Category Archives: media

The Curious Case of Media Opposing Government Transparency

My gosh there is a lot going on. Republicans – REPUBLICANS(!) who were in charge of America’s prison system are warning Canada not to follow the Conservatives plan on prisons, the Prime Minister has renamed the government, after himself and my friends at Samara had in Toronto the Guardian’s Emily Bell to talk wikileaks and data journalism (wish I could have been there).

It’s all very interesting… and there is a media story here in British Columbia that’s been brewing where a number of journalists have become upset about a government that has become “too” transparent.

It’s an important case as it highlights some of the tensions that will be emerging in different places as governments rethink how they share information.

The case involves BC Ferries, a crown corporation that runs ferries along critical routes around the province. For many years the company was not subject to the province’s Freedom of Information legislation. However, a few months ago the government stated the crown corporation would need to comply with the act. This has not pleased the corporation’s president.

To comply with the act BC Ferries has created an FOI tracker website on which it posts the text of FOI requests received. Once the records are processed they are posted online and some relevant listservs. As a result they can be read by an audience (that cares).

Broadly, journalists, are up in arms for two reasons. One bad, the other even worse.

The terrible reasons was raised by Chad Skelton (who’s a great reporter for whom I have a lot of respect and whose column should be read regularly).

Skelton argues that BC Ferries deserves part of the blame for stories with errors as the process lead news agencies to rush (carelessly) in order to beat each other in releasing the story. This is a disappointing position. It’s the news media’s job to get the facts right. (It’s also worth noting here that Skelton’s own media organizations did not make the mistakes in question). Claiming that BC Ferries is even partly responsible seems beyond problematic since they are in no way involved in the fact and error checking processes. We trust the media (and assess it) to get facts right in fast moving situations… why should this be different?

More interesting is the critique that this model of transparency undermines the ability of journalists to get a scoup and thus undermines the business model of traditional media.

What makes this so interesting is that is neither true nor, more importantly, relevant.

First, it’s not the job of government to support the business model of the media. The goal of government should be to be as transparent as possible about its operations. This can, and should, include its FOI requests. Indeed, one thing I like about this process is that an FOI request that is made but isn’t addressed starts to linger on the site – and that the organization can be held to account, publicly, for the delay. More importantly, however, I’m confident that the media will find new ways to exploit the process and that, while painful, new business models will emerge.

Second, the media is not the only user of FOI. It strikes me as problematic to expect that the FOI system should somehow be tailored to meet needs alone. Individuals, non-profits, businesses, opposition politicians and others all use the FOI process. Indeed, the policy strengthens many of these use cases since, as mentioned above,  delays in processing will be visible and open the organization up to greater pressure and scrutiny. Why are all the use cases of these other institutions somehow secondary to those of journalists and the media? Indeed, the most important use case – that of the citizen – is better served. Isn’t that the most important outcome?

Third, this form of transparency could make for better media. One of my favourite quotes (which I got via Tim O’Reilly) comes from Clayton Christensen in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article:

“When attractive profits disappear at one stage in the value chain because a product becomes modular and commoditized, the opportunity to earn attractive profits with proprietary products will usually emerge at an adjacent stage.”

So BC Ferries has effectively commoditized FOI requests. That simply means that value will shift elsewhere. One place it could shift to is analysis. And wouldn’t that be a good thing to have the media compete on? Rather than simply who got the fact fastest (a somewhat silly model in the age of the internet) readers instead started to reward the organization with the best insights? Indeed, it makes me think that on superficial issues, like say, the salary of an employee, it may be hard for one individual or organization to scoop another. But most often the value of these stories is also pretty low. On a more significant story, one that requires research and digging and a knowledge of the issue, it’s unclear that transparency around FOI requests will allow others to compete. More interestingly, some media organizations, now that they have access to all FOI requests, might start analyzing them for deeper more significant patterns or trends that might reveal more significant problems that the current scattered approach to FOI might never reveal.

