Skype’s out and lazy journalism

As they say, it takes one to know one. Today, as a former non-Pulitzer prize journalist, I am calling out the poor journalism offered by some of my fellow UK writers regarding the recent Skype brownout. The shoddy treatment of this story, even though it broke over the Christmas period, points out to a lamentable lack of curiosity as to how this important infrastructure failure occurred. This stuff matters to us all.

A brief review of the facts. According to various sources Skype went down for an extended period in what some in IT euphemistically call an ‘unscheduled outage’. As a consequence many millions of Skype users (Skype claims over 550 million users which is more than Facebook by some counts) were left high and dry with only traditional i.e. expensive, means of contacting business associates, loved ones and families. Christmas really came early for traditional telcos.

In common with many other recent outages, such as PayPal and VISA’s Wikileaks-related Denial of Service attacks, the world did not stop spinning, there was no rush on the banks and no animals were harmed. However, what this inconvenient downtime has done, is prove how unready for show-time cloud services can be and how foolish small businesses (Disclosure – Positive Marketing is a Skype subscriber) would be to rely on Skype. It surely also scuppered the talk of a Skype IPO any time soon. Not that you would know that from the coverage.

This was not a proud moment for technology journalism. At its best, technology journalists bring clarity to an erudite world not understood by mainstream news hacks. Their writing explains the relevance of the latest technical breakthroughs in tablet computers to how to avoid expensive overseas calls. They enlighten the less geeky and more importantly keep technology, which gets a poor press in Europe, on the media agenda.

As keen readers we want to be furnished with the Who, Why, Where and When of cloud services and have all the latest cock-ups be they phishing attacks or government IT cost overruns, explained. So what clear and salutary reason did the tech media give for Skype’s nosedive? Here’s a selection:-

  • “Skype goes titsup” proffered El Reg
  • “a software problem” The Guardian illuminated
  • “some sorta glitch…took down the supernodes” declared the Wall Street Journal and
  • “buggy software” proclaimed ZDNet a full week after the event.

How remarkably similar to the PR line from Skype itself (hat-tip to the internal team there). However, apart from some inconclusive speculation about mega-nodes, there was no sign of the detailed explanation surely owed to the users, potential paying customers and potential IPO investors as to what ACTUALLY caused the issue and how it would be avoided in future. To its credit, albeit a week on, Skype has now explained what happened, but arguably still not how it will be prevented in the future.

So here’s my real beef. How come, just a few days after a major outage, UK coverage of fanboy gadget the iPad (with just 5% of the users Skype claims) already out-numbers the Skype stories (see graph).

Here’s a confident prediction; stories like Skype, will not go away and in fact will become more and more common as we rely more on ever more complex cloud-based IT. This makes them precisely what we, the readers of tech bloggers and journalists, want and need to know about. We can read adverts for smartphones any time we like.

So I am laying out a challenge to my noble fellow IT investigators to get to the truth quickly when these stories break. Let’s hope the next cloud cock-up gets more than superficial coverage, because I cannot believe that this noble profession has been reduced to reeling off features from smartphone manufacturers’ releases.

Come on guys.

Oh and Happy New Year. Let’s hope 2011 sees some corking stories about Tech. IT matters.


4 responses to “Skype’s out and lazy journalism

  1. “So I am laying out a challenge to my noble fellow IT investigators to get to the truth quickly when these stories break.”

    What if the people to whom the problems are happening don’t know why it’s happening? What happens to getting to the truth quickly then? I don’t think Skype could have told you precisely why it was getting that outage until a day or two ago.

    As for iPad coverage outnumbering Skype coverage – you do know there isn’t a big chart on the walls which tells us how many users each service has? There’s this “news” idiom going on too. Which might have included “iPad incinerates babies” (certainly one story getting currency was “iPad magazine sales fall”). Simply measuring “stories” is a very, very crude measure which says nothing about what’s going on.

  2. “buggy software” is the headline of an article which goes through the technical reasons for the failure. Based on the skype blog post by CIO released on Wednesday, the day before article was published.

    On 22, 23 and 24 December we covered the Skype outage as it was happening and always wrote on the basis of what we knew (it was a software fault and nothing more). We didn’t speculate. Buggy software article written in light of new technical information from Skype.

    If you are picking us out for being a week late then you appear to not have read the article itself. Lazy blogging, eh?

    • positivemarketingorg


      I do take my hat off to the repeated reporting, but I think, with respect, you are missing my point. What the CIO says may not actually be the whole stoy and there are lots of other sources than the people who screwed up. No sane journalist unquestioningly takes the word of the Government minister responsible for a service outtage at a major department.

      So why, when this international incident takes out telecommunications for half a billion users (a lot larger than the UK population) everything is ticketyboo a few days later. Some questions, which STILL need answering:

      1. Who wrote and tested the faulty software, was this an internal or external issue?
      2. What guarantees are being provided to Skype users that this will not recur?
      3. What does this do to the IPO timing and (part of a larger trend) to the chances of other pre-IPO cloud-based companies?

      Not really lazy Jack, unless you count non-idle curiousity.

  3. There have always been lazy hacks. I’ve been ‘privileged’ to work with some real slugs. The thing is the immediacy and reach of news these days means slack reporting is easily exposed. The sad thing is some seem to be tolerating limp copy rather than upping their game. I blame publishers not insisting on stronger news editors though. Reporters will always try it on unless newsdesk is over their shoulders.

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