All scoops are not equal: Linking back to the source that broke the news

At Boing Boing:

MG Siegler complains that the Wall Street Journalfailed to credit him when covering a story he earlier scooped at TechCrunch: Apple Acquires Chomp.

The Wall Street Journal Is Fucking Bullshit

Earlier today, I broke some news.

I don’t typically do this anymore given my new job. But from time to time this will happen. But if you read The Wall Street Journal, you’d never know. Why’s that? Because they’re fuckheads who don’t credit actual sources of information.

Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza says no because the WSJ reporter got the source herself, and because breaking the news doesn’t make you part of the story.

Mathew Ingram and Tim Carmody are debating this on Twitter as I type. Here’s my take…

The way I think about this is simply in terms of what we want the news ecosystem to reward, and what needs to be specially incentivized. And that’s how we decide how to create professional ethics. They’re ideally a means of furthering good journalism.

And Boing Boing correctly points out that being the first source gives you a first mover advantage and that in some cases is enough.

In my view the ecosystem already has plenty of incentive to be speedy; we don’t need to do anything extra to reward speed. What we do need to reward is journalists taking the time to uncover truly novel information that wouldn’t otherwise have become public (not that this is its only function, and not to encourage hyper-transparency, but still).

So if someone breaks the news on something that was going to be public soon anyway, I don’t see any reason to encourage a special obligation to link back, provided you can get your own source lined up, even in cases where getting that scoop took a lot of work.

For example, if you break a story about some feature on the latest iPad a day before it comes out or whatever (can you tell I don’t follow gadget news?) that might be a really big break, and it might require a lot of work, but if another reporter can subsequently get a direct source to confirm it why do we need to encourage a link to the original source? We don’t really need to go out of our way to incent that kind of coverage via professional ethics.

If, however, someone uncovers a genuinely novel item around, say, the use of drones by the U.S. government in Pakistan, where it seems possible that it wouldn’t have otherwise have become public in the near term, and where it seems likely to have taken at least some significant effort by that reporter, that’s where we should encourage a link back. Because that’s the kind of journalism we need more of.

You can plug in your own example of the kind of journalism you want to incent in the above graf and see how my theory fits for you. And again, I don’t mean this post to encourage some sort of hyper-transparency where getting new info out is just always a complete good. But I want to get beyond vague talk of “courtesy” and create a professional ethic for the digital era that attempts to promote the journalism we want, not just bolster reporters egos (and careers) based on any old scoop.

Question for Jarvis: How will we pay for NYT’s Foxconn coverage?

Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn claims to be raising its wages and cutting overtime, and it seems fair to attribute at least some of that to NYT’s excellent coverage of Apple’s manufacturing there, which put some pressure on them. Elsewhere on the internet Jeff Jarvis explains why he insists that news become profitable, rather than relying on nonprofit models. Jarvis:

I am certain that there is not enough charity in the nation to support the journalism it needs… I also believe they are more likely to build better journalistic products, services, and platforms if they are accountable to the marketplace.

So my question – a genuine one – is how Jarvis thinks the NYT’s iPhone manufacturing coverage fits into this. I can think of a few possibilities of how it might.

1. He believes the market will directly support this kind of work

I find this hard to believe. Shirky has written that this kind of investigative work never made money, but back before news was un-bundled, ads that were sold against articles about sports, the classifieds, coupons, etc. and could help subsidize this sort of stuff.

No doubt many people read the NYT pieces, but they must have cost a ridiculous amount to produce. So I’m skeptical of this one, but perhaps Jarvis disagrees.

2. He believes the market will indirectly subsidize this kind of work via branding

In my mind, the best retort to Shirky’s point that the news was always subsidized is to argue that papers like NYT gain an indirect benefit with their credible reporting. Sure, when readers got the paper they looked at sports and lighter stuff, but they chose to buy such a premier paper in the first place in part to associate themselves with the seriousness of the brand.

That gets harder in the current un-bundled environment, but it may still hold. Maybe I mostly go to Vanity Fair to read celebrity profiles, but the reason I can justify it is because they do serious journalism too. Jarvis could argue that this kind of indirect brand subsidy will make the Foxconn reporting a market necessity.

3. The market won’t support it, so this is one of the things nonprofits should do

Jarvis isn’t against nonprofit news. He just doesn’t want to be over reliant on it. So he could say “yep, this is one of those things that ProPublica is going to do. Just don’t think that model props up all of journalism.”

4. ???

Of course, it’s quite likely that Jarvis’s answer is none of these things. But I’d love to hear it.

Gizmodo’s take on objectivity is regrettable

I’ve got plenty of complaints regarding the sort of he-said-she-said faux objectivity that has overwhelmed much of the traditional media, and I’ve written as much here on the blog. It’s Jay Rosen’s “quest for innocence” – the desire to be blameless that drives impartiality off the deep end to the point where it hurts readers. And at the philosophical level I recognize that “objectivity” in the abstract is impossible.

Fine. But the basic premise behind journalistic objectivity still has tremendous value. So it’s a shame to see Gizmodo editor Matt Buchanan trashing it in a post today. Here’s the opening:

Gizmodo is not objective. It never has been, I don’t think. And I hope it never will be. Because the point isn’t to be something as meaningless—and frankly, false—as objective. The point is to tell the truth.

As long we’re going to get philosophical, the whole notion of “the truth” is itself problematic. But in the context of journalism the point of “objectivity” is to tell the truth. And to appreciate that the truth is often very tricky, so a special ethic is required that is deeply skeptical of truth claims and devoted to exploring competing truth claims.

But Gizmodo ignores this and says:

But objectivity, very often, is bullshit. Even science, which proclaims to be objective more than any other discipline, is very often not, unable to decide whether or not coffee will kill you—or more tragically, has been systematically deployed over and over in history in the service of racism and misogyny. Objectively speaking, the earth was flat and the center of the universe, for a very long time.

