Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993

In the spring of 1993 I attended a conference on journalism and technology at Columbia University. It was a time when the digital culture that was to emerge was right on the brink: the Internet was not nearly as much of a force in the lives of ordinary people as were commercial services like Prodigy, and Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, had just been released. With The Boston Globe just having run an image of the story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix after that conference, I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.

Future Watch: Lost in space

Why the electronic village may be a very lonely place

Copyright © 1993 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

May 7, 1993: From 500-channel interactive TV to portable electronic newspapers, an unprecedented explosion of information technology awaits us in the next several years. These services, media analysts say, will allow you to tailor news programming to your own interests, do your banking and shopping at home, and make restaurant reservations with a hand-held computer while you’re sitting at a bus stop.

Certainly the speakers were bullish at this past week’s conference on “Newsroom Technology: The Next Generation,” sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, at Columbia University, in New York. Expert after expert talked in rapturous tones about the “information highway,” fiber optics, coaxial cable, digital compression, and the like.

But there’s a dark side to the emerging electronic village, acknowledged almost as an afterthought amid the glowing financial projections and the futuristic technobabble. And that dark side is this: as information becomes increasingly decentralized, there’s a danger that consumers of that information — all of us, in other words — will become more and more isolated from society and from each other.

What’s being lost is the sense of shared cultural experience — the nationwide community that gathered to watch, say, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, or the Watergate hearings, in the 1970s. Media analyst Les Brown, a former television reporter for the New York Times, believes that for all their “insufferable arrogance” during that era, the Big Three networks “served the needs of democracy very well.” With 500 channels, he fears, users will choose news programming that suits their political biases — if they choose any news programming at all.

“Whatever happened to everybody talking to each other?” he asked during the Freedom Forum gathering. “What happened to this big tent we used to have? As the media become more democratized, they may serve the needs of democracy less well.” Continue reading “Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993”

Pérez-Peña responds

New York Times media reporter Richard Pérez-Peña has responded to my post of earlier today:

I enjoy your work, and obviously I’m biased, but I thought your critique of my piece was a little odd and beside the point. The point of citing those examples was that there was a lack of communication on even the basics. I think you agree with that.

I really don’t understand why you bring up the dollar figures, since I can’t quite figure out what (if anything) you’re claiming is the “questionable assertion.” You wrote, “there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that management has, in fact, been telling Globe employees that the paper lost $50 million last year,” as if I had cast doubt on that. I hadn’t. As far as I know, no one disputes that this is the number the company has cited. But it wasn’t cited to “Globe employees.” It was to union leaders, in private meetings, and maybe to a Globe reporter (I don’t know), but not to employees at large or to the public.

You note that the company publicly owned up to the $85 million figure for this year. But did you know that for three weeks, the company would not acknowledge that figure, either, even after it had been reported everywhere? An executive said it at the April 23 shareholders’ meeting (a slip, apparently), which I believe triggered the required SEC filing.

The point wasn’t whether these were the numbers being used; everyone knew that they were, and I never wrote anything to the contrary. The point was that the company wouldn’t state them publicly.

I confess that I wasn’t aware of Mathis’ June 4 e-mail to the Phoenix, but it doesn’t undermine the point. The e-mail does not explicitly acknowledge that the company had threatened the unions with closure of The Globe if they did not make serious concessions. As far as I know, there hasn’t been such an acknowledgment. I know first-hand that when asked to confirm it, the company declined. The e-mail says “closure is a very real path for the company to take” — a hell of a statement, I admit — but without explaining how or why that path might be taken. Also, that shut-down threat was first made in early April; the e-mail came two months later.

My comment: I stand by what I wrote. But, yes, I absolutely agree with Pérez-Peña’s assertion that there has been “a lack of communication on even the basics.”

Globe expands Your Town

The Boston Globe has rolled out six more Your Town hyperlocal sites, the subject of so much angst (and a lawsuit) last winter. Unlike the original iteration, the sites now feature mostly Globe content, with a few links to community sites. Your Town is now in 10 communities.

My quick perusal reveals no links to GateHouse’s Wicked Local sites, even though the out-of-court settlement between GateHouse and the New York Times Co. allows linking as long as the Globe doesn’t resume its practice of running an automated feed of GateHouse content on Your Town.

Interesting that the Globe continues its local push even as the Times Co. threatens to close the paper.

The new sites are on the South Shore (Hingham, Norwell and Scituate) and in the urban communities of Medford, Malden and Melrose. Here’s an e-mail that went out to the staff on Friday from David Dahl, the Globe’s regional editor:

All,

This week we launched six more Your Town sites, bringing to 10 the number of our hyperlocal sites. The new communities are Hingham, Scituate, Norwell, Medford, Malden and Melrose. You can find the sites at boston.com/hingham, boston.com/scituate, etc.

