Category Archives: Technology

Montreal, where data is becoming free

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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.

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.

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)

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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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.

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.

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.

Why the media won’t learn from false death reports

It’s been two weeks since the media (both the “mainstream” and “new”/”social”) reported that former NHL coach Pat Burns had died, only to be corrected later that day by Pat Burns himself.

Getting a story wrong in such an obviously embarrassing way is bad enough, but killing someone who isn’t dead (but whose health is failing) makes it even worse. This wasn’t about getting an address wrong or misquoting someone. Stories like these can cause undue anguish upon someone’s loved ones.

Two weeks later, we still don’t have a perfectly clear picture of what happened, even though just about every person with a blog and an axe to grind has proclaimed their superiority on a high horse and cast blame upon those they deem less worthy of the term “journalist.”

Timeline of tweets mentioning Pat Burns on Sept. 17

What really happened

Here’s what we do know: On Sept. 16, news reports surfaced that Burns’s health was declining. He’s fighting a losing battle with cancer, so this wasn’t entirely unexpected.

On the morning of Sept. 17, former Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher met reporters – including the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox – and told them that Pat Burns had died. Cox tweeted the information, and it began to spread.

The sources of reports by other media are less clear: Few of them have published long mea culpas and erroneous tweets and stories have been largely deleted. This tweet from News 1130 radio in Vancouver is typical, happening just as news was breaking around 11am. CTV Ottawa also tweeted the news (and later deleted it and apologized). Ray Ferraro gave it on air on The Team 1040 in Vancouver. The Fan 590 did the same.

With the number of reports expanding exponentially (many of them poorly sourced), news organizations became more confident the news was real and started re-reporting it. Some used the vague “sources report”, others credited specific news organizations, and some didn’t bother with either. On Twitter, where the 140-character limit discourages proper sourcing and the breaking-news-retweet culture means rumours can spread fast, any care to qualify the news with attribution is quickly lost in a sea of tweets like “RIP Pat Burns”.

At some point, TSN prepared an obituary that was published on its website. TSN denied to Torontoist that they had ever reported Burns dying, but the National Post has a screenshot of the TSN story online saying exactly that.

TSN being a respected news organization, its story sparked other media to make the decision to publish the information, including The Gazette. Sun Media even published a pre-written obituary column. The Toronto Star and other news organizations also reported that Burns had died.

(It’s been theorized that TSN may have inadvertently published a draft obituary that was findable by Google even though it hadn’t been posted to the website’s homepage. That’s one plausible explanation, and a good warning about what’s considered “published” in some content management systems.)

Before too long, reports of Burns’s not-death had begun to circulate. Burns’s son was telling journalists that his father was alive. News organizations started panicking and pulling their stories. Eventually Burns himself called TSN’s Bob McKenzie to say he was still with us. The not-death confirmed, those obituaries were quickly being replaced by stories explaining that Burns was not dead despite the “rumours” that those same news organizations had described as “reports” only an hour earlier.

By the next day, columns started appearing in newspapers, many of them blaming Twitter for the bad Burns rumours or bragging that they were more cautious. (Though not to brag about it, CTV Montreal’s Jed Kahane made a point of emailing me to say that his station never reported the erroneous news, even though its sister station in Ottawa did, causing many to say “CTV” got it wrong and paint the entire network with one irresponsible brush. Canadian Press also reported that they held off on the story)

CBC put up a “timeline” of tweets, but one that is entirely blank for the first 50 minutes of this story’s genesis. Influence Communication also puts up a timeline (one that suggests TSN did in fact tweet the information, which TSN has denied), though it’s similarly less than complete.

Sound familiar?

If this all sounds a lot like what happened to Gordon Lightfoot in February, you aren’t imagining it. There are many aspects of the two obiticides that are similar:

