Category Archives: Technology

Posted in Technology, TV

Videotron finally joins the iPhone club

One of many ads in Saturday papers announcing Videotron's introduction of the iPhone.

One of many ads in Saturday papers announcing Videotron’s introduction of the iPhone.

Three and a half years after launching its mobile network, Videotron has finally solved its biggest issue: Until now, you couldn’t get a plan with an iPhone.

At first, the problem was technological. The frequency spectrum Videotron acquired in the 2008 auction was in the 1700 MHz band (called the Advanced Wireless Services band), and the iPhone wasn’t compatible with that band. It wasn’t just an issue for Videotron — it also prevented the iPhone from being compatible with the T-Mobile network south of the border.

That changed last year, when Apple introduced a model of the iPhone 5 that was compatible with AWS and the T-Mobile and Videotron networks. By last fall, people could get their hands on an iPhone 5 and by adding a Videotron SIM card make it compatible with the carrier’s network.

After that, the issue stopped being a technological one and started being a legal one. Videotron didn’t have a deal to sell the iPhone, so the best it could do was encourage people to buy it at Apple stores and install a Videotron SIM card themselves.

A couple of weeks ago, in a brief and understated email (whose contents were strictly regulated by the terms of the deal between Videotron and Apple), the company announced it would start selling iPhones on March 28. On March 29, full-page ads came out in all the papers announcing the iPhone 5s was now available at Videotron retail outlets.

Not only does this mean that Videotron can join the big guys, but also that it can stop pretending that non-Apple products are just as good as Apple ones. Without the iPhone, Videotron pushed Android apps and devices, including the Google Nexus One, which was the hot new thing when the network launched. Parent company Quebecor did its best to wipe the iPhone out of its universe, even going so far as to push producers of fictional shows on TVA to replace characters’ iPhones with Android devices (Quebecor downplayed this as something similar to product placement).

All the while, it remained impatient, hoping that Apple would soon deem Videotron worthy of inclusion.

Illico TV app now available

On Monday Tuesday, Videotron will announce that the Illico TV app is available for iPhone users. The application allows subscribers to Videotron’s television service to access live TV channels and free video-on-demand shows on their iPhones. And for the most part, they can do this regardless of who their carrier is.

Using the app, which was added to the Apple app store on Friday, requires authenticating with Videotron to prove that you’re a Videotron cable TV customer, which gives you access to channels you subscribe to, including a bunch of live channel feeds.

One exception to the rule is RDS, which is the most expensive channel to get the rights to. You can access RDS’s live feed, including Canadiens games, only if you’re also a Videotron mobile customer as well. This is the result of the rights agreement between Videotron and RDS (owned by Bell Media). RDS sells its mobile rights through the mobile carriers.

Videotron’s iPhone app doesn’t allow purchases, so you can’t buy video-on-demand movies. The reason for this is simple math: Apple’s required percentage take of in-app purchases is so high (30%), that Videotron can’t make any money selling content this way.

The Illico Club Unlimited subscription video-on-demand service is also not available yet on the iPhone app.

New prices

Something that’s already making headlines is the prices that Videotron is using to sell them. Videotron is offering unlimited calling and 4GB data for $75 a month, while the Big Three are offering $110 a month for the same plans. Additionally, it’s offering the iPhone at an almost $500 discount for a 24-month plan. That means more than $20 a month of your iPhone plan with Videotron will be going just to pay off the discount you got for your device.

It’s almost as if Videotron has been waiting for this day for years.

Posted in In the news, Technology

Could Videotron become a national wireless company? Maybe

In what a lot of people said was a huge surprise (but was actually predicted by plenty), the end of the 700MHz wireless spectrum auction showed that Videotron bought licenses covering Canada’s four largest provinces, and everyone now assumes the company will go national, becoming that fourth big player that the government and unsatisfied Canadian cellphone customers have been hoping for.

Quebecor is forbidden by the spectrum auction rules from commenting on its future plans in order to preserve the integrity of the process and avoid collusion between bidders. So all we have from them is their press release on the subject. It includes these quotes from CEO Robert Dépatie:

“With the high-quality frequencies acquired in this auction, Videotron is now well-equipped to develop its network in the years to come and to continue offering its customers the best in wireless technology.”

“Given the way the auction unfolded, Quebecor Media could not pass up the opportunity to invest in licences of such great intrinsic value in the rest of Canada,” said Mr. Dépatie. “We now have a number of options available to us to maximize the value of our investment.”

Read into that what you will.

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Posted in Opinion, Technology

28 people who were joking about America turning 2,013 years old

It’s amazing how much of journalism these days consists of someone searching for something on Twitter and then being shocked at finding that thing that’s being searched for.

