What if we’d had Twitter on 9/11?


If you're still able to hear from wherever you are, Amy, this is for you.

One of the more more formative events in my life — from the perspective of shaping my attitudes about politics, war and my industry (news) — was the series of terror attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, collectively known as 9/11.


Amy Toyen [via]
There is a whole cohort registering to vote this year who might vaguely remember their parents' reactions that day, another getting drivers licenses who were too young, and more becoming bar and bat mitzvot who were just being born.

It was 13 years ago, and it's very much etched in the brains of almost every adult today, but very soon that won't be the case.

I was walking my neighborhood at 4 a.m. one night last month – a night that ended with The Associated Press confirming the death of a sprint car driver after our normal closing hours. We found out minutes before The AP moved a story thanks to a Tweet from a local reporter.

We didn't have Twitter on 9/11. We didn't have Facebook. We didn't have YouTube. We had Google, but it was still nascent and not doing enough traffic to be archived multiple times daily as it is now — the Way Back Machine picked it up on Aug. 23, 2001 and didn't come back until Sept. 17 of that year.

Residential broadband was just coming into being. Cell phones were really just starting to become a thing everybody had, though most people were still hanging onto their home phones (many because they needed a home phone line to access the Internet).

Despite our seemingly limited ability to communicate (ha!), we still had a problem then knowing when to shut up. News went on for days about 9/11 to the exclusion of just about everything else. NPR, CNN, Fox, it didn't matter. The stock market was closed the rest of the week. Baseball was shut down. If anything else was going on in the world, it was invisible to U.S. media.

The early reports — yes, we did have 24-hour cable news and the Internet — were crazy. 10,000 were dead, another hijacked plane was heading for L.A. and one maybe toward Chicago. And then it was over, and we sheltered in place around our TVs for three days.

Despite the initial reports being highly speculative and wildly inaccurate, we did not yet have the dreaded Internet rumor mill — you know, the one that kills celebrities and retires basketball players.

Can you imagine what Twitter and Facebook would have looked like on 9/11 — especially considering that, even today, nobody with any first-hand knowledge (as in, having been there) would have had any cell phone service (much like that day)? It might have taken days to dig out some facts, instead of the hours it took us.

Let me ask, then: Do you use your social networks responsibly?

Related:
10 Septembers, 20 Septembers
Memorialize 9/11 by being more awesome






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Technology, and journalism as art

Ed. note, disclosures &c — I work for Advance Digital, whose network includes several newspaper-partnered websites I mention here. All opinions are mine and not endorsed by my employer [full list of associated properties]. Any information about the company and its affiliates given here has already been public knowledge.

Let's start this off by talking about tablets. You know, iPads and Kindle Fires and such. If the third type of lie (statistics) is to be believed, half of American adults own a tablet. And 37% of tablet owners read news daily, on their tablets.

Overall, that puts at about 20% the percentage of Americans who read news daily on their tablets.

The only thing about that number that should be surprising is that it's so low. Of course, take into account your casual news reader (that is, someone who gets the bulk of their news from TV or radio sources), and I'm sure the number of people getting news on their tablets is much higher.

Again, this came as a surprise to no one. Here's a group of Knight Ridder folks talking about a tablet newspaper with interactive graphics and embeddable video and audio. In 1994.


Knight Ridder was bought out by McClatchy in 2006. Here is a list of their media properties. They're not lightweights, and they saw this coming.

I wrote last month that news is not in trouble. I still believe that's true, despite Morley Safer sounding the alarm because the New Orleans Times-Picayune went down to delivering the paper three days a week. They're still great work online.

So is the Pennsylvania Media Group, which has done a fantastic job covering things that matter to the local audience like high crime rates in Harrisburg and the Farm Show (Syracuse folks can equate that to the State Fair). And all that work despite the fact that the Patriot-News went down to three print days a week the first of the year.

Let me say it again. Technology is not killing news. It's killing newsprint. Here, in case you didn't get that:

Technology is not killing news, it's killing newsprint.

The New York Times' recent multimedia piece is worth spending your entire Sunday morning exploring. It's amazing journalism, and it could never be done on newsprint. That's not to say the Times should stop printing, but when you have tools at your disposal, use them.

