When I first moved to the UK, I thought I understood why people hated the Daily Mail: it's a shitty, sensationalist tabloid, right? What I failed to understand, in my naive, transatlantic way, was just how shitty a tabloid the Fail is. Here, then, is Martin Robbins doing a 20-minute presentation at The Pod Delusion's third birthday bash, explaining in excruciating (and funny) detail why the Mail is an atrocious, vile fester of stinking shit, and why the people who publish it are scum.
Britain's free press cringes in anticipation of coming regulation; plutocrats and oligarchs celebrate
Writing in The Spectator, Kirsty Walker describes the chilling effect the UK's Leveson Inquiry (which is investigating illegal phone/email interception and systematic harassment by UK papers, especially tabloids) is having on legitimate reporting. The UK is already the best place in the world for rich and powerful people who want to use libel law to silence unflattering accounts of their actions. But with Leveson heading for its conclusion and the spectre of official press regulation (through which the government would license reporters and news outlets, and could remove those licenses at will), reporters and their editors are under increasing pressure from the world's dictators and local plutocrats.
Before the Leveson inquiry, I had received less than a dozen PCC complaints in my career and never had one upheld. But when I left, complaints were coming in at a rate of at least one a month. All required mini-investigations. Even foreign dictatorships know how to frighten Fleet Street. The last complaint I was asked to deal with was from a dictator, the King of Bahrain, who didn’t like the way I referred to criticism of his regime following the deaths of 40 people in anti-government protests.
Like 99.99 per cent of British journalists, I never hacked a phone or bribed a public official. During my long career in the House of Commons, I tried my utmost to be fair. If a story didn’t quite stack up, I would abandon it. A small handful of journalists did hire private investigators to do some horrific things, but there are laws in this country to deal with them.
How do we know that Lord Leveson’s report will encourage the rich, the powerful, the venal and the pompous to intimidate journalists and frighten papers into not covering stories? Because the prospect of it has done so already. How do we know that an elite will attempt to decide what it is appropriate for the rest of us to read about over our cornflakes? Because Leveson is already doing exactly that. This is the judge who read a 200-word article in the Times about how The Thick of It was planning to satirise him in one episode — and promptly asked the editor of that paper whether it was ‘appropriate’ for him to run the piece. It is all too easy to guess what a judge with such an attitude to newspapers will do for press freedom.
What the papers won’t say (Thanks, Marilyn!)
The Village Voice received an improbable trademark over the use of "BEST OF" in connection with lists of the best things on offer in various cities, and now they're suing Yelp for creating their own "Best of" lists. This ridiculous suit is only possible because of the US Patent and Trademark Office's bungling, terrible methods, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Corynne McSherry writes, and will only be resolved when the USPTO cleans up its act:
What is going on at the Patent and Trademark Office? For decades, folks have been complaining (with good reason) that the patent examiners need to do a better job of screening out bogus patent applications. It’s clear that the problem extends to the trademark side as well. The PTO has allowed companies and individuals to register marks in any number of obviously generic and/or descriptive terms, such as “urban homestead” (to refer to urban farms), “gaymer” (to refer to gay gamers), and “B-24” (to refer to model B-24 bombers).
Once a mark is registered, it is all too easy for the owner to become a trademark bully. And while companies like Yelp have the resources to fight back (as we expect it will), small companies and individuals may not. Just as dangerous, the trademark owner may go upstream, to intermediaries like Facebook who have little incentive to do anything other than take down an account or site that’s accused of infringement.
"Good enough for government work" isn't good enough for free speech. It’s time the PTO did its part to stop trademark bullies and tightened up the trademark application process. Fewer bogus registrations means fewer bogus threats, and more online creativity and competition. That's a win for everyone.
Helen from the UK newspaper the New Statesman writes,
Today, the New Statesman is publishing an issue of the magazine guest-edited by the Chinese rebel artist Ai Weiwei. In the issue, Ai interviews the "blind dissident" Chen Guangcheng about the forced abortions and sterilisations required to enforce the one-child policy. He also speaks to a member of the "50 Cent party" - China's "paid trolls", given half a dollar every time they derail an online conversation. There are also pieces by human rights lawyers, activists, film makers and artists - as well as Ai's 170,000 Twitter followers giving their thoughts on the future of China.
