Conventional wisdom holds that the online magazine Slate can’t be trusted to report on the activities of its corporate parent, Microsoft. These days, however, close readers may want to add another company to that list: Segway.
Segway is the innovative New Hampshire-based company that manufactures the Segway Human Transporter (HT), a scooterlike device that was supposed to revolutionize how we organize cities. Last week, Slate sent New Yorker writer Tad Friend to Paris to file a travelogue chronicling his adventures on the HT with his wife, New York Times writer Amanda Hesser.
The result was well-phrased shilling. “[W]e discovered that Segwaying is even more fun when you’re a little drunk….Like dancing and sex and most excitements, Segwaying comes more easily if you don’t think about it too much,” writes Friend about riding around on his HT after a enjoying a five-hour meal with Vogue writer Jeffrey Steingarten.
The Segway drew quite a bit of attention in France. The two-wheeled machine, which looks like a push mower tipped upright, uses computers and gyroscopes to interpret your wishes: To move ahead, just lean forward; to back up, just lean backward. An easy-to-use device on the handlebar takes care of the steering. The battery-powered HT moves at a maximum speed of 12.5 mph.
In the course of five dispatches, Slate managed to associate the gizmo-laden machine with the highest ideals of the French republic: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternitéand Segway,” reads the header for Friend’s May 23 entry. Sounds like a good start for Segway’s upcoming rollout in France.
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg scoffs at any suggestion that his mag ran an advertorial for the machines. “We didn’t have any idea whether it was going to come out favorable to Segway or unfavorable to Segway,” he says. “I’m sure there were a lot of things in there that the Segway people wince at.”
Sure, there are a couple of mildly HT-negative passages in the package, hemmed in by raves about what Friend terms a “wonderful machine.” A skeptical Parisian puts the Segway team on the defensive by dissing the meager four-hour battery life and limited cruising range. But in the end, Friend’s machine has just enough juice to make it back to the hotel after all.
By the standards of Segway reporting, such sprinklings of fleur de selalong with Slate’s disclosure of Segway’s participation in the projectmake the Paris stories some of the most honest and transparent coverage to date of the gyroscopic-scooter phenomenon.
When other media outlets, after all, go after the Segway story, they do the same thing Friend did: They ride the machine and sit down to write glowing things about it. And in the process, they give short shrift to the broader issues raised by the device.
“The various medianationally, regionally, locallyare upholding P.T. Barnum’s dictum about a sucker being born every minute,” says Bob Planthold, a San Francisco-based disability-rights advocate. “They’ve been naive and gullible in swallowing whole all of the Segway arguments.”
What the media have swallowed, actually, is a masterful PR campaign, conceived by very intelligent people and executed by a platoon of techno-geek foot soldiers. The press fascination with the HT dates back to January 2001, when the online news site Inside.com broke the story of a book proposal about the device, then known as “Ginger.” Details on Ginger were scarce, but venture capitalist John Doerr speculated that it could be bigger than the Internet. Other big shots made similarly extravagant claims about the invention.
The secrecy electrified the media, which responded with all kinds of guesses that Ginger was some kind of aircraft or Space Age device. All that mattered to Segway was that people were talking about it.
The Ginger sensation laid the groundwork for the second phase of Segway’s press coup. Last November, the company staged a contest: Winners of a 75-word essay competition would earn the right to buy an HT at full price! The sweetener was that the 30 premier essayists would get their HTs a few months before the rest of the world, along with a tour of the Segway factory in New Hampshire and dinner with the device’s inventor, Dean Kamen.
Technology enthusiasts filled the company’s in-box with riffs on why they wanted the device. “All I can tell you is that we received more than we could count,” says Segway Director of Public Affairs Stacy Ferguson.
Contest winners describe the New Hampshire visit as a collegial affair. They learned how to operate the HT and chatted with Kamen. “It was very cool,” remembers contest winner Frank Tropea, of Brooklyn. “He has a helicopter hangar, his own baseball field, a tennis court, and a windmill.”
Company officials never even suggested that the prize winners help promote the scooter, according to Ferguson and essay winners. “If a company asked for that, I would say no,” says Phillip Torrone, whose wife won the contest. Torrone now runs a popular Web site for Segway owners.
Of course, Segway didn’t have to tell any of the contest winners to pimp for the HT. The story line was just too much for media outlets nationwide to resist: Local Man Is First in State to Own a Segway.
With some variation, that’s just how the articles came out.
Take this headline from the North County Times of Southern California: “Essay earns man first Segway in North County.” The story described how new HT owner Dave Megill was “taken by the ‘elegant simplicity’ and the ‘freshness of the creativity’ of his new toy.” It also left unchallenged Megill’s contention that a pedestrian lifestyle has become an anachronism.