Fifty years ago, New York City's seven daily newspapers – that's right, seven – were in the midst of a 114-day strike. Vanity Fair has a great piece marking the anniversary. The central issue was technology, and the refusal to move to new technologies on the part of some at the papers killed four of those papers.

Destroyed newsprint.

Back to that New York Times piece for a moment. That's the sort of artistic long-form journalism you couldn't do in a newspaper. And during that strike, newspaper people went off and became artists. Tom Wolfe. Jimmy Breslin. Nora Ephron. Gay Talese. Pate Hamill. And they, in turn, helped launch journalism as an art form, and 50 years later, someone like Fontezia Walker can take a creative writing class and make the rational leap to journalism as a career from there.

And so long as the stats on Internet usage are going to continue to grow, let's use the communications channels we have.

Lessons from Sandy Hook Elementary: When to shut up, when to not

On Friday, Dec. 14, a young man killed his mother, then walked into an elementary school, killed 20 children (all six and seven years old) and six more adults, then killed himself.

I found out about this a few hours after it happened, while I was setting up to play racquetball. When I came home later in the afternoon, I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

One of the things I found out that time outside of news has taught me is that I can feel, intensely, even.

I was a general assignment reporter on 9/11. It happened on a Tuesday, and our weekly papers came out on Monday and Tuesday, so we wouldn't be going to press again for another few days. I didn't really have anything to write about, even though it was obviously big news, and a life-marking event for my generation.

But I was mostly numb to emotion for a few days. When I found out a friend had died, I took a couple hours off of work and played music, music that she'd enjoyed, songs she'd sung with me dozens of times. Generally, though I just felt like I should be informing someone of something.

In Daniel Schorr's autobiography, he says one of the things that made him a great journalist was that he felt emotionally removed from everything that happened, and able to report on it objectively.

I felt the same way about my ability to be emotionally removed. But I just couldn't be that afternoon. And let's be honest, some people want journalists to show they're human sometimes.

It was an interesting night, not only because we had different information coming from different sources throughout the night, but also because we have 12 different sites that we work with (when I say "we," I mean our team – I work from home, but there are always three or four others working from their homes and we're in constant contact), sites in different locations with different things important to them. We have them in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana; in Central Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley; in New Jersey and on Staten Island; all across Michigan; in industrial cities like Springfield, Mass., Syracuse and Cleveland; and in that liberal Mecca Portland, Ore..

These are communities with very different populations and very different priorities. And they all love their children.

If you followed the news at all over the weekend, you know that it was pretty much wall-to-wall coverage for the first day and a half, and now it's more of a human interest angle (funerals and profiles). During the first 12 or 15 hours or so, there was so much misinformation out there, much of propagated by news outlets, that it reminded me that sometimes we need to shut up and look for truth sometimes. And in some cases, maybe shutting up isn't the best route to take.

Media jumped all over information and drew conclusions without any real information. We know now that the shooter was Adam Lanza. He had his brother Ryan's ID on him, though, and some media outlets didn't think to account for the fact that maybe the person and the driver's license wouldn't match. Far from being dead in Connecticut, Ryan Lanza was wondering why people were writing shocking things on his Facebook wall. He was on the bus on the way home from work.

For several hours, the media had the wrong Lanza brother. Ryan deleted his Facebook account, and I'm sure there will be plenty of fallout from this as the months progressed. Don't be surprised if there are civil lawsuits.

An interesting side note on jumping the gun like that. Even in 1694, news organizations were concerned about getting confirmation. When did that stop, and why?

Lesson for the media: Sometimes you need to shut up and figure out what the facts are before you go blabbing out any old information you think you have.

You know who else should have shut up? Some people who just want their football. President Obama was in Newtown to deliver his standard "America is weeping with you, something must be done" speech on Sunday night [aside: Don't get me wrong, that's important for the people of Newtown to hear, I just wish we'd have someone speak from the heart instead of delivering the script sometime]. He interrupted the broadcast of the Sunday night football game for about 10 minutes.

