…In which Bin Laden perishes, closely followed by old media

This essay was originally supposed to be episode 2 of Tapological, but I couldn’t really see any merit in recording it as audio and calling it a podcast when the text already existed.

Where were you when you heard? Every generation it seems, there’s an event which carves it’s own place into culture on a global scale. Everyone can always remember where they were when they heard JFK had been shot, or Diana died, or the towers came down. Bin Laden will probably be another one. So where were you?

When Barack Obama made his announcement to the world, it was around 5AM on a national holiday here in the UK so, like most people here, there’s a good chance that when you learned the news that Osama Bin Laden had been shot and killed by US Navy Seals, you were lying in bed staring at your phone’s Twitter or Facebook feed.

Twitter is increasingly becoming the way we learn our news. It had already broken the story a few hours before Obama spoke. For breaking news, Twitter is unlike any existing channel. With the Bin Laden story, it was both quicker and wittier than traditional news outlets!

A few days later, It was also the outlet credited with bringing the truth behind the current media circus around super injunctions, to the public at large. So everyone on twitter knows the truth, but newspapers and tv stations couldn’t even acknowledge that a story exists.

Meanwhile, old media is floundering. Sky News is losing £30 million pounds a year, and Murdoch’s attempt at launching an iPad only newspaper, The Daily, has lost 10 million dollars in its first three months. That’s not to mention the 580 million dollars that Murdoch paid for Myspace, only to watch it rapidly decline in value and relevance. Conservative estimates put its value potentially as low 50 million these days. If that’s true, Murdoch has lost over half a billion dollars on it, which might explain the reports that he is desperate to sell it. So is this the end for traditional media? Do we still even need newspapers and 24 hour rolling news channels any more?

Ten years ago, on 9/11, people from all over the world stopped what they were doing and sat glued to 24 hour rolling news channels. We may have looked at some online articles but for the most part, tv was still on top on that horrible day.

A lot has changed in the last decade though. Back then, most people were still on dialup Internet connections, meaning the Internet was very much just text and the occasional picture. There was no streaming video, no YouTube.  No social connections sharing links or opinions. All things we have come to rely on now, but also all things that are terrifying to traditional news outlets.

As President Obama made his speech, a sizable percentage of the audience already knew what was coming. The first reliable, inside tweet on the subject had actually come 4 hours earlier, when Donald Rumsfield’s chief of staff, Keith Urbahn tweeted:

“so I’m told from a reputable person they’ve killed Osama bin laden. Hot damn.”

Even before then though, a string of tweets from Abbottabad based IT consultant, Sohaib Atthar, essentially live-tweeted events as they unfolded, from the arrival of the helicopters to the gun fire. Only after Barack Obama made his announcement the following day did he put two and two together and realise the significance of the events he had been reporting.

Of course his tweets were soon discovered and re-tweeted by the larger Twitter audience, leading him to write mock-despairingly:

uh-oh, now I’m the guy who live-blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”
Followed later by

Bin Laden is dead, I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now“.

There were also a pair of quotes which were endlessly retweeted that day. One attributed to mark twain, which I was guilty myself of retweeting, and another from martin Luther king. Neither man said the words that were attributed to them. That didn’t stop them both being retweeted thousands of times though.

The two quotes were:

Mark Twain by AF Bradley

I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure” – Mark Twain (Allegedly)

and
Martin Luther King, Jr.

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the loss of one. Not even an enemy” Martin Luther King Jr (allegedly).

The Twain quote appears to be a simple case of misattribution. The quote is actually comes from the autobiography of American civil rights legend Clarence Darrow. The story with the martin Luther king quote was slightly more complicated.

Thanks to some great digging by Megan Mcardle, business editor of the Atlantic magazine, we can trace how this particular virus like misquote spread globally so quickly.

The line was originally posted by Middle school teacher jessica dovey to her Facebook feed, followed by a genuine quote from Martin Luther King, which, correctly, appeared in quote marks. As people re-quoted the full comment, someone removed the quotes, making it look like the full paragraph was by MLK. Then, to fit into twitters 140 character limit, magician Penn Jillette dropped the latter genuine quote and attributed just the first part to him. His 1.5 million followers then endlessly retweeted the line.

Father Ted and IT crowd creator Graham Linehan is one of the handful of people that everyone on Twitter should follow, for his fine balance of wit, news, cynicism and silliness. he had his own misinformation storm to deal with. In this case though, he was the one that started it when he made a joke which misfired and subsequently grew out of all control. The BBC has a timeline of events which is well worth reading to see how rapidly stories can spread and distort on Twitter.