We're expecting the NS website to be banned in China - and deleted from search results - after doing this, so it's vital to get the issue out by other means. We've created a PDF version in Mandarin, and uploaded it to PirateBay, and other torrent sites. That way, people on VPNs in China, can get it, and pass it around. The page I'm sending has information on how to do that. China wants to restrict its people from telling the truth about their lives. We hope the internet can set them free.
Taking on the "Great Firewall of China" (Thanks, Helen!)
An update from Rupert Murdoch's experiment in news publishing without search-engines: the oligarch has reversed his policy regarding the Times (which went paywall in 2009), and he will now allow Google and other search tools to index the first two sentences of each article. Of course, anyone who sees a Times article in her search results will not be able to read it, unless she pays for it, or unless she is among the 130,000-odd digital subscribers to the service. What's more, any page of search results displaying an unfollowable link to a Times story will also include a followable link to another story covering the same subject.
PaidContent says that this represents "the publisher [...] having to look in new places to maintain customer acquisition momentum." Back in 2010, I spent a week on the phone with a NewsCorp exec, digging into the company's paywall numbers, concluding that they were engaged in spin intended to obscure the truth of the outcome of their experiment. However, back then, the Times was boasting 200,000 paid users (though they wouldn't say how many paid £1 for a single day's access, how many got a subscription free with their mobile phone service, and how many were regular subscribers), and now that number has declined to 130,000. Take that for whatever it's worth.
Dan "Mediactive" Gillmor sends us his latest Guardian column, a thoughtful and fascinating manifesto for what the role newspaper ombudsmen could morph into, in order to maximize the relevance and centrality of newspapers and news organizations on the Internet:
• Aggregate (quote and link to) every thoughtful critique of the organization's work that I could find, and invite readers to analyze and comment on those critiques. I would ask permission to crosspost some of these on the blog. When I thought a critic was wrong, I'd say so. I'd also note when they were, in my view, making fair points. I'd deal with disrespectful critiques on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that sometimes a nasty person can make a good point.
• Create a robust, open forum about the newspaper's work. This would most likely take the form of a traditional bulletin board system where readers could create their own topics, using moderation software that would minimize staff costs while still filtering out the worst trolls.
• Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these conversations. The discussions would still work to some degree without the staff, but with them, the conversations would be vastly better. Of course, some newsroom folks – Nicholas Kristof is a prime example – are already engaging with readers in terrific ways; I'd point to those interactions. But my main goal here would be, whenever possible, to have the newsroom explain how it operates and why it does what it does. Serious journalism is hard work, and I don't think readers understand how hard. As I wrote in my most recent book, greater transparency in an honorable news organization will lead your audience to trust you more even if they may believe you less.
• Use the Sunday column mostly as a guide to (with highlights from) the online conversations.
There's more -- be sure and click through to read the whole thing.
Commuting illustrator draws his fellow riders, publishes a newspaper for them containing his sketches
Newspaper Club is a service in London that lets people publish super-limited-edition newspapers. They're always finding surprising and sweet niches for newspapers. One recent example is Steve Wilkin, an illustrator who rides the 7:38 train from Hebden Bridge to the University of Central Lancashire, where he teaches illustration. For ten years, he's been sketching the regulars on his train. Now, he's put out his own micro-newspaper, 738, containing a selection of those sketches, intended for the commuters he rides with every day.
For the past ten years he has been drawing people on his daily commute. A free newspaper gave him the inspiration to publish his sketchbooks in newspaper format. With funding from the contemporary arts development group (CADG) at the University of Central Lancashire he published 500 x 16-page traditionally-printed newspapers to give out to his fellow travellers.
Righthaven, the copyright troll that flamed out after a botched attempt to get rich by suing bloggers for quoting newspaper articles, has reached bottom. After having its domain seized and sold off to pay its legal bills, it is now faced with having to sell the copyrights to the aforesaid newspaper articles as well to offset more of its victims' expenses. David Kravets writes on Ars Technica:
U.S. District Judge Philip M. Pro of Nevada ordered Righthaven to surrender for auction the 278 copyrighted news articles that were the subject of its lawsuits.