Someone tweeted, "Get that nigger off the TV, we want to watch football." Yeah, that got him kicked off his college football team. He deleted his Twitter account, and one of the people he tweeted at had to delete his account, too, what with all the hate mail he was getting.

Another person he tweeted at in that post reminded people that he can't be responsible for every stupid thing the people he knows say.

That guy who got kicked off his football team, though, was definitely not alone in his sentiments. I hope other people suffered some consequences of not shutting up.

On the other end of the spectrum is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the country's biggest gun lobby. Just a few days after they thanked everybody for getting them to 1.7 million likes on Facebook, they pulled down their Facebook page.

They also went silent on Twitter for a few days, which is common for them in the wake of mass shootings in the U.S.

If you want to stay relevant, I think you have to say something, even if it is just a "We're mourning, too." I think it's really telling that they take a "let's go hide in the corner until everybody focuses on something else for a while" approach to these events.

Lastly, I want to mention something that might point to the growing maturity of the Internet as a medium.

You might have seen your friends posting a plea to stop stigmatizing mental illness called I am Adam Lanza's mother.

Well, one mother went back trough the author's personal blog and ripper her a new one for the things she was really saying about her kids in public.

Instead of this becoming a war, like that Oatmeal-Buzzfeed thing that happened, the two parents got together to start a discussion and find some common ground.

We, as a species, and we, as a culture, and we, as the media, have a lot to learn still. Mostly, I think it has to do with listening. If we listen to each other, we're going to be able to prevent some of these incidents in the first place.

Where is news headed now?

You probably missed 'Hi and Lois' on Monday. Go ahead, click on it, I'll wait the 20 seconds.

Welcome back. The fact is, more newspapers are, in fact, stopping print publication, or severely decreasing it.

I'm working in media again now, after almost three years out of the industry, and online-only or primarily-online is much more of a reality now than it was in late 2009 and early 2010 when the only papers who were going that way were in serious trouble. Now, there are papers taking preventative measures and cutting their print runs before they get into serious trouble.

I don't think journalism is in trouble, and more importantly, I don't think good journalism is in trouble.

I think newsprint is, and I've been saying that for four years now.

Back to this new job I have in news. It's primarily a production gig. You won't see my byline very often, and when you do, it'll primarily be stuff like this cross-market roundup that will appear on a dozen sites in various markets.

Because I work on a dozen sites in various markets.

My job may be very different in a couple of months, though. I'm not sharing anything here that isn't public somewhere, but some of the papers affiliated with our sites are cutting their publication schedules in the first quarter of 2013. We actually don't know what the day-to-day operation of our particular corner of the company is going to look like.

In other RIP newsprint news, The Sporting News is ending its 126-year print run with the issue dated Dec. 13. A sign that it's a good idea? Its front-page columnist says nobody recognizes him as the guy on the front of the paper.

Let's be clear, this shift to online is not about the journalism. It's about technology. It always has been.

You simply cannot make someone purchase and read a medium they don't want to read. Sure, there are people who want newsprint. But there aren't enough of them. There are also people who want to see Hollywood make more religious films, but there aren't enough of them for Hollywood to actually do it.

Online news still has a reputation problem. Newspapers that are going online-only are competing with sites that just can't figure out whether they're going to do serious news or not, and they're going to have to take the high road if they want to stay relevant to their readers. Here's a great synopsis of online news's maturity issue.

To wit, there's a big story locally about a high-profile college basketball player not getting arrested. Someone locally grabbed a photo that appeared to have the kid in handcuffs being escorted out of a store in the mall. The police and mall security both said they had no idea what that was about, but the store didn't call them at all that day.

I've successfully gone 13,171 days without getting arrested. Nobody's ever done a story on me not getting arrested.

We have to find a way for journalism to stop reacting to rumors and do serious reporting again. Update: More on reacting to rumors – watch this TED talk from Markham Nolan on separating fact from fiction online.

Ben Huh makes a great point in the video in the top of this post: We don't need everybody to write the same story. We need people to be willing to share the basic story and do your own angle on what the story means to your readership.