What’s also been interesting is the reaction stories by journalists complaining about this issue have been received. It fits nicely in with the piece I wrote a while ago (and now published as part of a journalism textbook) about Journalism in an Open Era. The fact is, the public trust of opaque institutions is in decline – and the media is itself a pretty opaque institution. Consider these three separate comments people wrote after the stories I’ve linked to above:

“I wonder over the years how many nuggets of information reporters got through FOI but the public never heard about because they didn’t deem it “newsworthy”. Or worse, that it was newsworthy but didn’t follow their storyline.” (found here)

“And the media whining about losing scoops — well, tough beans. If they post it all online and give it to everyone, they are serving the public –the media isn’t the public, and never has been.” (found here)

“The media’s track record, in general, for owning up to its blunders continues to be abysmal. Front page screw-ups are fixed several days (or weeks) later with a little “setting it straight” box buried at the bottom of P. 2 — and you think that’s good enough. If the media were more open and honest about fixing its mistakes, I might cut you a little slack over the BC Ferries’ policy of making your life difficult. But whining about it is going to be counterproductive, as you can see from most of the comments so far.” (found here)

While some comments were supportive of the articles, the majority have not been. Suggesting that at the minimum that the public does not share the media’s view that this new policy is a “controversial.”

This is not, of course, to say that BC Ferries implemented its policy because it sought to do the right thing. I’m sure it’s president would love for their to be fewer requests and impede the efforts of journalists. I just happen to think he will fail. Dismally. More concerning is the fact that FOI requests are not archived on the site and are removed after a few months. This is what should get the media, the public and yes, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, up in arms.

Lazy Journalist Revealer. This. Is. Awesome.

Everybody keeps thinking that transparency and improved access to content is something that is only going to affect government, or, maybe some corporations.

I’ve tried to argue differently in places like this blog post and in Taylor and I’s chapter in The New Journalist.

Here’s a wonderful example of how new tools could start to lay more bare the poor performance of many newspapers in actually reporting news and not simple regurgiatating press releases.

Check out the site – called Churnalism.com – that allows you to compare any UK news story against a database of UK press releases. Brilliant!

Wish we had one of these here in North America.

Found this via the Future Journalism Project, which also links to a story on the Guardian website.

The best moment in Canadian democracy in 2010?: the census debate

Over at Samara, my friend Alison Loat is asking people to answer the question “What was the best moment in Canadian democracy in 2010?” In what I think was a good decision, they’ve defined the terms pretty broadly, stating:

The moment could be one that took place inside or outside of Parliament or other legislative chambers.  It could have happened at the federal, provincial, territorial or municipal level.  It could include any number of things, such as an election with a historic turnout, a stimulating public debate, a rally or protest, a critical piece of news analysis, the creation of a new digital application, or an important Parliamentary motion or decision.

If you’ve got an idea I encourage you to hear over there and write it up and submit it! The Samara people are great and are up to good work, so definitely worth checking out.

I’ve got one answer the question myself – what follows is my write up. I think I may even have one more in me… but here’s my first effort:

The Census Debate as Canada’s 2010 democratic moment.

In a functioning democracy disagreement is necessary and healthy. But at its core there most be some basic agreement – some shared understanding of who we are, as a people and as a society. This shared understanding not only serves as the basic facts that must inform our debates but also the basis of our shared identity that keeps us together even when we disagree.

This is why the census is so important, and why it is my choice for the best moment in Canadian democracy for 2010. The census binds us together by creating a shared understanding of who we are. Even the most marginalized Canadians stand up and are counted and thus can be reflected and heard in our national discourse.

That’s why at a time when Canadian political coverage tries to cleave the country’s citizens into different, competing groups – rural versus urban, French versus English, left versus right – I think the best moment in Canadian Democracy was seeing over 500 groups including all levels of government, non-profits from across the country, business organizations, rural communities, and virtually all the major religious organizations come together and challenge the government with one voice.

What a great democratic moment that so many organizations, that often disagree on so many issues, can collectively agree on a core shared interest: that a functioning democracy and an effective government is built on a foundation of some basic information about who we are. Even more so when the government tried to make the decision in secret, announcing it quietly on a friday, during a long weekend in the middle of summer.

The decision and the process surrounding it may be one of the year’s darkest moments for Canadian democracy but the country’s reaction was definitely one of our brightest.

How the Globe Editorial Board is Misleading You About Journalism

It was completely fascinating to read the Globe and Mail’s editorial board crow over its “victory” last week regarding the protection of confidential news sources.