On Thursday, a few people had the bright idea to search for people who posted on Twitter that the United States turned 2,013 years old on July 4. Of course that’s ridiculous and a sign that the U.S. education system has failed miserably.

Or maybe they were all kidding. Don’t bother checking that, just publish and shame! It doesn’t matter how young they are, they must be ridiculed, post haste!

Here’s a post on something called Twitchy that lists “30 people who say America turned 2,013 years old today.” Wow, those people all sound super stupid.

But let’s go through them one by one, shall we?

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Posted in Media, Technology

TUM TUM TUM TUM, TUM TUM TUM TUM TUM!

TUM pager

In our office, there are a few relics of the pre-Internet era, including pagers similar to the one pictured here. They’re called TUMs, which stand for téléavertisseur d’urgence médiatique. The idea is actually pretty smart, if antiquated: Quebec media are assigned these devices, and all emergency services, whether SQ or local police or fire departments or Transport Quebec or transit agencies, can send short messages about emergency events to everyone at the same time. The messages, written in all-caps, will alert the media to a breaking story, say where it’s happening and give a phone number to call for more information. They even have codes, “rouge” for deaths or life-threatening events, “jaune” for major events that are not life-threatening, and “vert” for information that usually doesn’t relate to an emergency. (You can find the full instructions on its use here)

As the Internet has taken on a larger role, the system has shown its age, and emergency services don’t seem to use it very reliably. So reporters call them up anyway at regular intervals to ask what’s up.

Recently, the group behind this system started emailing those alerts out to journalists using a distribution list. (They’re also on Twitter.) The messages are identical (even still being in all-caps), but email is more reliable, because you don’t forget where you put your email or realize three days later that its battery is dead.

At 1:22pm on Wednesday, an alert went out that said this:

SPVM JAUNE COLIS SUSPECT AU CUSM NON FONDE INFO 514-280-2777

This alerts journalists that a suspicious package found at the MUHC construction site was, in fact, a false alarm.

Two minutes later, journalist Maxime Deland of QMI did a reply-all to the message, apparently accidentally, saying “Je m’occupe de la mise à jour du txt.” Clearly a message that was supposed to be internal to QMI. Except, because it was replied to both the sending address and the receiving one, it went through the distribution list. Which is fine because that list is only one email address.

Normally, a distribution list like this would have protections so that only authorized messages would be sent out. A list run by emergency services that goes out to journalists you’d think would be very concerned about such security. But apparently this one allows any email (or any email from a list member) to be sent through the list to everyone else on it.

You can imagine what happens next: Three minutes later, a Reuters journalist says “Please take my name off these messages.” Ten minutes later, one from Le Droit: “Moi aussi SVP. Je suis en Outaouais… Veuillez me retirer de votre liste d’envois.” Two minutes after that: “Moi aussi svp. Je suis à Québec.”

By 2:12pm (the messages abruptly stop at that point), I count 38 messages sent to this list, including about half a dozen reply-all messages asking people to stop doing reply-alls, a few jokes about how technologically illiterate we all are, and one reply from CJAD asking to ignore a previous reply from CJAD asking to remove it from the distribution list.

Annoying as hell for a bunch of journalists, but for most it gives them something to talk to each other about around the water cooler. (Do they still have water coolers?)

Posted in In the news, My articles, Technology

CRTC’s Wireless Code vs. Quebec’s Bill 60

On Monday morning, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued its final Wireless Code, a set of rules all wireless service providers in Canada have to abide by. I was curious how this code compares to the rules the Quebec government put into place in 2009 that similarly protect consumers in cellphone (and other) service contracts.

The result is this story in The Gazette, which appears in Wednesday’s paper. It lists point by point the provisions of both. In general, they’re very similar in terms of how cancellation fees are calculated, how major elements of contracts can’t be changed unilaterally, and how renewals are done. Bill 60 also includes a prohibition on late-payment fees or additional fees for pay-as-you-go services. But most of the advantage for the consumer is in the CRTC’s code, which specifically deals with wireless service. It includes a de facto two-year maximum on contracts, a 15-day trial period, a right to unlock phones, notification of data roaming and caps on data overage and data roaming fees.

You can read the CRTC’s decision here setting the Wireless Code into place and explaining its reasoning. Quebec’s Bill 60 became law in 2009, and the text of it is here (PDF).

The Wireless Code comes into effect with contracts signed on or after Dec. 2, though providers can start applying the new rules to new contracts as soon as they’re drawn up. Since it’s not really in their interest for people to wait, I would expect the code’s provisions to be in new contracts by the major wireless companies before then.