Yesterday, there was a shooting at an Oregon mall. How many stories across the country are "this is what happened"? Well, CNN, NBC and The New York Times all ran bylined stories. They differ in their coverage only in that they spoke to different frightened people. Other than that, they're all just "this is what happened" pieces. The Huffington Post had the good sense to run a wire story.

Other news outlets across the country are running "here's what happened" stories, too. Why are news organizations putting manpower resources into that story? Run the wire piece, and put the manpower resources into analyzing what it means for your community. That's where news organizations can separate themselves.

For Syracuse, N.Y., what does it mean for the giant shopping mall we're hoping will bring people from hundreds of miles away? Will people stay away? Will the payroll increase as security needs increase? For Springfield, Mass., what does it mean for Smith & Wesson, a gun manufacturer with a large plant? Will more people want guns for self-defense in a situation like that, or will guns get harder to purchase?

This is where local journalism can set itself apart.

This has been a long rant, and I haven't answered the question I posed at the beginning: Where is news headed now?

The answer is, I don't know, but it's going to depend heavily on technology. I think tablets are going to be short-lived. I own one, and my primary use of it is as a reader and for light productivity tasks. I don't see that changing much for the tablet industry. Something is coming next; Mitch has some ideas.

If the news industry wants to survive, it needs to be willing to meet consumers at the delivery method they want to use. The organizations that do will survive.

Transparency vs. objectivity in journalism

Poynter has a really good piece up this week about Nate Silver and the future of bloggers as journalists (OK, so I oversold that a little, but still, that's sort of the gist).

Silver, as you probably know, predicted a landslide for President Obama in the electoral vote in this year's election. While news media were busy talking about the 1% difference in popular votes according to polls leading up to the election, Silver was figuring out which polls made the most sense in which states and predicted that Obama would have 313 electoral votes on election night.

Conservatives, and even some in the media, thought that was ridiculous. If their polling was so close, how could Obama win 313 electoral votes to 225?

Actual electoral vote count: Obama 332, Romney 206.

Not only was Silver right about a landslide, he was off by 19. I don't know where that came from; maybe Virgina and Nevada (13 and 6 electoral votes, respectively).

Part of the bloggers vs. journalists debate over the years has been this. Bloggers are typically politically biased, while journalists are objective.

Here's the thing: That's not true. In The American Journalist, we find out that most (nearly three-quarters of them, in fact) journalists lean to the left. And while we might call that a liberal bias in media (particularly in print), content analyses show over and over that while some newspapers lean left on the editorial page while others lean right, as a whole, newspapers tend to pick on whoever's in office, regardless of their politics.

I'd argue that people who attack every story objectively are dull writers.

We want to hear both (or all, really) sides of every story, not no side of every story. And if the writer is honest with me about his or her viewpoint, it's easy to forgive a viewpoint injection. It's when the journalist injects a viewpoint under guise of objectivity that we have a problem. You can disagree with a writer, but you can't disagree with a piece of paper in front of you (well, you can, but it can't put up a coherent argument – it's a piece of paper).

Poynter also notes that the Times didn't take on a risk when they signed Silver; someone else had already dropped $700,000 on a couple of books. Good for him.

I'll ask you: Would you rather read a strictly objective article by a journalist with no viewpoint (nor the guts to take a side), or a biased article written by a smart person who uses all sides to tell you why s/he thinks s/he is right?

Give me smart, biased journalism any day. Just give me all the information so that I can make a decision, too.

Got passion? Good. Worry about content, not production value

Check out this video from strength coach Zach Even Esh. It's him holding a camera, pointing it at himself and his stuff. He's half-in, half-out of the frame much of the time. If you get motion sickness, it probably hurts worse than The Blair Witch Project did.

You know what, though? It's about Zach's passion, not about his camera skills. That's what I want to hear about. I don't need flashy editing, I need Zach's take on things.

On the blog post in which he used that video, there's a second video of a BMX race through Manhattan, much of it shot with a helmet cam. It's not winning any production awards, but it provides an energetic kick in the butt for the morning. Or your afternoon lull, whatever.

Check out Zach's post on not letting your passions slide. Go do something you're passionate about. Worry about the content of it, not the production value.