Standing up for newshounds!” screamed the headlines, with a bold opening paragraph proclaiming:

The Supreme Court of Canada demonstrated respect and understanding on Friday for news reporting that depends on confidential sources. It set an appropriately high bar for judges who may wish to order journalists to reveal those sources, in civil or criminal cases. The court has in effect given the organized news media the tools to do investigative journalism in the public interest. [Emphasis mine.]

Wow, organized media has been *given tools* to protect the public interest? Yes! (According to the G&M…) Well, if this is true… Cue self-congratulatory text that plays into the trope (and myth) that traditional news media is essential for democracy!

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions. [Emphasis mine.]

The Supreme Court – again, according to the G&M – has ruled. Only journalists for the big news companies are real journalists that can enjoy the protection of the court.

This, if it were true, would be really big news. It might even justify such self-congratulatory rhetoric. The ruling however, is not this cut and dry. In truth, it provides no real new tools; the Globe‘s lawyers extracted little from the courts in the form of new protections; and the protections that do exist exist for everyone, not just journalists.

As a result, what is really disappointing about all this is that the Globe‘s editorial is at best misleading, attempting to lure Canadians into believing that traditional news media companies enjoy rights that are special and unique to them (and further, implies those rights are new). At worst, the piece suggests the editorial board clings to a world before the web – confined to an outdated worldview where “creators” who could legitimately report on or talk about the news were separated from “consumers” who passively absorb it. Previously, this worldview was made possible by the technology of the printing press, which kept production in the hands of a few; now that publishing is available to virtually anyone, the Globe‘s editorial board seems interested in finding a new way to limit this freedom – when they should be expanding it – by attempting to cast the law as a restrictive force whose benefits are enjoyed by only a few (them) and not everyone (us). It’s a dark perspective for the country’s leading editorial board to take.

Intrigued? I hope so, because what the ruling did say matters.

So what did the ruling say and what does it actually mean? Let’s look closer.

This Was a Draw, Not a Win.

Conversing with the eaves.ca legal team*, the consensus is that the ruling is a draw, not a win for the media. Very little has changed. Prior to the ruling, ascertaining if a confidential source deserved protection was up to the courts who used the four part Wigmore framework to make their assessment:

  1. the relationship must originate in a confidence that the source’s identity will not be disclosed;
  2. anonymity must be essential to the relationship in which the communication arises;
  3. the relationship must be one that should be sedulously fostered in the public interest; and
  4. the public interest served by protecting the identity of the informant must outweigh the public interest in getting at the truth.

Nothing about this case changes this framework. Courts, not the media, continue to determine if a source should be confidential, and the criteria have not changed. In short, the media has not been given “new” tools. Essentially the same tools as before apply.

Indeed, this case is at best a draw (albeit an important one) for the Globe‘s lawyers. This is because they were arguing for new and special rights, specifically the recognition that “the basis of the journalist-source privilege is a constitutional one.” In other words, they wanted to court to state that journalists have an inherent right to protect sources in the same way lawyers have a special solicitor-client privilege or medical doctors have doctor-patient confidentiality privilege. However, as the decision states:

the Court was unprepared “[t]o throw a constitutional immunity around the interactions of such a heterogeneous and ill-defined group of writers and speakers and whichever ‘sources’ they deem worthy of a promise of confidentiality and on whatever terms they may choose to offer it.”

Ouch. That’s not a victory, it’s outright defeat. Indeed, the court doesn’t even think journalists are a group with any unique rights as it:

also rejected the existence of a class-based privilege, on the basis that there is no formal accreditation or licensing process for journalists in place, as there is for lawyers for example, and no professional organization regulates the profession and maintains professional standards.

But that’s not it. On the fourth Wigmore criteria – the question of public interest – the Globe‘s lawyers also wanted the onus to shift to the party seeking production/testimony. In other words, to keep a source secret it shouldn’t be up to the Globe to persuade the courts that the story IS in the public interest, but up to the other party (person, corporation and government) to persuade the courts that it ISN’T in the public interest.

But the court did not agree with this request either:

The Court rejected this argument. Given that the evidence is presumptively compellable and admissible, the burden of persuasion remains on the media to show that the public interest in protecting a secret source outweighs the public interest in criminal investigations. The Court ultimately concluded that every claim to journalist-source privilege — be it in the face of testimonial compulsion or the production of documents — is situation specific, with the public’s interest in the freedom of expression always weighing heavily in the court’s balancing exercise. [my bold/italics]

Strike two.

