Cuyahoga County Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold files $50 million lawsuit against The Plain Dealer and others

And so begins an interesting legal battle over the balance between online privacy policies and newsworthiness.

Cuyahoga County Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold files $50 million lawsuit against The Plain Dealer and others

Epistemology and sources

Back in the excellent philosophy class I took in high school (Hi Mr. Lutness!), epistemology was simply explained as How You Know What You Know.

And different philosophers said you know what you know for different reasons. George Berkeley, for example, had this whole “seeing is believing” thing, for example. If he didn’t perceive it with his own senses, it might as well not exist.

No retweets for him, I suppose. No newspapers. I seriously doubt he would have trusted cable news had it existed in his day.

(Scholarly friends: I am aware that Berkeley took the above given as step one, and then rambled off into metaphysics, yes. I am not going to go there today.)

And so we come to a few amusing events of the past week or so. I have three in mind.

  1. Jason Calacanis, Web entrepreneur and investor, posts a series of tweets about the Apple tablet the night before and morning of its unveiling. Journalists at several surprisingly major news organizations repeat and report the rumors Calacanis starts.
  2. Someone poses as the philosopher Jurgen Habermas on Twitter.
  3. Someone pretending to be from a rich family claims to give millions to help post-earthquake Haiti.

In all three cases, [GENERALIZATION AHEAD] our desire to believe seems to have been the primary reason we did so.

You got duped by @Jason

The Calacanis story took advantage (and indeed, mocked) the breathless pre-announcement hype about the tablet. I probably saw it because someone retweeted one of Jason’s early posts claiming to have been a beta tester, and I have to ask myself why I clicked. The truth is, I was quietly reading everything I could get my hands on about the tablet, building up my own hopes and dreams of a magical and wonderful device.

Multiply me by millions, and you get an idea of what the demand was like for information, rumors, patent translations, and actual leaks about the tablet in the run up to the moment when the little heavy-thing-landing-in-a-pile-of-dust “iPad” text dropped into Steve’s slide on screen in San Francisco.

So Calacanis, just for fun (I think), provided some supply for that demand.

Was he a reliable source? Only if you’d never paid attention to him before, which really works out well for him when you do the math. There were plenty of people who had followed Jason’s work, attitude, and penchant for showmanship long enough to stay skeptical.

Of course, anyone with a search engine could also quickly become a skeptic.

The moral of the story for reporters? Consider your source’s history on the topic and motivation at all times. Then consider it again.

I got duped by @JHabermas

Look, I dropped a philosopher’s name earlier, and I’ve done bits and pieces of reading on postmodern philosophy, and I’m a big fan of Guy Debord and whatnot, but I haven’t studied Jurgen Habermas. But I do know he’s the “public sphere” guy, and when I retweeted @attackerman’s “THAT’S JURGEN HABERMAS” update, I didn’t do a whole lot of investigation. None, actually.

But, of course, someone knew better.

Jurgen Habermas’s audience knows more than I do. Follow the trail from that link and its comments, and you’ll even find someone who (claims to have) tracked down Habermas on the phone:

“He added that ‘my email address is not publicly available,’ which suggests that perhaps he didn’t quite understand what I was getting at. In fact, the father of the public sphere doesn’t seem to understand the internet very well at all, judging by his few previous references to the topic.” [The links are in the original.]

Wait, run that back a paragraph. Did you catch that little parenthetical disclaimer I dropped in?

“…someone who (claims to have) tracked down…”

Hedging my bets.


Because I don’t know the person who says they made the call to Habermas, and I didn’t take the time to even check their About page. The author did, however, include a link to an mp3 he says is the recorded conversation between him and Habermas about the Twitter account. That would be easy enough to listen to, and anyone familiar with Habermas’s voice could confirm it’s him.

But I haven’t listened, although I would be amused to hear some sort of creative remix of it if such a thing were to go viral.

Moral? If you don’t know the answer to a key question about your source, someone else probably does. Find them. And ask them.

Stefan Roberts didn’t dupe Wikipedians

A man says he’s Stefan de Rothschild, and he’s giving $2.5 million to Haiti.


  • Famous European name
  • Unusually large charitable donation
  • A few quick Web sites
  • A handful of Wikipedia entries

I’m going to lean heavily on this Valleywag post to explain the sequence of events (I know, consider the source, right? But there’s lots of links in that post, too.) The important part is that the guy was a faker, and although no journalist caught it, he was busted when he caught the attention of Wikipedia reviewers who noticed he kept putting the same fake pages up on the encyclopedia I’ve linked to four times in this post.

Here’s a quote from Valleywag’s story:

“What brought Roberts down was one of the tools he used to hoist himself up, Wikipedia, on which he posted no fewer than five fake entries: for himself, for his fake line of Rothschild family members and for one of his fake companies, Rothschild Estates. His antics caught the attention of the Wikipedia Review after editors kept deleting the fake entries and Roberts kept trying to resurrect them.”

Moral: Give a small number of editors a reliable system for tracking down claims of truth, and it gets easier to spot falsehoods, whether the editors have expertise on the topic or not.

[UPDATE: So there’s a comment below that points out an important factual error I made in the Rothschild bit. In fact, it’s an error that makes this “moral” have no backup in the actual narrative of the fraud and its discovery. I’ll explore it further and report back here, or in the comments, about what I figure out.]

I like tools and systems and truth, so I’m going to repeat variations of the aforementioned morals-of-the-story in a real general way for a moment. Bear with me.

  • If you give journalists tools to help them spot anomalies in the system of the news, it gets easier to discern what’s true.
  • If you give journalists tools to help them track how truthful sources are, it gets easier to tell readers what’s true.
  • If you give journalists tools to ask their sources and readers good questions, everybody wins.