Crowdsourcing news coverage: Springfield, MA tornado

This video has an AP logo on it, but that's primarily because it was shot from a camera that happens to overlook the Connecticut River in a television newsroom. I don't think it's significantly different in quality than this one (other than the NSFW audio):

We've heard a lot about the Joplin, MO, tornado over the past month. Even with video, it's tough to understand until you know the places you're seeing, and you hear voices you know describe people you know and neighborhoods you know. When all the traffic lights are down, it takes three hours to get a cell phone call out, and the highway through town isn't accessible.

This is when even a privately held, monopoly newspaper in town can open up and say, "We can't be everywhere. Help us out." And people did.

Videos from the tornado | More on YouTube
Newspaper photos | Reader photos
Full story »

I'm sure there will be more photos and videos today, both from people venturing out for the first time, and from news outlets getting out into the neighborhoods in daylight. Wow.

In defense of content farms, sort of

On Friday of last week, Demand Media filed for an IPO.

For those unfamiliar, Demand owns eHow, Answerbag, and a handful of other sites that offer content and advertising. Sounds like a newspaper or magazine, right? Well, not exactly. The content on these sites is determined by what people are searching for, and is populated by people who can do a modicum of research and can string a couple of sentences together.

Danny Sullivan explains a little more about their revenue streams, but basically the way this works is that you search for something like "how to string a tennis racket" and Demand Media's computers say, "We could own that." So, "How To String A Tennis Racket" gets added to a list of articles available. It gets assigned a type of article and site, and based on those, a price point they'll pay for the article.

Someone who has been accepted as a writer says, "Hey, I could write that," and does. The article goes to a copy editor, the editor accepts the article or sends it back for rewrites, the writer either gives it up or re-writes it; if the article is re-written, the editor either accepts it or rejects it. If the article is accepted, the writer gets paid.

You may have guessed by now that I've done some writing for them. I'm not particularly proud of that writing, and don't generally include it in portfolios or writing samples because it's really mediocre work – the whole model revolves around the articles being relevant to searches, rather than enjoyable, in-depth writing.

But by and large, if you're asking how to string a tennis racket, you want to learn how to string a tennis racket, and if the piece is good enough to get that done, frankly, it's good enough to get it done.

I'm writing for them because they pay, and if you know how to do the research, they pay well. While $15 for a 400-500 word piece (call it 3 cents a word) is far less than a good publication would pay, it's far more than their competitors (Textbroker, for example, pays about a penny a word to its most highly qualified writers, and about a half-cent to its writers who demonstrate mediocre grammar skills).

I type in the neighborhood of 90-100 words per minute, which means that I can do the actual writing for an article for eHow in under 10 minutes. If I add 10 minutes for the research, I just made $15 for 20 minutes worth of work. Grab 3 or 4 articles that can be written on the same research, and you can clear $50 an hour for working for Demand. That's pretty good by any publication's standards, even if you're not racking up a portfolio you can be proud of (let's face it, even quality publications need someone to write up unremarkable content, and they do it for more like $8-$10 an hour).

So yes, you're definitely losing some quality in exchange for relevance, but that's been a problem on the web since before someone thought up the content farm idea. Journalism itself has fallen victim to the search engines to some extent. But frankly, if I want to know how to file for a copyright, I don't need to be wowed by the prose. Just tell me what to send where and how to figure out how much it's going to cost me.

The weight of books

I'm an avid reader.

I haven't been moved to get a Kindle or a nook or any one of those other e-Reader deals, but I do have an iPod Touch (like an iPhone without the phone [or the camera]), and there is a free Kindle application (as there is for a PC, apparently).

I got invited to a book-club-among-friends. We were to read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

Now, this was mid-December. I had a couple of choices. I first got online and checked the library catalog. I could have run out to grab the last copy locally (one of the other attendees grabbed the other copy), but I get renewal guilt, so I probably would have returned it before we discuss it. The other, equally obvious option, was to run to a bookstore and get a copy – it's a pretty famous book, it wouldn't be hard to find.

Except it was mid-December, and I wasn't going to a retail outlet. No way, no how.

And then I remembered I had an email gift certificate to Amazon.com. And it was for a penny more than the Kindle version of the book. Hmm, convenient. I commenced to downloading it.

