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Google listens… if you shout loudly enough

Yesterday evening I wrote about the bizarre disappearance from Google News of my news site, Berkeleyside. What happens next is either an illustration of the power of digital democracy or an example of the value of friends with fantastic megaphones.

Shortly after my post went up, a number of friends tweeted about it. Dave Winer and Felix Salmon were first off the mark. Felix’s rare use of an exclamation mark (“Berkeleyside axed from Google News!”) seems to have provoked some of his regular followers to retweet, including The New York Times’ David Carr, with over 300,000 followers.  My co-founders on Berkeleyside were doing their own tweeting and that reached plenty of others, from Exceptional Women in Publishing to the Knight Digital Media Center’s hyperlocal maven Michele Mclellan. Online media beacon Dan Gillmor added his voice and this morning local media/tech writer extraordinaire Scott Rosenberg piled on with a direct plea: “If you’re a Googler reading this, pls help!” (I’ve never liked exclamation marks as much as in the last 24 hours.)

I was doing more behind the scenes as well. After I wrote my post last night I emailed Josh Benton, who edits the wonderful Nieman Journalism Lab site at Harvard. Benton had published an earlier item I wrote reflecting on AOL/Patch and local sites. He assigned someone to look into it with Google.

Early this morning I had an email from an engineer on the Google News team. He said he was also a Berkeleyside reader and that, off the record, I should know that the problem was a bug and the Google News team was working to resolve it. No ETA for a solution, but he was happy to help me with a Google News backchannel. I’d earlier posted on a Google support forum thread that I reckoned the problem was a screw-up, not a conspiracy. I’m glad I was right.

At about 3pm Pacific time today we started reappearing in the Google News index. Megan Garber wrote an article on Nieman Lab explaining the kerfuffle. (I wish I’d thought of the headline: “Bug, not snub!” Again with the exclamation mark.) Google’s Jeannie Hornung told Garber, “Google News experienced technical difficulties that may have prevented the indexing of recent articles from some news sources. We believe all issues have been resolved. We apologize to our users and the sites affected.”


What lessons can anyone draw from this? First, for all the ascendance of Twitter I’m convinced that my fuller, more reasoned explanation of what happened here on Davos Newbies was crucial. If I had 300,000 followers on Twitter perhaps 140 characters would have provoked someone to action. With less Twitter clout I think the fact that I actually marshaled my arguments in a more discursive form was crucial.

Second, it sure is great to have friends who have bigger megaphones, particularly in the media and tech worlds. The Google support forums where I was posting yesterday were filled with howls from media site owners who had been delisted. No one from Google was replying, so a lot of the forum posts were either grand conspiracy theorists or despairing writers wondering what was going on. From my back channel I’m sure that the Google News team was aware of the bug and was working away. But the cascade of protests on our behalf and the swift resolution today strikes me as more than a coincidence.

Third, it sure is helpful to be producing a vital news source in the Bay Area, where we’re almost bound to have readers who work at Google (and just about any other tech giant you can think of). If we were somewhere else in the world, perhaps we could have gathered the same forces in support, but I think the direct connection to at least one Googler who looks to us for news helped.

Local news: we're at Google's mercy

I spend the bulk of my time these days trying to figure out some of the future of journalism, with the local news site I started with two others, Berkeleyside. We’re unquestionably the leading news source for our city, and we’re widely recognized as such. The San Francisco Chronicle uses us to supply Berkeley news, we’re picked up occasionally by The New York Times, and we’re looked to by, for example, the local public radio station, for the latest on Berkeley.

So it’s not surprising that we’ve also been the prime supplier of Berkeley news to Google News. Until last Saturday.

For reasons as yet unknown, Google News stopped indexing our stories last Saturday. Nothing from us on Google News on the three arrests at Berkeley High today, a story we broke hours ahead of any other news source (although they index several sites that do nothing more than point to our story). Nothing from us on Google News on the power outages in Berkeley today, which was also our scoop.

Was it something we did? That was, of course, my first assumption. Maybe we broke something into our move to a new server, or perhaps our sitemap, the xml document that Google News uses, had been corrupted. A careful check of anything that might be our fault shows that isn’t the problem.

Google, of course, is famously opaque to users, even those that rely on the Mountain View company for parts of their livelihood. There’s no one to call and Google employees only rarely reply on the support forums. “Harvey P”, a Google employee who hasn’t created a Google Profile, did post a notice Attention Publishers: Site Removals on March February 14. But Harvey P implies that publishers removed from Google News would get a notification of removal. We’ve received nothing of the sort.