He started out joking that Osama bin laden had been a fan of IT crowd. The joke fell flat, but enough people asked him if it was true to convince him there was legs to the hoax. He then deliberately set out to see how far he could push the story. By the time he came clean and admitted it was all a joke, something that should have been obvious from the start, the story was being reported as fact by some news outlets and had distorted to claims that bin laden was in the middle of watching the show when the navy seals stormed his compound.

The fact the whole thing played out in just 24 hours shows how rapidly ideas and memes can spread like wildfire online and is a great example of the power of realtime media to spread information, (or disinformation) online. Clearly though, to quote a line that Mark Twain did definitely say,

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on it’s shoes.

For all this talk of how things like Twitter may be making us all more media savvy, it’s worth pointing out that one of the most popular search query in Yahoo Answers on 1st of May was ‘who is Osama Bin Laden’, with one questioner stating “My brother told me today that this guy is an evil wizard but i’m not really sure whether this is actually true“!

There has been quite a lot of meta-reporting, that is, reports about how the story is being reported, around the Bin Laden story. Largely focussing on Twitter, and the ways in which it changed how we got our news. There is currently another Twitter related meta-story playing out in the British news though which potentially will have much greater impact on the roles of old media and what they are allowed to report.

Superinjunctions. those tricksy overreaching gagging orders that celebrities use to hide their indescretions, by blocking media not only from reporting a story, but also from even reporting the existence of the story or the block.

Presumably, the original thinking behind super injunctions was to avoid the Streisand effect, Named after an ill conceived attempt by Barbara stresand to block publication of pictures of her house, thus attracting far more attention to the pictures than they would have got had she done nothing.

Unfortunately super injunctions are increasingly being abused to the extent that it becomes a form of censorship on the press that can be used by those with enough money to buy silence at the expense of freedom of speech. And with journalists not being allowed to report specific stories, the existence of so many super injunctions is, itself, becoming the story.

Currently, there are five or six high profile super injunctions in place. It would appear that all of them are to some degree, a product of the tedious, snickering, British obsession with minor celebrities and their sex lives. Salacious non-news and celebrity gossip get big headlines at the expense of coverage of far more important stories, like events unfolding in Syria, or the fact Uganda is considering passing a law making homosexuality punishable by death, for example. You can blame the media for printing trash if you like, but if so many people didn’t buy it, they wouldn’t, but I digress.

This story still was significant from a technological perspective. Because social media isn’t restricted by the same laws and regulations as print media, someone was able to set up an anonymous twitter account and reveal details of all the current super injunctions. Of course, anyone could open a Twitter account and make wild, unsubsantiated claims. There had to be a way to verify the truth of what was said. The way this anonymous Twitter tipster did so though was rather ingenious.

Amongst all the allegations was one regarding writer Jemima Kahn and another celebrity. Kahn immediately denied that there was any truth in the allegations. News stories reporting the leak on Twitter named Kahn, something they would not be allowed to do if she had a super injunction. No other celebrity mentioned in the Twitter allegations was named in any of the articles, which lends credence to the probability of them having super injunctions in place. It’s not inconceivable that Kahn, a famed freedom of speech campaigner, who most recently was one of the most vocal supporters of Wikileaks, may even have had something to do with this particular Twitter leak.

It’s worth pointing out that all the information that was alleged had already been widely circulated on IRC and newsgroups, the dark underbelly of the internet. Yet Twitter was the service which got all the headlines. Presumably because the average journalist, and the average reader, doesn’t know about the existence of newsgroups, never mind how to access them.

More likely though because journalists are obsessed with Twitter. They know it represents the death of the old media way of doing things and is probably the reason they’ll be looking for a new job in a few years.

Of course, to write superinjunctions off as being just about minor celebrities is to miss the bigger picture. 18 months ago Trafigura took out a super injunction to prevent the British press from reporting on questions which had been asked in parliament about their involvement of illegal toxic waste dumping in Africa which lead to the deaths of at least 15 people and resulted in over 100,000 people having to seek medical assistance.

Since this was a story with international interest, unlike celebrity sex lives, it was still being reported in other countries where super injunctions didn’t exist. Word got out on twitter about the attempted cover up and trafigura became a huge trending topic. With the cat so clearly out of the bag, some papers decided to take a risk and break the super injunction the following day by reporting the story fully. Realising they had lost, Trafigura didn’t pursue the super injunction any further.