So, to recap so far: First, the court has not made journalists a special class.  We all enjoy the rights to publish content and if that content were tested legally, the Wigmore framework would be applied to our sources. Second, the court essentially preserved the Wigmore test, so it has not “given media the tools”; it has simply preserved and reaffirmed the tools that already existed. Essentially the courts mostly sustained the status quo that existed before the lower court upset the apple cart.

I don’t want to belittle this outcome. This is an important victory for all Canadians as it preserves everyone’s ability to engage in investigative journalism if they so choose.

So what’s with the language in the Globe‘s editorial? Why claim a big victory and dump on bloggers? What you are really reading is a lot of spin. Which is part of what makes the editorial so frustrating – I hold the editorial board to a high standard, and I expect them to not spin stories, especially about themselves and a subject as serious as freedom of speech.

So let’s unpack that spin…

Mixed Messages

The first is the effort to qualify the victory.

As we previously saw, the Globe‘s lawyers argued that journalists should be a protected class and journalist-source relationships should enjoy constitutional protection. As we also saw, however, the Supreme Court did not agree. But look at the quote from the piece below:

“Bearing in mind the high societal interest in investigative journalism, it might be that he [Mr. Leblanc] could only be compelled to speak if his response was vital to the integrity of the administration of justice.” That is a high bar, indeed. The protection of sources should never be absolute, but the Quebec Superior Court will have to give it full consideration, in light of the important public interest at stake, when it ultimately decides the matter.

So first, the bar did not really move. Yes, the court overturned the lower court, but it essentially re-affirmed the Wigmore framework. Again, this is great news, but this is something preserved, not gained.

But more intriguing was the editorial board saying that the protection of sources should never be absolute. A constitutionally protected journalist-source relationship either is absolute, or if I understand it correctly, pretty close to absolute. So why say it shouldn’t be absolute when this is what your legal team was essentially asking for? One suspects that had the court given journalists a special, constitutionally protected relationship with sources (which really would have demanded a dramatic editorial) than the paper would have argued that the journalists sources had finally achieved the absolute protection they so richly deserve and need.

Burying the Lead

But what is particularly interesting about the Globe‘s editorial piece is its treatment of pretty much everyone who isn’t employed by the mainstream media. The entire framing of the piece is that this is a win for journalists and the media, even though the court goes out of its way to say they are not a protected or even recognized class.

Indeed the real story is that important rights that belong to all Canadians have been preserved! But that story is buried.

Rather, the Globe seems very keen to divide the country into two groups – creators (that’s them) and (passive) consumers (that’s you).  Coming back to the first quote from the piece, the Globe notes that.

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions.

In fact, the court does no such thing. First, the Wigmore framework applies to anyone who publishes. That would include people like myself who blog. That also means you (since really anyone can blog, or tweet, or publish something these days).

Second – and this is where it feels like the editorial board really misleads the public – the court did not put great stock in organized media. Indeed, if anything, it went out of its way to say it put very little stock in it.

The basis of the above line in the editorial is, I presume, this part of the ruling:

Justice Binnie put particular emphasis on the significance of the third and fourth factors [of the Wigmore framework], in the journalist-source context. The third factor, whether the relationship is one that the community should sedulously foster (para. 57), introduces a certain degree of flexibility in the evaluation of the different types of sources and different types of journalists. He suggested that whether the relationship is between a source and a blogger, or between a source and a professional journalist, will impact upon the court’s weighing exercise.

So yes, the credibility of the person will matter. But this also means a fly-by-night newspaper may not enjoy the same protection as an established blogger. But even here the wording is quite conservative – “a certain degree of flexibility” and the difference is “suggested.” This is all pretty qualified, and hardly a sign of the court putting “great stock” in established media.

Of course, what little there is gets watered down even further in the next line of the ruling:

But, according to Justice Binnie, the fourth factor [of the Wigmore framework] does the lion’s share of the work, and the court’s task is to “achieve proportionality in striking a balance among the competing interests” (para. 59).

So the public interest is what really matters – not who (e.g. blogger or newspaper) is seeking to preserve the confidentiality of the source.

