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John Markoff on newspapers

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The stories I want to tell you are sort of my favorite stories, and I thought you were an audience and so I could tell them again. But it's also sort of, a meditation on the front page of the New York Times. And by that it sort of, backs into this question of, you know, what's become of newspapers, what newspapers might have given us that the web hasn't yet. And you know, I'm not religious on this, the web may get it together, but I think there's this metainformation in the newspaper that's been lost, to date. And all of my computer friends, sort of promised me agents that will sort of do the kind of metainformation-like things, to recreate that newspaper experience. But we haven't gotten there yet. What we've gotten are these torrents of information. I think something's been lost in what that newspaper experience is.

You know, the New York Times front page is put together at a meeting in the afternoon, and there's a lot of stuff about the structure of that page that for some reason, I haven't been able to find on -- on the web. I mean, I sometimes feel like the front page of the New York Times web page is like a vending machine more than it is a newspaper page. You push buttons and things fall out, but it's not that same kind of serendipitous experience. And I know that you've promised me -- the computer designers have promised me this serendipitous experience forever, and it's not -- not here yet. Maybe there will be some confluence of bandwidth and display and computing and software design that will make it possible. But for the moment, newspapers, I think, are rare commodities.

And you know, I, like everybody else probably, have that cluster of 100 RSS feeds. And it all makes me remember being at the San Francisco Examiner in 1985, and there was this guy in the newsroom, poor bastard, who was the wire editor. And what his job was to do, was to read all the wires and tell me when there was something that mattered. That was a really good system. And now I have 100 RSS feeds, and I feel like we've become a nation of -- of wire editors. Something has been lost in -- in the process.

Why are these stories I'm going to tell you about not on the front page of the New York Times? There are some reasons, and this is the most frequent one. I can't tell you the number of stories that didn't make it onto the front page because of earthquakes or wars or something that happened in New York City at four o'clock and that would end up back on C1, and as a result the story has a different impact on the world. There is the sort of canonical example of too early. This is the New York Times story that introduced the transistor to the world, and if you notice it's buried, what, 10 paragraphs deep in the bottom. And they also sort of blew the lead, "A device called the transistor which has several applications in radio." You can see FCC upholds the rule on political libels, so some things never change. And you know, I've had this problem too, in different ways.

So this was an example of a story that was too early. I found this wonderful guy, who was an Oracle Vice President, who was driving on 280 and a cop pulled him over. When he saw he had a laptop and he was sending and reading email, walked up on the side of his Porsche and said, "Sir, what would be the maximum safe speed to compute at?" And the guy thought quickly and said, "Well that would be zero, officer." And so he got off with a warning and without getting a ticket. I also was able to get Stewart Alsop, who once upon a time was an impresario like Rick and Michael, to acknowledge -- actually, I interviewed him in the car while he was doing email in Boston -- but he -- he told me that he really liked being out on the West Coast, where he was at the time, because we had Botts' dots and the Botts' dots were sort of like Braille for driving while you're doing email. And that was the kicker to that story. And so that story played inside the New York Times and it sort of really irritated me at the time, because it was, I thought it was just, you know, I touched something about the zeitgeist, at least in Silicon Valley.

So you know, the other thing of course that you run into is politics, and in this case politics inside the New York Times. I broke the John Poindexter story twice over a period of six months and nobody noticed. The first one was in February 2002. A guy who was a source, who was a computer scientist, who was DARPA contractor, came to me and said, "Poindexter is coming back to DARPA." We didn't know at that point what they were doing, and he wasn't talking about it, but he'd set up something called the Information Awareness Office. It played on like, A14 of the national section of the New York Times. And then something really interesting happened.

Poindexter sort of laid out everything that he was doing at a meeting called DARPATech in Southern California in the summer of -- of 2002, and nobody noticed. There were lots of trade press there, there was some trade press there, and nobody wrote about it except the computer scientists that were there, who sort of, when he sketched out Total --Total Information Awareness for the first time, they were kind of freaked out by it. And so they -- actually it took about two months -- they gave me a DVD that had the substance of his talk, and I started reporting on it. And I was sort of negotiating with DARPA about interviewing Poindexter and he wanted me to -- he was willing to talk to me face to face, he wouldn't talk to me over the phone. I didn't want to fly all the way across the country. And then something very funny happened. It was a Friday morning, and my source happened to be in a meeting at DARPA and Poindexter got up and said, "I've got to talk to the Washington Post." So he walked out of the meeting and told me that Poindexter was about to talk. And so we rushed this into the paper. This was a Friday evening, and this was the canonical front page New York Times story.

Unfortunately, the technology editor of the New York Times was not a favorite of Howell Raines, he was in the doghouse. I have to confess, sometimes I try to push stories for the front page of the paper. I didn't even bother on this one. I was just so sure that this was a story that deserved front page coverage of the Times, and it played on like, A11 or something underneath it. And I was in tears, I couldn't believe that this had happened. But luckily, Bill Safire turns out to be a privacy nut, and on Thursday of the following week he picked it up as an issue, and I sort of got credit for breaking the story. And the other funny thing is, this is how it works in the newspaper world, Bob O'Hara of the Post had followed me the next day with his story and because the Times hadn't fronted it, the Washington Post didn't front it either. So there you go, and for good or ill.

