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My Recent A-hed on James McGowan, the Globe-Trotting McDonald’s Obsessive

2016 02 20 ahedNP

Those of you who follow me on Twitter and/or subscribe to my email newsletter know that the week before last, my first A-hed* ran on the front page of The WSJ.

(In the image above, showing the paper, below the fold, it’s on the bottom right.)

The story — accessible to all online here — is about James McGowan, a guy in Bangkok whose passion is traveling the world, sampling and blogging about regional variations of McDonald’s items. It begins:

SINGAPORE—When James McGowan walked into a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant in downtown Singapore one recent evening, he wasn’t interested in a Big Mac. Instead, he placed an order for a limited-edition hamburger with caramelized onions and cheddar cheese, truffle-flavored french fries and a special red velvet McFlurry frozen drink.

On a scale of one to five, “I’ll probably give a 3 for the burger,” said Mr. McGowan, noting that it lacked sufficient onions. “The fries are better than I expected. They might be a 3.5 or 4.”

Mr. McGowan may well be the chain’s toughest customer. For the past four years, the 28-year-old has crisscrossed the globe to indulge his passion: Sampling and blogging about the various national iterations of McDonald’s dishes. Thus far, he says he has visited about 53 countries, penning 340 detailed reviews.

The story generated a lot of traffic on our site, which I expected. But I was not prepared, I must say, for McGowan to become a global sensation.

After our story ran, his quest was picked up by outlets as wide ranging as Business Insider, The Straits Times, the Toronto Sun,, and Slate in French.

Papers in the UK, especially, gobbled up the story: The Independent, The Mirror, and even The Daily Mail wrote about McGowan.

Other corporate and tech-focused stories I’ve written have been picked up far and wide before, but this was the first time a feature of this kind has received so much attention. Fun stuff, indeed.

*A-heds are WSJ the often humorous, off-beat stories that run at the bottom of our front pages. Here’s more on the history of A-heds; there’s even a book about them.

By Me Last Week: Twitter Outshines Facebook — in Japan

The story begins:

Twitter Inc. is now bigger than its rival Facebook — in Japan, at least.

A week after quarterly earnings fueled investors’ concerns that Twitter’s user growth has stalled, the company for the first time Thursday broke out its user numbers for a country outside the U.S., saying it had 35 million monthly active users in the world’s third-largest economy as of the end of last year.

Facebook, a major competitor for advertising dollars, had 25 million monthly active users in Japan as of the end of 2015, a Facebook spokeswoman said Thursday.

Twitter’s user base has long been compared to Facebook’s, which is much larger globally. Twitter last week said 320 million users signed into the platform at least once a month in the fourth quarter, the same as in the previous three months. Facebook, by comparison, said it had 1.59 billion monthly active users as of the end of last year, up 3% from the previous three months.

It was the first time Twitter’s closely watched user growth flatlined from the previous three-month period. More troubling: the number of users in the U.S. fell to 65 million from 66 million.

Click through to read the rest.

By Me Last Week: GrabTaxi Is Becoming Grab

2016 02 01 grab

The story begins:

Uber Technologies Inc.’s main rival in Southeast Asia wants people to know that it—like the San Francisco, Calif. startup—offers not just taxis, but private cars.

Singapore-based GrabTaxi Holdings Pte. Ltd. said Thursday it is shortening its name to simply Grab. The goal: to highlight that in addition to allowing users to book taxis in 28 cities across Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, it also offers newer services like private cars—not to mention car pooling and even motorbike rides.

The re-branding comes as competition heats up for new users in the populous region. The U.S.’s Lyft Inc. in December said it was teaming up with GrabTaxi — er, make that Grab — and ANI Technologies Pvt. Ltd.’s Ola in India to permit users of each app to hail rides from drivers of the other apps while traveling abroad. That gives the alliance more leverage to compete against Uber, a global titan that has expanded its ride sharing platform, which includes private cars and taxis in some markets, to more than 370 cities across 68 countries since launching in the U.S. in 2010.

Like ‘Making a Murderer’? Read This New Yorker Story


I’ve Tweeted about this and mentioned it in this week’s Newley’s Notes, and wanted to highlight it here, as well.

The Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” has been a smash hit, setting the Internet on fire, bringing renewed fame to the subject’s defense attorneys, and inspiring amateur sleuths the world over.

I have watched it. It is highly compelling.