  • Both stories originated from a friend of the not-deceased, who was erroneously informed of the death and told the media (in Lightfoot’s case, it was a prank, while Fletcher says he was “misinformed by a friend”, without making it clear who that friend was or how the misinformation originated). In neither case did any of this original communication happen via Twitter, so far as we know
  • In both cases, the information was published on Twitter and on news websites by journalists – with no confirmation from an independent party
  • In both cases, other news media re-reported the news, many with inadequate sourcing and none making a proper attempt at independent confirmation
  • In both cases, the multiplication of reports from a single source appears to have been confused as multiple independent sources, giving more credibility to what is essentially a single-source second-hand rumour
  • In both cases, it was the subject himself who had to step forward and proclaim his aliveness
  • In both cases, editors quickly suppressed or deleted stories from news websites when learning of rumours that the story was wrong – leaving only an error message which could have given readers the impression that either the website had a technical problem or that the organization was trying to hide the fact that they screwed up
  • In both cases, mainstream media blamed Twitter and social media, while so-called new media blamed the mainstream
  • In both cases, there were lots of explanations, but few apologies; lots of analyses of what went wrong, but few reasonable suggestions on how to prevent it from happening again

In reality, such errors long predate Twitter, and have followed similar paths for many years. Read this excerpt from Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error, published in 2007 (mere months after Twitter launched and long before it achieved the kind of audience it has now), and you see a lot that applies to this situation. Twitter hasn’t created a problem here, but it has made it much worse.

The get-it-second philosophy

Here’s the truth: Despite all the apologies, all the hand-wringing, all the judgmental columns, the media won’t learn much from Pat Burns, just like they learned little from Gordon Lightfoot. Sure, they will be a bit more skeptical the next time they hear a celebrity dies, but not enough. We saw that just this week as everyone jumped over themselves to report the death of comedian Greg Giraldo and movie star Tony Curtis. Fortunately they were right on both counts, but many of those early stories said things like “TMZ reports” or “Entertainment Weekly reports”.

So why the rush anyway? It’s not like they’ll get any more dead if you wait a few minutes, right? And if you don’t have the scoop, why would you want to draw attention to that embarrassing fact?

The answer is Google.

Ever since mainstream news organizations first learned how to analyze traffic to their websites, they’ve been desperate to harness the awesome power of Google. When news breaks about someone, searches for that person’s name skyrocket, and online editors know the faster they get something – anything – online with that person’s name, the faster they can scoop up some of those Google searches and see a spike in traffic. This is why online media seem so obsessed with the most minor stories about Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or other celebrities: They’re already searched like crazy, and the combination of celebrity and breaking news is a gold mine that the media (whether it’s the Vancouver Sun or the Huffington Post) are desperate to pillage.

Not wanting to be the only news organization not reporting some hot gossip, many will lower their standards or eliminate them entirely in the interests of speed.

Google didn’t create this problem, but it did make it much worse. It doesn’t adequately punish news websites that steal scoops from others. As a result, it rewards this behaviour. It encourages narrow-minded thinking and pushes people toward the lowest common denominator. It prioritizes speed over accuracy or depth. It drives traffic to stories that are identical to those found elsewhere (Google News judges importance by how often a story is repeated) rather than original reporting that is truly worthy of attention.

Before this era, journalists were a bit more careful. For one thing, they were highly skeptical of big scoops from the competition, and many would verify the information with the thought of how great it would be if that scoop proved to be wrong. Now, the news happens too fast for that. It’s better to report the news to draw the Google traffic, and then update the story with confirmation or denials later.

Report then verify

Some self-proclaimed social media experts say this is actually how it should be done. For them, rumours should be reported as such by news organizations on Twitter, because it’s better than the alternative of saying nothing and letting people think you’re just unaware of the story.

I don’t know about that. There are lots of rumours out there, and reporting on all of them lowers the level of journalism significantly and can torpedo a news organization’s reputation. Do we want all news to be on the same level as celebrity gossip magazines, who breathlessly report scoops that might have as little as a 7% chance of being true?

Personally, I think there’s little value in repeating someone else’s scoop. (It’s better to just link to it – and if everyone did that there would be far more rewards in general for good reporting.) Better to focus on covering an issue with depth and contributing something original to the conversation.

But then I’m not the one who has to worry constantly about making sure my website’s page view statistics look good week-over-week.

The fallacy of the reliable source

Perhaps the most important lesson to arise out of the Burns and Lightfoot screwups is that just because a source is well-placed and honest doesn’t mean they’re right. Cliff Fletcher and Ronnie Hawkins aren’t journalists, but they were treated as if they were. Being friends of the not-deceased, their words were considered golden, requiring no verification.

It’s important to track the source of information, and to ask anyone who doesn’t know something first-hand where their information came from – then go to that source and repeat the process.

But I’m not naive enough to think this is actually going to happen.

