Article on W2i Digital Cities Convention

I got tagged by my editor at Digital Communities to cover last week’s Digital Cities Convention in Philadelphia. You can read the article here.

Digital Communities is industry funded, but with editorial independence (as far as I can tell). The readers are supposed to be city and industry folks, but I’m trying to write articles that are at least understandable and hopefully useful for a broader audience.

This article tries to use the convention to get a snapshot of the field of municipal wireless, which is changing really fast and getting much more competitive.

My friend asked me about one section in it:

Terry McGowan from PacketHop agreed. At the end of the second day, I jokingly asked him if he’d rung up any sales at the conference. He gave an answer, but in a common obstacle in writing this article, when I confirmed the quote with him, the Director of Corporate Marketing intervened and rephrased the answer: “The conference was very worthwhile for PacketHop,” said Kevin Payne of PacketHop. “We found that there was a lot of interest in our solutions for municipal services and that there were many opportunities to meet with actual decision makers.”

“Why was it a common problem in writing this article?” she asked.

It’s a common problem because I’m easy to talk to, actually interested in what people are saying, and most people are nice and happy to engage on a human level. (Others are self-important or trying to impress.) But then I’m more ethical than most reporters – I identify myself and check quotes with people – while PR flacks are mostly twits who idolize Ari Shapiro in the sense that they think they’re job is to deflect questions rather than answer them.

Compare my original paragraph:

Terry McGowan from Packethop agreed. At the end of the second day, I jokingly asked him if he’d rung up any sales at the conference. “I wish it were that easy,” McGowan said, “but there has been some interest.” […] McGowan continued, “There weren’t a lot of people here, but they were the right people.”

That actually sounds like he and I had a conversation, which we did; Terry seemed like a nice guy doing. I filled in the rest, which is a writer’s job, describing how the product is a “solution for municipal services” and who the “right people” are. The PR translation was absurd to the point of offensive.

It’s also worth pointing out that Sascha Meinrath and co. submitted a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 for an open source version of what PacketHop does – self-forming wireless mesh networks for emergency responders, specifically medical – but was turned down, only to find out that DHS then funded the development of a proprietary solution for 100 times as much money.

It’s really my fault for checking quotes with people. As my editor said, “if the person said something, they said it. If the journalist was up front as to who he is and that he is media, then that quote is fair game — even if the person later wanted to retract the quote or not have it used.”

I certainly was up front about who I was with John Rivers, the Cisco rep, who even said, “I can give you this one” before giving me not very useful quotes. I used them just to show that we had talked, but then he said in a follow up email, “I do not recall making either comment and do not support your including either in an article. For official quotes from Cisco, you should contact someone in Cisco Media relations.”

So I think I’ll stop that practice.

While I’m being negative, I should also thank Joe Caldwell from US Internet, the folks from IBM (who did pass me on to a PR person, but at least didn’t recant what they said in person), Erika from W2i, and Robert Ramsay who all gave useful quotes and stood by them. That makes a reporter’s job a lot easier.

Upcoming articles will be on hard-to-find sources of federal funding for broadband projects and the applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act to the World Wide Web, as well as profiles of of ConnectKentucky and One Economy.

Please send me any thoughts or suggestions relating to those ideas or other potential articles, if you have them.

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3 Comments

  1. six miles out said

    Probably a slight tangent to your story, but as long as you are talking about journalistic integrity, does it not seem a little odd to you that a person who claims to represent Indymedia (Sascha Meinrath), would be attempting to obtain funding from the Department of Homeland Security?

    Seems like a conflict of interest, at the very least.

    from,
    six miles out.

  2. I’m not sure who six miles out is or if ze has obtained funding from DHS. And the premise of the question is flawed, since Sascha wasn’t representing Indymedia in the event. Never mind the irony of using the Department of Defense-funded and corporate-owned Internet to have the discussion and do Indymedia in the first place.

    The proposed project, which was not funded, involved CUWiN serving as a subcontractor for the local hospital’s application to DHS for a health emergency response program. CUWiN’s solution would have been open source, so anyone would have been able to put the application to public use. And it would have cost a lot less than the closed source law enforcement response DHS paid for instead, saving taxpayer money, for what it’s worth.

    I’m very proud that my friend and colleague, along with many others in Champaign-Urbana, is prepared to contribute to his community at that level. I wish more of us were. I also wish DHS funded more projects like the Urbana one, which would actually benefit the public and make us safer, and less on bullets for the NYPD and shit like that.

  3. Carl Novak said

    Verifying a quote is traditionally the job of a professional fact checker employed by your paper. It’s not the responsibility of the reporter that first recorded it. You shouldn’t even have to be involved in a fact-checking process.

    This is why well-heeled periodicals tend to produce very mediocre and status quo material. Fact checkers edit articles to reflect what the source wishes he/she had said, and will trim most truths that slipped out during unguarded moments.

    As you’re finding, it’s a serious problem for honest journalism.

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