HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW MUCH I LOVE HIM

The Toronto Star, where I wrote a how-to-get-online column before, during, and after the historical moment when the Web was invented, is sinking millions into a “tablet app,” as they consistently misname it. This project, which could cost the company $9 million, involves licensing an iPad (not “tablet”) app from La Presse.

It also involves hiring an army of hacks, editors, developers, designers, and ad-floggers. But, they’ve made it clear, under no circumstances whatsoever will the Star hire me.

Now: Why would they? Apart from the fact I actually am part of the Star “family,” albeit one who only shows up at Thanksgiving and expects Tofurky and vegan gravy, and apart from the further fact that I essentially learned my craft at the feet of Sid Adilman, I am now the last developer left in Toronto with standards-compliance and accessibility knowledge. I told you already who the second-last was. I further am the only one who is an accomplished journalist and editor with 30 years’ typography knowledge.

The Star needs me because its technical infrastructure is seriously broken.

  • An inability to produce a canonical link for an item is an endemic failure at the Star.

    Same article on Twitter with multiple short URLs
  • Links do not work reliably. Much of the time, they don’t work at all. One explanation is the paper’s use not of shebang #! addressing but just # addressing, which has the identical effect – your browser sees nothing after the octothorpe and the page loads only due to JavaScript.

    Here are two URLs that really were published by the Star (linebreaks added).

    1. http://t.thestar.com/#/article/opinion/commentary/
      2015/01/07/
      how_to_take_back_the_country_in_this_years_federal_election.html

    2. http://m.thestar.com/#/article/news/canada/
      2015/02/05/
      hpv-vaccine-gardasil-has-a-dark-side-star-investigation-finds.html

      (a notorious and completely wrong article attacking the Gardasil vaccine)

    A good URL is one you can dictate over the phone.

    • Here, slugs are too long: /you-dont-write-slugs-that-contain-every-word-of-a-headline-connected-by-dashes-parenthesis-or-is-it-by-underscores---im-not-really-sure-parenthesis-no-matter-what-an-seo-consultant-parenthesis-that-means-charlatan-parenthesis-told-you.html.

    • Why are there two separate hostnames (t. and m.) with seemingly identical function?

    • And should we use underscore as a separator or dash? Why not both?

    • What is the canonical URL for each of these articles? Does anyone on staff know what that is and why it matters?

    If you manage to get an URL to work, the sequence of events is as follows:

    • Flash of Unrendered Content as an empty Web page, save for TITLE populated with the words “Toronto Star,” appears. There’s a couple of variants of this, actually, because God help you if you want to look at an author page instead of an article.

      Generally blank windows
    • Actual story appears for a moment. You can read a couple of lines of the first graf on an iPhone because that’s all the copy that fits on the first screen.

    • Interstitial ad for CIBC takes over.

      CIBC interstitial ad occupies entire screen
    • Clear that ad, send the article to Instapaper so you can actually read it, and it doesn’t load there half the time, either.

  • Links inside articles don’t even work and/or are misrendered.

    Hyperlink as raw italicized text
  • Like all newspapers run by “hacks and hackers” who have no training in Unicode, Unicode is borked (note missing wordspaces).

    Article largely missing wordspaces (hence words run together)

Your “tablet app” can’t produce viable content when the entire back end is broken and when nobody on staff cares or knows enough to fix it.

But I must be in the wrong here because I am a “difficult personality.”

Hiring greenhorns by the carload

  • I wrote Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke (open Michael Cooke’s policard) a hardcopy letter in February and was ignored for months until I E‑mailed him. He didn’t read my letter (even in attached PDF later on). He patiently explained that he had good people working on the project and I should really talk to them. I told him twice I wasn’t a mindreader and didn’t have the internal directory, so they’d have to contact me. They didn’t.

  • I did waltz through the “tablet app” area on the fifth floor of the 1 Yonge bunker a couple of times. Replicating every mistake of digital startups, what I saw was a giant table with a dozen or so retina iMacs. (And desk phones. But forget about making a phone call in an environment like that.) Every time I visited, I saw more and more visibly young people working on those iMacs. I recall looking over one new staffmember’s shoulder as they literally and actually moved around Lorem ipsum dummy text and resized coloured rectangles. What I thought then and there was “Hey, kid – how do you mark that up?”

  • I met a perfectly nice designer who knew nothing about the Registry of Graphic Designers of Ontario, knew nothing of accessibility, and had never heard of VoiceOver.

  • I would spend quite a lot of time trying to get the attention of two managers of the project, Faadi Yaccoub (open Faadi Yaccoub’s policard) and Jon Filson (open Jon Filson’s policard). The ignored E‑mails and a hardcopy letter sent to Yaccoub.

    I did get Filson on the phone at one point (don’t ask me how). He chuckled uncomfortably and explained there were a whole raft of things to take care of before launch and getting back to Joe was one of them. Of course that makes no sense, but I was nonetheless granted an audience.