Despite what they teach you in journalism school about getting three sources for every story, many stories are single-sourced. That brief in the paper about the fatal car accident? Straight out of the mouth of the Montreal police or SQ media relations person. That business earnings brief? Rewritten corporate press release. The sports league standings? From the league itself.

It’s understandable. In many cases it’s just impractical to verify information, particularly when the source is almost always right and there’s no reason why it would intentionally deceive.

The rarity of active deception is actively exploited by journalists. Few of us check driver’s licenses when asking for a name, or independently verify information in an official computerized listing. We’ll double-check to see if a celebrity Twitter account is really that celebrity, but if it’s got one of those “verified” badges on it we’ll trust that Twitter has already done the work for us.

This isn’t just a problem for the “lamestream” media. New media and social media have the same implicit trust in their sources, and the vast majority of Twitter users (myself included) will pass on information that came from a single reliable source.

Applying a rigid three-source rule to all information reported in the news media is simply impractical. (Heck, many of the so-called facts in this blog post have only one source, and some have none.) What is practical, however, is applying a rigid attribution policy, where breaking news is properly sourced and information can be traced to its origin. Instead of saying “according to multiple reports”, make it clear: “TSN and CTV are reporting”.

After all, a story that says “A story on TSN’s website reports Pat Burns has died” is factually correct.

Combined with a robust skepticism of any information that doesn’t come from an official source, and a bit of caution about reporting news as important as someone’s death, this can hopefully significantly reduce the appearance of such errors in the future.

And maybe – just maybe – news organizations can become more trustworthy, even when they get it wrong.

Chatr and the fake mobile competitors

Rogers yesterday launched a new wireless “brand” called Chatr, which is being rolled out in several Canadian cities and is supposed to come to Montreal soon.

The launch has caused some ruckus because its pricing plan is seen as targeting one of the new wireless competitors just starting up. Mobilicity, which says Rogers is using predatory pricing to drive it out of the marketplace, says it will take legal action.

I’m no mobile pricing expert, but $45 for unlimited talk and text doesn’t seem unfair to me. And bringing everyone’s prices down was the entire point of having new entrants into the wireless market, no? (Admittedly, the fact that Chatr is available only in the largest cities is kind of suspicious since it uses the Rogers network.)

What bothers me about this launch isn’t the fact that it’s competing with other wireless providers, it’s that Rogers is doing its best to fool people into thinking the service has nothing to do with Rogers.

Take a look at the press release. The word “Rogers” doesn’t appear anywhere. It makes a vague reference to “a trusted network”, but no mention of what network that is. The blurb “about chatr wireless” also makes no reference to Rogers, making it seem as if this is an independent company.

Same thing on the website (which is neither nor, meaning Rogers has picked this stupid name without even getting the benefit of the stupid name domain name). Not on its frequently asked questions page, its coverage page, or its “about chatr” page. This isn’t just being forgetful or not wanting to draw attention to something. There’s a serious effort here to hide the fact that Rogers is behind this brand.

They’re all doing it

This is nothing new. When Koodo launched in 2008, Telus did everything it could to hide the fact that they were behind it. The word “Telus” doesn’t appear on Koodo’s “About Us” page or coverage page either. You have to go to the fine print of the privacy policy, and read its fine print to see them say that Koodo is actually a division of Telus.

Virgin Mobile Canada makes it seem as if they’re owned by Virgin Group, but in fact it’s owned by Bell Mobility, a name that appears nowhere on their website.

Of the virtual brands, only Solo Mobile (Bell) and Fido (Rogers) make it clear who they’re owned by.


Let’s count that, by the way. Eight mobile brands run by three companies. And I’m not counting the weird stuff involving third parties like Petro Canada Mobility or President’s Choice Telecom. While most companies think of centralization and imposing a national brand on its subsidiaries, Canada’s wireless companies do the opposite.

When your reputation as an industry is so shattered that you have to create fake competition to appeal to a large segment of the population that hates you, and then when that doesn’t work you create a second fake competitor … honestly, I don’t know what to say.

The worst part is that Canada’s Big Three wireless companies don’t think this explosion of “brands” is evidence of a larger problem.

Welcome to the new Gazette

Notice a difference?

Before After





If not, the designers have done their jobs right.