In Conclusion

This piece is, in many way, a continuation to a piece I wrote in December after a previous Supreme Court ruling which the court went out of its way to put journalists, bloggers and citizens on a equal footing. In the same vein, my problem with the editorial board’s piece isn’t that they played up the significance of their victory – it is still an important victory. It’s that the piece suggests the victory is the (large) news industry’s to enjoy exclusively (or at least, that we ordinary citizens may only enjoy its benefits through them). This is not the case and it does a disservice to citizens, bloggers and journalists to suggest as such.

The Globe and Mail will likely have a long and illustrious reign as the newspaper of record of Canada – but that reign is more likely to continue if it provides credible insights into both the technological and legal realities of the digital world. This editorial suggests that it does not; and I believe that the country, and the paper, are weaker for it.


*Thank you for those who helped me with the legal legwork on this piece, and for those who’ve stuck through to the end; I know this is an unusually long post.

Not all Maclean’s Covers are Created (or Treated) Equal

Which one of these covers is more damning?

Macleans-Cover vs.  images

Now that a little time has passed I was reflecting on the controversy about the Maclean’s cover about Quebec as “The Most Corrupt Province in Canada” and remain amazed at the outcry it generated. It is stunning that Parliament took time out to condemn the cover. I don’t say this because I think the article is true. Let’s face it, Canada really isn’t that corrupt. In 2009 Transparency International ranked us as tied for 8th as the least corrupt country in the world. What is more interesting is that so many people felt it was in their interests to take seriously (or exploit) what was obvious link bait.

Indeed what made the outcry all the more fascinating was the a mere 2 years earlier Maclean’s called BC a “World Crime Superpower” and that elicited no response. No outcry from parliament… no screams of protest… Again, in the grand scheme of things claiming BC us a World Crime Superpower on par with countries like say Mexico, Afghanistan and Colombia feels, like a stretch. (Although the economic impact on BC of California decriminalization marijuana is fascinating topic)

Lots of reasons can account for the difference. Part of it may be that BCers frankly don’t care what the rest of the country – not to mention Maclean’s – think. It’s also possible the BCers have less of a sense of common identity – especially one sensitive to how the central Canada describes it. It may also be a reflection of how political power doesn’t always flow with demographics or even opportunity. Today there are few seats to be won in Quebec – the bloc is entrenched and unlikely to move. making a big stink probably isn’t going to change one’s fortunes. In contrast, in BC, vast swaths of the province are up for grabs for all the parties (save the Bloc) – defending the honour of BC might actually yield something. And then, of course, all the parties may not be interested in condemning the Superpower of Crime label – a real, or imagined – creates a mega-crime menace in BC that would play well with a party interested in finding kingpins to fill the empty prisons it plans to build. Perhaps not coming to BCs defense is the shrewd move for some (although one is left wondering, where were the others?).

I think what is most interesting though is that it suggests that for all of the past challenges Quebec has had regarding being in Canada, it is an activist member of the dominion, both in its politics and in its populace. Quebecers seem to care what the rest of the country thinks and they’ll sharpen their elbows and let themselves be heard if necessary. In short, they’ll play in the game. BC has never cared to separate, but sometimes it feels like the province the least part of the dominion. Federal politics don’t get much play in BC, its provincial politicians rarely play the federal game (well) and its population is usually oblivious to what goes on east of the Rockies. Hence the irony of a province that has at times wanted out still cares so much, and a province that defined the country by asking to come in, cares so little.

Or maybe it’s just all a fun note about the fun country we live in and how old stereotypes sometimes send us into a tizzy… and sometimes not.

Why Blockbuster’s success in Canada is a bad news story

I noticed today in the Globe that while Blockbuster (the movie rental company) has declared bankruptcy in the United States, here in Canada the branch of the company is doing fine, indeed it is still profitable:

Blockbuster Canada vice-president and general manager Barry Guest said in a statement early Thursday that its operations are still profitable. “Blockbuster Canada operates independently of the U.S. and is financially stable,” he said.

So how can this be a bad news story?

Clues to the answer lie deeper in the article, in this paragraph:

Once a home entertainment powerhouse in the United States, Blockbuster has been losing market share and money for years as more Americans rent DVDs from subscription service Netflix Inc. and popularity surged for streaming video over the Internet.