If your main concern is contract length, by the way, you can go ahead and sign now. As of two years from now, all contracts must comply with the code, which means in two years you won’t have a cancellation fee, even if your contract right now says you will.

How will this be paid for?

The big question now is how these changes (particularly contract length) will be reflected in the marketplace. Having phones subsidized over two years instead of three will mean one of three things:

  1. Higher prices for new handsets. I’m guessing this is the most likely option. Instead of getting, say, a $360 subsidy on a phone, which works out to $10 a month for 36 months, the subsidy might only be $240, which means the phone will be $120 more expensive. Expect fewer $0 smartphones.
  2. Higher monthly rates. If subsidies are done over two years instead of three, then they have to be 50% higher on a monthly basis. So that $10 a month subsidy now has to be $15 a month if the total subsidy is the same. But in my experience there hasn’t been much flexibility in monthly pricing based on device subsidy, and monthly fees have much more competitive pressure than initial handset cost. Prices might inch up slowly, but only if all the major providers agree their profit margin at the lower price is unsustainable.
  3. Lower profits. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. But wireless providers make decisions all the time that result in lower profits, hoping that they might result in higher profits down the road. Acquiring new customers has a large price to it (beyond just the phone subsidy), but if you can lock them in for three years or longer, you’ll make much of that money back. Reducing the contract to two years will mean less time to recoup this acquisition cost. We may see an effect on the bottom line here.

Because, in two years from now, all contracts will have to have zero-fee cancellation after two years, expect new handset costs to go up quickly. Which means even though it sounds like it might be a good idea to wait until December, now might actually be the best time to get a new phone.

Posted in Media, Technology, Video, West Island

“A credible delivery system”

It’s never not awkward selling yourself. It feels so vain, so self-important. And at times it can feel like you’re kidding yourself, giving yourself too much credit for minor accomplishments.

I take the humble route. When people praise me and my blog, I pretend they’re exaggerating. (But deep down we all know this is the greatest blog to have ever graced the Internet. Right?)

Anyway, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel in which some local radio people are selling themselves like they’re on an awkward video dating service. I don’t want to make them feel too embarrassed about it, but it’s too funny not to post:

Sharman Yarnell

Peter Anthony Holder

Andrew Peplowski (see him in action selling a USB drive)

The videos were done by KEMEdia, a West Island video production house run by Mike Reid, who judging from the website is trapped in the late 1990s.

(Note to KEMEdia: If you’re selling people as voice-over talent and yourself as a video production house, maybe don’t have their pitch videos done in the echo chamber of doom.)

Posted in Montreal, Technology, TV

Colba.Net applies to expand IPTV to major cities in Quebec and Ontario

Colba.Net's proposed IPTV service area in greater Montreal - the green zone has already been approved by the CRTC

Colba.Net, the Montreal-based independent telecom provider, has applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for permission to expand its new IPTV service to greater Montreal, including the south shore, St. Jean sur Richelieu, Châteauguay, Île Perrot, Vaudreuil, Valleyfield, Laval, the north shore and St. Jérôme.

It’s also looking to setup service in Granby, Sherbrooke/Magog, Sorel/Tracy, Joliette, Trois-Rivières, and the greater Quebec City/Lévis area. You can see maps of those proposed service areas on its website.

In a separate application, Colba.Net is also looking to introduce IPTV to the National Capital Region (Ottawa/Gatineau) and cities in Ontario, including:

  • Barrie
  • Orilla
  • Peterborough
  • Benneville Belleville
  • Kingston
  • The Greater Toronto Area from Oshawa to Newmarket to Hamilton
  • London
  • Stratford
  • Brantford
  • Kitchener
  • Niagara Falls

Again, Colba.Net helpfully provides maps on its website.

Colba.Net launched its IPTV service in Montreal in December, after having received CRTC approval for a network covering the island in October 2010. But it’s still in its infancy. It’s only available downtown, on the Plateau and in Westmount, and it offers only 28 channels, four of which are in HD. Even popular cable channels like CBC News Network, LCN, Discovery Channel and Space are listed as “available soon”.

But the proposed programming grid for Quebec lists just about every cable channel any Canadian could have access to. It’s essentially the same as Bell’s Fibe TV service, including Bell’s community channel, Bell video on demand and Bell pay-per-view. The grid for Ontario is similar. Both would notably take their U.S. network stations from Detroit (and Rochester, N.Y., for Fox) instead of Montreal’s usual Burlington/Plattsburgh.

The technology used is similar to Bell’s Fibe service, and will use ADSL2+ and VDSL2 to squeeze voice, Internet and television data through twisted-pair phone line.