Scanning through the troubleshooting forum for Google News Publishers, it’s clear we’re not the only ones with this problem. Starting in the middle of last week, an anguished cry went up from sites wondering why Google News stopped indexing them.

Like any sensible search user, I’m delighted Google makes regular efforts to improve the results I use. I want them to get rid of sites that are purely aggregators, that publish nothing original, that really have little to do with “news”. But we meet every one of Google’s criteria for a news site.

Fortunately, there are many ways for people to find their way to Berkeleyside — the Chronicle is a firehose for traffic, Google search still indexes us, Twitter is wonderful, a nice number of people use our iPhone app, and we have a loyal following. But we’re a news site, damn it, and we want and expect to be indexed as such.

The local view on AOL/HuffPo: we're still where innovation is happening

In the torrent of analysis on AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post, relatively little attention has been given to the fate of Patch, AOL’s ambitious attempt to build a national network of local news sites. I have a dog in this fight: I’m one of the three founder-editors of Berkeleyside, the leading news site for Berkeley, California. So the growth of Patch — and its supposedly imminent expansion to Berkeley — has been something I’ve watched with keen attention.

The only concrete remarks I’ve seen on the Patch part of the AOL/HuffPo deal have referred to it as providing “local infrastructure” and to the benefits Huffington’s “reader engagement tools” will bring to the sites. I’m not sure I buy into either theory. I can perhaps see some logic in HuffPo having access to tons of very local journalism when, for instance, there’s a national election. What’s the mood in Walnut Creek? But when Arianna Huffington has spoken in the past about a desire to move into local she has clearly meant building city sites, not sites for towns in the 40,000 to 100,000 population where Patch is active.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of local online news sites, most of them run by local entrepreneurs, bootstrapping their way to sustainability (I avoid the term hyperlocal because it’s meaningless to most people). They get virtually no attention from most media observers. When attention is paid to what’s happening in local journalism the focus is on well funded ventures like Bay Citizen (Berkeleyside partners with Bay Citizen) or experiments by The New York Times and others.

I have nothing against these sites (although I’d like some share of the attention), since I believe we’re in a pre-Cambrian age of local online journalism. There is a bewildering variety of lifeforms and the likelihood is many won’t survive. We need all this experiment to find the proper evolutionary path. The truth is the bulk of the experimentation, the stretching of form, the innovative thinking is happening on sites like Berkeleyside, West Seattle Blog, The Rapidian and many, many others. (Michele McLellan at the Reynolds Journalism Institute has been tracking this thoroughly.)

Those are the places, crucially, where the best journalism is being done as well. I know we cover Berkeley better than anyone else. We’re wholly dedicated to that task (well, wholly dedicated other than the work all of us need to do outside Berkeleyside to earn a living). We break stories, we engage the community, we’re deeply involved in the crucial debates in our city, we convene important live discussions as well. We write about the best of our city as well as the problems (that last link is not for the squeamish). Our commenters are overwhelmingly civil because they know they are dealing with their neighbors. We’re a source for action as well. We know of two businesses that survived largely because Berkeleyside wrote about them.

So isn’t Patch doing the same thing? Not quite, to my mind. There are some individual Patch sites that do a good job (our nearest neighbor, Albany Patch, is one). I have no belief, however, that you can create great or even good local sites out of a production line, no matter how much money you throw at them (Ken Auletta suggested AOL was spending $30 million a quarter on Patch). The constraint for local sites isn’t technical infrastructure or web skills — it’s finding the right people who combine a passion for their town or city with real journalism skills (and I make no distinction between those who come from conventional journalism backgrounds, like the three Berkeleyside founders, and people who have figured it out for themselves by leaping in and doing it).

Perhaps I’m old fashioned in thinking this can only happen organically. It’s not something that emerges from a strategic plan. If it did, we’d be creating Anytown-sides all over the place at the moment. We’re constrained by capital, of course, but the bigger constraint is people. We know that Anytownside wouldn’t be as good as Berkeleyside unless we could find people a lot like me and my co-founders.

Perhaps it’s easy to look at the media landscape and think local journalism belongs in big national networks. After all, in local papers you have behemoths like Gannett and Newhouse. But the papers inside these corporations were started one by one, just as Berkeleyside and others are being created today. Where I grew up there was a local weekly paper that was part of a network of a half dozen other local papers. It’s a fair guess that before that it was the creation of a lone entrepreneur. After I moved someone did a roll-up of these and other Chicago-area local papers, and that in turn was bought by the Chicago Sun-Times at some point. No one had the delusion they could create dozens or hundreds of local newspapers in one go.

I know our bet is that real journalism wins against “content” (see this excellent analysis of AOL/HuffPo to understand the distinction). I’m happy with that in the long run.