In what could only be a coincidence, contest winners came from all over the country. Michael Osver, for instance, was the only contest winner from the District. And sure enough, the Washington Post featured him cruising on 17th Street, wowing passers-by.
After getting his machine, Tropea rang up New York Times technology writer John Schwartz, who filed a positive yet balanced story on the Segway. Says Tropea, “[Schwartz] said, ‘Look, we’re going to do a “warts-and-all” piece, not a fluff piece.’ He spent some time with me, and I let him try it….He couldn’t get a negative quote from anybody. The article was tremendously positive.”
Other outlets that bit on the first-in-town conceit include the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Union Leader (New Hampshire), the Lexington Herald Leader (Kentucky), 50 Plus Lifestyles (Florida), and the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Philadelphia’s first rider wasn’t a contest winner.)
The media paradigm for Segway coverage goes like this: Begin with a scene description of proud new scooter owner flitting about. Capture quotes from admiring onlookers. Describe how technology has improved the life of the new owner. Briefly mention regulatory issues regarding sidewalk use. End with another scene of joyous riding.
Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Murray Dubin hewed pretty close to that formula in a May 15 piece on the HT. The reporter’s puffery was informed at least in part by a de rigueur spin on the device. “It was amazing, and I’m someone with lousy balance….Even though the Segway doesn’t read your mind, it feels as though it’s reading your mind,” Dubin said in an interview.
The company’s techno-seduction of journalists has driven pedestrian advocates bonkers. “People are enamored with new technologies, and it’s kind of interesting that walking or being a pedestrian is a derogatory comment….[People] want something that is flashy,” says Michael Smith, president of the board of Walk San Francisco. Occasionally, media outlets such as the Post have written regulatory pieces examining the safety issues posed by the Segway, but they’re inevitably drowned out by the features.
The Inquirer, for instance, compared the effects of driving the Segway to those of donning a cape and revving up the Batmobile. So far, the HT is more like the recumbent bicycle: popular with a handful of true believers. Segway will not disclose how many HTs it has sold. Company spokesperson Ferguson, though, says the company has yet to reorganize entire cityscapes. “We’ve been told by transportation experts that we are a statistical blip of a blip of a blip for urban-planning purposes,” says Ferguson.
If the HT does follow the pattern of other hot technologies, it will eventually morph into a big blob in the map of urban planners. Prices will drop, and 65-pound machines piloted by 200-pound riders moving three times faster than walkers will take over sidewalks everywhere. According to Ferguson, 36 states and the District have cleared the scooter for sidewalks; six other states already had laws permitting sidewalk use. (San Francisco has banned the machines on sidewalks.)
If Segway driving moves out of the realm of the theoretical and becomes part of the traffic flow, reporters will adopt a more skeptical tone. But a few may have to get run over first.
Until then, enchantment with this device will drive coverage. A May 10 Post story, for example, started this way: “Anne Kinkella stepped on the Segway, and the world opened up.
“For the first time in the 17 years she’s lived in Alexandria, Kinkella, who has spina bifida, could zoom along the bike path that hugs the Potomac River. ‘I never knew there was sculpture along the water,’ she said.”
Before Post reporter Lyndsey Layton wrote the piece, D.C. Segway aficionado John Harrington, who runs the Web site
DC-Segways.com, arranged a test ride for her. “Lyndsey was thankful to have tried it, she said she had a better perspective having ridden it…” writes Harrington via e-mail. “It really does make a big difference.” (Full disclosure: Layton is a friend of mine.)
The article sympathetically chronicles Kinkella’s battles with Metro over using a Segway on her daily commute. Only two-thirds of the way through the pieceafter Kinkella has compared herself to Rosa Parks and a disability-rights activist has called Metro’s Segway ban “outrageous”does the Post provide an important piece of context: In April, Kinkella lost control of her motorized scooter on the Metro platform at the Eisenhower Avenue Station.
Unlike, say, a power lawnmower, a Segway doesn’t have an automatic kill switch that activates if you stop holding the controls. “I sat down, didn’t shut it off, and let go of it,” Kinkella recalls. The machine took off on its own and flopped onto the subway’s track bed. Metro safety official Ron Keele says service had to be temporarily shut down until the HT could be retrieved.
The incident spotlights the hazards of allowing a motorized vehicle free rein. “If patrons are struck with it, this thing can operate up to 13 mphthat’s pretty fast considering a closed subway system,” says Keele.
Bob Thomson, an assistant Metro editor at the Post, says the Segway was merely “incidental” to the story. “If Segway went out of business tomorrow, the theme of the story would still exist,” says Thomson. “Can a disabled person gain access to our public transportation system using a new technology?” Erik Wemple