Special Delivery: Why Amazon’s Big Drone Hullabaloo was a Failure of Journalism (and how we can do better)

If you read this blog, it’s probably because you know me as a children’s author, but for seven years out of college, I worked in local television news. My undergraduate degree is from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and in my years there, we talked a lot about what makes a news story — and what doesn’t.  Amazon’s big 60 Minutes reveal about plans to deliver products to your door via drone wouldn’t have made the cut.

How come? Because there’s a difference between a legitimate news story and a publicity stunt. One way to tell the difference is to ask good, intelligent questions about what you’re being told and shown, no matter how shiny those things may be.

Make no mistake – I’m a huge fan of technology in all its latest greatest forms. I desperately want to try out those Google glasses. I’m about to send a kid off to college to study engineering – heck, I loaned him my van for two days so he could chase an electronics-laden weather balloon into the Massachusetts woods. And I’ve ordered things from Amazon. But when Amazon trotted out its “delivery drone” prototype,  I wished the 60 Minutes people had asked some better questions. Here’s how that conversation might have gone…

Question: Wow…that’s pretty cool. But isn’t it illegal to fly drones in lots of places? Say, close to airports and in heavily populated areas like those to which you’d be delivering?
 
Answer: Why yes…yes, it is. And we have no reason to believe that’s going to change soon.
 
Question: Those propellers on your delivery guy look kind of sharp and dangerous, too. Any worries that could be a problem?
 
Answer: Well…yes. Drones aren’t toys. They’re aircraft, and like other kinds of aircraft with whirling, spinning metal blades, they’re dangerous and can slice up human flesh quite nicely. We’re…uh…going to have to think on that one.
 
Question: What’s to keep people from running off with your drones and repurposing them for their own nefarious plans?
 
Answer: Nothing. We expect people will have a lot of fun taking them apart.
 
Question: Won’t that get expensive for you? And what about the drones that crash and break things or hurt people? There could be lawsuits. And I also read that drones are awful in wind. Isn’t it windy sometimes in places you deliver?
 
Answer: We hope it will never be windy when we need to deliver things.
 
Question: So given all that, are you really working on this as a serious thing, or did you just want us to talk about you right before Cyber Monday?
 
Answer: Hey, do you want to see our warehouse? It is bigger than a lot of football fields…come on!

 

None of this is to say that drones aren’t pretty cool. They are.

But you know what’s even cooler? Walking into an independent bookstore that smells like paper books and maybe hot chocolate, too. Finding a real live person behind the counter (she’ll probably be wearing a Santa hat). Telling her about your dad who loves old coins and baseball, or your kid who likes to take apart your toaster to build things, or your best friend whose favorite thing in the world is butterflies…and having that fellow book lover find the perfect, just-right book for the person you love.

Shop local. Shop small. Give books.

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6 Comments

  1. Lisa Amowitz
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    You are so right. I smelled a rat right away. But I did find it amusing and it actually provoked a lot of very interesting conversations. One thing I did think of is that the technology would be put to better use for delivery of emergency items–like food to stranded people, or transplant organs to donors. Otherwise, it seems kind of ridiculous. Imagine the sky filled with thousands of these things? Right. Just like personal jetpacks, it really makes no sense.

  2. Pat Goudey OBrien
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    VCAM has a drone for the cable station to use — demonstrated it at the State House in Montpelier recently. I’ve seen my son flying it a he practiced taking video for programs and … well, even bigger ones would certainly not work as “people-free delivery systems.” I thought that was just, you know, “Onion” kind of talk. Apparently, it was. Let’s talk about indie bookstores — way more interesting.

  3. Posted December 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Must see the take-off posted by Britain’s Waterstones Books.

    Waterstones

    We’re excited to announce the Ornithological Waterstones Landing Service, a brand new way …

  4. Posted December 5, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Excellent piece!

  5. Posted December 5, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    All so true, Kate! Great piece!

  6. Posted December 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Awesome article, Kate – thank you for sharing. We recently asked our son what he wanted to be when he grows up (the loaded question). We expected him to say professional lacrosse player (ugh!), but he surprised us and said he wanted to open his own bookstore in Fairmount (where we live and need a bookstore). We hugged him!

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