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Wednesday, April 23 2014 @ 01:18 PM CDT

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Online News Reporting at Internet Speed

General News

Remember the phrase, "Internet Speed?"

Wasn't that a phrase from the Bubble Years, when Everything Changed, and if you didn't Get It you Were History?  Now, of course, Internet Speed, as a phrase, is So Last Century. 

Except when it comes to on-line journalism.  

This blog entry is in part a mea culpa account from the blogging trenches.  Mea Culpa, because the first draft of my last blog entry turns out to have been very inaccurate.  But only partly "my bad," because it was consistent with a reliable source, andI corrected it very quickly when I learned that it was wide of the mark.  Still, the experience is salutary, and worth recording in some detail for what it indicates about contemporary on-line journalism (something I've written about from time to time  before, to link to just a few prior stories), and particularly for those that are required to pump out many stories a day under the new on-line model of single-screen, rat-a-tat reportage.

This particular morality play began early this morning, when at around 6:30 AM I read a story by Steve Lohr in the print version of the New York Times headlined:

Hoping to be a Model, I.B.M. Will Put Its Patent Filings Online

Wow, I thought — IBM will put all of its 40,000 patent filings on line!  Does that include confidential applications as well?  Here's what the first line of the story said:

I.B.M., the nation’s largest patent holder, will publish its patent filings on the Web for public review as part of a new policy that the company hopes will be a model for others.

Sounds promising.  A couple of sentences later, it said:

It also asserts that so-called business methods alone — broad descriptions of ideas, without technical specifics — should not be patentable.

Hmmm.  What does that mean?  Is that a dumbed-down description of a business method patent, or a statement referring to some, but not all, business patents?  Syntactically, it means the former rather than the latter, and wirters as well as editors at the Times certainly know how to construct a sentence.

Suffice it to say that everything in the Times story that followed was broad and sweeping, replete with approving quotes from IBM executives and industry experts.  Like John Kelly, Senior VP for Technology and Intellectual Property at IBM:

We were hoping that the laws would change more quickly. We’re not going to wait

And Harvard Business School Professor Josh Lerner:

This is a creative response to that fundamental issue in the patent system

 And even IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano:

If you need a dozen lawyers involved every time you want to do something, it’s going to be a huge barrier. We need to make sure that intellectual property is not used as a barrier to growth in the future.

This must be, indeed, the real deal.  Lastly, the article clearly had been written with the cooperation of IBM itself, since Lohr had clearly been given advance notice and details so that the news would get good coverage.  Usually, this also means plenty of opportunity to ask questions as well, to make sure that the company giving the scoop gets a good story for their trouble.  The only story I could find on line at that hour was in the New York Times, America's Paper of Record (CNET.News.com reproduced the story verbatim not long after, with this headline:  "IBM to put its patent filings online").  So for reliability, what more could I want?

Naturally, like any other red-blooded American blogger with some interesting news that has just fallen dead-center into his topic area  — I blogged.  Specifically, armed with the article in the Times,  I reported on IBM's dramatic new patent policy, under which it would publish all of its patents and patent applications on line, and would also call for the abolition of business methods patents as well.  You go, IBM!

As it turns out, there was just one problem:  It appears that America's Paper of Record got it all wrong.  And once the Times got it wrong, almost everyone else did, as well.

I first realized that there was a disturbance in the on-line journalistic force when as a courtesy, I copied IBM's Ari Fishkind on my blog entry, which I thought I had carefully based on the Times story.  Ari is an IBM Public Relations Manager I know who has been involved with previous open standards news releases, and who I assumed was probably involved in this press release as well.  This was his response:

 Appreciated the blog.  Wanted to clarify: 

In this announcement, we didn't commit to publishing our entire portfolio online, although we are committing to continue making ownership clear and transparent, and the claims and prior art on our applications clear.

 We are also going to make some, not all, of our patents available for community review as part of a program we've created with the USPTO.  The goal is to make the public review of all applications, industry wide, mandatory, but for right now, we want to show that this kind of thing can be done successfully.   We are also committing those of hours from our inventors and experts to provide counsel to the USPTO when it comes to prior art.

 And we're not calling for an end to all BMPs [business method patents], just the ones without huge technical underpinnings.  If a BMP can still be expressed by a software alghorythm [sic], then it probably meets a high standards.  We're going to focus on BMPs that meet those standards, and make about 100 other BMPs available to the public to innovate on.  (these were all originally granted according to the current USPTO standards)

Ouch!  Not all but only some patents to be published; not Death to All BMPs, but only some; not across the board, but only in connection with a Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) pilot program that is old news.  Where do you go from there? 

Nobody likes to get a correction from a knowledgeable source like that after they’ve just posted a story, but thank goodness I can correct anything I want immediately.  The question was, did I now have the story clearly in focus yet?

