Another reason to pay for your news

From the movie "His Girl Friday" (1940).

From the movie “His Girl Friday” (1940).

Richard Perez-Pena, a journeyman reporter for The New York Times national desk, has written an interesting explanation of the revival of the role of rewrite editors in news. Things have kind of come full circle. The rewrite method of preparing news for publication evolved to overcome a lack of tools. Today it is in use again to overcome an overabundance of tools and numerous sources of information, and to overcome the fact things keep changing and the digital platform needs to be constantly fed.

As recently as the early 1990s, reporters had a notepad and a pocketful of coins, and that was about it in terms of tools in the field. If there was urgency, you found a landline telephone — usually a pay phone, but sometimes you knocked on a stranger’s door to ask if you could use theirs — to call in your story or dictate your notes. Sometimes you dictated the first draft of a story to whoever was on the other end of the line, but usually what we dictated was a combination of useable newswriting and notes, because you were flipping through the scribbled-on pages of the notepad. (“Oh, here’s a quote for you to insert higher up in the story …”) The person in the newsroom then rewrote this stuff into a polished narrative.

When I had to dictate like this, I used to close my eyes and pretend I was in front of a typewriter. Writing that was generated with typewriters was not so easily polished on the fly; you let your consciousness stream onto the page and refined it later. Writing was a more linear process than it is today. So dictating over the phone was simply a matter of switching from the keyboard to your voice. The result was going to be kind of rough either way. In the field, sometimes you took a few minutes to hand-write a story and then read it over the phone. But more often it was a combination of reciting into the receiver actual paragraphs that could be published and facts or quotations. In any event, it was quick and dirty.

For those of you not in the business, Perez-Pena’s description of what happens at The New York Times is fairly typical of how newspapers handle breaking news today. Few of us have a dedicated rewrite desk waiting for stuff to happen, but when big news breaks and you have multiple reporters involved or developments in multiple places, one person pulls it together in the newsroom and posts iterations to the Web as events unfold. What Mr. Perez-Pena did not get into is that everything else gets refined, too, as the story develops. We add images, improve the headlines, add links, change the home page layout. At some point late in the day, you settle on a version of a story that will go to print. And then you might update the online version again that night or in the morning.

Throughout this process, we practice a discipline that distinguishes professional journalism from all the crap online: verification. When we want to include something in a story, the operative question is always, “How do we know that?” Good news reporting is very labor intensive, even in modest situations, and high technology has made that no less the case than in the days of pay phones. That’s why it’s so important for you to be willing to pay for news — even a news product you know is occasionally flawed. I know everyone complains about their local paper, but try to imagine it not there.

Dear Quora: Why so many unanswerable questions?

Quora logo.Am I an optimist or a pessimist? It depends. The optimist in me thinks I have a lot to say. The pessimist counters that no one wants to hear so much negativity. Hence, one blog post per year.

The optimist in me thinks the Internet has been an enormously good thing for human knowledge and expression. The pessimist notes that uploading humanity’s collective wisdom to the cloud has revealed what foggy, uncritical thinkers we are. For example, Quora.

The fact Quora exists makes my heart soar. How cool is it that anyone anywhere can throw a vexing question into the wind and have experts on that very topic answer it?

On the other hand, who thought it was a good idea to let the stupid and the lazy reveal how ignorant they are by enabling the dissemination of unanswerable questions?

To wit — or, more precisely, too nitwit: Continue reading

Thermometer calibration over time: Are the data correct?

A Jell-O thermometer.

A Jell-O thermometer. (Wikimedia Commons)

Whenever I read a story about temperature changes since the 19th century, I wonder about the source of those decades of data. Did the thermometers of 1900 have the fidelity of those of today? Were they calibrated the same? Because we’re talking about a 1-degree difference, sometimes less — and that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 percent in the range of possible temperature readings. Add to that changing placement of instruments over the years and increasing ambient heat from built environments. In the end, can we trust the data?

I am not a climate-change skeptic, but I do wonder if the data of the past is truly comparable to that of the present.

