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August 27 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: ‘Mosques’ and SEO, Google’s search and social troubles, and a stateless WikiLeaks

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Maintaining accuracy in an SEO-driven world: Apparently the future-of-news world isn’t immune to the inevitable dog days of August, because this week was one of the slowest in this corner of the web in the past year. There were still some interesting discussions simmering, so let’s take a look, starting with the political controversy du jour: The proposed construction of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. I’m not going to delve into the politics of the issue, or even the complaints that this story is symptomatic of a shallow news media more concerned about drummed-up controversy than substantive issues. Instead, I want to focus on the decisions that news organizations have been making about what to call the project.

It has predominantly been called the “ground zero mosque,” though beginning about two weeks ago, some attention began being trained on news organizations — led most vocally by The New York Times and The Associated Press, which changed its internal label for the story — that wouldn’t use that phrase out of a concern for accuracy. The Village Voice used some Google searches to find that while there’s been an uptick in news sources’ use of the project’s proper names (Park51 and the Cordoba Center), “ground zero mosque” is still far and away the most common designation.

What’s most interesting about this discussion are the ideas about why a factually inaccurate term has taken such a deep root in coverage of the issue, despite efforts to refute it: The Village Voice pointed a finger at cable news, which has devoted the most time to the story, while the Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns driven by “warp-speed skimming” and smart-phone headlines that make easy labels more natural for readers and editors.” Watery qualifiers like ‘near’ or ’so-called’ don’t stick in our brains as much, nor do they help a website climb the SEO ladder.”

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Google’s search and social takes shots: Google takes more than few potshots every week on any number of subjects, but this week, several of them were related to some intriguing future-of-news issues we’ve been talking about regularly here at the Lab, so I thought I’d highlight them a bit. Ex-Salon editor Scott Rosenberg took Google News to task for its placement of an Associated Content article at the top of search results on last week’s Dr. Laura Schlessinger controversy. Associated Content is the giant “content farm” bought earlier this year by Yahoo, and its Dr. Laura article appears to be a particularly mediocre constructed article cynically designed solely to top Google’s ranking for “Dr. Laura n-word.”

Rosenberg takes the incident as a sign that reliability of Google News’ search results has begun to be eclipsed by content producers’ guile: “When Google tells me that this drivel is the most relevant result, I can’t help thinking, the game’s up.” The Lab’s Jim Barnett also questioned Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent articulation of the company’s idea of automating online serendipity, wondering how a “serendipity algorithm” might shape or limit our worldviews as Google prefers.

Google’s social-media efforts also took a few more hits, with Slate’s Farhad Manjoo conducting a postmortem on Google Wave, homing in on its ill-defined purpose and unnecessary complexity. Google should have positioned Wave as an advanced tool for sophisticated users, Manjoo argued, but the company instead clumsily billed it as the possible widespread successor to email and instant messenging. Meanwhile, Adam Rifkin of GigaOM criticized the company’s acquisition of the social app company Slide (and its social-media attempts in general), advising Google to buy companies whose products fit well into its current offerings, rather than chasing after the social-gaming industry — which he said “feels like it’s about to collapse on itself.”

WikiLeaks, stateless news and transparency: The saga of the open-source leaking website WikiLeaks took a very brief, bizarre turn this weekend, when reports emerged early Saturday that founder Julian Assange was wanted by Swedish authorities for rape, then later that day prosecutors announced he was no longer a suspect. The New York Times provided some great background on Assange’s cat-and-mouse games with various world governments, including the United States, which is reportedly considering charging him under the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks’ release last month of 92,000 pages of documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.

No one really had any idea what to make of this episode, and few were bold enough to make any strong speculations publicly. Two bloggers explored the (possible) inner workings of the situation, with Nicholas Mead using it to argue that catching Assange isn’t exactly going to stop WikiLeaks — as NYU professor Jay Rosen noted last month, WikiLeaks is the first truly stateless news organization, something only permitted by the structure of the web.