Let’s be clear, Blockbuster in Canada is profitable not because it has been innovative. Not because it has reinvented itself in a digital era. Not because it has been visionary. Blockbuster is okay because the innovations and services that have devastated its southern partner basically aren’t available in Canada. In short, when it comes to rolling out cutting edge services (or even kind-of cutting edge services) in the digital media/infrastructure space Canada falls short.

bbcanada1This, of course, is well documented (hello cellphone contracts!) and it is the real story here! How can Canada – and Canadian companies – expect to be leaders in the digital space (I’m looking at you, forthcoming Digital Economy Strategy) if even the most mainstream services available in the US (mainstream enough to destroy an incumbent) haven’t even made it north of the border? Domestically, who are we competing with, competitors from an analog era? This is not a marketplace that is likely to produce the next Tivo, Netflix or whatever.

This story feels like a metaphor for pretty much everything that is wrong with innovation and competitiveness in this space in Canada, right down to the fact that we appear to celebrating the ongoing success of blockbuster. Sigh.

Twitter, Criminal Investigations & Fox News North

Today, in a headline that came as somewhat of a shock (that, of course, I first saw on twitter) Kory Teneycke, the Quebecor Media vice-president and main advocate for the proposed Sun TV News Channel, announced his resignation. As backgrounder for those not familiar with this story, the proposed Sun TV News Channel is seeking to bring a conservative, Fox styled cable news channel to Canada. There has been a little bit of a battle over what type of license they should get which is covered very well in this blog post. What’s important is that Avaaz launched a petition against the proposed channel which subsequently had a number of false names added to it (adding someone else’s name to a petition is, I’m told, illegal in Canada).

What makes Teneycke’s resignation so interesting is that it comes on the heels of Avaaz asking the police to investigate the additions. It appears that, thanks to technology, figuring out who was illegally adding the names may not be that hard:

On September 2, 2010, Avaaz became aware that an individual operating from an Ottawa IP address was adding both fictional and actual names and email addresses to a petition to stop Prime Minister Harper from pushing biased crony media onto Canadian airwaves. The next morning, Quebecor executive and Sun TV front man Kory Teneycke published several pieces in Quebecor owned newspapers attacking Avaaz and accusing them of running a fraudulent petition – even quoting actual names added by the fraudster. Teneycke later admitted to insider knowledge of both the perpetrator and crimes committed.

Days later, Quebecor threatened to sue Avaaz for the content of its petition site.

In short, it appears that either Teneycke or someone he knew was adding false names to the petition so that a) Teneycke could write a story to discredit the petition and b) prompt Quebeccor to launch a lawsuit to have it taken down. This is serious stuff. Especially from someone who intends to run a news channel. (although, to be fair, it is consistent with the type of thing one might expect from Fox News).

Perhaps Teneycke’s resignation has nothing to do with the false names on the petition? But it is also worth noting that Teneycke’s twitter account is no longer active. This also means that the original offending tweet where he admits that he knew the person adding the false names can no longer be seen. Fortunately, on a lark, I took a screen shot of it the day it went up since, after reading CBC reporter Kady O’malley’s excellent coverage of the back and forth, since given her coverage something seemed very odd about the whole affair.

So what are some key lesson here?

a) Things on twitter don’t disappear

b) Manipulating the press in a world of social media is not as easy as you think it is, even for a former Prime Minister spokes person

c) It appears that Sun TV executives are every bit as slimy as the counterparts feared they would be. If even 10% of this is true then this is shocking behaviour from a proposed News television executive.

d) This may yet lead to Canada’s first high-profile criminal investigation involving twitter

Interesting stuff indeed.

Irony, defined

So it appears that the Vancouver Province Editorial Page Editor Gordon Clark is not a fan of either the census or me. In a piece the other day (which someone kindly forwarded on to me) he become the lone person in the country to defend Industry Minister Clement’s decision to end the Long Form Census.

His reason? In his own words:

Clement is right when he says the data from a voluntary form may be more accurate than under the current forced scheme, which resulted, for example, in 55,000 Canadians listing “Jedi” as their religion in the last census. It makes you wonder how accurate the rest of it was despite its $567-million cost. For that kind of money shouldn’t those StatsCan folks be curing cancer or something?

