Let's Get This Straight: June 1997 archives

Published June 30, 1997 10:21AM (EDT)

Rerunning amok

It's summer -- vacation time even for the toiling laborers in the new information economy. The news flow is slow as the pundits of the Net wait for the Supreme Court to hand down its decision on the Communications Decency Act. But day in and day out, Web sites still need to crank out their "content," or traffic will decline and advertisers will be distressed. What's an editor to do?

How about reruns? Just take an article you've already published and publish it again!

After all, if we can believe the most recent waves of blathering commentary, the Net and TV keep converging away -- they're becoming more like each other by the second. Why shouldn't Web sites adopt the convention of reruns when key columnists need some time off -- as sites like HotWired's Packet seem to be doing more and more these days?

Well, there's one good reason: Most responsible Web sites, Packet included, maintain archives of everything they've ever published. The Web is always in reruns already.

Web "republishing" is not only superfluous, it's most irritating to a site's most loyal readers. They're the ones who are most likely to come by a site for a daily fix and discover that they've already read the ostensibly "new" contents.

An honest Web rerun would simply provide a link to the original archived page location for a previously published story, allowing readers to click forward or go away once they realize that fresh content is not being served. More typically, though, rerun pages declare their status only via marginal admissions or end notes.

Web companies are usually understaffed and overworked. People deserve vacations. But there are such things as guest columnists. When, for instance, San Francisco Chronicle columnist (and Salon contributor) Jon Carroll takes time off, he has made a fine practice of turning his column's space over to showcase the bylines of talented friends and associates. Other creative possibilities abound for filling temporarily vacant spaces in Web publishing schedules without embarrassing recycling.

The possibility of linking eliminates any need for the notion of Web reruns. For instance: I know readers of this column will be interested in Salon's critique earlier this week of the New York Times' ridiculous drugs-on-the-Net scare story. But I don't have to reprint it here to make it available to you.

June 26, 1997

Sins of the Net virgins

I know less about professional football than I do about Inner Mongolia. Can you imagine a newspaper or magazine assigning me to write a series of front-page features covering the nature and future of football?

That's essentially what the Los Angeles Times did when it sent its media reporter, David Shaw, a self-confessed "technological idiot," off to write a five-part in-depth series, the length of a short novel, about the Internet.

Sad to say, for American newspapers, the "Net Virgin" syndrome this column has previously commented on still applies: When it comes to the Internet, the conventional notion that writers ought to be experts about their subjects gets turned on its head. Too often, newspaper editors view reporters who are knowledgeable as somehow suspect; the assignment goes to the writer who is "fresh" -- and who therefore often repeats the same mistakes and misinformation his predecessors have spread.

Shaw's series, which he has apparently labored over for months, has its share of inaccuracies -- like identifying HotWired media columnist Brooke Shelby Biggs as a writer for Slate. Small errors (like misspelling the name of Salon's editor in the midst of praising this magazine) are understandable in any mega-feature project. But they look a little less forgivable when they appear amid complaints that the new online journalism can't be trusted because, unlike its print predecessors, it gets the facts wrong.

Worse than any minor errors of fact is the fundamental misinterpretation at the root of Shaw's series. A newspaper man who admits he's more comfortable in print than online -- the first installment's headline reads, "A Reporter Lost in Cyberspace" -- Shaw can't help interpreting the history and future of the Internet in terms of its relationship to existing newspapers and magazines. Will the Net change newspapers? Will it kill them off? How will newspapers respond to the challenge? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the two types of media?

These are surely interesting questions, but they constitute only one swatch of the fabric of change the Net represents. The Net is "like" a newspaper, a magazine, a TV, a telephone, a superhighway, a library or a frontier, but it is none of these. The metaphor soup beloved of mainstream journalists only hides the truth that the Net is something new and unique whose essential nature is still unfolding.

At one point Shaw sets out to demonstrate how unwieldy today's Worldwide Web is by taking a spin with a search engine. Surprise! A lot of the references it spits out at him aren't what he's looking for. Now, we can all agree that today's inadequate search engines do not guide users as well as they should. Shaw may be unoriginal here, but he's right. Still, the more interesting point lies in how he refers to what the search engines feed him. Repeatedly, he calls them "stories": "Often the stories have no bearing on what you're looking for, and it's impossible to figure out what bizarre logic produced them in the first place."

As a newspaper man, Shaw is used to working with databases like Nexis that catalog articles from newspapers -- and apparently he is approaching Infoseek and AltaVista the same way. Lost in these assumptions is a vital distinction: The basic units on the Web aren't "stories" but "pages." These pages may contain journalistic stories; they also can contain anything else anyone damn pleases to put online -- including personal confessions, class work, legal documents, movie schedules, classified ads, philosophical debates and grocery lists.

A knowledgeable Net writer could have taken the L.A. Times' readers along on Shaw's search, shown them how inadequate the search engine is and then also provided useful information about how to search more effectively. (It's not that hard.) But the Times was more interested in telling its readers how confusing the Web is than in helping relieve some of that confusion.

How is it, when tens of millions of Americans are now online and experienced users of the Net, that a major newspaper can still feel it's appropriate for a Net virgin to fill many hundreds of column-inches analyzing the new medium? Maybe it's because so many newspaper journalists still view the Net as the enemy. Any writer who is conversant with Internet culture has somehow been tainted by consorting with the foe. Only the Net virgin can be trusted to recycle the same horror stories and provide the requisite negative slant on the medium. After all, a lot of newspaper editors know that this view is the truth. Not only do they sense it in their guts -- they've even been online a couple of times!

June 19, 1997

Paradigms of the Times

Two New York Times items this week:

  • Cyberspace is where?

