Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bogus! On Page One, NYT Pulitzer Prize Winner Matt Richtel Delivers Phony Email-In-Decline Trend Story.

Does winning a Pulitzer Prize exempt you from properly doing your job at the NYT?

That appears to be the case with Matt Richtel's bogus page-one "trend" story this morning that declares email in "decline" -- a bastion for the "old fogey" who hasn't discovered the joys of text. He emphatically states -- with no reporting to support it -- that online chats and text messaging are "threatening to eclipse email, much as they have already superseded phone calls."

Richtel "proves" his point with the following evidence:

-- Interviews with two young women -- a 17-year-old named Lena Jenny, and a 26-year-old named Katie Bird Hunter -- who say they prefer the speed and convenience of texting.

This is only the most obvious, not the most damning example of Richtel's laziness. But it's clearly not thorough or representative reporting to quote two people as proof of a trend -- especially since neither example suggests that they have given up email in favor of other means to communicate.

But since Richtel's thesis focuses largely on, as he puts it, the "Lenas of the world" -- without making it at all clear what makes Lena a trend --the lack of additional Lenas is a bit disturbing. In the story, Lena calls email "so lame" but doesn't deny using it. And Richtel ends his story on a 23-year-old who complains about the poor grammar in text messages, and continues to use email.

So where's the trend? Where's the reporting? As George Carlin would say: nowhere, mon frere.

-- A reference to a comScore study showing that unique visitors to "major email sites like Yahoo and Hotmail are in steady decline."

Steady decline? Richtel himself notes that visits "peaked" in 2009 and "have since slid." A one-year decline cannot by any stretch of the journalistic imagination be called "steady."

In any case, Richtel also points out that Gmail use is up. So what are the overall statistics that might prove -- or disprove -- his thesis? He doesn't disclose them. A search of the comScore website, with an extensive digest of press releases, didn't reveal the source of Richtel's information, and the hyperlink in the story takes the reader only to the NYT's index of comScore-related stories.

-- An interview with a professor of communications at Rutgers, James E. Katz, who has been a NYT go-to academic for quotes about technology shifts in recent years.

It turns out Katz has been quoted 70 different times by a multitude of NYT reporters in the last decade -- including in 16 different stories by Richtel since 2004. Like the famed Syracuse University quotemeister Robert Thompson, Katz helpfully delivers pithy quotes to bogus trendspotters like Richtel, on deadline.

In their first conversation in August of 2004, Katz offered Richtel the requisite expert quote he needed for a story about the possible listing of cell-phone numbers.

''People would love to be able to contact each other,'' Katz told Richtel. ''But they are very reluctant to be reached.'' Huh?

In today's story, Katz said that email is "painful" for young people. "It doesn't suit their social intensity," he says. Painful? Seriously?

Aside from the story's multiple reportorial weaknesses, Richtel's writing also suffers from laziness unbecoming of the NYT's front page. Consider this embarrassing lede:

Signs you’re an old fogey: You still watch movies on a VCR, listen to vinyl records and shoot photos on film.

And you enjoy using e-mail.

It's usually a bad sign for a trend story when the reporter can't dredge up a worthy anecdote for the lede, and instead is forced to fall back on this sort of hackneyed prose to make a point.

Richtel has worked at the NYT since 2000, and won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting this year for the 2009 series "Driven To Distraction," about the dangers of texting while driving. He has also written a mystery novel, and until recently published a regular daily cartoon strip.

We've contacted Richtel to get his comment on today's story. Based on his apparent poor effort, we wonder if maybe Richtel's a little distracted, too.


bsci said...

That really was a terrible article. I was waiting for some actual numbers and they never came. The other thing he didn't even mention was trends in corporate email. Perhaps (though he doesn't present any real data), brief, social emails are going towards other formats, but that's only a fraction of email accounts.

On other thing of note is the core fact of the article was a product placement for Facebook's messaging format change. It's almost as if Facebook send newspapers a press release explaining why they are moving a away from email and the NY Times decided to get quotes from two teenagers to turn it into an article.

Anonymous said...

"And you enjoy using e-mail."

I don't even know how the level of e-mail enjoyment has anything to do with his thesis. This statement about old fogeys enjoying e-mail could just as easily go along with an article about how e-mail use is steadily increasing, even though young people don't enjoy it the way old people do.

Anonymous said...

Richtel's observation of the trend is OK, even if it is not quantitatively well-supported by his article.

Technological interfaces encourage their young cohorts, often first time users on the computer, toward the extroverted, spontaneous free-form in written communications.

Whether it's about endless punting and killing time when there's nothing really to say, or to make arrangements, exchanges will be emptier and hollower, and, devoid of any sense of formal or physical necessities. To send an Email will be a huge leap. One on one interactions and exchange of potentially sensitive information will be quick to disappear. Information will only be of value if it is shared with or within a group or at least forwarded it to as many as possible, and common place will be the shunning of lengthy explanations, structure, titles, signature...

Loose social bonds become looser though well-archived.

Anonymous said...