According to the CRTC application, the IPTV service would cost $24.95 per month for base service (which would include mandatory channels, U.S. networks and a few non-mandatory channels like MuchMusic, CMT, YTV and CTV News Channel), plus a $75 installation fee. The service currently costs $34.95 a month, but when bundled with voice and Internet that comes down to $19.95 a month. Service also requires a special router at $109.95 and a set-top box for $149.95.

The application doesn’t specify how many channels would be available in high definition.

Plenty of Montrealers like to use third-party resellers for Internet and phone service, but the lack of alternatives to Bell, Videotron and Shaw when it comes to TV service is a major deterrent to switching. If Colba.Net can offer a competitive television service with as many channels available (including high-definition channels) for a reasonable price, that might be enough to get many people upset with the big players’ prices or poor customer service to switch over.

UPDATE (April 15): Colba.Net has applied yet again to expand its IPTV service, to major cities in every province but Prince Edward Island. Applications can be consulted here:

Posted in Opinion, Radio, Technology

Technology is abandoning AM radio

The only portable AM radio I could find at a huge electronics store - a $10 radio with analog tuner

I did some Boxing Week shopping Thursday night. Despite the cold, I went wandering for about three hours around various stores, though for the first time in years I didn’t have any big-money purchases in mind.

One thing I had been looking for was a portable device capable of receiving AM radio. Ideally it would have had a digital tuner, an antenna of some sort and an internal memory capable of recording the radio. As someone who writes about radio a lot, it helps to be able to record as well as listen.

But going through the aisles of iPods and other MP3 players at Future Shop and Best Buy, I discovered that such a device does not exist. Well, actually, it does, but it’s kind of expensive and you can’t buy it in one of these stores.

In the end, I bought the radio you see above, a Dynex (read: cheap as hell) FM/AM pocket radio. It has an analog tuner and cheap plastic parts (and obviously no recording capability), but it has an antenna and a headphone jack, and though it’s a bit noisy it receives CJAD and CKGM.

It used to be, even as little as a decade ago, that no one in their right mind would try to sell something as a “radio” and not include one of the two bands. But as portable CD players were replaced by smaller MP3 players with lower power demands and no moving parts, FM has become less of a priority and AM has been all but abandoned.

A portable CD player sports a ferrite bar AM antenna (left) about 4cm long and 3mm thick.

There are a few technical reasons for this. For one, because the AM band is at a much lower frequency than FM (centred around 1 MHz vs. around 100 MHz), the antenna has to be much longer. For older portable devices (like my old CD player pictured above), this is accomplished by coiling a long antenna inside the device. Ideally it would be strung out in a straight line for maximum reception, but coiling it is a compromise that works here, though its reception isn’t as good and it’s highly directional (which is why the angle at which you’re holding a portable AM radio affects its reception).

In smaller devices, such an antenna – about the size of a AAA battery – becomes prohibitively large. Smartphones and iPods don’t even have room for that AAA battery, much less an antenna for what has become a secondary function. For FM reception, portable devices ingeniously use the headphone cord for an antenna, but that doesn’t work for AM.

In addition to the size of the antenna, AM radio is more susceptible to interference, requiring even more electronic real estate being used for filtering and amplifying.

"AM RF IN" marks where the AM antenna connects to the circuit board ("RF" means "radio frequency")

And then there’s the simple matter of demand. Music stations long ago moved from AM to FM, as has CBC and Radio-Canada in Montreal. We’re left with only three large commercial AM stations (CKAC 730, CJAD 800 and CKGM 990) and a handful of smaller AM stations that would be very difficult to capture with a portable antenna anyway.

That’s about to change. The CRTC recently awarded two new frequencies (the previously dormant 690 and 940 kHz), and two new AM stations will be on the air at some point in 2012. Two others, who lost in the bidding for those frequencies, may also reapply for other vacant frequencies. By the end of 2013 we could have four new high-power AM radio stations in Montreal, at a time when most broadcasters have all but abandoned the band.

But can these stations survive if there’s nobody left who can listen to them? It’s not just iPods and smartphones. Even larger desktop alarm clock radios have started to abandon AM in favour of iPod connections. Unless a device’s main function is broadcast radio, you’re much less likely to find AM on it. And people like multifunction devices.

The one big thing keeping AM alive is the same thing keeping most radio alive: cars, which are so large there’s no need to worry about space for an antenna. Entertainment for drivers obviously can’t be visual in nature, so radio has become the perfect source for them. And radio has responded in kind by catering to drivers, focusing on rush-hour programming and having regular reports on traffic.