The front-page headline in the Times' Thursday, June 12 edition reads: "On Frontier of Cyberspace, Data is Money, and a Threat." What follows is an extremely long article -- filling up a full two inside pages of the newspaper -- mostly detailing the sorry story of a woman who received harassing threats in the mail "from a stranger who seemed to know all about her, from her birthday to the names of her favorite magazines, from the fact that she was divorced to the kind of soap she used in the shower."

Aha! This harasser must have gone out to the "frontiers of cyberspace" and used some Internet smarts to dig up all those personal details, right?

In truth, the letters came from a Texas inmate who got the private information because a national direct marketing firm had contracted its data entry work to the prison. Not a jot of the information was online.

The rest of the many thousands of words in this otherwise well-researched article barely mention the Net. The kind of threats to privacy the piece chronicles arise from the sloppiness, stupidity or malice of corporate information warehousers. They have nothing at all to do with "cyberspace."

There are real issues relating to privacy and protection of personal information online, but this article wasn't about them. So why the headline? Do the editors of the New York Times have any idea what cyberspace is? Or do they just think that it's scary?

  • Convergence confusion

Understanding the continuing mutation of the telecommunications business today is so difficult that even institutions like the New York Times can get confused.

Tuesday's Times Business Day section covered Microsoft's $1 billion investment in the cable TV giant Comcast, with a pair of features headlined "A Changing Cast of Media Players: Software-Cable TV Deal Shows Phone Companies' Fading Role." Under the header "Paradigm Surfing," the Times published the following explanation: "A few years ago, combinations of cable television and telephone companies seemed to be the new model for distributing information and entertainment. But now cable companies are tying up with Internet players."

In the accompanying images, two TV sets sit side by side: One shows the glum heads of the CEOs of Bell Atlantic and TCI, Raymond Smith and John Malone, whose announced 1993 merger never came to pass. The other shows Bill Gates and Comcast exec Brian Roberts. The TCI/Bell Atlantic screen is smashed; Gates is grinning.

This is a situation where the journalist-analyst's attempt to isolate patterns in the marketplace has inspired gross oversimplification and plain error. In fact, "Combinations of cable television and telephone companies" never seemed to be a very good "model for distributing information and entertainment" -- except for a handful of corporate deal-makers like Smith and Malone and the reporters who regurgitated their hype. Cable companies and telephone companies have remained fierce competitors; they each have various competitive advantages; nobody knows which will prevail in the battle to provide high-speed data to the home.

Similarly, Microsoft is a software company that's just beginning to flex its media muscles. Who knows how the billion dollars it is sinking into Comcast will turn out -- or whether the deal will even happen? Gates, claiming the move is purely an investment, says, "We are not in the cable business ourselves" (which is pretty funny to hear from one of the owners of the cable channel MSNBC). But whether Microsoft and Comcast achieve profitable synergies in their new relationship or find that they can't look at each other in the morning, their deal is hardly any kind of "paradigm" -- it's another shot in the new-media dark.

One simple fact the Times report sidesteps is that the Internet caught every player in this game by surprise. The Times' explanatory timeline declares, "The emergence of the Web allowed the communications industry to think of the Internet as the interactive medium" (instead of the old interactive-TV model). "Allowed" is a nice gentle choice of words; a more accurate phrasing might read, "The emergence of the Web forced the communications industry to trash its pilot interactive-TV ventures and scramble to catch up with the public as it embraced the Net."

The ultimate irony in the Times' description of "Phone Companies' Fading Role" can be grasped by having a look at the main feature in this week's Salon 21st. The Internet is the new "paradigm," but don't count those phone companies out too fast: A half-dozen of them now own most of the Net's infrastructure.

June 12, 1997

All sides of the story

The annals of journalism are littered with headlines that have called the news prematurely and wrong -- celebrated "oops" moments like the classic 1948 headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."

But it has taken the Web to bring us a new twist on this amusing spectacle. On Monday, the headline ticker at ABCNews.com began running the news: "McVeigh Guilty." That was accurate enough -- except that the report came an hour before the verdict was announced. Furthermore, the same ticker also reported, "McVeigh Not Guilty."

Subtle Borgesian commentary on the subjective nature of reality? Illustration of the essential ambiguity of the postmodern condition? Forget it; this was a simple example of runaway technology.

What actually happened at ABC's Web site could happen anywhere: The news staff prepared two stories to run depending on how the verdict came out, and the headlines for these stories were grabbed by an automated script that gathered headlines from a "staging server" to rotate on the site. When staffers moved both versions of the story to this server, the headlines started running on ABCNews.com's ticker. According to the Associated Press, ABC removed the clairvoyantly contradictory headlines within 30 minutes.

As Wired News pointed out, the preparation of such alternate versions of hot breaking stories is "common practice." In the old print world, the accurate version would run and the wrong version would get spiked; in broadcast news, the right script would get read and the wrong one would get trashed. But, like no previous medium, the Web blurs the distinction between what's formally published and what's not.

All it takes to "publish" on the Web is to move a file into a directory on a server -- and make that file available to the world by providing a link to it. If a file directory isn't properly protected, even files that aren't linked can be found by enterprising visitors. If you poked carefully through the file structures of many news organizations' Web sites, you could probably dig up a lot of technically "unpublished," alternative versions of reality -- like a "Guilty" verdict for O.J. Simpson (as Pathfinder briefly reported in 1995) or even "Dole Trounces Clinton."

Incidents of pre-publishing, mis-publishing and mal-publishing can only become more frequent as more Web sites adopt automated processes like the one that triggered ABCNews.com's embarrassment. Expect red faces to become commonplace -- and watch that old "editor's note" standby excuse, "due to a technical error," get a heavy workout.

June 5, 1997

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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