The most imformative story I have read on the series is this Kathryn Schulz New Yorker piece.

In short, she points out that as a documentary, “Making a Murderer” falls short because it argues, rather than investigates:

Instead, the documentary consistently leads its viewers to the conclusion that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, and it contains striking elisions that bolster that theory. The filmmakers minimize or leave out many aspects of Avery’s less than savory past, including multiple alleged incidents of physical and sexual violence. They also omit important evidence against him, including the fact that Brendan Dassey confessed to helping Avery move Halbach’s S.U.V. into his junk yard, where Avery lifted the hood and removed the battery cable. Investigators subsequently found DNA from Avery’s perspiration on the hood latch—evidence that would be nearly impossible to plant.

Perhaps because they are dodging inconvenient facts, Ricciardi and Demos are never able to present a coherent account of Halbach’s death, let alone multiple competing ones. Although “Making a Murderer” is structured chronologically, it fails to provide a clear time line of events, and it never answers such basic questions as when, where, and how Halbach died. Potentially critical issues are raised and summarily dropped; we hear about suspicious calls to and messages on Halbach’s cell phone, but these are never explored or even raised again. In the end, despite ten hours of running time, the story at the heart of “Making a Murderer” remains a muddle. Granted, real life is often a muddle, too, especially where crime is involved—but good reporters delineate the facts rather than contribute to the confusion.

Worth a read.

By Me Last Week: How Apple’s Trying to Win India


An ad for Apple’s iPhone 6S in the Bangalore, India airport

I was in India recently working on a story about Apple’s strategy to win over consumers in the world’s second-most-populous country.

The piece, which ran last week, begins:

NEW DELHI—Amid concerns that China’s slowing economic growth could sap demand for iPhones, Apple Inc. is increasingly turning its attention to one of the last big countries it has yet to conquer: India.

The Cupertino, Calif., company has been quietly building market share in the world’s second-most-populous nation by boosting advertising, bulking up its distribution network, arranging interest-free phone loans and lowering prices.

On Wednesday, Apple said it has sought the Indian government’s approval to open its own retail stores and sell products online. Apple currently sells its products in India through a network of Indian-owned distribution companies and retailers.

“India has huge potential” for Apple, said Rushabh Doshi, an analyst at research firm Canalys in Singapore.

Click through to read the rest.

With Apple yesterday saying in its quarterly results that iPhone sales have been growing at the slowest pace since the device was introduced in 2007, emerging markets are increasingly important for the tech titan.

That’s because hundreds of millions of people, many of them young, are upgrading smartphones or buying them for the first time in countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil — while at the same time some larger markets, like China, may be getting saturated.

(Price, of course, is an issue in India: The annual GDP per capita is $1500, and Apple is trying to sell phones that cost upwards of $1000 there, though some models also cost less than half that. But as I wrote in the story, Apple offers payment plans, and still sells older, less expensive models like the iPhone 4S and 5S in the country.)

In the conference call for Apple’s earnings, CEO Tim Cook had this to say about India:

  • Cook also mentions India, saying the demographics looks good for Apple. The population is young, and Apple is putting a lot of resources into building there.


To TimmyG: Cook spent a long time talking about India — longer than I was able to keep up with. But his point was yours: that this big and growing nation is made up of a young population.

Indeed. Stay tuned to see how Apple fares in the quarters and years ahead.

By Me and a Colleague: Islamic State Using Telegram Messaging App to Communicate with Radicals in Indonesia, Malaysia

The story begins:

Communications app Telegram Messenger is in the spotlight after the deadly terrorist attacks in Jakarta last week, with experts in Indonesia and Malaysia saying Islamic State radicals in Syria have used the platform to recruit members from Southeast Asia.

The revelations underscore both the apparent popularity of the Berlin-based app among members of the terror organization and the challenges it poses to authorities in tracking its private, encrypted chats.

Malaysian police on Saturday said its counterterrorism unit last week arrested four suspects, three of whom were recruited to join Islamic State in Syria by a Malaysian national via Telegram and Facebook Inc.’s social-networking platform.

Telegram, which in November said it blocked 78 of its public channels across 12 languages related to Islamic State, was one of the first apps to explicitly cater to privacy enthusiasts after reports in 2013 alleging widespread surveillance by U.S. intelligence.

Islamic State has used Telegram, a free platform that can be accessed via mobile devices and desktop computers, to disseminate public statements, such as its claim of responsibility for the November attacks in Paris.