As many of you know, in addition to posts from Globe correspondents and staffers, the sites offer a collection of links to other blogs and websites, interactive opportunities for readers to post events and to report potholes and other problems, and, coming soon, improved blogging tools to allow readers to more easily post words and photos on our sites.

The sites enable us to reach deeper — and on a daily basis — into the communities that we’ve covered for years in our zoned sections. And the effort represents another collaborative effort between the Globe and our colleagues at boston.com to boost our local online effort.

Thursday’s Globe North offers a good example of our early successes. Steve Rosenberg wrote a story about municipal salaries for the city of Medford, the latest in a series of muni salary stories to come out of the zones this year. Eric Bauer created a searchable database of the top 100 salaries. We published the story and database at boston.com/medford and in Globe North.

The response: several thousand page views, and 50 reader comments. “Great expose of public information. Plenty more out there. Next story: follow around a few of these administrators to see what they do all day and then figure out to whom they are related,” wrote one reader. (It wasn’t me, I swear…).

There are many people who worked to assemble these new sites, among them: Teresa Hanafin, Angela Nelson, Glenn Yoder, Marcia Dick, Dean Inouye, the zones copy desk and the staff on Bob Kempf’s product team. In addition to staffers whose work will appear on the sites, we are using free lance “Town Correspondents” to post blog items and conduct outreach in the communities. They are Kathryn Eident, Ben Terris, Lisa Crowley and Travis Andersen.

Several of you have asked about page views and about advertising support. We’re closing in on a half million page views this month from the Your Town sites. Ad sales are going reasonably well at this early date, and I’m assured that our sales people are looking for more.

David Dahl
Boston Globe Regional Editor
Boston.com/yourtown

GateHouse zings the Globe

The online-content war between the Boston Globe and GateHouse Media may have been settled out of court last winter, but resentments apparently linger. The Globe’s Boston.com site has a local-search function that lets you find content from other sites. Check out the description in this Patriot Ledger video at Boston.com.

Zombie site lifts headlines, ledes

PolitickerMA.com may be gone, but a bunch of new posts popped up today in Google Reader. I went to the site, and I came across a long list of headlines and ledes lifted from Boston-area media, mostly the Boston Globe.

Hmmm … is someone at GateHouse having a little fun?

GateHouse memo to employees

Media Nation has obtained a memo sent to the troops by GateHouse Media New England president Rick Daniels. I present it here in full; emphases are Daniels’. If there’s anyone at the Boston Globe and/or the New York Times Co. who’s got a memo you’d like to share on this matter, my e-mail address is in the right-hand rail.

GATEHOUSE MEDIA NEW ENGLAND – MEMORANDUM

To: GateHouse Media New England Colleagues

From: Rick Daniels, president / CEO GHMNE (and the GHMNE Senior Team)

Date: Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

We just wanted to inform you that we have settled the lawsuit that was to have begun Monday morning in Federal Court. A lot has begun to be written about the case, and more will be, but we wanted to take this opportunity to address you, our colleagues, to whom this great outcome belongs.

The outcome of this case addressed each and every substantive point of why there ever was a lawsuit in the first place. Despite the “chaff” that has been thrown up, this case is not, and never was about, “linking”; it’s about the ability of GateHouse to protect our valuable content from inclusion in websites, or anywhere else where it doesn’t belong – and being used by competitors who have no permission to use our content. We could not be happier with the outcome, and it will be clear to anyone who has followed this case and the extensive trail of public documents that have been generated, why. You will hear or read a lot of opinions from those who have no idea what they are talking about. For instance: “GateHouse should have tried to settle this quietly and without going to court”. We did. Please ask us about ANY question or concern you have.

You, our professionals, have built an extensive array of local websites that are the “real McCoys” because hundreds and hundreds of LOCAL journalists and advertising professionals nourish them with content and revenue. Our journalists have been reporting LOCAL news and events in our newspapers or websites that have become part of the very fabric of over 150 greater Boston towns. Similarly, when local, and now so many regional and national advertisers look at their best market coverage options, they turn to OUR newspapers and websites due to the over 1.7 million readers we have each week, and about the same number of unique web visits. As we all know, success breeds imitation – always has, always will – but it SHOULDN’T breed violations of our legal rights to protect the content and journalism we generate.

We embrace – absolutely – the most core principles of the Internet and Web – linking and content sharing that supplements our own content and exposes this content to a wider audience. We also have enlisted a virtually countless number of local contributors, bloggers and webmasters with whom we have shared – and will most certainly continue to share content – vigorously and actively. We only expect those with whom we share content to comply with all applicable licenses and copyrights, as we do ourselves. Respect for these rights actually leads to the creation of MORE content, as the content creators have the potential to earn an economic reward for their efforts. For anyone who thinks or says that GateHouse is against the well-embraced Internet practice of content sharing and linking, and that we don’t understand the great value of these practices, they are dead wrong. If, by defending our legitimate copyrights and our ability to control where our content appears, we are thought to be “old school” – guilty as charged!

Both the press release and the letter agreement between GateHouse and the New York Times Company can be found at the GateHouse investor’s website: http://investors.gatehousemedia.com/. A word of caution: Settling a lawsuit requires certain each party to honor certain agreements, our Chief Counsel, Polly Sack has asked that the attached directive go out to all GateHouse employees. [Note: Media Nation does not have the attachment.] Please read it and comply with it – fully. She and we want to ensure we comply with both the letter and spirit of the agreement. It’s how we do business. If there are ANY questions on the requirements of this agreement, please contact Polly Sack [contact information omitted].

There are so many people and organizations to thank for the case we put forward, it wouldn’t be fair to try to list them all, but credit has to be given to our Corporate GateHouse colleagues, and especially Mike Reed, for their willingness to undertake this complex action based on their judgment of the merits of the case. Polly Sack, our GateHouse corporate counsel was, from start to finish, immense in her wisdom and expertise. The litigators from the firm of Hiscock and Barclay were extraordinary in their professional skill and stamina. Speaking of stamina, those who produced most of the discovery documents, prepared for depositions, and endured the grueling ordeal of depositions have to be credited. Much of this work was done on a “nights, weekends and holidays” basis. Recipients of the “Cool Under Fire” awards have to go to Kirk [Davis], Greg Reibman, Anne Eisenmenger, Chris Eck, Bill Blevins and Howard Owens, among others. MANY others not only contributed thoughts and helped the case in various ways, but also held down the fort as so many of us were otherwise occupied by doing in one month what our attorneys said would typically take 12-18 months!

Having this behind us is great, but it’s the road ahead where the battle for the hearts, minds, dollars and eyeballs of local readers and advertisers will be won or lost, and make NO mistake, we will win, but we will face formidable competition at every juncture, which is something that we’re not afraid of – whether it be print, digital or any other form of the media. This agreement just ensures that critical aspects of the competition will be within appropriate legal boundaries.

We also, thanks to the great majority of our reporters, editors, photographers and others who “get it”, will continue to make our websites, and certainly our newspapers continue to be the beneficiaries of content partners who both USE our content in appropriate and legal ways, and provide content to our sites that enriches them. We urge you to re-double your efforts to partner with any and all content partners who can make our offerings more compelling, or expose our content more widely.

Thanks again for not only your great support during this difficult, yet so very successful case.

Rick

On the road

My piece for the Guardian on the GateHouse Media-New York Times Co. settlement should pop up here later today. I’ll be on the road all day, so will not be able to update. Play nice!

Settlement details are now online

I’m getting ready for class, and so will not be able to comment in any detail on the settlement terms reached between GateHouse Media and the New York Times Co. And it’s hard to know what the agreement (PDF) is going to look like in practice.

But my gut tells me that, by agreeing not to aggregate GateHouse content automatically for its Boston.com Your Town sites, the Times Co. will shift more to a blogging model, compiled by actual human beings, rather than robotically posting headlines and ledes from GateHouse’s Wicked Local sites.

“To put it in the language of online-journalism theory, they have to shift a bit from raw aggregation to something closer to curation,” writes Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab. I agree — I think that’s exactly what we’re going to see.

One interesting aspect of the agreement is that the Times Co. says it will not interfere with any technological fix GateHouse attempts to implement in order to stop it from “scraping” its content.

“Gatehouse had not previously established a barrier to prevent such scraping of its stories,” writes Robert Weisman of the Boston Globe.

But in GateHouse’s legal complaint, the company charges that it “implemented certain electronic security measures” last November, which were quickly defeated by Boston.com.

More to come, I’m sure.

GateHouse and New York Times Co. settle (II)

Since it appears that GateHouse Media and the New York Times Co. are still working out the details of their proposed settlement, I’m thinking we’re not going to hear anything for a bit. Perhaps the two sides will put out a joint statement, but I’ve seen nothing yet.

The Boston Globe has a brief story here, and GateHouse, with an assist from the Associated Press, runs an account here.

GateHouse and New York Times Co. settle

As I had been hoping, GateHouse Media and the New York Times Co. have settled a lawsuit GateHouse brought over Boston.com’s Your Town sites, which, GateHouse alleged, violate its copyright by lifting headlines and ledes en masse from its Wicked Local sites.

No details yet.

Instant update: It might be more accurate to say that the two sides are moving toward a settlement. The case has been dismissed, and thus the trial, scheduled to begin today in U.S. District Court, has been canceled.

But here’s what Judge William Young has to say in his written order: “IT IS ORDERED that this action is hereby dismissed without cost and without prejudice to the right of any party, upon good cause shown, to reopen the action within thirty (30) days if settlement is not consummated.”

So it’s possible that this isn’t over yet.