There’s also a commercial logic to our approach that I think is very difficult to duplicate at a national or even regional level. Look at the ads on any Patch site. (That’s a trick: there aren’t any on many Patch sites.) We’re doing well with advertisers, although we still have a long way to go. Why is that? Have you ever spoken to a local business owner? Online marketing is not top of their concerns. They are busy running their business, often struggling to survive in a punishing economy. So our job as a fellow local business is to help them understand just what marketing on the web is all about, a patient task of education. We often have to design their ad. We have to work with them one at a time. That’s only going to happen at an intensely local level.

If and when Patch launches in Berkeley I’ll welcome it. I’m in favor of more news providers rather than fewer. I also believe in the benefits of competition. I can crow about how good Berkeleyside is, but we can certainly improve. A competitor will push us. But in the battle between the truly local and the big corporate giants I think we local yokels have all the crucial assets on our side.

Current reading: two out of three ain't bad

Long flights used to be a haven for my reading, but Virgin America’s inflight WiFi means I now spend the bulk of my regular SFO-JFK and back emailing, writing and catching up on feeds, rather than reading the books that are handily toted in my iPad. So I need to find other niches for my reading.

I recently finished two of the books on my shelf at last report, and a third that I picked up on the recommendation of a friend. All were worthwhile, but one was exceptional.

Country Driving by Peter Hessler has already had plenty of favorable notice, and it deserves all the plaudits. It has instantly become my top recommendation to gain an insight into today’s China. As Matt Yglesias pointed out, it has the virtue of being three short books in one, rather than one mid-sized book stretched out to fulfill publisher and reader expectations. Even if you read the parts of the book that were published in The New Yorker, you should run out to get Country Driving.

Diane Ravitch would have been well served if someone suggested that The Death and Life of the Great American School System would have been better as a pamphlet or a long magazine article. I agree with virtually everything in Ravitch’s book — which provides chapter and verse on the dangers of the current approach to testing and assessment in the US education system. But it’s repetitive and tedious. Save yourself time and read Ravitch’s magisterial dismantling of Waiting for “Superman” in The New York Review of Books. It will give you the key arguments of Ravitch’s book in pithier form.

The third book, Robert Parker’s Double Play isn’t a classic, but it’s great fun to read the mash-up of a tough-guy crime noir with a baseball story with a key moment in US race relations with an echo of a lost childhood (Parker’s own).

On my shelf

I think I read a lot, ranging from newspapers to blogs to books (magazines, which were once the focus of my working life, don’t figure so much these days). But I have to join the many online commenters who found Aaron Swartz’s year-end list of 2010 reading pretty astounding.

It inspired me to start logging my reading, not for oneupmanship (between family, Berkeleyside, my paying work, my non-profit board and tennis, I don’t think I’ll rival Swartz), but as an aide-mémoire for myself. As the year goes on, I’ll try to record my impressions of the books I read. (My blogging energy is entirely taken up by Berkeleyside, but I don’t want to abandon this site. So it needs a new impetus. Perhaps this is the new mutant form in which Davos Newbies can thrive. I won’t rule out, however, other forays.)

Like many voracious readers, I always seem to have a number of books on the go. At the moment, the number is swollen because of holiday book fever and the ridiculous ease with which you can get a book on Kindle for the iPad. I’m not totally convinced by e-books, but the lower cost and convenience is probably skewing my purchases to that form. Here’s what’s on my “shelf” at the moment, at various stages of completion: Continue reading

Why not Wellington?

If you read any of the literature on leadership, or dabble at the edges of it, a number of historical figures crop up over and over again. I reckon Churchill, Lincoln, Washington and Nelson are top of the charts.

Consider Tom Peters’ edict to “mimic Lord Nelson” as one of the keys to success. I have in my own shelves several books on Nelson. What’s not to like: brilliant, charismatic leader, stirring successes, early, tragic death (not that anyone wants to emulate that last fact).

But a recent jag of historical reading made me wonder, whatever happened to the Duke of Wellington? In Victorian England he was a titanic figure, and all of Europe (save France) hailed him for seeing off Napoleon. But I sense he’s been largely forgotten, except for Wellington boots and Beef Wellington, which no one eats anymore. I can’t recall ever hearing of someone visiting Apsley House, at One Hyde Park Corner, which is the Wellington museum. I lived in London for 25 years without going.

I recently finished Elizabeth Longford’s first volume on Wellington, The Years of the Sword. It’s a great read, although slightly old fashioned in style. The range of Arthur Wellesley’s career, from the storming of Seringapatam, to governing Mysore, to the battle of Assaye, to his string of victories in the Peninsular wars, to, of course, Waterloo, is astonishing (that’s all in 16 years).