The Gazette is in the middle of major technological transition behind the scenes, from Macs using QuarkXPress (version 3.32, circa 1996) and other specialized programs to PCs using Adobe InDesign under a system called Saxotech. Tech business reporter Jason Magder has been describing a bit of the process, particularly from a reporter’s point of view.

The changeover has been happening in stages, as staff in various sections get training on the new system (while other staff, including additional hired help such as myself continue to put out the paper every day). The features sections went first, then business. This week was the go-live for the A section. The pages on the left (Tuesday and Wednesday) were created in QuarkXPress. Those on the right (Thursday and Friday) were done in InDesign.

Because the transition is being done in phases and not all at once, the designers had to create templates and stylesheets in InDesign that matched the old Quark pages. Some minor changes were made to clear up inconsistencies or make things easier for editors, but as you can see most of it basically looks the same.

To be clear, readers should not notice any major changes to the design, and no changes at all to content. (Although a bug in a process that is supposed to make it easier to copy articles from print to web causes random words to appear in the middle of sentences, which has peeved a few web readers.)

The next – and last – section to be moved over is sports, which has the latest deadlines. That’s next week.

I wish I could say more about how the system works, but I’m in the very last group getting training (in a group that incidentally includes the editor-in-chief, so I guess I should be on my best behaviour). This puts me in the odd position of knowing less than almost all my colleagues when it comes to a computer system. You can’t imagine how frustrating that can be for a guy with a computer science degree. But I’ll muddle through these last couple of weeks.

NHL can make history by opening up

This video is one of many, many parodies of the National Hockey League’s History Will Be Made ad campaign for the 2010 playoffs.

Some are hilarious. Some are awesome to watch. Some are head-scratchers. Some talk about the history that wasn’t made. Some are bitter (with reason). Some look like they’ll be killer until a monumental letdown at the punchline.

Some make fun of officiating. Some make fun of journalists. Some just make fun of Ryan O’Byrne.

As the playoffs come to an end, the NHL is tooting its own horn about the campaign, and specifically about the fan-produced videos, which are made possible mainly by the simplicity of the ads’ creation – just a piece of video with cheap old-movie-style effects, played backwards in slow-motion with a piece of instrumental music.

It’s a case study for the power of viral marketing, and how giving people the power to make their own media can be better than making it yourself.

But while these videos are all over the place, the NHL didn’t make it easy for people to use the source material, and the thing executives are heralding now could soon become illegal.

Digital locks

The Canadian government recently introduced a bill, Bill C-32, which would update the Copyright Act to reflect changes in the digital age. I won’t go too much into the details (feel free to read Michael Geist if you want to learn way too much about it), but there are two provisions that are pertinent here. One makes it legal to do mashups under certain circumstances (one being that it’s not done for profit), which is certainly welcome.

The other is a much-criticized provision that, put simply, says that you can’t circumvent a digital protection measure or “digital lock” on copyrighted content. That program you use to download DVDs to your hard drive? Illegal. That program or website that allows you to download YouTube videos? Illegal. It doesn’t matter how easy it is to circumvent the lock, as long as the copyright holder tries to lock something down, you’re not allowed to have access to it. And you can’t have access to the tool that circumvents that measure either.

Among the most protective copyright holders are sports leagues. Before live broadcasts, many of them include a reminder that videos, photos or even descriptions of the game (by this they usually mean radio play-by-play) cannot be retransmitted or republished without the express written permission of the league. Though the NHL isn’t as bad as Major League Baseball of the National Football League, those same conditions apply.

Except for recording off a TV, there is no easy, legal way of downloading video of these iconic (or just funny) NHL moments of history in order to create these mashups. Even buying a DVD wouldn’t make it legal under this new law because those DVDs have digital locks. Creators have to first get access to the videos through some grey or black market – or find a way to circumvent or break the digital lock – before they can create their mashup. Some methods are really low-tech (like pointing a video camera at a TV screen), while others are the result of what might be considered hacking.

Let the people create

Here’s a radical idea: The NHL should post short video clips of the greatest moments in hockey history in open formats and without any copy or access controls (UPDATE: They’ve already done this with the music used). Let them import the video directly into iMovie or Final Cut or Windows Movie Maker and have fun with them. Don’t force your fans to jump through hoops to participate in your marketing campaign.

Rather than cut into their profits, this could instead drive interest in the NHL. Seeing a 30-second clip of Bobby Orr scoring a Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal and flying through the air could lead to people wanting to watch the whole game, or at least wanting to buy tickets to the next Bruins match. Seeing a three-minute montage of great Orr moments would have a similar effect.

