(UPDATED) Margaret Wente is the serial plagiarist unaccountably still in the employ of the Globe and Mail. Wente’s plagiarism was well documented by Carol Wainio on her personal Weblog for over a year before other journos woke the fuck up and noticed. Toronto journalists, a commentariat-class monoculture, have a shared technical incompetence that made them a year late on the biggest journalism story of ’012.
The problem here is that Toronto journalists think technology means Twitter and Gmail. “Data journalism” is this thing some distant cadre of kool kidz do that results in giant pins attached to Google maps. Toronto hacks tell themselves they’re computer-literate. All they are is not computer-illiterate. This illiteracy caused the local commentariat to be completely unaware of the Wente story for a full year. Now: Why? At root, because they don’t use RSS and don’t even know why they should.
Toronto hacks, a self-reinforcing lot who crystallize around nuclei like Ivor Tossell, all have the same technical skills. Instead of trying to explain how limited those skills are, I’ll explain my setup and how that setup keeps me better informed than any Twitter/Gmail hack at next to no cost.
I subscribe to 1,459 RSS feeds. An unimaginable number? You must be new here. Collected and pruned over the course of a decade, it isn’t remotely a lot of subscriptions. Easily a third of them are on the list to catch postings from writers who rarely publish. (You may download my OPML file [slightly invalid] if you wish.)
Any remotely interesting site with RSS I add to my list. It’s no skin off my ass; one more feed doesn’t cost anything measurable in time or attention. (And, for really interesting Weblogs, I read the entire archives.)
I read RSS over breakfast and maybe before quitting time. I use NetNewsWire, which lets me page or arrow-key through my feeds. I skip most, read some, and send other articles to Instapaper with a single keystroke. Google Reader is out of the question for serious usage, but there is a reason to maintain a Reader subscription (see below).
Anything even remotely important‑ or interesting-seeming I add to Instapaper. If it passes a very low threshold, I favourite it there, which posts it to Twitter and to Pinboard, which archives the full text. (I have other methods of archiving, but they wouldn’t help other hacks.)
I read Twitter directly when on the bus and so on, but to read articles linked by people on Twitter and Facebook, I use Flipboard. Its marvellous interface makes keeping up with the news fun. You can easily link a Google Reader subscription to Flipboard, making it an actual RSS reader that is no less pleasant.
You could clone my setup in an hour. You’d build up your RSS feeds over time. But because of my decade’s head start, I knew about Wainio’s blog roughly when it began and read the whole thing as each entry came out. I knew Margaret Wente was a plagiarist a year ago because I read the evidence when it was published. I could do that because I set myself up to make it not just possible but convenient.
Toronto hacks don’t know something happened until a member of their commentariat class Twits it
This method, a kind of journalistic homophily gone mad, is a proven failure yet is all that local hacks know. Something they don’t know is how much they don’t know. In my direct experience, they refuse to learn.
If you’re like Jason Kottke and figure that any article important enough to read will bubble up to your attention through many, many links by your friends, then you’ve set yourself up to miss everything that isn’t popular among your homogeneous friend circle. That approach works fine for civilians but is provably inadequate for journalists.
I’m going to pick on Tossell again even though it’s just an illustrative example, not a recitation of fact. To fine-tune this section’s subhed, Toronto hacks don’t know something happened until a beloved and trusted supernode like Tossell links to it. (Goldsbie is another example, but his Toronto-city-politics remit is rather small.) Then suddenly everybody falls into place re-Twitting the discovery and articulating essentially the same opinions about it. (This commentariat class agrees on everything.)
Tossell wasn’t the Big Bang nucleus in the Wente case, but he is exactly that a lot of the time. The big secret here – a seeming contradiction – is that these supernodes are no better informed than the Twits who follow them.
The endless travesty of J‑Source
J‑Source is almost a worst-case scenario of technical illiteracy leading to late coverage indistinguishable from other late coverage. A failure to rival that of the Design Exchange, this “project” of the Canadian Journalism Foundation is technically substandard, timorous, disconnected, and late to the game on everything.
I say this about a lot of things, but it’s true here as it is elsewhere: J‑Source doesn’t understand its own purpose. The Foundation makes matters worse by insisting on hiring only compliant, superficially pleasant young females as editrixen. Unless she’s Jennifer 8 Lee, a woman in her late 20s with a J-school degree just isn’t going to have the chops, moxie, or experience to run a journalism site. Gender is important here, because the ones who get hired are the ones who fit the mould I already cited – compliant and superficially pleasant.
The young female currently running J‑Source, Belinda Alzner, refused to answer my questions about her age, but judging by her LinkedIn profile she’s about 27. (I also made my biases and intent clear. Maybe that’s why she did the worst possible thing and refused to comment. Honestly, we mock sources when they do that.) Alzner’s Wente coverage was late and was tainted by an airy, defensive instinct to protect the guilty. Because she won’t answer my mail, Alzner couldn’t also confirm for me that she only found out about Wente’s plagiarism when her commentariat class’s Twitter feeds blew up with year-late news of it. But take a wild guess what really happened.
J-Source is the site that was too incompetent to doggedly follow the biggest journalism stories of the last year – Jan Wong, Kai Nagata, Margaret Wente. I’ve explained all this to J‑Source more than once and at length. Hire exactly the same kind of people every time and you’ll get exactly the same coverage. Compliant, superficially pleasant young female Toronto journalists are a monoculture even if saying so offends your sensibilities. Then again, those sensibilities wouldn’t let half the commentariat class call Wente a plagiarist, either.
Journos: Refusing to learn since the day they joined Gmail
The same people who think Gmail is E-mail, think top-posting is E-mail, think Twitter is where news breaks, and all know each other, like each other, and go to the same boozeups are a problem to be solved. They can solve it themselves – by upgrading their skills. But, as with easy things like character encoding and Web standards, they’d prefer to stay ignorant if the alternative is learning from me.
My system works. Their system is merely the one their equally-technically-incompetent friends all use. But their friends are awesome.