Twitter clearly was the medium that was leading that story though. The newspapers merely followed it’s lead. But it does seem as though every major news story these days is accompanied by a sub-story charting twitters involvement in one way or another.  The Wikipedia page for the term ‘twitter revolution‘ redirects to 4 separate pages relating to civil uprisings organised through twitter in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia and Egypt. In Egypt, people using social media to organise themselves was viewed as such a threat that the egyptian government pulled the plug on the whole Internet for the entire country. In response, Google set up a number of phone lines whereby people could phone and leave short voice messages or listen to those of others which were all then posted to twitter.

Social media also played a huge role in the reporting of the recent Japanese tsunami. All the most powerful images of the floods were not found on the news channels, but on youtube. Being a relatively affluent, tech savvy country, the majority of people have smart phones there and many were filming the floods as they hit, then immediately uploading to YouTube. The videos were online before news channels even had their cameras set up. It’s no wonder that the media is obsessed with social media. They know they can’t compete so are keen to figure out the best way to work with it.

Sometimes though twitter attacks old lazy journalism directly. Back in October 2009, The Daily Mail ran an article by columnist Jan Moir about the death of Steven Gately. The article implied that same sex civil partnerships were sleazy, speculated around the circumstances of his death and then concluded that this somehow proved that civil partnerships were incapable of working out.

It was a hateful little article of the kind the Mail specialises in, but literally as soon as it was published, the article was being circulated and discussed on twitter as clearly being entirely unacceptable. Soon a petition was in place and a record number of complaints were submitted to the press complaints commission, causing advertisers to withdraw theand support. The mail often pitches it’s articles at a tone designed to invoke angry reactions. This time though, they misfired and became the target of the fury, which lead to them having to make an embarrassing, if entirely unapologetic, climb down.

Not that it’s hindered the Mail, since it recently became the second most read english language news site in the world, proving that a combination of right-wing bile and celebrities in bikinis is clearly a winning formula.

Even the BBC have felt the wrath of the twitter army. Last year, they suggested that, in an attempt to streamline costs, they were going to pull the plug on a few of their smaller digital radio stations, including 6music. Up until that point, 6music had more or less operated under the radar. It had never really seen much publicity and listener figures were modest. However, listeners proved themselves to be fiercely protective of the station. Taking to twitter to campaign, protest and rally the troops for a petition which overwhelmed the BBC and took them entirely by surprise. Soon, they changed tact and confirmed 6 music would stay. All the attention that the twitter campaign brought to the station clearly did wonders for it too since listner figures have been in a steady upwards trajectory ever since and recently won Station of the year and the Music Week awards

One of the most appealing things about using Twitter as a news source is also the most jarring at first. Because of Twitters single inbox design, there is no differentiation between what comes into your news feed. Serious news stories are not given any higher ranking than status updates from friends. The best satirical tweets on breaking news tend to rise to the top and be endlessly retweeted. As such, our understanding of the news no longer is seen through the sombre, serious tone that news channels traditionally have adopted. There is no longer a division between news and satire. They are both juxtaposed together in the endless stream of tweets, which actually fits in with how younger Americans get their tv news these days.

A generation of Americans get their news from the Daily Show. ostensibly a comedy show, but for the most part, one that reports more thoroughly on current events than many news channels. More importantly, one that asks the awkward questions many news channels shy away from for fear of losing journalistic favour with politicians. As well as being informative, The Daily Show is smart, irreverent and very funny. It is a better fit to social media’s way of breaking news that makes more traditional news outlets seem boring and irrelivant in comparison.

So, what can old media do about it? Well, not what they’re doing right now. That’s for sure. Rupert Murdoch has ruled the roost of English language global media for decades, but from the start, he has failed to grasp quite how irrelevant that technology is about to render the printed newspapers.

When he finally realised that this whole Internet thing might not just be a fad and was in fact too big to ignore, he addressed the issue in his usual bullish way. He bid as much as it took it took to buy the biggest website in the world, which Myspace was at the time. He paid over half a billion dollars and almost immediately, the value plummeted. Probably partially because the site was no longer allowed to implement changes as rapidly as they could when they were a startup, and therefore began to stagnate. More likely though, being owned by the biggest media magnate in the world suddenly made it seem desperately unhip to the predominantly young user base. Certainly, the fact it’s user interface was horrendous and Facebook was nibbling at it’s heels would have accelerated its demise.

So he launched ‘The Daily’. Essentially an old fashioned newspaper, but instead of being printed on dead tree and delivered through your letterbox, it’s available exclusively on iPad. From the perspective of someone who became a billionaire printing newspapers, that probably made sense, but it’s a way of doing things that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about social media.