Actually, Clement is not right. There isn’t a statistician in the country who would agree with this opinion. Indeed, I dare Gordon Clark to produce a single statistician at a university, or even a polling firm, who will agree with this statement. I’ve got about a 1000, and indeed, their professional organization, who feel otherwise. So Clark’s defense is built on a lie. But then, since  this whole debate is about replacing facts with opinions, should we be surprised?

But that’s reasoned fact part of this blog post, there’s a juicier little tidbit…

Over at Gordon Clark’s twitter page, take a look at his bio:

See that line that proudly states “The Province, the best-read newspaper in Canada west of Toronto.”

Interesting that, isn’t it?

So how does Gordon know that The Province newspaper is the best read paper west of Toronto? Well, he relies on NADbank, which produces regular reports about newspaper readership. But dig a little deeper. In the technical report that outlines the survey’s methodology I’ll give you one guess on how NADbank ensures it has an accurate cross section of Canadians so that Gordon Clark can accurately and proudly claim his paper is the best-read in Western Canada.

Again… one chance…

How about… the census! Yes, the census – including references to data collected by the long form – is mentioned no less than 20 times in the report and is essential to enabling NADbank to do its survey.

So not only does Gordon Clark wish to replace fact with opinion, he has no idea how the census – especially the long form – impacts almost every aspect of his life, including his ability to brag. Of course, if he wants to he could change his bio to say:

I’m in charge of the editorial pages and write a weekly column for The Province, a newspaper in western Canada that we aren’t really sure how many people read.

But somehow that doesn’t have the same punch, does it?

As an aside, it is worth noting that while NADbank has The Province as the most-read newspaper in western Canada the Canadian Newspaper Association survey shows the Vancouver Sun has a bigger paid circulation (by quite a margin). I suppose if you give away enough free copies, you too can boost your readership…

Articles I'm digesting – 25/5/2010

Been a while since I’ve done one of these. A couple of good ones ranging from the last few months. Big thank you’s to those who sent me these pieces. Always enjoy.

The Meaning of Open by Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President, Product Management

Went back and re-read this. Every company makes mistakes and Google is no exception (privacy settings on Buzz being everyone’s favourite) but this statement, along with Google’s DataLiberartion.org (which unlike Facebook is designed to ensure you can extract your information from Google’s services) shows why Google enjoys greater confidence than Facebook, Apple or any number of its competitors. If you’re in government, the private or the non-profit sector, read this post. This is how successful 21st century organizations think.

Local Governments Offer Data to Software Tinkerers by Claire Cain Miller (via David Nauman & Andrew Medd)

Another oldie (December 2009 is old?) but a goodie. Describes a little bit of the emerging eco-system for open local government data along with some of the tensions it is creating. Best head in the sand line:

Paul J. Browne, a deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, said it releases information about individual accidents to journalists and others who request it, but would not provide software developers with a regularly updated feed. “We provide public information, not data flow for entrepreneurs,” he said.

So… if I understand correctly, the NYPD will only give data to people who ask and prefer to tie up valuable resources filling out individual requests rather than just provide a constant feed that anyone can use. Got it. Uh, and just for the record, those “entrepreneurs” are the next generation of journalists and the people who will make the public information useful. The NYPD’s “public information” is effectively useless, much like that my home town police department offers. Does anyone actually looks at PDF’s and pictures of crimes? That you can only get on a weekly basis? Really? In an era of spreadsheets and google maps… no.

Didacticism in Game Design by Clint Hocking (via Lauren Bacon)

eaves.ca readers meet Clint Hocking. My main sadness in introducing you is that you’ll discover how a truly fantastic, smart blog reads. The only good news for me us that you are hopefully more interested in public policy, open source and things I dwell on than video games, so Clint won’t steal you all away. Just many of you.

A dash of a long post post that is worth reading

As McLuhan says: the medium is the message. When canned, discrete moral choices are rendered in games with such simplicity and lack of humanity, the message we are sending is not the message specific to the content in question (the message in the canned content might be quite beautiful – but it’s not a ludic message) – it is the message inherent in the form in which we’ve presented it: it effectively says that ‘being moral is easy and only takes a moment out of each hour’. To me, this is almost the opposite of the deeper appreciation of humanity we might aim to engender in our audience.

Clint takes video games seriously. And so should you.