"The copyright registrations to more than 275 works are in Righthaven’s name, can be transferred by this court, and can then be auctioned," the judge ruled. (.pdf)
The Righthaven.com domain was auctioned for $3,000 last year to help satisfy the legal bill the firm must pay to one of its defendants that prevailed in a copyright suit brought by Righthaven itself. The tab is more than $60,000 in the case before Judge Pro, and in total Righthaven owes about $200,000 to various defendants.
Outgoing New York Times CEO Janet Robinson received an exit package worth $23.7 million after presiding over an eight year tenure that saw the company's share price fall by 80 percent. The company's net earnings over the past four years were $3 million. In addition to her exit package, Robinson earned a $1 million annual salary. Edmund Lee for Bloomberg News:
Robinson gets pension and supplemental retirement income valued at $11.4 million, performance awards of $5.39 million, restricted stock units worth $1.07 million and stock options worth $694,164, according to the company’s proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission today. She will also earn $4.5 million in consulting fees for this year.
Robinson’s exit, which costs Times Co. more than the company earned in the past four years, marks an end to a period during which the publisher’s sales and earnings slumped amid intensifying online competition. Times Co. (NYT) stock plunged more than 80 percent during Robinson’s tenure as CEO, which began in December 2004.
The departure of Robinson, 61, also leaves a leadership vacuum at Times Co., publisher of the namesake newspaper. The company, based in New York, faces falling print-advertising revenue, profit squeezed by pension costs, and pressure from members of the Ochs-Sulzberger family to restore a dividend once worth more than $20 million annually.
New York Times CEO Robinson’s Exit Compensation Package Tops $23 Million [Bloomberg News via Tech Dirt]
As Doonesbury tackles mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds for women considering abortions, rumours abound that newspapers will drop or substitute the strip:
In the "Doonesbury" strip, a woman goes to a Texas clinic to have the procedure and is forced to get a sonogram, Roush said.
The cartoon ends with the woman going home to wait 24 hours before having the abortion, as the Texas law requires, Roush said. The woman is a new character in "Doonesbury," she said.
Editors from about a dozen newspapers have reached out to Universal Uclick with questions about the strip authored by Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Trudeau, with some newspapers asking about whether an alternate strip will be offered, Roush said.
"I would imagine that some will make that choice" not to run the abortion-related strip, Roush said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kurt Opsahl analyzes an important declaratory judgment from a Nevada federal court, which held that excerpting news articles in online postings was fair use.
Judge Roger Hunt’s judgment confirms that an online forum is not liable for its users’ posts, even if it was not protected by the safe harbors of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s notice and takedown provisions. The decision also clarifies that a common practice on the Internet – excerpting a few sentences and linking to interesting articles elsewhere – is a fair use, not an infringement of copyright.
The case is a remnant of the Righthaven copyright troll campaign, in which a newspaper owner and a lawyer formed a venture to get rich by shaking down websites. It's ended in bankruptcy, loss of investment, and an investigation from the Nevada bar.
The Guardian published a long excerpt from Nick Cohen's forthcoming You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, a fantastic-looking book that reveals the dirty truth of English libel law, where "money buys silence" for some of the world's most notorious dictators, thieves, and bad guys. English libel law is so broad that it allows, for example, Russian oligarchs to sue Russian newspapers for punitive sums ("the cost of libel actions in England and Wales is 140 times higher than the European average") in an English court, merely by demonstrating that someone, somewhere in England looked at the paper's website. And yet, the libel law in England and Wales doesn't actually protect people from the most common forms of libelous publication: false declarations of criminal suspicion by the police, false claims of financial irregularities from credit reporting bureaux and false statements in former employers' reference letters are protected unless they can be shown to have been malicious and negligent.
The book doesn't appear to have US distribution, but there are some importers selling it on Amazon's US site, too.