The two great military figures met precisely once, on September 12, 1805, at the Colonial Office in Downing Street. Wellesley, then a major-general, was waiting to see Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of War and the Colonies. Nelson was also waiting in the anteroom. Nelson was already “Nelson”. Wellesley was not yet the Iron Duke. Here’s Wellesley’s account:

He entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself, and, really, in a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me… I suppose something that I happened to say may have made him guess that I was some-body.

Nelson left the room, found out that he was talking to the victor of the Battle of Assaye, and returned in a different guise:

All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked… with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman… I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more.

The next day, Nelson left London to join HMS Victory at Portsmouth. Little more than one month later, he was mortally wounded at Trafalgar.

Although he didn’t have the romantic dash of Nelson, in Longford’s account he was unfailingly adored by his officers and troops, because he didn’t care about any of the irrelevant matters and was focused on directing his men in battle to the greatest effect. He invariably wore a drab, anonymous cloak as he rode around the battlefield. Glittering uniforms didn’t impress him, while Nelson was decidedly a dandy. Wellington was focused purely on getting results, and everything else was a distraction. Consider his letter to the Secretary of State for War during the Peninsular campaigns:

If I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence which surrounds me, I should be debarred from the serious business of campaigning.

I must remind your Lordship — for the last time — that as long as I retain an independent position, I shall see no officer under my command is debarred by attending to the futile driveling of mere quill-driving in your Lordship’s office from attending to his first duty, which is and always has been to train the private men under his command that they may without question beat any force opposed to them in the field.

That sort of attitude didn’t win Wellington many friends and he seems to have had a deserved reputation for being overly serious. But if you want to find a leader who cared about execution above all, and who knew how to (literally) marshall his troops, Wellington is your man.

Update A little Googling turned up this interesting comparison of Nelson and Wellington by Paul Johnson, once Mrs Thatcher’s favorite historian, but I’ll overlook that for the moment. Since I haven’t yet read the second volume of Longford, I didn’t know this, which increases my admiration for Wellington:

Wellington was 46 at Waterloo and had 37 years to live, during which he was the most famous man in Europe. He rejected plans to build him, at public expense, a palace on the scale of the Duke of Marlborough’s Blenheim as “an absurd idea”.

As a Duke, he served in the government for many years, and between 1828 and 1830 was prime minister. He was not a success. Just as on the battlefield, he could not delegate, only give orders. Though hailed as a hero, he lived, unlike Nelson, to see how flimsy such an accolade can be.

In the troubled economic times that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the term even became abusive. Whenever the Duke appeared, elements of the London mob would shout: “No heroes! We want no heroes!”

They threw stones through the windows of his residence, Apsley House. He had the windows boarded up but refused to replace the glass, leaving them as a reminder of how volatile popularity could be.

The further consequences of Greek default

Felix Salmon, a self-described sovereign debt geek (better than being a sovereign debt Greek at the moment), has a hard time explaining why Americans should care about potential Greek default. The answers in his comment are largely unconvincing, since they rely on people being persuaded by analogy: it’s just like our problems with municipal debt, or it shows what happens if you let the debt/GDP ratio get out of control. I have a more prosaic suggestions. A Greek default would cause a further drop in the Euro and a rise in the US dollar. US exports, which need all the help they can get, would be harmed. That’s not good for a still-sputtering economic recovery in the US, and it’s even worse for job recovery in the US.

We may not have a Greek default, of course. Paul Krugman reckons the weekend rescue package “does rise to the scale of the problem, and it might work”. I generally adhere to Brad DeLong‘s Krugman rule: 1. Krugman is always right; 2. if you ever have cause to doubt Krugman, see #1.

But what ifs are both enjoyable and valuable. I had a good discussion with some colleagues the other day about the widening ripples from Greece. Contagion spreading to Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Hungary. Sure. The UK getting caught in the web, perhaps, but the flexibility to let sterling slide helps a lot.

I find myself speculating about what happens to Germany. It’s still one of the world’s great exporting nations. It just lost the crown to China, but 803 billion Euros of exports in a recession year isn’t too shabby. I’ve always understood that one of the keys to the global success of Germany’s manufacturers was the discipline of the strong Deutschemark, and more recently a strong Euro. So what happens when the Euro becomes a soft currency? Will German manufacturers suffer the British disease? Cultural changes like that don’t happen quickly, but an extended period of working with a weak currency could bring changes we don’t yet expect.

Update Uh oh. A problem with the Krugman rule. Felix Salmon points out that there’s a Sunday Krugman view and a Monday Krugman view. He’s not so happy today.