Presumably some sort of honest Gizmodo ethic that just calls ’em like it sees ’em would have totally gotten that whole round earth thing right off the bat.

It gets worse.

Oh, and then there’s “bias.” What we hear about the most. That we’re biased about one product or another. What is an “unbiased” review of technology, or assessment of anything? A list of specifications, numbers jammed together with acronyms? What good does that do anybody?

I take from this that the author just doesn’t really spend much time thinking about bias. Here again it’s just not that hard, and it goes back to the point about telling the truth. Bias is about people making clearly false judgments in a systematic way. It’s measurable against broadly agreed upon truth claims, and in some cases it can be tempered by good practices of thought.

Journalistic objectivity is about a deep commitment to truth-telling paired with an acknowledgement of the pervasive power of bias that then leads to a skepticism of truth claims, which naturally breeds some interest in competing truth claims.

How does that work in practice when the quest for innocence is removed? I continue to go back to this great Jim Henley post describing the “blog-reporter ethos” which he sees as basically the same of that of a magazine writer:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

This isn’t that hard (well it’s hard to do, but it’s not that hard to grasp as a concept). We don’t just need transparency. And we don’t need the concept of objectivity to be so trashed that we can’t rebuild it.

Politifact’s news analysis

On January 16th Mitt Romney tweeted this wildly unfair claim: “More Americans have lost their jobs under Barack Obama than any president in modern history.”

Note that I said “wildly unfair” rather than “wrong.” This statement is technically true, but the obvious implication against Obama is ridiculous. If only some organization were around to say so…

Actually, Politifact did just that, the very same day as the tweet. I heard about it from a conservative friend who was grousing about Politifact’s rating of “Mostly false” for the statement. And in a very narrow sense, he has a point. The statement is technically true, if you approach it without any context.

What Politifact did expertly was to provide context, consider not only facts but implications, and provide a basic assessment of the statement’s reasonableness. I see that as a high value journalistic service. It’s what is most often called “news analysis.”

While it’s important to debunk outright lies, it’s at least as important to call out misleading claims, if not more so. And I have no problem with the various “fact check” sites taking this as part of their missions.

So I’ve been disheartened in recent weeks to hear various liberals blasting Politifact just like my conservative friend did for doing good news analysis.

Krugman objected to a similar instance in which Politifact rated an Obama statement “half true” because of where the credit belonged. Obama’s statement seemed more fair – its implication less obvious – than Romney’s but the overall situation is similar. Writes Krugman:

He didn’t actually take credit — and even if he had, a fact is still a fact. I do not think that word means what Politifact thinks it means.

Maddow responded to the same instance telling Politifact:

You are undermining the definition of the word fact in the English language by pretending to it in your name.

To the extent that there’s a problem here, it’s with Politifact’s “Truth-o-meter” ratings, not its analysis. This is disappointing. I know liberals remain upset about the Medicare “Lie of the Year” which I agree was a mistake. (Although if you read the text, it was also a perfectly good analysis!)

The bottom line is that Politifact is providing a valuable service with its news analysis. Two potential problems remain, both of which can be dealt with.

1) Should they use “fact” in the name if they’re doing news analysis? Personally, I don’t really care. This is a branding issue, and I don’t really mind thinking of “facts” a bit more broadly to include a modicum of fairness and context. But I take the point. I’d be happy with a different names.

2) Should the “Truth-o-meter” do more than check facts? This is pretty easy to solve. Do a “truth-o-meter” that says below it “is this statement ‘true’ in a narrow, technical sense?” And then add some sort of “Fair-o-meter” that incorporates the excellent news analysis that Politifact is already doing.

In my mind this solves everyone’s objections while maintaining the broader value of Politifact. Narrow fact-checking is needed, but not enough. Plenty of politicians and pundits do what Romney did: they say things that are technically true, but deeply misleading. That isn’t honest, and it needs to be called out. I look forward to seeing Politifact continuing to do great news analysis.

American manufacturing, “flexibility”, and labor costs

This is a bit outside the normal scope of the blog, but I’ve been shocked to see the point not be made elsewhere. You may have seen the excellent NYT article from a couple weeks back “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.” It’s a terrific piece of journalism but with one major error.

The big revelation, supposedly, is that labor costs aren’t the major reason why Apple does its manufacturing in China rather than the U.S.:

In part, Asia was attractive because the semiskilled workers there were cheaper. But that wasn’t driving Apple. For technology companies, the cost of labor is minimal compared with the expense of buying parts and managing supply chains that bring together components and services from hundreds of companies.

For Mr. Cook, the focus on Asia “came down to two things,” said one former high-ranking Apple executive. Factories in Asia “can scale up and down faster” and “Asian supply chains have surpassed what’s in the U.S.” The result is that “we can’t compete at this point,” the executive said.

The point about supply chains is a good one, and rooted in a rich literature around economic geography and “clusters.” But the point about scaling up and down faster – flexiblity, as it’s referred to in the article – is misleading.

I have no doubt that manufacturing flexibility is hugely valuable. The error is in treating this as separate from labor costs. From the article:

One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

The better way to think about this is that no American plant can match this kind of flexibility at a competitive price as compared to Chinese factories. Ask yourself: how much would you have to pay American workers to be available 24 hours a day, to live in a dorm next to the factory, and to do surprise 12 hour shifts in the middle of the night? Getting this kind of “flexibility” in the U.S. is hard for a lot of reasons, but one of them is labor costs! You’d have to pay Americans a fairly high salary for them to agree to those terms.

I’m fine with emphasizing that this kind of flexibility is increasingly important in global manufacturing. But it’s a mistake to think of it as divorced from labor costs.