In 2006, reporters on the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet decided to investigate the stunning rise of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing, which was buying assets across Denmark. How, they asked, had a bank from a volcanic island without the resources to support a huge and voracious financial sector become so powerful? The newsdesk decided they should concentrate on the links between the bank, Russian oligarchs and tax havens. Kaupthing was furious. It was accustomed to receiving praise from the financial press for the entrepreneurial dynamism of its managers. It threatened to sue Ekstra Bladet in Copenhagen and at the same time filed a complaint with the Danish Press Council, which handled cases of breaches of press ethics.
The paper defended its journalism and the Danish Press Council rejected the bank's complaint. Kaupthing withdrew its Danish lawsuit and the argument seemed to be over until Ekstra Bladet's bewildered editors heard that the bank was now suing them in London. The costs were beyond anything they had experienced before. In Denmark, lawyers consider a libel action that costs £25,000 expensive. In London, lawyers for Kaupthing and Ekstra Bladet ran up costs of close to £1m before the case came to court. Ekstra Bladet could not run the risk of doubling, maybe trebling, the bill if it lost. It agreed to pay substantial damages to Kaupthing, cover its legal expenses and carry a formal apology on its website.
A few months later, Kaupthing, along with the other entrepreneurial, go-ahead Icelandic banks, collapsed. Iceland's GDP fell by 65%, one-third of the population said they were considering emigration and the British and Dutch governments demanded compensation equivalent to the output of the entire Icelandic economy for the lost deposits of their citizens in Kaupthing and other banks.
Clay Shirky rings in the new year with another barn-burning essay about the state of newspapers, first noting that a "porous" paywall that allows 20 free pageviews per month is a tacit admission that pretty much no one who visits the paper's site is a potential customer for the paper's product:
To understand newspapers’ 15-year attachment to paywalls, you have to understand “Everyone must pay!” not just as an economic assertion, but as a cultural one. Though the journalists all knew readership would plummet if their paper dropped imported content like Dear Abby or the funny pages, they never really had to know just how few people were reading about the City Council or the water main break. Part of the appeal of paywalls, even in the face of their economic ineffectiveness, was preserving this sense that a coupon-clipper and a news junkie were both just customers, people whose motivations the paper could serve in general, without having to understand in particular.
The article threshold has often been discussed as if it was simply a new method of getting readers to pay, to which the reply has to be “Yes, except for most of them.” Calling article thresholds a “leaky” or “porous” paywall understates the enormity of the change; the metaphor of a leak suggests a mostly intact container that lets out a minority of its contents, but a paper that shares even two pages a month frees a majority of users from any fee at all. By the time the threshold is at 20 pages (a number fast becoming customary) a paper has given up on even trying to charge between 85% and 95% of its readers, and it will only convince a minority of that minority to pay.
From there, Shirky moves into the paradox of 21st century journalism: the majority of papers are local, and local news is the one thing that civic minded people are likely to sustain, but local papers have all but abandoned local news:
Thresholds are now mostly being tried at big-city papers — New York, Chicago, Minneapolis. Most papers, however, are not the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Most papers are the Springfield Reporter, papers with a circulation 20,000 or less, and mostly made up of content bought from the Associated Press and United Media. These papers may not do well on the God Forbid index, because they produce so little original content, and they may not find thresholds financially viable, because the most engaged hundredth of their audience will number in the dozens, not the thousands.
On the other hand, local reporting is almost the only form of content for which the local paper is the sole source, so it’s also possible to imagine a virtuous circle for at least some small papers, where a civically-minded core of citizens step in to fund the paper in return for an increase in local coverage, both of politics and community matters. (It’s hard to overstate how vital community coverage is for small-town papers, which have typically been as much village well as town crier.)
A lawyer for victims of News of the World phone hacking told the court that long after NotW knew of the police investigation of its newsgathering process, it put reporters' laptops and hard-drives "through a grinder" and took them out and "smashed them up."
The destruction of the computers is understood to have taken place around October last year, prior to the launch of Operation Weeting, the London Metropolitan Police investigation into phone hacking which has led to the arrests of 16 journalists.
The shredding of hard drives would have happened long after senior executives were made aware that phone hacking had spread beyond a single "rogue" reporter.