You’re holding a device that is state of the art, always online and through which, your entire social circle is immediately accessible. The information you can access is up to the second, and can come from almost every news source in the world, be it pullitzer winning professional journalists writing for old media or citizen journalists reporting on their blog from the middle of the warzone they happen to live in. And all for free.

why on earth would you pay to have something that updates just once a day from a single source? It somehow is missing almost all of the potential of this new medium for innovative, informative news reporting.

Meanwhile, he’s erected a paywall to the websites of most of his flagship newspapers, thus cutting off the vast majority of traffic that visited the site previously. If you pay for the content and read a story you like, you can’t share it with your friends unless they pay to come behind the paywall too.

Murdoch used to be the most powerful media tycoon in the world, and, for now, probably still is, but his efforts to understand and control new media increasingly paint him as a confused old man trying to figure out how the tv remote works.

Some other newspapers have faired better. The Guardian has demonstrated itsself as a newspaper that clearly gets technology. It has won awards for its digital strategy because it understands its audience and how they want to consume their news these days.

The Independent took the entirely unexpected opposite stance late last year when it launched the first new uk paper based newspaper in nearly 25 years with I, which aims to appeal to the younger, Internet savvy crowd but has no website and, with the single letter name, is entirely unGooglable anyway.

Do we still need newspapers? Who actually buys newspapers any more? There’s a good chance thst you can’t actually remember the last time you bought a newspaper. I know I can’t. It was probably when one was giving away a free CD or DVD that I wanted. And when news media have to rely on the comic book tactics of giving away freebies to convinvce you to buy them, surely that should set alarm bells ringing?

That’s not to say we don’t consume news any more though. In fact, we are reading more than ever. It’s simply that the Internet has replaced print newspapers by providing a better service, in the same way that the profession of scribe became immediately redundant as soon as Gutenberg invented the printing press.

RSS reader tools like Google Reader allow people to keep on top of news from any number of news sources from all over the Internet, all collated and sorted into one place. Personally, I have over 200 feeds in my Reader feed, generating thousands of articles a day, available to read the second the writer presses the publish button. With so much information at our fingertips, suddenly the idea of paying for a newspaper which is delivered once a day that features just a few dozen articles on yesterday’s news seems entirely unappealing.

The question of what news organisations should do is one that has still to find a good answer. It seems like every newspaper is losing money these days. For journalists though, the answer is simple.

A few years ago, when Radiohead launched their ‘in rainbows’ album, there were lots of stories in the press about how this was the end for the old sales model for music. There was no record label. The band owned the music themselves and the fans bought directly from them. No pre- release review copies were sent to journalists. Everyone from fans to journalists received their album at the same time. Which was very democratising.

The explosion in popularity of blogging a few years earlier meant there were hundreds of thousands of personal, zero-budget music blogs. The people that owned those blogs were writing their reviews of the album at exactly the same time as the journalists at NME or Rolling Stone. The professional review no longer had any advantage over the amateur one. Both would stand or fall purely on the quality of the writing.

That foreshadows what is now happening with books. The most successful, digitally self published authors are making tens of thousands of dollars a month through Kindle sales. Significantly more than they could hope to make if they went down the traditional publishing route, due to the much larger cut of profits that old publishers take compared to amazon. Meanwhile, sales of paper books are in free fall. Book stores are going out of business now in the same way most of the big record stores did 5 years ago when digital downloads and mp3 players destroyed their business model.

But in news reporting, everyone now has access to breaking news at the same time as the journalists. Before now, when the masses did not have access directly to news sources, it was sufficient for many journalists purely to report facts, with no real analysis or opinion. Some tabloid journalists can’t even manage that most of the time, but it’s the least that can be expected to call yourself a journalist.

The good journalists can be considered as storytellers as much as anything. They differentiate themselves by taking disperate facts and interweving them into a narrative. look at the story from different angles and perspectives. Analyse. They add value to the service of journalism. They’re the ones who will survive the current cull of old media. Those who lazily recycle stories from news wire and pr companies will soon be forming an orderly queue at the job centre.

One of the finest role models for what future journalism will look like is Andy Carvin. Andy works at the US channel NPR, and is the senior strategest for social media. And boy does he lead by example. Tweeting for up to 17 hours a day, he was almost synonomous with the recent egyptian revolution on twitter and follows the many unfolding events in the middle east from his home in America far more closely than many on the ground can manage. Through a combination of journalistic savvy and actively searching twitter for tweets from people that may be first person witnesses, he is able to stay on top of world events as they unfold in realmtime, then acts as a filter for his followers. He also relies on tips and help from his followers. He encourages them to dig to and help root out the real story. This form of collaborative journalism is a new thing but something that I suspect we will see a lot more of in the future.