Not my style of journalism experiment


Since the Bay Area News Project was announced last year, I’ve followed its development with some interest. First, I want vigorous media in the Bay Area (the major local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, is better than many people think, but its resources are pretty stretched). Second, I’m a small media entrepreneur in the Bay Area myself. Third, I’m convinced that securing a healthy future for journalism is important for society, and we need many different experiments to see what models will be sustainable over the long term.

But now that BANP has found a name (The Bay Citizen), a URL and announced a launch date (May 26), I’m stunned by their first effort. People on the mailing list received today an email encouraging them to become a “founder” by donating money in a number of tiers with various privileges.  Ponying up $50 gets you a couple of tickets to the launch party, $1,000 gets you a lunch with Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Weber and CEO Lisa Frazier, $100,000 and up gets you “customized recognition opportunities”.

What’s wrong with that? If The Bay Citizen were really a grassroots effort it would make a lot of sense. But it’s not. I find it bordering on deceptive that The Bay Citizen is seeking individual donations without noting clearly that the Hellman Family Foundation gave $5 million in “seed” funding (that information can be found on the site’s FAQ). Warren Hellman, one of the richer people in the Bay Area, is chairman of the board. Frazier left a highly remunerative job at McKinsey & Co to lead The Bay Citizen for lower rewards, but a reported salary of $400,000 plus is absurd in a start-up of this scale. Weber, a very talented editor who created and led New West, can also be presumed to be earning significant six figures.

I know, however, that a fundraising email that said, “We have $5 million from a local financier and philanthropist and we’re paying ourselves very high salaries. Help us get this project off the ground”, would be unsuccessful, even if truthful.

I’ll admit to some sour grapes. I started Berkeleyside with my two partners on a shoestring (or perhaps half a shoestring). We just did it (just as Dave Winer and I just did InBerkeley before that). We’ve recently started taking advertising, which might be one way to become a sustainable business. We certainly didn’t bang the drum and make great noise about being “a source of ambitious, balanced journalism for the Bay Area” (from Bay Citizen’s dunning email) before we’d actually done anything.

One of the things I’m discovering as we develop Berkeleyside is that there are a host of wonderful local and hyperlocal sites around the country that are fueled by energetic entrepreneurs who have just gone out and done it. Like us, they are bootstrapping their businesses, and some have even managed to develop decent businesses, without much hoopla.

I still want The Bay Citizen to be wonderful and to succeed. But there’s a very sour taste in my mouth. I still think our modest, bootstrap approach, building readers and community organically and then finding our way to sustainability once we have something to show is the right way to do things.

I have a little list


I’m in Washington, DC, on business, but I had a little less than an hour for escape. Since my hotel is around the corner from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I popped in largely because I’ve loved its collection of folk art in the past. Those works are still wonderful, but I also came across a wonderful, tiny exhibition that seems to have attracted no attention.

Lists, To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists’ Enumerations is curated by Liza Kirwin, who looks after manuscripts in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. It’s small, with perhaps 40 objects. Many of them are of little or no artistic distinction. But it’s absolutely engrossing.

Kirwin had the wonderful idea of bringing together artists’ lists on all sorts of matters — Elaine de Kooning’s 1954 notes for a joint tax return (from sale of pictures $9,632), Harry Bertoia’s self-rating chart from 1932 (“fair” for quickness of thought and courage, “excellent” on neatness, accuracy and health), Joseph Cornell’s 1957 list of items purchased at an antiques show (“Red Riding Hoodish painted red, green, blue its charm the paint much worn”). Shown above is Paul Bransom’s alphabetical list of animals.

I’m not sure there’s a lot to be gained by analyzing just why lists are so interesting (at least to me). If you happen to be in Washington, however, I urge you to go to this one-room exhibition. A good second best is the excellent book of the exhibition, which includes about 30 items not on show.

Give me your tired, your poor

Not that we need to find more things to be ashamed about from the George W. Bush years, but one statistic from Terry Gross’ interview with Deb Amos about her book, Eclipse of the Sunnis, struck me.

There are about 2 million Iraqis who have left the country since the start of the war. After years of inaction, the late senator Ted Kennedy succeeded in passing a law that allowed for a better flow of Iraqis to the US. So there are now about 32,000 Iraqis in the US, and Amos expects that number to double. So in a country of over 300 million people, that was responsible for the war that displaced and endangered many of these refugees, we’ve opened our doors to a group that will make up 0.02 per cent of our population. Sweden, with the population of New York City, has over 100,000 Iraqi refugees (1.1 per cent of its population).