices for which he had already reclaimed VAT.

His other scams included submitting false invoices and records and trading between his own companies to reclaim tax on purchases without accounting for the corresponding sale.

David v Goliath in the newsroom, and why we need new wrappers for journalism

Wow, there’s been a lot of heat – and pretty much zero light – generated in the last few days, mainly because of a couple of stories from the New York Times, and then because of the endless argument (which shouldn’t be an argument) about “the future of journalism”. Oh, man, this stuff gets boring fast.

And more to the point, if everyone is worrying about what’s going to happen to newspapers, why is it that it’s the journalists who are doing all the debating and experimenting (I’m counting blogs and other web-only publications, such as TechCrunch and Engadget and the whole Nick Denton stable among the “journalists” thing, because like it or not they’re helping shape the landscape)?

Why is it us, the people who used to just have to worry about the grey stuff that went between the adverts, and not the publishers, who were the ones who put all the paying stuff around it? Because don’t fool yourself: the grey stuff, while it might excite your grey stuff, is expensive to make and isn’t a profit centre. It’s all the things around it that helped generate profit: the physical print, the adverts of various sorts, all sorts of other peripheral things (“special offers”, conferences organised by the newspaper, and so on).

A couple of tweets crystallised this for me. Paul Bradshaw pointed to Robert Picard who pointed out that journalism is not a business model, just a process.

Ian Betteridge then followed up: publishing is the business.

There you have the whole conundrum in a nutshell. Put it another way. Putting books into parcels is a process. Getting orders from people and then shipping those parcels to them at profit – that’s a business. Amazon is the business. Packing books is the process. It might be uncomfortable, fellow journalists, to think of what you do as book-packing, but look at it another way: people order those books because they want them, and are glad to get them.

To repeat: journalism is the process and publishing is the wrapper that you put around journalism in order to make it profitable and sustainable. Journalism will continue, just as putting books into parcels will continue, even if Amazon disappears; you’ll just do it yourself, buying it at a local store and sending it to Granny. Might be more expensive than Amazon, but that’s just how it is.

With that in mind, one has to consider what’s happening to news organisations (“newspapers” is starting to sound a bit 20th-century to my ears). The internet has come along and caught publishers completely off-balance. And there’s a new breed of publishers, who have started on the internet, and are internet natives, and they simply don’t play by the same rules either of print publishing or of print journalism. The former upsets print publishers, and the latter upsets print-origin journalists (in which I’ll include myself, at least until I had an epiphany I’ll explain below).

First, the NYT pieces that caused the row. The first, When the thrill of blogging is gone (sorry, I’m not going to do the daft headline capitalisation), takes as its jumping-off point that fact determined by Technorati that 95% of blogs are abandoned within a pretty short time, and then does the hard work of finding people who used to blog, and now don’t. Fair enough. Seems pretty straightforward to me: find a cultural trend, see if it’s backed up, write about it. Reflect the readership (because there must be plenty of NYTimes readers who’ve started a blog) back to themselves.

This kicked off something of a firestorm on Twitter, or at least those I follow on Twitter, where the NYT was accused of “dumping” on blogs. Er, no, people. It was corralling facts and relaying them. It wasn’t saying “all blogs are dead”. It was saying “lots of blogs die – howcome?”

The second piece, which had more far-reaching effects, looked at the cultural thinking behind a couple of really big news blogs, including TechCrunch. Ping! Get the Tech scuttlebutt – it might even be true! was, again, looking at something that really happens: tech blogs scrapping amongst themselves for page views, and putting up stuff that they suspected themselves wasn’t true, but what the hell, it might be, so let’s get it out there. Hence TechCrunch writing that Apple was looking to buy Twitter – even though Michael Arrington is quoted in the piece saying that he didn’t think it was true when he posted it. A telling quote from him is:

“Getting it right is expensive,” he says. “Getting it first is cheap.”

Oh, my. Twitter firestorm supreme. I found myself pitching into a three-, four-, five, six-way involving Jeff Jarvis, Matthew Ingram, Tim O’Brien (NYT Sunday business editor), Dave Winer… did I miss anyone out? The “print” journalists’ thinking: publishing stuff you know isn’t true just ain’t the way to do it. The response (from Jarvis, certainly): that’s how it is in some places. Jarvis makes this point more eloquently in a post on his own blog. It’s quite an interesting test of your own position whether you think journalism needs to be about “standards” or “process”. I found it offends me in some visceral fashion to think of publishing stuff that I really believe isn’t correct. That’s just not how I think of it being done.