Another media titan sells the dirt underfoot

When South Lake Union is too expensive for the top TV station in town, that’s a sign — of the demise of local TV, which is the next medium to begin a rapid economic descent, after radio and newspapers.

TV stations used to be all about visibility and ostentation — the tower with Christmas lights, the unique building, the talent, the helicopter, the branding, the logo-laden vehicles, the live shot, the reporter or anchor sent to a faraway disaster for no good reason but to preen. (Remember the KIRO news jet?)

But now cable and the Internet are killing them, too. Viewership of local TV news is flat or down. Meanwhile, the population increases steadily.

As it was with newspapers, the first thing to go is the valuable real estate. In five or 10 years, we’ll probably have one station doing news and perhaps sharing that. KING and KOMO already are sharing a helicopter. KOMO’s former parent sold Fisher Plaza. KCPQ and KIRO will be next to sell their dirt in the former media gulch.

It’s the end of an era.

Did Malaysia Flight 370 hide behind another plane?

Source: via Keith Ledgerwood

Source: via Keith Ledgerwood

It’s weirdly plausible, according to Keith Ledgerwood, a pilot who’s worked out the details:

Remember the one challenge that is currently making everyone doubt that MH370 actually flew to Turkmenistan, Iran, China, or Kyrgyzstan?  That challenge is the thought that MH370 couldn’t make it through several key airspaces such as India or Afghanistan without being detected by the military.

It is my belief that MH370 likely flew in the shadow of SIA68 through India and Afghanistan airspace.  As MH370 was flying “dark” without transponder / ADS-B output, SIA68 would have had no knowledge that MH370 was anywhere around and as it entered Indian airspace, it would have shown up as one single blip on the radar with only the transponder information of SIA68 lighting up ATC and military radar screens.

If news can’t find me, I’m a dolt

Six years ago, a phrase emerged that grew popular as an explanation of the demise of the journalism business:

“If the news is that important, it will find me.”

Market researcher Jane Buckingham related that quote to The New York Times in 2008, attributing it to a college student who was participating in a focus group. Those of us who make a living by being curious and methodically documenting the world have been brow-beaten with that proud intellectual passivity ever since.

At the time, the growing cottage industry of legacy-journalism jeerleaders seized on “it will find me” as original haiku for the fate of institutionally disseminated news and the rise of social media. The problem is, “it will find me” wasn’t original. It wasn’t even surprising.

As a group, college students have been notoriously self-centered since the invention of college. Young people never embraced newspapers or watched TV news. (Those of us who did were weird.)

Even the famously activist baby-boomer generation didn’t actually leave the dormitory in significant numbers until important news arrived in the form of military draft cards. That was a good reason to leave the dorm and take up signs, to be sure, but it was hardly singular enlightenment on their part. The news found them — without an Internet, even — and they paid attention because their lives were in danger.

So “it will find me” is true, but it always has been. It says nothing about the technological change that endangers the business model of professional journalism. It says a lot about how little humans have changed. Most of us are as incurious as ever, especially when we are young.

The reason this sticks in my craw six years on is because “it will find me” persists as supposedly original wisdom unique to Millennials. The quote popped up in a tweet recently. I retweeted it, with an admittedly sarcastic and untrue introduction:

This of course prompted an earnest critique.

To which, prudently, I did not reply, tempted though I was. “Actually, Sean, you’re right, it will find them — just before they get shipped off to Vietnam” did not seem likely to enlighten. Nor did, “Try seeing the world through the eyes of people who aren’t assholes.”

I wish Sean and the rest of us in this business would recognize that technology has changed, and the commerce of information has changed, but people have not. Let’s not pretend that Millennials are somehow behind a sea change in journalism. They just happen to be there. The natural tendency of young people to be self-absorbed is better served by today’s tools, that’s true. But young people are not what’s new and wise, and they surely shouldn’t get a trophy for being incurious.

If you await news that’s important enough to find “me,” you’ll never encounter or understand anything outside yourself.