Recent Stories: Google CEO Visits India

I was in India recently covering the first offiical visit Google CEO Sundar Pichai has made to his home country.

In the scenesetter, I wrote about the importance of India to Google — and other big U.S. tech companies, like Facebook:

NEW DELHI— Alphabet Inc.’s Google became a global technology titan serving developed-world consumers on their personal computers, but it is now increasingly turning to a new kind of customer for growth: people on low-cost smartphones in poor countries.

The Mountain View, Calif., company’s efforts to reach users in emerging markets will be in the spotlight this week, when Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai makes his first official visit to India since taking the top job in August.

In the next story, from Delhi, I wrote about what Pichai says Google is doing, specifically, to try to get more people online in India:

NEW DELHI— Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, on Wednesday outlined the technology titan’s plan to increase Internet access in India, underscoring its focus on the world’s second-most-populous country.

A partnership with the Indian government to offer free Wi-Fi at railway stations across the country is on track to open in 100 stations by the end of 2016, Mr. Pichai said during his first official visit to the country in which he was born since taking the top job in August.

Mr. Pichai told a conference for software developers in New Delhi that the first station to get the Wi-Fi service will be Mumbai Central, in the city on India’s west coast, next month. The initiative was announced in September.

The 43-year-old Mr. Pichai also said that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is pushing ahead with Project Loon, which aims to use high-altitude balloons to provide Internet access in remote areas of the country.

I also wrote about a talk Pichai gave to university students in Delhi. The brief story, which proved especially popular online, is headlined Google’s Sundar Pichai on How India Can Produce More Tech Leaders Like Him:

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai on Thursday said the Indian education system, which nurtured him, needs to allow students to take risks, and to fail, if it wants to produce more global technology leaders.

Mr. Pichai also reiterated his message that Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., is bullish on growth in India, “an amazingly young, vast country,” he told students packed into a gymnasium on the campus of Delhi University.

On Wednesday, Mr. Pichai outlined at a conference for software developers more of the Mountain View, Calif., company’s plans to boost Internet access in India as it looks to the fast-growing country for future growth.

The 43-year-old, who was raised in the southern Indian city of Chennai and attended the elite Indian Institute of Technology before moving to the U.S., said he has been struck by how much India’s startup sector has grown over the past few years and also by the enthusiasm of its entrepreneurs.

There is a “unique opportunity” to build new tech companies in the country because of its huge scale, he said.

Asked how India might improve its educational system to create more executives like him, Mr. Pichai, who joined Google in 2004 and took the top job in August, said “It is important to teach students to take risks.”





By Me Yesterday: Lyft Teams up with India’s Ola and Singapore’s GrabTaxi

The story begins:

The international alliance of Uber Technologies Inc.’s ride-hailing competitors is growing stronger.

San Francisco startup Lyft Inc. confirmed Thursday it is teaming up with Southeast Asia’s GrabTaxi Holdings Pte. Ltd. and India’s Ola to allow users of each app to hail rides from drivers of the other apps while they are traveling to the other country. Lyft and Chinese startup Didi Kuaidi Joint Co. announced a similar arrangement in September, when the Journal also reported that they were in talks with GrabTaxi and Ola.

Each service will collect payments from its own users in their native currency so that, for example, Indian visitors to the U.S. can open their Ola app to order and pay for rides on Lyft, after which Ola will remit that money to Lyft. The companies said the connected system will go live in the first quarter of next year.

The alliance will connect four services in nine countries, potentially bolstering the competitive field against the much larger Uber. Now in 350 cities around the world, Uber is currently raising up to $2.1 billion more in funding at a valuation as high as about $65 billion, according to a document reviewed by the Journal.


How the Paris Attacks Were Planned

Don’t miss this story from my colleagues in France about the remarkable ease with which the Paris attacks earlier this month were planned and executed.

Online hotel booking services, easy movement across borders, etc. The nut graf:

The account emerging from French officials, witnesses and those who interacted with the suspected terrorists shows how the operation hinged on Mr. Abaaoud’s ability to use the tools of everyday modern life to lay the groundwork for the massacre. The ease with which he and his teams moved—all while avoiding detection by France’s security apparatus—suggests the challenges in identifying would-be terrorists and preventing further attacks in the fluid, digital and transnational world of today, especially when they are European citizens.



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