The Swedish Surface and the Pathetic State of Online Journalism
Yesterday, an obscure–outside Sweden, at least–web retailer, webhallen.com, published a page that purported to give the still unannounced pricing for Microsoft’s Surface tablets. The surface was quoted at a ranged from $1,000 for a minimal ARM version to $2,100 for a loaded x86 model.
Wpcentral.com was apparently the first to come across this report and run with it. But it was quickly followed by many others, including some of the biggest names in online tech news: ZDnet, InformationWeek, Mashable, Cnet, and many others. Many of the reports, while expressing some doubt about the authenticity of the information, were quick to speculate about a monumental screwup by Microsoft. For example, Cult of Mac went with the headline: “Don’t Worry, Apple! Microsoft Will Kill Its Own Surface Tablet With $1,000 Price Tag.”
Of course, when someone finally got around to talking to Webhallen, the great scoop turned out to be nothing but a dummy page. When Paul Paliath of Techie Buzz reached a Webhallen spokesperson, the company admitted that it had no idea how the Surface would be priced or even whether it would be carrying the product.
In the grand scheme of things, this was all a tempest in a teapot. Still, it demonstrates important weaknesses in how news is being reported and disseminated these days. There are several factors that should have given any reporter or editor pause before taking the prices seriously:
- Online catalog pages are a notoriously unreliable source of information on the availability or pricing of new products. Dummy product pages have an unfortunate way of escaping from staging servers, where they should stay hidden, onto the public web.
- The information didn’t pass a simple sanity test. Microsoft is not going through all the effort and cost to bring the Surface to market only to price it so high that failure is guaranteed. The reported prices made no sense.
- It seems unlikely that Webhallen would be first in line to get Surfaces to sell. Microsoft has said that initial sales would be through its own stores.
But the pursuit of news on an otherwise slow summer day seems to have overwhelmed many writers’ and editors’ common sense. And this sort of hting, of which this is only a particularly egregious example, undermines the credibility of all online news.
The much maligned traditional media always had rules about sourcing and verification of information. I started my career at the Associated Press and even though there was tremendous pressure to be first–as great as that on any web site–there was even more pressure to be right. Being late could produce a slap on the wrist; being wrong could end your career. It’s time we on the web worried a bit less about being fast and a lot more about being right.