The industry has also responded by offering online streaming as an option, via apps for iPhones or other smartphones. Rather than capture a noisy signal through the air with a big antenna, smartphones can download a high-quality audio stream through the cell network they already use for phone calls and checking their Facebook.

But switching to the Web opens up these broadcasters to competition from all over the world. For people who don’t care as much about local content, there is a seemingly infinite choice of things to listen to.

Five years ago, when asked by Forbes about why its MP3 players didn’t have AM radio, a representative of SanDisk explained the technical reasons behind it, but added that “SanDisk is exploring the possibility of adding an AM receiver to some of its MP3 players.”

I’m still waiting. Hopefully AM radio will still be around by the time a solution is found.

UPDATE (Jan. 9): La Presse has an arts section cover story today about the future of AM radio, which discusses this issue as well as the larger market for the band. It includes quotes from broadcasting consultant Michel Mathieu painting a dire picture for AM radio, which is kind of ironic because Mathieu was hired to get many smaller community stations their broadcast licenses, including stations like CJLO on the AM dial.

There’s also a story about Paul Tietolman and his upcoming French-language talk radio station, with some thoughts from experts about its viability.

Posted in Montreal, Technology

Montreal, where data is becoming free

This post has also been published at openfile.ca

The City of Montreal has jumped on the open data bandwagon, setting up a website with raw data available for download.

There isn’t that much there right now (a full list is available in their press release), but the fact that the city even acknowledges the use of this is a huge step forward, and means we should expect much more in the months to come.

The idea behind open data is that information be made publicly available in its purest form. Instead of charts or long reports, the actual spreadsheet tables or map files are posted online so that application developers can find new and interesting ways of presenting information for public consumption.

For an example, here’s a Google map of the city’s major construction projects currently under way.

Now, this map doesn’t include highway projects that are done by the Ministère de Transport du Québec, or bridge projects under federal jurisdiction. But if those organizations had similar raw data available, a mashup of them together would be trivial. That information could then be used by GPS devices or trip planners to plan around construction sites. Or they could be used by radio station traffic reporters, or by investigative journalists, or by FTQ union thugs.

The best part is that the best use of this data might be something the people who put it online never even considered. The limits are not technological in nature, but merely the limits of the imaginations of thousands of computer geeks.

Another example: This XLS file of bike path counters. A few seconds in the spreadsheet and I find the busiest day for cyclists so far this year was Tuesday, June 21. And the top 25 days are all between May 30 and July 10. Without the raw data, I would have needed to wait for some bureaucrat to create an annual report, if they even bothered at all.

The STM should follow this example

One organization that I think could substantially benefit from an open data policy is the Société de transport de Montréal. Somewhere, it has a huge database of thousands of bus stops and schedules. It uses that data to feed its website, to give to Google Maps, and to create its printed schedules. But the data isn’t available directly to developers. So independent apps that help people know when the bus stops have to scrape the STM’s website for the information.

Giving the data away could help significantly in making these applications better, and in finding new ways of getting information to people that would encourage them to take public transit.

I look forward to seeing what data gets released through this website, and particularly how developers can take that data and do interesting and useful things with it.

If this kind of thing interests you, by the way, Montréal Ouvert is holding a hackathon on Nov. 19. Hopefully the city can put some more stuff online by then that can be played with there.

UPDATE: A congratulatory post from Montréal Ouvert, and more coverage from:

And here’s Projet Montréal shitting all over it because it’s not transparent enough for their liking.

UPDATE (Nov. 1): The city is launching the portal on Nov. 15. And a new iPhone app, NaviCone, is already making use of the city’s construction site mapping data.

Posted in Media, Technology

Cyberpresse creates political donation map

Political donations mapped by postal code from Cyberpresse

Cyberpresse has outdone itself.

Cedric Sam and Thomas de Lorimier, who brought us that poll-by-poll map of 2008 election results – and ported it into English so the Rest of Canada could enjoy it too – have mashed up a Google map with data from Elections Canada on party and candidate donations. It’s introduced here on Saturday by Martin Croteau.

As you should know, political donations are public information, and Elections Canada provides some raw data (though not all, see Sam’s comment below). Sam and de Lorimier used some Google Refine finessing to create an interactive map of donations, colour-coded by party. Each dot represents a postal code where a registered donor lives. Clicking on one reveals the name of the donor, the date and amount of the donation, and the party or local riding association the money was donated to.

It’s a fun tool if you know your neighbours and want to find out who among them is politically active. You can also search through the data. Or, if you don’t like the way they presented it, you can download the raw refined data yourself and create your own map.

Another example of the power of data journalism.