One final story -- and you know, these are just overlooked and I tell you the story, just because it's one of my favorite stories of my career at the Times and I never thought it got enough attention. So after -- in the years after Kevin Mitnick, I think probably most of you know, I was involved in this, it seems like half of my career I was involved with Kevin Mitnick, because he kept getting arrested over the years. And around 1997, somebody called me out of the blue, a guy by the name of Eddie Munoz from Las Vegas. And Eddie said he was calling me because he'd read this book called "Cyberpunk" that I'd written with Katie Hafner, about three young computer outlaws, one of whom was Kevin Mitnick. See, Eddie ran this business in Las Vegas called -- which he told me was an adult nude dancing business. Now I didn't know a lot about adult nude dancing, but he said that he'd, you know, basically ran an outcall business and all of a sudden his phone had stopped ringing and he believed that his calls were being diverted. And so that was kind of intriguing, and you know, the thought that Kevin might be involved -- actually this was after Kevin, so it was associates of Kevin at this point, as I recall. A woman by the name of Susan Thunder -- who is a story in her own right, but without going into the details, you know, I realized that I was sort of, technically out of my league.

So I called Mark Sidel who is sitting here, and Mark had been involved in tracking down Tsutomu Shimomura, and we flew down to Las Vegas and we got to the airport. And I knew nothing about this whole thing, except that, you know, prostitution is not legal in Las Vegas, the county of Clark County, but there is this loophole, this thing called adult nude dancing. So we get to the airport and I go to the Yellow Pages and it turns out there are 106 pages of advertisements for adult nude dancing services, like, you know, perfect bodies and athletic bodies and super bodies. And the only category that was bigger was lawyers, there were 140 pages for lawyers. And so we got a car and we drove out to see Eddie. And Eddie was like, three miles off the strip. You know, the strip is where they have all these newspapers, where they advertise these things. Eddie had a girlfriend who was this, sort of interesting, sort of beaten-down woman, who was actually the daughter of Micky Spilotro who was one of these mobsters from Chicago, who ended up in cement outside in the desert, outside of Las Vegas. And this was really a world that, you know, a Silicon Valley reporter doesn't normally travel in. So we looked at this, Mark sort of pored over things.

The PUC had already been called in, law enforcement had called in, and you know, the calls just stopped. They'd come back, sometimes they'd go away, it was not clear what was going on. And he introduced me to this rival service, one of the other -- oh, and that was the other very funny thing. Eddie explained to us, even though there were 140 pages of these phone numbers, there were only five businesses in town. And all the phone numbers sort of, funneled into this system. And so there was this woman by the name of Hilda Brauer who had the other -- I think she had Athletic Bodies, or something like that -- and we puzzled over this for a while, and -- and finally, you know, it was basically, we weren't going to find out what was at the bottom of this, there were lots of possible explanations.

And I wrote basically a journal article about this, sort of a sweet article about this woman Hilda, who had this business and the phone wasn't ringing. I'd learned a lot about adult nude dancing by this time. The way it works is, they'd get a call, the women carried pagers -- or men, in this case these were women -- but they would then be directed to a hotel where they would go to the phone bank and call back and get a room. They'd go up to the room. Then they go up to the room, they get the 100 dollars and at that point they would call back again, to say they'd got the 100 dollars, and anything that happens between two consenting adults is what happens between two consenting adults. So kind of a good story, I didn't think anything about it.

And then I think about five months later, Eddie calls back. And he said, "You know, there's been six arrests." And it turned out that the mob was interested in this situation and they'd actually sent some enforcers to try to elbow some of the -- actually they'd, what the mob had done, is they'd sent some enforcers to try to find the guy who was switching the phone numbers. And we never did find out how the phone numbers were being switched, but you know, probably -- Occam's razor -- probably was paying off somebody in the central office. But this was unbelievable. I got down there and, you know, this was a federal indictment, which basically what I had to work from. It was six arrests, so there was a guy by the name of Vinny Aspirins. And they called him Vinny Aspirins, because when the mob had a headache, Vinny made it go away.

(Laughter)

Vinny's tool of choice was a portable power drill. He drilled holes in people's heads. This was all in the federal indictment. There was also a guy called the Angel of Mercy, and the Angel of Mercy was an expert carburetor cleaner, and he made car bombs that way. But where it gets really fun is that these guys were staying at the Alexis Park and the Feds were wiretapping them, and they discovered that two of the enforcers were planning on knocking off the third of the enforcers, because they didn't like him. They were going to take him out to a firing range and shoot him. And so they arrest these guys before they could find -- before the bad guys could find the guy who was switching the phone calls.

And so I got a second story out of it that I really, really quite enjoyed and I guess the sad note is that Vinny Congiusti, who was Vinny Asprins, did not make it out of prison, he came down -- he contracted cancer while he was in prison and he died after serving three of his eight years, I believe.

So thank you very much.

(Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 11 minutes and 37 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
License: Dotsub - Standard License
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Director: TED.com
Views: 108
Posted by: tedtalks on Jan 7, 2009

At the EG conference, John Markoff talks about why newspapers still matter -- even in the days of RSS. He gives an inside look at editorial process at the New York Times, and talks about some of his tech stories that should have been front-page news.

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