But as I prepared to launch another tweet in the effort to breach the Jarvis defences, I found myself reflecting on something Clive James used to say in his TV reviews. “If I find I share an opinion with [some repugnant person], I reexamine it at once,” he said. Mine is the obverse: if I find I’m disagreeing with Jarvis, it might be time to step back and start questioning my own thinking, because there’s a high likelihood it’s faulty. Which led to my epiphany.

Here’s how it looks to me, viewed through yet another prism. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a really interesting piece in the New Yorker about how Davids – the little armies or organisations – can compete and defeat the Goliaths. He points to the example of a girls’ basketball team which beat many far more experience and able teams by using a tactic (the “full court press”) that’s unusual for that level; Lawrence of Arabia, who defeated the Turkish Army by using desert (essentially, guerilla), not military, tactics; and he points out that actually, David can have a pretty good shot at things by not playing according to Goliath’s rules. Because Goliath got where he did using his tactics. Of course he’s the best at them.

OK: now see the publishers of Gizmodo, Engadget, Gawker, TechCrunch et al as the Davids, fighting the Goliaths of the New York Times and, of course, the Guardian and all the other papers. Should they fight on the same terms? If they want to get beaten, sure. They’ll never be able to find the experienced journalists, the experienced sales people, the special something that the papers have been able to build up over decades. The papers have the news process down pat. They can get those stories into paper-sized parcels and out to people so effectively there’s no room left.

So the blogs have to create their own battlefield, their own rules, and fight there. (I’ll use the metaphor of military action because plenty is at stake in this. Get it wrong, and you get stuff such as the NYT management imposing 23% pay cuts on Boston Globe staff – to which one can only say “yeow”. Because

The [New York Times] company posted a net loss of $57.8 million for 2008, and $74.5 million in the first quarter of this year. The Globe has been the biggest drain by far, with operating losses of $50 million last year and a projected $85 million this year, not counting the union concessions, according to management.


OK. So blogs have to create their own rules. Such as what? Such as doing stuff that the papers won’t. Post rumours, and declare them as such; copy and rewrite like mad, so that how fast you can get the post up is more important than whether you checked it; let the readers in effect write the news; publish galleries of Photoshopped “is this the next iPhone?” galleries.

All the while, the Goliaths of the news industry stand by, shaking their heads. Hell, they’re doing it wrong! That’s not how you put stuff into a news parcel! It’s like this… hey, doesn’t anyone want it? Funny, the orders have dried up. And the Davids count the money they’re getting from adverts supplied against millions of page views. (They don’t have as many journalists as in a traditional news room, you say? Yeah. Life’s like that sometimes.)

What the established news organisations in the US really need to have right now is some people on their commercial side who really live on the internet, in the way that so many technology journalists have been for years and years. I wonder to what extent they do; all the talk about paywalls has that slight tinge to me of people who don’t live there, and look at all those millions of page views and think “surely we can persuade a few of them to pay”. I think actually that to talk about paywalls on web-only generalist content is to look in the wrong place. There are plenty of ways to make money on the internet – publishers like Denton and Arrington show us that. (Well, we can infer that they do from the fact that they haven’t vanished. If someone wants to send me their financials, or point me to them, I’d be happy to publish them.)

There is one note of relief: unlike war, it’s not absolute. There’s plenty of room for everyone to thrive in this: the Davids and the Goliaths can live alongside each other. But the latter have to adapt so that they can get it right, and trade on the things that have got them where they are – which in effect means their brand reputation – and capitalise on it. Else those Boston Globe cuts aren’t going to be the last.

In the meantime, it seems that the journalists are having to do not only the packing of the news parcels, but also try to build the business around them. Thus you get efforts such as “how to save newspapers in 140 characters“. Many are praiseworthy, but aren’t the humble (or not) scribes plenty busy just trying to pack the parcels? Rather like the stockbroker’s friend who asked “Where are the customers’ yachts?”, I’m tempted to ask “where are the publishers blogging and tweeting about the next business models?”

Because remember: journalism is the process. (Talking about the “future of journalism” is a bit daft. The future of parcel-wrapping? Yeah, probably more automated.) Publishing is the wrapper that makes journalism profitable. Denton and Arrington have created wrappers that work for internet content. Has everyone else?

On the future of journalism, seen through the lens of the Technology supplement

It can be quite depressing to be part of a story that’s being about a subject you know about, where people who are ostensibly your peers – that is, equipped with the same skills as you, with access to the same tools as you – are reporting on it. Because it shows how rubbish people can be at simply reading a piece of text and regurgitating it.

If the future belongs to amateurs, one has to really worry. Though the professionals aren’t always doing such a bang-up job.

Case in point: PaidContent. PaidContent UK wrote a story which absolutely correctly said that Guardian management is considering whether to keep the printed Technology section going. Prices of raw paper have risen; job ads, which was always meant to be the raison d’etre of “G3” specialist sections (Guardian 3: there’s G1 – the main paper – and G2, the “features” bit), have moved online, especially for technology jobs.