Posted in Montreal, Radio, Technology

Team 990, where “nothing fucking works”

I wasn’t listening at the time, but enough people were at about 12:50pm Thursday during the Tony Marinaro show on CKGM when an advertising break seemed to go wrong. Very wrong.

Two ads play simultaneously, then they’re followed by dead air. Marco Campagna struggles to get things running, but he’s run into an apparently common computer problem and he lets out a string of obscenities, not realizing that a microphone in the studio is picking up his frustrated yells and is broadcasting them along with the ads.

After the break, according to those listening, cohost Randy Tieman apologized on behalf of the station for the tirade. Campagna, reportedly, feels horrible about what happened.

I feel for the guy. It’s one of those worst-nightmare scenarios for anyone in radio broadcasting. And computer problems can be the most frustrating at times, especially when you’re in an every-second-counts situation like live radio.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel so bad that I’m going to keep the audio off the Internet. A listener caught the minute-long incident and created an audio file. I’ve made a video with captions and uploaded it to YouTube CTVglobemedia, which owns CKGM and apparently doesn’t have a sense of humour, has filed a copyright infringement notice with YouTube, which has disabled the video.

Considering the sound of an announcer blurting out a bunch of F-bombs has no commercial value to the station (what are they going to do, sell it on iTunes?), I think a clear fair dealing case can be made for this.

Rather than play the game with YouTube and other video hosts, I’ll just post the MP3 audio here: F-bombs on The Team 990

Enjoy. And just be glad it wasn’t you.

UPDATE (April 4): The clip was played on the Howard Stern show today. Here’s the audio: Team 990 F-bomb on Howard Stern show (MP3)

Posted in On the Net, Opinion, Technology, TV

The ho-hum Bye-Bye

This parody of Céline Dion and Julie Snyder: Funniest segment of the night, or mean-spirited attack on Quebecor? In this case, funny is in the eye of your employer

It’s tradition in Quebec media to review each year’s end-of-year special from Radio-Canada, the Bye-Bye. It went a bit crazy two years ago when Véronique Cloutier and Louis Morissette decided to take their first crack at it. So much so that there wasn’t one to end 2009.

So you can imagine how much everyone was anxious to see what would happen when Cloutier and Morissette decided they would throw themselves into the gauntlet again and host the Bye-Bye 2010.

I watched it, along with my family, on New Year’s Eve, and followed the reaction live on Twitter. My first thoughts were that it was pretty impressive, that they weren’t overcompensating by pulling their punches compared to 2008, and that it wasn’t likely to offend anyone … or at least, no one not working for Quebecor.

The consensus was that the production values were good (particularly makeup and prosthetics, which in some cases made the actors barely recognizable as themselves and instantly recognizable as their targets), the parodies were well done, and the music videos were great, but the jokes fell flat, which is kind of the most important part.

The first professional reviews came quickly afterward (Richard Therrien’s was up in less than an hour). But many others waited because they were to go in newspapers, and many of them published neither on New Year’s Day nor on Sundays. It would be more than 48 hours before some people would read anything about it.

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Posted in Media, Opinion, Technology

La Presse’s social media policy: Is it realistic?

La Presse has set new rules on how reporters can use Facebook and other social media

Patrick Lagacé has published on his blog a new policy on the use of social media by journalists at La Presse and Cyberpresse.

Having such a policy is a really good idea and I wish more media organizations would develop their own (or adapt those used by other organizations) and have frank, constructive conversations with their staff about using social media as part of their jobs.

But while Lagacé describes his employer’s policy as “le gros bon sens”, I wonder how seriously it can be taken and how rigidly it can be enforced in real-life situations.

Let’s explore it point by point:

  • Don’t republish (or “retweet”) unverified information. As Lagacé says, this is the “Pat Burns” clause, and it just makes sense. Some social media experts argue that journalists should republish unverified rumours and explain that they’re unverified, but I think even retweeting incorrect information can be damaging to your reputation. That said, how far should we take this rule? If a competitor has a major scoop, should it not be mentioned or even linked to on social media until the journalist has independently confirmed it? What about reports from so-called citizen journalists? Or celebrity gossip?
  • Journalists (except columnists and editorialists) should avoid publishing their political or religious opinions or taking sides in societal debates. I’m guessing this refers more to taking sides on, say, the euthanasia debate than the latest episode of Mad Men. I like the idea behind this, but I think journalists suppressing their opinions gives a false impression to news consumers that they have none. I’d rather have a journalist who expresses their point of view and keeps an open mind than one who keeps it bottled up and lets biases show up in print.
  • Journalists (except columnists and critics) should avoid giving their opinion on an event they’re covering. This one is more straight-forward. If you’re at a press conference given by Pierre-Karl Péladeau, don’t tweet “QUEBECOR SUCKS”. But would this mean, for example, that Fabrice de Pierrebourg couldn’t comment about politics?
  • Unless an agreement has been reached beforehand, journalists should report breaking news to Cyberpresse before publishing it through social media. This one bothers me a bit. Beat writers constantly have little bits of news that they publish on Twitter. Waiting for Cyberpresse editors to create a story and publish it online can waste valuable minutes and give competitors a speed advantage (looking at Cyberpresse’s Twitter feed, I don’t see a single breaking news tweet over the past two weeks that doesn’t link to an already-published story). Besides, why encourage people to follow journalists if you don’t want them to publish important news? I can understand wanting to make sure breaking news is on Cyberpresse’s website as soon as possible, but I think both should try to publish information as fast as possible, without one waiting for the other.
  • Journalists should indicate in social media profiles their employment for La Presse. Agreed. It’s something a bunch of people forget to do, but it’s important for the sake of disclosure. (Of course, context is everything – I’d expect this information on a beat writer’s Twitter account, but is it necessary for an online dating site?)
  • Profile pictures should be “professional” and not carry any campaign material (like those “twibbons”). I’m not entirely sure what “professional” means (no party pictures on Facebook, or just no pictures of drunken debauchery?), but it makes sense, provided the profile on the social media site is being used in a professional context. As for the “twibbons” (those little flags in the corner of profile pictures that show support for a cause, whether it’s supporting Haiti or bringing the Nordiques to Quebec), I’ve seen quite a few on journalist profile pictures and I wonder if a blanket ban is realistic here.
  • Journalists should inform their employer in writing if they have a personal blog outside of Cyberpresse. Having it in writing seems a bit much, but ok. But does this include, say, a LiveJournal account that’s restricted to friends? Does it include anonymous blogs? (Can you be disciplined if they find out you run an anonymous blog and didn’t tell them about it?)
  • Journalists should avoid publishing photos, videos or commentaries about meetings or other private events at the office. This sort of goes to one of the rules that many people overlook but is one of the most important: Don’t publish information meant for internal use only. Sometimes it can be something that seems innocent but turns out to be damaging, like inadvertently disclosing a colleague’s secret source or tweeting about office gossip. It may seem odd that media organizations would want to be anything but fully transparent (and I certainly believe in having as much transparency as possible), but there are things that are kept from the public for good reason.

I think my biggest issue with these new rules is that their goal is to dehumanize journalists, to present them as if they’re infallible beacons of objectivity and have no views of their own, even on society’s most polarizing issues. It encourages journalists to go underground with their personal feelings, either through locked-down personal social media profiles or by using pseudonyms to express themselves. It goes in the opposite direction of recent moves by La Presse and Cyberpresse to put their journalists in the spotlight, putting their photos with their stories on Cyberpresse and encouraging them to start blogs.

Of course, few of these rules apply to columnists, of which there are an increasing number. So Patrick Lagacé can be as irreverent as he wants on Les Francs-Tireurs, and Hugo Dumas can still say what he wants about Tout le monde en parle. Becoming a columnist now becomes a way of gaining freedom of personal expression, even if a columnist’s role is mainly journalistic in nature.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that my blog probably goes against the letter of about half of these rules. I wonder how much of what I do here would be considered inappropriate by the authors of this policy.

A good first step

Despite my concerns, I think this is a step in the right direction. News organizations need to have discussions with journalists about social media, and this policy was the result of such discussions. It might need a few tweaks to consider various contexts, but the fundamentals are sound. Journalists shouldn’t be advocating on one side or another of the debates they cover, and social media doesn’t change that. Nor does it provide a way to escape being as a journalist, because people will judge you as much for what you write as your Facebook status update as what you write in the lead of your next news story.

Even those journalists without formal policies should look at the above and consider following these rules (or at least understanding why they exist and thinking hard before breaking them, like I do regularly).

Because when it comes to journalists using social media, the most important rule to follow is to use common sense.

UPDATE: NPR has sent out a memo to employees warning them about attending rallies organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo has some common-sense rules about journalists engaging in political activity.

UPDATE (Oct. 20): The Washington Post is the latest to weigh in with warnings, saying that reader engagement is important in social media, but that journalists shouldn’t actually, you know, engage with readers.

UPDATE (Nov. 14): A piece in Trente calls for honesty if not absolute objectivity.

UPDATE (April 5): Mathew Ingram, formerly of the Globe and Mail, criticizes a similar social media policy at the Toronto Star that suggests reporters shouldn’t discuss articles in progress or engage with readers in online forums.