I went back to the NYTimes story, and it still seemed like my original story was more consistent with the Times version than Ari's, but obviously Ari should know best.  By then, the IBM press release was available,  so I gave that a read as well.  Frankly, the narrow reading that I'd recevied from Ari didn't seem to jump out at me from the press release, either.  I could see how Steve Lohr would have thought it meant more than Ari was indicating.

Feeling something like the apocryphal, never-say-die, determined to get the story, reporter who supposedly asked, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" I went back to Ari again for clarification, which he speedily gave me, and by early afternoon, had updated my story to be consistent with facts obtained directly from the source, and confirmed with Ari that my blog entry now had it right (this is how it read by early afternoon). 

But what of the rest of the world, which less than 12 hours from the release of the original Times story would sill largely have only the original Times story and the press release to work from, until journalisits had time to ask for an interview?  Let's see.

From Nate Anderson at Ars Technica:

IBM To Make All Patent Applications Public

IBM has made the bold decision to make its entire portfolio of patent applications available for the public to see, years before the patents might be approved by the USPTO.

Nate, I feel for you.  Been there, and done that, and I hope you didn't base your story on my original blog post.  Better update that post, like I did.

And from the Albuquerque Tribune:

IBM, the nation's largest patent holder, will publish its patent filings on the Web for public review.

After all, isn't that what the Times said?

Over and over again, that same headline (occasionally with variations) and the same opening line were repeated — in stories based on the story supplied by United Press International, or that adopted the same broad reading of the press release, for stories at Webiste of papers like the International Herald Tribune and DailyIndia.com.  By now, a shorter but consistent article was circulating, released by the intriguingly named Big News Network.  You can find this version at Pacific Rim sites in North Korea, Malaysia and elsewhere:

Hoping to be a Model, I.B.M. Will Put Its Patent Filings Online

I.B.M., the nation’s largest patent holder, will publish its patent filings on the Web for public review as part of a new policy that the company hopes will be a model for others.

To be sure, some stories that came out later in the day accurately reported on the narrower focus of the real story.  For example, by c. 3:00 PM EDT, Reuters was headlining and leading the story as follows:

IBM To Allow Other Companies To Use Some Patents

BOSTON, Sept 26 (Reuters) - IBM said on Tuesday that it plans let the general public use intellectual property from a portion of its patents in a bid to stimulate innovation.

And by c. 8:00 PM EDT, ExtremeTech.com was posting an updated Reuters story that read as follows:

IBM Opens 100 Patents to Public

BOSTON, Sept 26 (Reuters) - IBM said on Tuesday that it plans to let the general public use intellectual property from a portion of its patents in a bid to stimulate innovation.  The move applies to more than 100 of IBM's global portfolio of 40,000 patents.

So there we are.  14 hours in the life of an online story, let's see how the original and the most current headlines from a reputable news source compare:

Hoping to be a Model, I.B.M. Will Put Its Patent Filings Online (NYTimes, c. 3:00 AM EDT)

I.B.M., the nation’s largest patent holder, will publish its patent filings on the Web for public review as part of a new policy that the company hopes will be a model for others.

IBM Opens 100 Patents to Public (Reuters c. 8:00 PM EDT)

BOSTON, Sept 26 (Reuters) - IBM said on Tuesday that it plans to let the general public use intellectual property from a portion of its patents in a bid to stimulate innovation.  The move applies to more than 100 of IBM's global portfolio of 40,000 patents.

Close, right?  And the original version is being posted at new mainstream news sites [still true Wednesday morning]

For better or worse, this is more typical of how the news spreads these days than you might like to think.  Most stories are pickups, and once a story is reported, it can reverberate around the Web almost forever, only occasionally being corrected or refined.  I guarantee you that for the next 48 hours, that original headline and impression will continue to circle the globe without modification, doubtless being reproduced much more often than the later, more accurate version.

The moral is, as always, to pay close attention to who researches and writes articles, and who simply reproduces them.  There are some fine reporters writing about standards and open source related issues out there who always research their stories — in the formal press, folks like ZDNet's Matt Broersma, Government Technology's Shane Peterson, eWeek's Peter Galli, ComputerWorld's Carol Sliwa, IDG's Elizabeth Montalbano, CNET.com's Martin LaMonica and free-lancer Eric Lai, to name a few, and in the blogosphere, of course Groklaw's Pamela Jones.

This isn't to diss those who's job it is to harvest huge amounts of news every day and paste it up on the wall for all to see, especially when they're pulling news down from as ostensibly reliable a source as the old gray lady herself, the Times. 

But it is a reminder that when you're reading news that's being presented in a venue that still really does report at Internet Speed, let the reader beware.

I'm certainly reminded of that constantly — even, on rare occasions, when I'm reading the New York Times.

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