    • We sat in the studio commissary on the fourth floor. He visibly had no idea who Sid Adilman was. We talked about poor Randy Starkman. In a pot-calling-kettle-black moment, Filson revealed that I had been pre-billed as a “difficult personality,” but did not mention that this is a newspaper that employs and will never ever fire Rosie fucking DiManno and Kevin fucking Donovan. Difficult personalities are what run the newspaper business, but it’s only a character defect when somebody tells an editor I have it before I’ve even met him.

    • I explained how I am the last of my kind. We talked about how newspapers have done every single thing wrong with the Internet and I told him I am trying to keep the Star, of whose family I am part, from making further own goals. I went through a whole list and there wasn’t a single damned thing that Filson seemed to understand. He further told me everything must be under control because none of these problems had “come up” before, which I took to mean that no only do they not know what they don’t know at the Star, they’re living in wilful ignorance.

    • Filson thinks people do not want to read long articles online, hence Star Touch articles will be shorter and implicitly broken up into discrete screenfuls (instead of just flowing from screen to screen). I told him it wasn’t true that people won’t or don’t read long articles online, and he bristled at that. If people aren’t reading the Star’s longer online articles, first of all, how does the Star even know? And second, if true it’s due to reader-hostile typography – grey text on white, fake italics, blank lines between grafs, too-small default font size, too little content on first screen.

    • I went to great lengths to explain, not for the first time to the Star, that if it spends this much money and puts this much effort into a “tablet app” that turns out not to be accessible, Torstar will be a prime candidate for a human-rights complaint.

    • Filson asked me if I’d checked out any of these issues on the La Presse app. “I haven’t been paid to do that,” I told him. Oh, so that’s how this is going to be, Filson replied in effect.

    • Filson told me he was the wrong person to be complaining to (why was I there, then?) and I should really be talking to head developer Dave Darnell (open David Darnell’s policard), but Darnell was “under no obligation” to talk to me.

      “You’ve said that three times,” I said.

      Twice,” he corrected.

      This editor later accused this writer of “parsing words.”

    • Darnell didn’t respond to E‑mail and obviously isn’t gonna.

In case you were wondering about the chance of success of this project

  • The Star invites you to write for its “tablet app” for free.

  • According to a comment at Frank, hacks are indeed being told to write in single-screen blocks.

  • There will not be a single canonical version of any story. (Forget about single canonical URLs.) The online version and the “tablet” version will be two separate things, and Filson and I agreed there were scenarios in which the print edition would be a third variant.

  • Star Touch does not update its stories. You get one edition a day, fixed in time with the comfort and familiarity of a printed newspaper. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for one thing, if the Star blows a story as badly as it blew the Gardasil “controversy,” it would be actually unable to unpublish an article from the tablet edition.

    Ah, but that doesn’t really matter, because old stories disappear and are replaced every single day. But doesn’t that mean that if you are using the app at a specific minute once a day, everything you’re reading disappears and is replaced before your very eyes in a not-at-all-Orwellian fashion?

    Doesn’t this further mean that a defamatory article stays published for a full day?

  • The app will be free and will be festooned with “immersive” advertising. (Now you have two problems.) I am told the only limit to that advertising is this: Videos won’t autoplay. (They also won’t be captioned – another human-rights complaint in the offing, as I told Filson.)

“This would be the point where you tell me to stop gargling your bathwater”

Me to Cooke, who had infamously told a rival journalist investigating the Star’s failed Gardasil non-story to stop gargling his bathwater:

I won’t apologize for my tone and approach even though I expect you like neither. Basically nobody in Toronto, the world’s least confrontational city, likes my tone and approach. (Too “negative.”) This is how a frustrated expert talks. Toronto, with its unquenchable thirst for mediocrity, thinks experts are a problem. (So did the previous mayor.)

If you want this tablet project to work, you need somebody on staff with the taste, knowledge, experience, and acumen to insist on doing things right – and the balls to say no. 
That would be me.

Filson told me he had seen the letter I mailed to Yaccoub. Here was how I closed that letter: “I’m asking for two things: To be taken seriously and to have a meeting.” I had been pre-dismissed before I’d even entered the building. These people will hire kids off the street but won’t touch me with a ten-foot pole. They’d prefer not to fix their mistakes if the alternative involves a “difficult personality” like me. This is how Toronto really works.

Here the Star isn’t replicating every mistake that newspapers ever made. It’s even replicating the mistakes of BuzzFeed and all editorial startups. The Toronto Star, like every other online editorial operation, will hire anyone except someone who’s actually qualified.

But why am I the problem for saying that? (I asked Cooke for a comment on why the Star treated me this way and got nothing.)

The Star further fails to understand that if anyone does file an accessibility-related complaint, I have suddenly become an expert witness for the complainant. As my esteemed colleague Karl Groves has explained, once your accessibility defects reach the complaint or lawsuit stage and you have to call somebody in to clean up your mess, your expensive consultants discover a broken development process and previous warnings and attempts to fix the problem. (Karl: “Ultimately, you are going to end up fixing your Web site…. You will never be successful in accessibility without fixing your culture and processes.”)

Do you think this is the least I deserve?

According to seemingly everyone, I deserve even worse than what I already get. Well, understand that this was my last hope.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2015.09.02 12:29. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2015/09/02/startouch/

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