That slippery, stateless nature extends to WikiLeaks’ funding, which The Wall Street Journal focused on this week in a fine feature. Unlike the wide majority of news organizations, there is virtually no transparency to WikiLeaks’ funding, though the Journal did piece together a few bits of information: The site has raised $1 million this year, much of its financial network is tied to Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation, and two unnamed American nonprofits serve as fronts for the site.

Hyperlocal news and notes: A few hyperlocal news-related ideas and developments worth passing along: Sarah Hartley, who works on The Guardian’s hyperlocal news efforts, wrote a thoughtful post attempting to define “hyperlocal” in 10 characteristics. Hyperlocal, she argues, is no longer defined by a tight geographical area, but by an attitude. She follows with a list of defining aspects, such as obsessiveness, fact/opinion blending, linking and community participation. It’s a great list, though it seems Hartley may be describing the overarching blogging ethos more so than hyperlocal news per se. (Steve Yelvington, for one, says the term is meaningless.)

Brad Flora at PBS MediaShift provided a helpful list of blogs for hyperlocal newsies to follow. (Disclosure: The Lab is one of them.) And two online media giants made concrete steps in long-expected moves toward hyperlocal news: Microsoft’s Bing launched its first hyperlocal product with a restaurant guide in Portland, and Yahoo began recruiting writers for a local news site in the San Francisco area.

Reading roundup: Despite the slow news week, there’s no shortage of thoughtful pieces on stray subjects that are worth your time. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Spot.Us founder David Cohn wrote an illuminating post comparing journalists’ (particularly young ones’) current search for a way forward in journalism to the ancient Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. TBD’s Steve Buttry, a self-described “old guy,” responded that it may not take a generation to find the next iteration of journalism but said his generation has been responsible for holding innovation back: “We might make it out of the desert, but I think our generation has blown our chance to lead the way.”

— A couple of interesting looks at developing stories online: Terry Heaton posited that one reason for declining trust in news organizations is their focus on their own editorial voice to the detriment of the public’s understanding (something audiences see in stark relief when comparing coverage of developing news), and Poynter’s Steve Myers used the Steven Slater story to examine how news spreads online.

— At The Atlantic, Tim Carmody wrote a fantastic overview of the pre-web history of reading.

— In an argument that mirrors the discussions about the values of the new news ecosystem, former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff gave a case for optimism about the current diffused, democratized state of sports media.

— Another glass-half-full post: Mike Mandel broke down journalism job statistics and was encouraged by what he found.

— Finally, for all the students headed back to class right now, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has some of the best journalism-related advice you’ll read all year.

August 09 2010

09:45

August 06 2010

10:35

Google Wave: Then and now

After less than a year of being available to the public, Google Wave is being phased out as the web giant admits that it hasn’t attracted enough users.

It was unveiled to great fanfare in May 2009, and was heralded by some online tech sites as the future of e-mail and online collaboration, but what are those sites saying now that it’s bitten the dust?

TechCrunch

TechCrunch then (May 2009): “Wave offers a very sleek and easy way to navigate and participate in communication on the web that makes both email and instant messaging look stale”

“It’s ambitious as hell — which we love — but that also leaves it open to the possibility of it falling on its face. But that’s how great products are born. And the potential reward is huge if Google has its way as the ringleader of the complete transition to our digital lives on the web.”

TechCrunch now: “Maybe it was just ahead of its time. Or maybe there were just too many features to ever allow it to be defined properly.”

ReadWriteWeb

ReadWriteWeb then (June 2009): “Once you get into the flow of things, regular email suddenly feels stale and slow. ”

“Like any great tool, Wave gives its users a lot of flexibility and never gets in your way.”

ReadWriteWeb now: “Why did Wave fail? Maybe because if you don’t call it an ‘email-killer’ (and you shouldn’t) then you’d have to call it a ‘product, platform and protocol for distributed, real time, app-augmented collaboration.’ That’s daunting and proved accessible to too few people.”

“Maybe this failure should be chalked up as another example of how Google ‘doesn’t get social’ in terms of user experience or successful evangelism. After an immediate explosion of hype, it never felt like Google was really trying very hard with Wave.”