I read the whole thing on my iPod. Here are my thoughts.

Things I Liked

Readability: Awesome. The default font was a comfortable size and face, although I did have the option to change to several other fonts and to make the font larger or smaller. Navigating through was easy; you just push the current page to the left, and you were at the next page. You could make notes and add bookmarks, and as long as you were online, you could sync those to your PC version (and, I'm guessing, to your actual Kindle).

Scanning: Decent, not amazing. There were some obvious errors. Aslan (you'll recognize the name if you're a CS Lewis fan) frequently shows up as "Asian" and there are a few others. Fortunately, the scanning wasn't so bad that it was unreadable, it just wasn't perfect. And since publishing companies actually put these pages in an electronic format before they send books to be printed; why not just pay for that version?

Price: Amazon prices the Kindle version of books about $1 to $3 less expensive than the paperback versions. Of course, when you sync your Kindle (or Kindle app), you may have to worry about your book getting taken away – apparently there was a little rights issue with some authors' works.

Portability: I love being able to have this in my pocket. That alone might be worth the price of admission.

Things I Didn't Like

Pagination: I'm going to be discussing this book with other people, and I'm going to have no idea how to tell them where to look. The Kindle version put things in units, and I don't know what those units were. The Corrections came in at 9,971 of these units. So if I want to refer people to something that happens at, say, unit 4,156, I have to tell everybody else, what, go about 41% of the way into the book? I still have no concept of how long the book is, and now when I get there I'm going to have to ask how long it is and do the math on the fly.

Weight: For me, one of the joys of reading a book is the weight. It feels like something substantial. And as you make progress, the weight begins to shift from right to left. That's worth a lot to me. Apple says the Touch weighs 4.05 ounces (that's a smidge over a quarter pound). That's nothing like substantial, and the weight only shifts from right to left if you change hands.

Would I Do It Again?

Yes. In fact, I'm just jumping into Trust Agents.

Wait! Wait! Aren't you going to tell us what you thought of the book? Nah. I haven't fully formulated an opinion. Maybe we can actually sit down and talk about it, you and I.

The truth: The Internet is a great big rumor mill

I tend to check Google Trends in the morning. It's one of the things I do in terms of a morning coffee ritual when I get to work. For those not familiar, it's a list of the things people are searching for on Google; typically it's updated every hour or so, but sometimes it goes on for a few hours before it updates. Whatever.

Frequently, it's people wanting to watch one of last night's TV episodes. There's usually something that's been featured either on The Today Show or Good Morning America. Sometimes there's sports scores. And sometimes it's people in a large enough market searching for school closings.

And then sometimes it's dead celebrities. The Internet loves to kill people. Failing that, maybe the Internet is retiring athletes mid-season.

Tuesday morning, there were two. The top search was justin bieber dead; the second hottest search was casey johnson dead.

Being a pop-culture-ophobe (OK, not really, but I'm pretty dim when it comes to this stuff), I'd never heard of either of these people. Which means that I had to wade through the search results to figure out who they were, never mind if they were actually dead.

Bieber, it turns out, is a 15-year-old kid who is some sort of pop sensation or something. He appears to be living and breathing and making teenage girls cry with his sensitivity instead of in mourning. This, apparently was not the first time the Internet killed Justin Beiber (via WikiAnswers:

Casey Johnson is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the founders of the Johnson & Johnson Company (if you've ever read a label on anything in a bathroom, you've heard of them). She's also the daughter of Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets.

Casey Johnson is, in fact, dead. She died this week at the age of 30, and at this writing, we're not sure why.

So, what did we learn from this? That Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes was correct: Newspapers (and other traditional news outlets) are going to turn into truth filters.

While we'll get most of our news from places like Twitter or Facebook (not necessarily those places, but places like them), where we select who we get the news from so the news will be relevant to us, we'll still need places like The New York Times to tell us whether the news we got is actually true.

The lesson: If you're not sure, check with someone you trust. Don't freak out over something you heard from someone who heard from somewhere that something may or may not have happened, which means it absolutely did.

Just like in many aspects of your life, you need to actually use your brain to use the Internet effectively.