Posted in Montreal, Navel-gazing, Radio, Technology

The lure of the Digital Life

I was recently invited to appear as the guest on an episode of The Digital Life, a half-hour show on Radio Centre-Ville (CINQ 102.3 FM). Pre-recorded last Wednesday, it aired on Saturday afternoon and is available as a podcast on their website. I was asked about the origin of the name “Fagstein”, what I think of journalists who look down on bloggers, and a few other things.

Digital Life host Reisa Levine and producer Mark Korman

The half-hour went by pretty fast, even though there were no commercials or breaks for news, traffic and weather.

It was my first time at Centre-Ville’s studio (which, despite its name, is actually at St. Laurent and Fairmount – closer to a geographic centre of the city than downtown). I’d say it’s tiny compared to other radio studios, but I can’t really think of any big radio studios these days.

Small studio at Radio Centre-Ville

The show was recorded in the smaller of two studios – another down the hall used for live broadcasts has a much larger table and more microphones. But the quality was fine.

Reisa Levine and Mark Korman have been doing the show for about a year now, since the former hosts stepped aside (as tends to be the case for volunteer work). Levine works at CitizenShift (formerly of the NFB) and is a veteran media producer. Korman is the author of the Montreal Radio Blog, which is worth reading for locals interested in radio.

Recent topics covered include PodCamp and the Citizen Media Rendez-Vous. If you know what those are, this show is probably worth listening to.

I asked them why they do it. Why, when just about everyone is a social media expert and has their own podcast, they would have their own show on the subject and devote so much time at a community radio station that barely anyone can hear.

Levine’s answer was simple: It’s a labour of love. It’s the same reason I write this blog. You do it for yourself.

Makes perfect sense to me.

The Digital Life show airs on Radio Centre-Ville (102.3 FM) every Saturday from 2:30 pm to 3 pm. It also streams live from Radio Centre-Ville’s website and is available as a download from the Digital Life blog.

Posted in Business, Opinion, Technology

Your fake phones are useless to me

Fake phones at Best Buy

I’m currently in the market for a smartphone. I’ve had the same phone for four and a half years now, and it’s starting to show its age. It’s getting tougher and tougher to get the charger’s plug in the right position to get it to charge, and I’ve recently learned that the alarm doesn’t work when the phone is charging.

Meanwhile, my portable media player, a couple of years old, is also deteriorating. The audio jack doesn’t always make proper contact, the top layer of its skin is flaking off, and the software design flaws I tolerated at the beginning are starting to get on my nerves.

Plus, it seems everyone cool has a smartphone but me, and I want to have at least basic access to the Internet when I’m out and about.

So wanting to kill three birds with one stone, I’m doing research into both handsets (I’m looking at non-iPhones) and voice/data plans. I’ll probably do a plan post at some point, as I have a bunch of numbers in a spreadsheet right now.

With online research, I’ve narrowed down a short list of devices that meet my criteria: Wi-Fi and a web browser, an open operating system (Android or Symbian), FM radio (remarkably hard to find, and a major factor against the iPhone), and a feeling of ruggedness – I don’t want some cheap plastic part to break after six months and render the phone useless.

Since there’s just so much I can learn from reading specs sheets and looking at reviews online, I went to some stores recently to check out the devices in person.

Tables and tables of fake phones at Future Shop

Electronics stores have entire sections devoted to cellphones, each one tied to a security cord so you can hold it in your hand but can’t steal it. You can touch the phones, slide out keyboards where such slides exist, and run your fingers across the buttons.

But that’s about it. You can’t turn them on, try the browser, see how high the volume goes, check out what software features it has, or anything else that involves a battery. You can get a vague idea of what the operating system looks like by the fake display that’s pasted on, but you can’t get any sense of how it works.

It’s the same at the carriers’ special shops. There might be a working iPhone display at the Rogers store, but good luck testing out that Motorola Quench or Nokia N97.

This seems ridiculous to me. Computers and laptops are almost always sold in a way that lets you test them out first. So are iPods, digital cameras and camcorders, TVs and other electronic devices.

I asked one of the customer service people at one of those inside-the-mall shops about having phones on display that actually work. He said that if they did that, the phones would constantly be stolen. Those phones, with the bungee cords attaching them to the table? And what about that iPhone – the most in-demand mobile device on the planet right now – that you’ve managed to setup a proper display for?

I’ve gone to Bell, Telus, Rogers, Fido, Virgin Mobile, Videotron and unaffiliated stores, looking for somewhere I can test drive one of these non-iPhone smartphones. I’m facing the prospect of choosing a $500 device without having turned it on first.

It’s not exactly encouraging.