Mashable

Mashable then (May 2009): “Our initial impression of Google Wave is a very positive one. Despite being an early build, communication is intuitive and not cluttered at all. User control is even more robust than we first expected (…) [I]t’s not as complicated as it seems at first look. It’s only slightly more complicated than your standard email client.”

Mashable now: “The product might’ve been more successful had it been integrated into Gmail (basic e-mail notifications weren’t even part of the launch), though Google hasn’t had much success with Buzz in that department either.

“In any event, Wave represents another disappointment in Google’s long line of attempts at social, an area in which the company is now reportedly eyeing a completely new approach. Shutting down Wave, it would seem, is a logical step in moving on.”

Pocket-lint

Pocket-lint then (October 2009): “Google Wave in its current state is an impotent, stunted, stub of a web service, which is functional at best, and buggy at worst. But it’s also the future. Consider the state of Twitter in 2007 – it was just a website with little messages that people pushed out via SMS. No one was terribly impressed.”

Pocket-lint now: “Although the web at large hasn’t embraced Wave in the way in which Google would have hoped, it is a sad day for its users. But it is a platform that would have only really worked if it reached out to a mass audience, and disappointingly, it never did.”

Techie Buzz

Techie Buzz then (September 2009): “Wave is an awesome real-time service for sharing docs, sending emails and much more. In-fact it is the most anticipated product of the year and people are already desperate to get their hands on a invite.”

Techie Buzz now: “I still believe that Wave deserved all the attention it received. It truly was a revolutionary service. Unfortunately, Wave might have been too different for its own good. Many failed to grasp the concept of Wave and struggled to get started, while several others grew frustrated with the chaotic nature of an open ended communication platform like Wave.”

Finally, from Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani, who wrote a book on Google Wave with Adam Pash, an elegy for the beleagured platform:

Wave is a tool I love and use daily, and this announcement makes Adam’s and my user guide essentially a history book, an homage to a product that I believe was simply ahead of its time.

I respect any product that shoots as high as Wave did, even if it misses in the market.

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June 03 2010

07:59

February 25 2010

11:24

Experiments in online journalism

Last month the first submissions by students on the MA in Online Journalism landed on my desk. I had set two assignments. The first was a standard portfolio of online journalism work as part of an ongoing, live news project. But the second was explicitly branded ‘Experimental Portfolio‘ – you can see the brief here. I wanted students to have a space to fail. I had no idea how brave they would be, or how successful. The results, thankfully, surpassed any expectations I had. They included:

There are a range of things that I found positive about the results. Firstly, the sheer variety – students seemed to either instinctively or explicitly choose areas distinct from each other. The resulting reservoir of knowledge and experience, then, has huge promise for moving into the second and final parts of the MA, providing a foundation to learn from each other.

Secondly, by traditional standards a couple of students did indeed ‘fail’ to produce a concrete product. But that was what the brief allowed – in fact, encouraged. They were not assessed on success, but research, reflection and creativity. The most interesting projects were those that did not produce anything other than an incredible amount of learning on the part of the student. In other words, it was about process rather than product, which seems appropriate given the nature of much online journalism.

Process, not product

One of the problems I sought to address with this brief was that students are often result-focused and – like journalists and news organisations themselves – minimise risk in order to maximise efficiency. So the brief took away those incentives and introduced new ones that rewarded risk-taking because, ultimately, MA-level study is as much about testing new ideas as it is about mastering a set of skills and area of knowledge. In addition, the whole portfolio was only worth 20% of their final mark, so the stakes were low.

Some things can be improved. There were 3 areas of assessment – the third, creativity, was sometimes difficult to assess in the absence of any product. There is the creativity of the idea, and how the student tackles setbacks and challenges, but that could be stated more explicitly perhaps.

Secondly, the ‘evaluation’ format would be better replaced by an iterative, blog-as-you-go format which would allow students to tap into existing communities of knowledge, and act as a platform for ongoing feedback. The loop of research-experiment-reflect-research could be integrated into the blog format – perhaps a Tumblelog might be particularly useful here? Or a vlog? Or both?