The Analytic Mode by David Brooks (via David Brock)

These four lines alone make this piece worth reading. Great lessons for students of policy and politics:

  • The first fiction was that government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal truths.
  • The second fiction was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in government power is exercised through other people. It is only by coaxing, prodding and compromise that presidents [or anyone!] actually get anything done.
  • The third fiction was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.
  • The fourth fiction was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty

The case against non-profit news sites by Bill Wyman (via Andrew Potter)

Yes, much better that news organizations be beholden to a rich elite than paying readers… Finally someone takes on the idea that a bunch of enlightened rich people or better, rich corporate donors, are going to save “the news.” Sometimes it feels like media organizations are willing to do anything they can to avoid actually having to deal with paying customers. Be it using advertisers and relying on rich people to subsidize them, anything appears to be better than actually fighting for customers.

That’s what I love about Demand Media. Some people decry them as creating tons of cheap content, but at least they looked at the market place and said: This is a business model that will work. Moreover, they are responding to a real customer demand – searches in google.

Wyman’s piece also serves as a good counterpoint to the recent Walrus advertising campaign which essentially boiled down to: Canada needs the Walrus and so you should support it. The danger here is that people at the Walrus believe this line: That they are of value and essential to Canada even if no one (or very few people) bought them or read them. I think people should buy The Walrus not because it would be good for the country but because it is engaging, informative and interesting to Canadians (or citizens of any country). I think the Walrus can have great stories (Gary Stephen Ross’s piece A Tale of Two Cities is a case in point), but if you have a 1 year lead time for an article, that’s going to hard to pull off in the internet era, foundation or no foundation. I hope the Walrus stays with us, but Wyman’s article serves up some arguments worth contemplating.

The Dangers of Being a Platform

Andrew P. sent me this article Apple vs. the Web: The Case for Staying Out of Steve Jobs’s Walled Garden that makes a strong case for your media company to not develop (or at least not bet the bank on) an iPhone App as the way out of trouble.

Few companies actually know how to manage being a platform for an ecosystem and Apple is definitely not one of them. Remember this is company that’s never played well with others and has a deeply disturbing control freakishness to it. Much like Canadians are willing to tolerate the annoying traits of the federal NDP, consumers and developers were willing to tolerate these annoying traits as long as Apple was merely influencing the marketplace but not shaping it. As Apple’s influence grows, so to do the rumblings about its behaviour. People say nice things about Apple’s products. I don’t hear people say nice things about Apple. This is stage one of any decline.

Here, history could be instructive. Look back at another, much more maligned company that has a reputation of not playing well with others: Microsoft. Last year, I wrote this piece about how their inability to partner helped contribute to their relative decline. In short, after kicked around and bullying those who succeeded on its platform, people caught the message and stopped. Today Apple thrives because people elect to innovate on their platform. Because it has been interesting, fun, and to a much, much lesser degree, profitable. Take away the “interesting” and “fun” and/or offer up even a relatively interesting competing platform… and that equation changes.

Heck, even from a end user’s perspective the deal Apple made with me is breaking. Their brand is around great design and fun (think of all those cute fun ads). They still have great design, but increasingly when I think of Apple and the letter F comes to mind the word “fun” isn’t what pops into my head… its “fascism.” Personally I’m fairly confident my next phone will not be an iPhone. I like the phone, but I find the idea of Steve Jobs controlling what I do and how I do it simply too freaky. And I don’t even own a multi-million dollar media empire.

So being a platform is hard. It isn’t license to just print money or run roughshod over whoever you want. It is about managing a social contract with all the developers and content creators as well as all the end users and consumers. That is an enormous responsibility. Indeed, it is one so great we rarely entrust it to a single organization that isn’t the government. Those seeking to create platforms, and Apple, and Facebook especially (and Google and Microsoft to a lesser extent) would all do well to remember that fact.

Oh, and if you’re part of a media companies, don’t expect to saved by some hot new gizmo. Check out this fantastic piece by John Yemma, the Editor of The Christian Science Monitor:

So here’s my position: There is no future in a paywall. No salvation in digital razzle dazzle.

There is, however, a bold future in relevant content.

That’s right. Apple won’t save you. Facebook doesn’t even want to save you. Indeed, there is only one place online where the social contract is clear. And that’s the one you can create with your readers by producing great content. On the web.