He clearly gets that the value he personally can add is bigger than that of NPR. he has become his own brand. NPRs official feed on twitter may have 69 thousand followers, but andy himself has over 46 thousand, and rapidly climbing, people who have recognised the value of cutting out the news channel middle man and going straight to the journalist source.

Another good example of this is Paul Lewis who writes for The Guardian. He was the key reporter for the story of Ian Tomlinson who was assaulted by a policeman and subsequently died. By looking through many videos which had been uploaded to youtube, and appealing for people to share others, he was able to piece together a timeline of events and also uncover the proof that a policeman had assaulted Tomlinson, although the original police report claimed otherwise.

He has also live tweeted from the thick of other demonstrations in London, such as the student riots last year. The Live tweeting came, not through the guardian twitter account but through his own. Only after the event did he write up more thorough reports for the Guardian website and print editions. If you wanted up to the minute reports, you didn’t follow the newspaper, you followed the individual. The newspaper then served its purpose later on by having a longer article which went into more depth.

And that’s where newspapers can still add value. Physical printed newspapers will probably be extinct within this decade, but for newspapers that successfully make the transition to a profitable digital presence, it will be through offering analysis and in-depth opinion pieces.

But if the printed paper page is dying, then what format will newspapers and magazines take in the future? There is no established traditions for portable digital media yet, but there are a few promising experiments. Conde Nast were one of the first publishers to announce a specific iPad edition of Their magazines, beginning, as you might expect, with the original geek/tech magazine Wired.

Previously, companies like zinio and newspapers direct offered digital editions of periodicals, but these were straight facsimiles of their printed brethren. The wired iPad app looks more like a book found on the shelves of Hogwarts library. Alongside the text you’ll find animated images, embedded video and audio as well as interactive content not found in the print edition. at the time of writing, the wired app is one of the top ten best selling apps on the app store.

For archival and reference, there are a handful of apps attempting to do something far more immersive than text on a page. The NYPL Biblion app presents materials from new York public library on the subject of the 1939-1940 world fair. The information is grouped into sections which you can navigate through an intuitive 3d interface. The experience is more akin to wandering round a museum from exhibit to exhibit than reading text and images on a page.

For all its innovation, the wikipedia website still reads like an old paper encyclopaedia. The Qwiki app takes content from Wikipedia and brings it right up to date by combining it with photos, current news and other data from social shafeels sites. It feels more like a live version of the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy. By incorporating your location data, it seems to intuitively know what you are looking for and makes suggestions.

Many journalists are beginning to see the democratising potential of new media and experimenting with cutting out the middle man and going direct to readers. Recently, an ipad app called ‘The final hours of portal 2’ was launched. It was essentially a dvd-extras style behind the scenes on the making of the long awaited sequal to the original best seller. This wasnt official merchandise released by the publisher to get more money from game fans though. The whole thing was conceived as an app from the start by games journalist geoff keighley and entirely self financed.

Previously, he had done similar long form articles on the origins of other games which appeared as magazine articles and blog posts and took a more traditional form. But he saw the potential for new forms of presentation which the iPad offered. The app is similar in execution to the ipad edition of wired but takes it even further by incorporating online forums and polls to interact with other users. The app may have a very limited potential audience, but it is proving itself to be a best seller and probably does more than anything else to suggest to journalists that, if you are prepared to take a few risks, the future might be bright after all.

Which brings us back to the journalists being at the heart of any future success for old media. These first breed of savvy journalists are learning a valuable lesson. You have to work on your digital prescence and stage manage your own personal brand. If you’re a concientious, adventurous journalist, everything is probably going to be ok. If you winged it. regurgitated press releases and churned out obvious articles, It’s time to look for a new career.

If you’re not a journalist, you may be thinking none of this applies to you, but the fact is that we are all journalists these days. We are all our own micro-broadcast network. Whether you have your own blog, or upload your photos to flickr, or your holiday videos to YouTube, or even just update your status regularly on facebook or twitter. Media more than ever is a meritocracy. We all live in public and broadcast our lives to the world. But we’re all still trying to work out what is ok to share and what isn’t. Cultivating and maintaining your personal brand is a skill we are all going to have to learn over the next few years and is definitely a topic I’ll be returning to in the future.

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