As always, I’m talking about this in public to invite your own ideas and feedback on whether these ideas are useful, and where they might go next. I’ll be inviting the students to contribute their own thoughts too.

February 05 2010

17:00

Riding the Wave: New tech, new reporting methods

As journalism evolves, re-invents, whichever action verb you’d like, I think we need to pay more attention to how news gathering is changing — or should be changing. Yes, crowdsourcing — when a news organization uses a large group of regular folks to report a story — gets a lot of ink, but I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about journalists taking full advantage of online tools to gather information. A series of posts Vadim Lavrusik wrote for Mashable illustrates my point. He gathered a bunch of media/journo types, including me, on a private Google Wave and then suggested topics for us to discuss amongst ourselves. We were warned in advance that he’d be quoting us for possible blog posts. (Our Google Wave chat yielded these four posts: journalist of the future, business trends, content trends, media collaboration).

Here is why that strategy worked:

Relationships: He specifically invited people he knew had knowledge of the topic he was writing about, and he could verify who we are. So it was a lot more structured than just tweeting, “Hey, what do you think the future of journalism will be like?” I’d suggest there are times when that informal approach can be useful, especially for lighter topics. But I think the targeted approach makes more sense most of the time.

The reporter uses social media to foster connections or relationships with people and then builds on those connections to create an interesting story. Social media isn’t the end in itself — just a means of reaching people whom a reporter wants to reach.

Interaction: Being part of this wave was very different than being interviewed one on one by a reporter. One participant’s Google Wave response to one of Lavrusik’s questions stimulated new lines of conversation. Others inspired or helped shape other participants’ responses.

Using a wave abandoned the traditional linear approach of Source > Reporter. Instead, a group suggested ideas, and all the group members could kick those concepts around in real time. The result, I’d argue, could be more valuable than if any of us on the wave had been interviewed separately.

Certainly, this type of reporting won’t work for every story. If you land the interview with the accused serial killer, you want him or her alone — without a wave. But for many stories, the ability for give and take among the interview subjects makes for a richer experience. The reporter’s online relationships lead to sources, which lead to interaction, which generates news and information.

Please don’t read this as an endorsement of Google Wave, which may not stand the test of time. This isn’t about one tool. It’s about a new way of thinking about the gathering of information that takes greater advantage of the interactivity of the Web. It’s about journalists at traditional news organizations being at the front of challenging, changing, innovating how they collect information for a story instead of lagging behind the blogosphere.

Surely, the idea of interviewing people together isn’t new. For decades, reporters have asked multiple people to sit down in a room and talk about an issue. But social media tools can make it easier to do this type of “focus group” reporting. These tools offers one huge benefit for the reporter — no need to go through the lengthy process of transcribing a taped meeting or group interview.

Yes, some will say that gathering information this way isn’t the same as face to face because the reporter can’t read the sources’ body language, expressions, winces. True. That’s why it’s a tool that’s only for certain types of stories, like the ones Lavrusik did where body language, honestly, mattered little.

Way back in June, BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis suggested Google Wave could be a way to crowd source, with reporters and witnesses providing information in real time. The Austin American-Statesman has used Google Wave as part of its election coverage. The Los Angeles Times in September suggested Google Wave could “transform” journalism.

My take: No one thing, tool, application, experience will transform journalism. But collectively, technology will offer new ways of both disseminating — and gathering news — if news organizations let them.

So, if you’re a news organization and your reporters are only gathering information in the way they did a year ago (or even six months ago), you might want consider changing that.

November 21 2009

02:54

Video: Gina Trapani makes sense of Google Wave


I have a Google Wave account though I haven’t had the time to investigate its potential.

At first glance, Google Wave can be bewildering, but it does seem to offer a strong platform for collaboration and could be a valuable tool for journalism.

Gina Trapani wrote the Complete Guide to Google Wave and sums it up in this keynote at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York.

(Via Tris Hussey)

November 11 2009

11:04

November 05 2009

15:22
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