The same could be done for recent highlights. Thanks to Yahoo Sports, bloggers and others can post highlights of the previous night’s game and discuss them. But while those videos are embeddable – and that’s a pretty big step already -they’re not downloadable.

Where the NHL will make money is in ticket sales, merchandising, and exclusive broadcast deals for live games. It’s not in 30-second highlights of history that everyone can see on YouTube already anyway. It’s not like you’re getting compensation when those highlights appear on the nightly news.

Put it out there. Let your fans play with your golden moments. Like with the History Will Be Made campaign, you might be surprised how creative they can get with them.

TVA journalist fired for plagiarizing Rue Frontenac

You probably didn’t know until this week about a journalist named Stéphane Malhomme.

It’s OK, though, because two years out of journalism school, and a month into a job as a web editor for Canoe, his journalism career is over.

In case you didn’t hear, Malhomme published an article on the website of Canal Argent, TVA’s business network, about this guy Martin Tremblay who is fighting the government over tax money he thinks he doesn’t owe them. Nothing particularly special about the story. It’s topped with a quote from Tremblay (from an “exclusive” interview on Argent), and has a bunch of background below.

The article has since been pulled, but Google Cache still has it, and it was republished through the Agence QMI service, and appeared in the Journal de Montréal.

It didn’t take long before the folks at Rue Frontenac, the website of the locked-out journalists and other workers at the Journal de Montréal, saw this piece and noticed that it bore a striking resemblance to one written by Martin Bisaillon that same day.

In fact, the resemblance was more than striking. Though the stories are not identical, some sentences and even entire paragraphs are. But Canoe’s story makes no reference to Rue Frontenac.

Rue Frontenac cried foul, and by the next day TVA apologized for the plagiarism and said it had fired Malhomme. (As a contract worker, Malhomme did not have job security from the union.)

Continue reading Menace to society?

Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the big cheese behind Quebecor, caused a bit of a stink this week when he wrote an op-ed (published in French in Le Devoir and in English in the Financial Post) attacking the CBC over the fee-for-carriage debate, even though the CRTC has already decided that the CBC shouldn’t be able to charge cable and satellite providers for permission to rebroadcast its signals.

The CBC (or, more accurately, Radio-Canada) has been a bug up Péladeau’s butt for quite a while now. He’s angry that the government-funded broadcaster competes with his privately-run TVA network, and similarly how its all-news network RDI competes with TVA’s all-news network LCN.

It’s not that he doesn’t think there should be a public broadcaster. He just doesn’t want there to be one that competes with the private networks, offering popular programming and in particular taking U.S. programs and re-airing them for profit. The Radio-Canada envisioned by Péladeau is more like CPAC, contributing to the public dialogue but not with anything that people actually want to watch. Certainly nothing anyone would want to pay to advertise on.

In a way, I can see where he’s coming from. Imagine if you ran a business, and next door there’s a competing business that gets heavily subsidized by the government. I’m sure the CBC bosses and supporters have a ready-made retort to attack that comparison (CBC boss Hubert Lacroix touched on some of them in the National Post), but even if it’s not perfect, it still makes a strong point.

If only someone who’s not Pierre-Karl Péladeau (or from some government-hating conservative think-tank) would make it, it might carry more weight.

This week, though, Péladeau added another aspect to his anti-CBC rant:

Furthermore, the CBC has launched the website without consulting the industry, a move that jeopardizes Canada’s broadcasting system by providing free, heavily subsidized television content on the Internet without concern for the revenue losses that may result, not only for the CBC but also for other stakeholders, including writers and directors.

By “without consulting the industry”, he means, well, him. has programming from Télé-Québec, TV5, TFO and others. V and RDS aren’t included, but they have their own websites that provide video on demand.

TVA, meanwhile, doesn’t offer shows on demand online, even those shows that you’d think would get a pretty high audience there. Instead, it offers them on Videotron’s Illico on demand (Videotron, by wacky coincidence, is also owned by Quebecor).

Péladeau argues about “heavily subsidized television content”, which is hardly new to Somehow, I suspect he might be a bit more angry at the fact that has become popular, and might even become a Québécois Hulu, leaving TVA in the dark.

Mind you, Hulu isn’t making money either.