Did you see Richtel's "update" on the Bits blog (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/e-mails-big-demographic-split/)? It's terrible. He cites a comScore chart that shows email use is down 48% among teens (since last year). Too bad that stat is for desktop users. I don't know about you, but I don't know anyone between the ages of 12-17 who would be caught dead using a desktop. He's showing the death of the desktop, not the death of email.

dan said...

New York Times pranked by PR stunt

The Dec. 10 Freakonomics blog had its genesis in a savvy press release by a
mysterious man named Cathal Morrow, a Welshman
who resides in Madrid and deserves some of kind of media prize for his
global skills at punking said media.

This month he punked the well-respected Freakonomics blog at the
New York Times. His modus
operandi is simple: write a short, snappy press release and send it
around. Someone is bound
to pick it up. But the New York Times?

Yes. Cathal Morrow's got cojones.

Item: Cathal Morrow claims he will float himself on the Stock Exchange
Wanted: literary shareholders to buy 30,000 shares in him at £10 apiece

And the media in New York slop it up without asking nay
questions. They basically
reprint the bloke's press releases verbatim. That's journalism at our
top papers now?

Alison Flood at the Guardian tells readers that Morrow is "writing up
his exploits [from a previous PR stunt in 2008 ]as a book [titled "Yes
We Kant" -- but Flood never verifies that such a book is even really
being written. She just takes
the man's word on his mass-mailed press release and runs with it. The
fact is that Cathal Morrow never wrote a book in his life, doesn't
have a book agent and there is no book at all. It's all a mirage, a
show, a PR game. The MSM
don't seem to emply fact-checkers these days, not even the august New
York Times.

Morrow on this latest stock market venture, which is a pure fantasy,
explains what he's up to.

"I'm floating the value of me, that is the intellectual property of
the story of my flotation on the stock exchange," he says. "If it goes
viral, if we get book deals, and a big movie studio wades in with a
big chunk of cash, then that could be worth a considerable amount. The
more 'famous' I become, the greater the value of me."

If you believe any of this, I have a bridge to sell you, in Brooklyn,
not far from the New York Times.

Duncan Campbell in October 2008 in the Guardian gave Morrow his start
with this nonsense,
also taken almost verbatim back then from the prankter's press
release: "The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that telling lies was
always morally wrong. But is it possible to live without telling a
single lie for a whole year? That is the task that Cathal Morrow has
set himself and he will let us know next year if it is possible, when
he has finished his book on the experiment, to be called 'The Complete

That's the book that Morrow never wrote and that he "claims" to be
writing now. Except that he's not. The man
is not a published writer and he never wrote a book in his life.

Earth to Guardian! Earth to New York Times! Earth to Wall Street Journal!

You've been punked by a serial prankster. And he's not finished, either.

Morrow, who’ claims he's in the midst of a year without
''unhappiness'' -- book deal, anyone? -- following his year without
lying -- book deal, anyone? -- has a new project that even got past
eagle-eyed New York Times editors: Me Me Me Plc, a company he plans to
float on the London Stock Exchange by selling shares in himself. It’s
£10 a share, which gets you a photograph of the British expat in lieu
of a share certificate.

Enough already! Editors of the mainstream media, wake up! You have
nothing to lose but your blinders!

Anonymous said...

What's truly bizarre about this meme is that it's not about email v. text messages, but full sentences v. casual textspeak. I've had a number of email conversations that consist of half sentence remarks. And then I've also swapped traditional letters. Email just carries the characters, it doesn't force any structure.

tcg said...

I've been saying it for years about NYTimes feature articles: "Two friends is a trend."

Anthony said...

Anonymous wrote: "Email just carries the characters, it doesn't force any structure."

This is untrue. When was the last time you wrote a letter by hand that contained half-sentences or pithy short forms? The speed of email--that is, the expectation that your message will be received, and read, quickly, and responded to quickly--makes it more conversational than traditional correspondence. In fact, it's not correspondence at all--it's a form of talking, which is why one uses, or falls back on, conversational short-hand. Texting only makes this more apparent.

Anonymous said...

on an unrelated note, this might interest you..

gardien de but said...

Still, I think his thesis is true. Talk to teenagers and college students about email. It really is distasteful to them.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a university and can't get students to open my e-mails. One of them told me he never opens emails from the university.

They will, however, text to my cel phone at odd hours to find out what assignment is due the next day. Or, when we do have an email exchange, they'll carry the conversation way longer than it needs to be, in one-word email responses, with another question in them.

This carries over into their writing. I just had a student bring me an internship form with no proper names capitalized.

Frolic said...

I also teach at a college and have the same experience as Anonymous 4:46 p.m. Over the last few years, I've seen that many students stopped checking email daily, although they are constantly plugged in to Facebook and text messages.

My wife is a lawyer, and she started noticing the same trend among summer associates at her firm.

Of course, just because Richtel may be right, that doesn't make his article good. Perhaps he should have spoken to a few college profs and others who work with young people in more professional settings.

Anonymous said...

Total visits to e-mail sites can still be down even if Gmail is up. Voter turnout can still be down even if more Democrats vote.