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5/29/2008
09:45 AM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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Why The NY Times And Mashable.com Were Off Base On Blogging And Heart Failure

OK, I'm going off-campus in this post, but I now feel as though I've joined a "privileged class" that entitles me to comment on the New York Times story questioning the connection between the stresses of prolific blogging and heart failure and subsequently, a completely distasteful post on Mashable.com about being able to see (on a map) where bloggers are "dropping dead." The NY Times piece was shoddy reporting

OK, I'm going off-campus in this post, but I now feel as though I've joined a "privileged class" that entitles me to comment on the New York Times story questioning the connection between the stresses of prolific blogging and heart failure and subsequently, a completely distasteful post on Mashable.com about being able to see (on a map) where bloggers are "dropping dead." The NY Times piece was shoddy reporting. Mashable was out of line. Here's why.This tale begins with the deaths of Russell Shaw and Marc Orchant; two bloggers whom I worked with at ZDNet before I left to join TechWeb (formerly CMP, the parent to InformationWeek). Both men passed away within months of each other and the New York Times used the pair's deaths as well as 41 year-old Om Malik's heart attack (thankfully, Om survived) as the hook for a story about writers blogging "till they drop."

About the only worthwhile statement in the entire story came when the reporter -- Matt Richtel -- pointed out that:

There is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths.

Sadly, the Times spent none of the remaining 3/4ths of the story to uncover the specifics of Orchant's and Shaw's deaths. Could it have been stress? Or were other factors involved? Normally, we'd expect those sorts of questions to get asked by a NYT reporter instead of leaving it to other bloggers like TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, who the Times did interview to get some perspective. Arrington claimed that the pace of blogging by he and others is "unsustainable," which may be true. But, why weren't any doctors or medical experts asked? Were there other contributing factors? Unquestionably, there were. But they weren't even discussed.

The story was so unbecoming of what the New York Times' brand should stand for (and is proof to me that big brands in the media business are standing for less and less). But it was made to look like a cupcake when Mashable.com's Mark Hopkins subsequently headlined one of his posts:

Now you can see where bloggers drop dead.

I'm leaving out the link on purpose. The real story he wrote -- the one with redeemable value -- had to do with how the New York Times is geocoding its stories in such a way that, with something like Yahoo's Pipes, even a beginning mashup developer can use those geocodings to create interesting mashups (the most rudimentary of which might be "pinning" the location of a story on a Google Map).

The headline could just have easily been:

Now, you can see where crimes reported in the Times took place

or something like that. But Hopkins didn't resist the temptation to invent a connection between the NYT's geocoding feature and the NYT's story on Orchant, Shaw, and Malik. Instead of focusing on the real news, he went for a traffic-grabbing headline and punchline that had absolutely nothing to do with the news at all.

Never mind the fact that it was completely insensitive to the families of the deceased, or how "dropping dead" was not how the NYT characterized Orchant's and Shaw's deaths, or whether they actually "dropped dead" or not. In fact, Marc Orchant's passing was nothing of the sort. In his case, he battled for his life for a week, only to very sadly lose that battle.

Shortly after Hopkin's post was published, I appealed to Mashable's founder Pete Cashmore to take the story down. Instead of taking action, he passed the buck and referred me to his editor Adam Ostrow to whom I appealed as well. Clearly (since the post is still live), the sensationalistic value of the headline far outweighed any respect due to the deceased men and their families. The story is still online. It's a disgrace.

What qualifies me to say any of this?

On Mother's Day (of all days), while spending some relaxing time with my wife and children, I experienced my own heart-related collapse. Given the way I was carted away from a public playground by an ambulance with its sirens blaring, it was probably more traumatic for my wife and kids than it was for me. The prognosis is extremely good. It's going to take much more than blogging to get rid of me. Though I'm not nearly as busy blogging as I was while at ZDNet, I'm equally busy (if not more so) behind the scenes with TechWeb's events, video strategies, and Web sites. I will be getting back to more frequent blogging soon.

One thing I learned from my doctors is that the stresses of work were probably not a contributing factor to my condition. Instead, I apparently have a congenital defect in my heart that just now, at the age of 46, decided to rear its ugly head. It was only a matter of time and it's very fixable. But more important, it made me think back to Orchant, Shaw, and Malik and how both the Times and Mashable used the men's stories to invent a new one without ever seeking the truth.

Was prolific blogging a contributing factor? It could have been. Yesterday, in my first "summary" consultation with a cardiologist, I asked about the role that a heavy work schedule might have played in my own heart issues. "Perhaps some role in triggering this first episode" the doctor implied (to the extent work causes stress and stress can elevate your heart rate and an elevated heart rate is one known trigger). But it was clear that what happened to me was waiting to happen because of congenital defects and something we can't stop: the aging process.

It's too bad that the Times didn't probe a bit deeper for the truth. It might have found that the stresses of their schedules played as insignificant a role in the other situations as it did mine. Or, it may have more credibly found the opposite to be true. We may never know for sure. It also might not have handed Mashable's Hopkins the creative license that he took in disrespecting three men (and their families) who deserved better.

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