Nevertheless, the Technology supplement does get job ads, and it does occasionally get display ads. So the idea of closing it isn’t a fait accompli.

Robert Andrews got wind of the review that’s going on, which is part of a far larger look at costs, and wrote about it. (I could argue about the link text – “may” would have been good – but anyway.)

Robert did try to contact me before writing; I was offline (though I had my mobile…). He did speak to the Guardian’s press office. Apart from being finicky – Online started a long time ago and Vic Keegan wasn’t the launch editor – it’s a good piece of journalism: find something out, speak to those who are in a position to speak about it.

(I’d take issue actually with this:

The move is thought to be due to worsening tech ad spend but also the fact that many readers, naturally, are online natives with a voracious appetite for tech news throughout the week… one school of thought has it that a weekly dead-tree edition seems like anachronism.

Actually, it’s very evident that the people who read the print section aren’t exactly the same ones who read the Technology content online. They get something extra. And it’s important for other reasons: it’s easier for a civil servant to show a piece of paper to a minister; easier to wave in their face than a website.)

(Note also that Azeem Ashar adds some detail in the comments.)

Next up: Press Gazette. Following up the PaidContent story, they actually did contact me – we spoke by mobile. Look, there are my quotes in the story. Accurate. Journalistic. Good. Can’t argue with the headline or intro. Though I would say that there aren’t any staffing implications. We’re more than busy anyway, and we could be just as busy even without the print section – we’d be writing stuff for the main paper, the features section, and so on. (And again, interesting comments.)

And now we begin the slide downhill – and the depressing thing is that it’s the lousy reporting that actually gets bounced around the blogo/twittersphere.

First, MediaWeek, which has a story that was originally headlined “Guardian to close Technology supplement”. And then an intro: “The Guardian is considering dropping its Thursday Technology supplement, according to Paidcontent.”

Exactly how crap is that? Intro and headline completely disagree. And it’s a complete ripoff of PaidContent’s er, content. I emailed to complain, and the headline was changed. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been. (MW says it came from Brand Republic. Thanks a lot, BR.)

And finally we come to the World Editors’ Forum, which wrote:
Headline: The Guardian reconsiders Technology supplement
Intro: The Guardian is due to drop its Thursday Technology supplement, paidContent:UK reports.

I mean, come on. That’s just incompetent. I’m sorry, but it is. The headline is correct; the intro, wrong. That’s not what PaidContent said.

Some more:

It is also feasible that the printed edition just could not compete with its online counterpart, which is updated daily. Technology enthusiasts, moreover, are presumably more inclined to log on regularly than wait for the Thursday paper to land on the doorstep.

“Could not compete”? What rubbish is this? Have they bothered to find out who runs the online content (me) and who edits the physical section (me)? Apparently not. even though I’m all over the internet like a rash. Hell, my mobile phone number is on this site. I’m not a hermit.

Nick Passmore launched the Online supplement in May 1994. In 2005 it was rebranded Technology with the arrival of new editor Charles Arthur, and its science counterpart supplement Life was merged into the paper when the paper adopted a berliner format.

Nice – they’re read the comments on the PaidContent story. Except they didn’t research this blog. I didn’t arrive until November 2005, two months after the September relaunch in Berliner format.

So let’s see, that’s a slew of factual errors, a basic subbing error (headline doesn’t agree with intro), in a piece just four paragraphs long. (I haven’t bothered to fisk it all.)

The trouble is that this leads to people saying “Oh noes! The Guardian is dropping technology coverage!” NO IT BLOODY WELL ISN’T. Which I pointed out (and they then corrected.)

So the score: two lots of good reporting, where sources are checked (PaidContent, Press Gazette); two of crap reporting (MediaWeek/Brand Republic, WEF). Trouble is that the meme that gets passed around Twitter (for sure) is the idea that it’s going to close – no doubt, none of the subtlety in the original story.

Frankly, that’s a bit crap all round, and makes one consider the final score.
1) how well can proper journalism (PaidContent, UKPG) survive when you have copy/pasters all around? Copy/pasting is cheaper than finding stuff out. Quicker, apart from anything.
2) look how easily ideas get crunched into misconceptions in being translated into 140 characters, especially if they’re taken from headlines that are just plain wrong.
3) some people can’t read, parse and regurgitate a piece of text.
4) I wonder how many times have I written something that’s unwittingly incorrect because I haven’t been able to get at original sources? Not often, I hope. But this is the sort of experience that makes me even more determined not to accept lazy copy/paste stuff, and to check stuff with sources. Properly.

See you next Thursday in print.