Did I mention I like tools? And truth? And also, links. Feel free to suggest a few more in the comments of this post, or wherever fine links are shared.

Crucial reading on the evolution of news, as it stands today

I feel like this summer has been sort of a rolling watershed moment in the Present of News, if not necessarily the Future of it.

(Yes, yes, the lowercase present is always becoming the lowercase future, but I’m talking about the supposed collective vision for the Future of News that, well, usually gets held up as a straw man as if every proponent of online news tools for communication believes the same thing.)

There are a lot of ongoing battles right now, if I can call them that, over things like paywalls and copyright. These are more than kerfuffles here, folks; we’re talking about the future business model paths for some pretty large chunks of the mainstream media at this point, for better or worse.

So, in an effort to pull together some of what I think would be the most important footnotes in the Summer 2009 chapter of the book someone surely must be writing at this point, here are some recent favorites:

Microformats, hNews, the AP and the Animals: Steve Yelvington sanely and succinctly dissects the AP/microformats weirdness and explains what could be great about the deal (Semantic Web!) and what doesn’t make any sense about the way they’re going about it (Function-free DRM!).

Chris Anderson on the Economics of ‘Free’: ‘Maybe Media Will Be a Hobby Rather than a Job’: Everything Chris Anderson says in this Spiegel interview is quotable and crucial to anyone interested in the future of news. Like this, for example: “If something has happened in the world that’s important, I’ll hear about it. I heard about the protests in Iran before it was in the papers because the people who I subscribe to on Twitter care about those things.”

The Nichepaper Manifesto: If you haven’t taken a look at Umair Haque’s piece yet, I think you’ll want to. Niches, topics, different models that are working online to bring *some* news to *some* people. Worth keeping around as a reference.

The Pushbutton Web: Realtime Becomes Real: Anil Dash’s crucial primer on the blossoming technology behind the Real-Time Web. This is the most important thing I’ve read in the last week.

What Would Fair Use Look Like in an Online Era?: C.W. Anderson starts exploring what an updated Fair Use test should look like in 2009. “1. The presence and quality of the link…”

A lesson from Patchwork Nation: Frameworks for Reporting: Chris Amico explains: “When I get a new set of data, I spend a good deal of time deciding what’s important, and where a story is. I might run it through a visualization tool, like ManyEyes. Starting with data but no story tends to be a slow process. Ending up with a story but no data makes me feel like I haven’t done my job.”

And you? What’s on your crucial reading list?

This post was ridiculously easy to write and compile thanks to Publish2’s WordPress plugin and its Link Assist feature. (Yes, I work at Publish2.)

On IdeaLab: Reporter-turned-blogger covers the island of Alameda

Over at the PBS IdeaLab blog, I interviewed Michele Ellson, editor and publisher at The Island, a local news site devoted to covering the city of Alameda, which sits to the west of Oakland in San Francisco Bay. (Yes, it’s an island.)

Michele left newspapers in 2007 and launched The Island in early 2008, continuing a 17+ year journalism career.  I worked with Michele on the regional desk at ANG, before it became BANG, but you know it more informally as the cluster of newspapers in the Bay Area owned by MediaNews.  Back then, she was an investigative/enterprise reporter winning awards for a long series on the failures of group homes for young people and the developmentally disabled.

I talked with Michele about moving from a print-focused newsroom to a Web-only culture where she is the reporter, editor, community manager, and communications officer of her own organization:

“That’s another thing that I think was a shock for me in moving from print to online – the shift in what your readers want and expect from you in terms of their psychic needs (which shift from information to attention-getting, sometimes) and the kind of engagement they anticipate. I figure it’ll take a lot of work for me to fine-tune that engagement level.”

Read the whole thing at IdeaLab.

The community-directed reporter: Daniel Victor gears up to go mojo

From Daniel Victor comes news that he’s working on a new job description, and a new reporting beat:

“If I can sell my editors on the concept, I would be the author and community manager of a new blog. My stated goal will be to have at least one originally reported story per day, usually some combination of text, photography and video. Sometimes it’ll be a three-minute video with 200-word text, sometimes it could be a great photo with 800-word text.

The stories I’m looking for are next-door slices of life that are usually the first to go because of shrinking staffs. A new museum exhibit, an innovative classroom project, a personality profile, a soup kitchen gearing up for a busy time, a little-known hiking trail, a new business opening, etc.

If you check this new blog every day, you will always learn about one new wrinkle in your community. That’s a wonderful promise for a news site to make.”

It’s difficult to measure all the things Daniel and his employers are about to do right, but here’s the short list:

  • Getting a reporter out of the newsroom and into the community to cover actual human beings.
  • Dedicating a reporter to the Web, free to post all day long without waiting for news meetings or multiple reads of a story to publish.
  • Letting the community directly decide what the reporter covers.

That last point is huge, and fun, and highly recommended.  I’m curious about how he’s going to do it.  I’d try Uservoice or something like it, although a simple comment thread with a voting plugin would probably do the job, right?

Whenever anyone asks me what I would do if I were re-organizing the staff at a medium-to-large daily, I talk a lot about this sort of beat:  A reporter who lives in the beat, geographically and/or topically, and meets readers head-on, not via phone lines or e-mail or letters to the editor, but shaking hands and having coffee and knowing what’s going on because s/he knows the people, not just what the city council says is going on.

Daniel’s been doing that sort of work already — check out the Beatblogging archives for more notes on how he’s done it in the recent past — but this sounds like a big step forward in how we think about beat reporting and letting the public act as the assignment editor.

So although this wasn’t an overnight change for this particular news organization, there’s still quite a bit of inspiration to it, as far as I’m concerned.

Speaking of inspiration: