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June 26 2013

20:57

With gay marriage sure to spark emotional responses, The Washington Post and New York Times try structuring comments

Back in March, we wrote about a New York Times experiment to add more structure to reader comments on big stories. In that case, the story was the election of Pope Francis; The Times asked readers to notate their responses with whether they were Catholic, whether they were surprised by the appointment, and whether they approved of it. That added structure allowed other readers to view comments through those lenses, putting a filter on what could have been, on another platform, an overwhelming “Read 5,295 comments” link.

Today brought some more big news: the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional. And today both the Times and The Washington Post brought structure to reader response.

First the Post:

wapo-structured-comments-doma

The interactive — credited to Katie Park, Leslie Passante, Ryan Kellett, and Masuma Ahuja — steps past the pro-/anti-gay marriage debate and instead asks why readers care: “Why do the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage matter to you?” The given choices — “It engages my moral or religious beliefs,” “It impacts someone I know,” and the like — then provide the raw data for a lovely flower-like Venn-diagram data visualization. (With colors sufficiently muted to avoid immediate rainbow associations.)

The open response question also tries to steer clear of pro/con by asking: “Now, in your own words, use your experience to tell us how these decisions resonate with you.” It’s generated over 2,800 responses at this writing, and you can sort through them all via the structured filters.

Now the Times:

nytimes-doma-supreme-court-comment

The Times’ interactive was built by Lexi Mainland, Michael Strickland, Scott Blumenthal, John Niedermeyer, and Tyson Evans. They selected six key excerpts from today’s opinions — four from Anthony Kennedy and one each from Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — and asked readers whether they agree or disagree with each. (There’s also an “unsure” option for those who don’t fancy themselves constitutional scholars.)

Along with that quantifiable response, readers were asked to leave a brief comment explaining their position. The excerpts appear in random order on each load. And, just as the pope experiment separated out responses from Catholics, this Times interactive pulls out comments from people who identify as gay. Like the Post, the Times uses a non-standard call for responses: Rather than responding to a news story, they’re asked to “Respond to the Justices.”

(The responses so far don’t do much to change the stereotype of Times readers as liberal. Justice Kennedy’s four excerpts — from the majority opinion, striking down DOMA — have been agreed with 130 times and disagreed with just four times. In contrast, Scalia and Alito’s pro-DOMA comments are losing Times readers 76 to 7 and 73 to 6, respectively.)

As news organizations try to figure out better ways to benefit from their audiences — ways that go beyond an unstructured “What do you think?” — these efforts from the Post and the Times are welcome. Big stories that generate big emotion deserve custom treatment if you want to get the most of your readers. Comments are just another kind of content, and as content becomes more intelligently structured, comments should follow suit.

April 01 2013

14:18

Not an April Fool’s joke: The New York Times has built a haiku bot

timeshaiku2

New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris has a thing for robots and wordplay. You may recall he’s the guy behind @nytimes_ebooks, the Times answer to the elusive and inscrutable Twitter bot @Horse_ebooks.

So it’s only natural that Harris has now created an algorithm that extrudes haiku out of the text of Times stories. In other words:

Haiku harvester
built inside The New York Times —
does it have a soul?

(If my eighth grade English teacher is reading this. Sorry.)

Here’s a better, more Times-y example:

timeshaiku1

Times Haiku is a collection of what they are calling “serendipitous poetry,” derived from stories that have made the homepage of NYTimes.com. The haiku live on a Tumblr hosted by the Times. Harris built a script that mines stories for haiku-friendly words and then reassembles them into poetry. (For those of you that may have zoned out in class, haiku are comprised of three lines with, in order, five, seven, and five syllables.) The code checks words against an open source pronunciation dictionary, which handily also contains syllable counts.

“Sometimes it can be an ordinary sentence in context, but pulled out of context it has a strange comedy or beauty to it,” Harris said.

Harris was inspired by Haikuleaks, a similar project that found poetry in the cache of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. The backbone of that project was an open source program called Haiku Finder, which crawls through text to generate haiku. The program was built in Python; Harris made his own version in Ruby on Rails.

The result, much like @nytimes_ebooks, is bizarre, quirky, and kind of zen. The haiku have a strange way of getting at the heart of a story, or teasing out interesting fragments from an article. “There’s something appealing about finding these snippets of text, these turns of phrase and pulling them out,” Harris said. “You find it compelling and it drives you to read the article that it came from.” (Think of it as a more lexicographically strict version of Paul Ford’s SavePublishing.)

In its own poetic way, Times Haiku will be another access point for Times stories, said Marc Lavallee, assistant editor for interactive gnus at the Times. “If someone sees the site, or the image of an individual haiku and shares it on Tumblr, and it gets them to think about who we are and what we do, or gives them a moment of pause, I think we’ve succeeded in a way,” Lavallee said.

Lexi Mainland, social media editor for the Times, said they wanted the poems to be able to stand on their own and be readily sharable. That’s why the haiku are actually images, which fits well with the aesthetic of Tumblr, she said. Outside of Tumblr, the Times will promote the haiku through the paper’s flagship Twitter account.

That the Times has the ability to build a haiku bot isn’t surprising. But why build a haiku bot? “A lot of the projects we work on here are these incredibly big heaves, which are very, very gratifying,” said Mainland. “But you crave these smaller projects, which are just as valuable.” Similarly, projects like the haiku bot may seem silly on the surface, but the underlying code, the use of natural language processing, or other components could be valuable to future projects, Lavallee said.

It helps that the project came at little expense to the Times — Harris put it together on his own during a fit of post-election letdown. Harris had been working on projects connected to the presidential race for over a year, and after election day suddenly found himself with idle hands. He wrote the code in November and began monitoring what it was spitting out. After showing it to Mainland, Lavallee, and other editors, they gave the project a green light. Designer Heena Ko and software developer Anjali Bhojani gave the haiku their distinctive appearance for Tumblr. (Those lines you see running askew of the text of the haiku? The length is computer generated, based on the meter of the first line of text.)

As whimsical as a haiku bot or a spammy-sounding Twitter bot might be, both are efforts to find new uses for the Times’ vast collection of work. “It’s just this large corpus of text that gets very dizzing to look through,” Harris said.

The Times may also have a soft spot for artwork inspired by the written word. Anyone who has visited the lobby of The New York Times Building has likely seen Moveable Type, an algorithm-backed art installation that displays fragments of Times content across 560 display screens.

But why poetry? For starters, today is the first day of National Poetry Month, Mainland said. (Today is also April Fool’s — and if you were wondering, this is not a joke.) Still, for lovers of verse, it may sound like a cold and bloodless way to create poetry. Can you really create poetry without a soul? Do robots have feelings? Can they really see a sunset, or be moved by the sounds of a whale songs CD?

Harris admits the bot is imperfect; it’s required a little teaching along the way. One reason he limited the scope to the front page was because it provides an editor-picked selection, which tends to be richer features and important daily fare. (Running the bot on the Times Wire, Harris said he often got haiku made up of basketball scores, which may be too esoteric for any lit major or stat nerd.) The algorithm is designed to toss haiku with certain sentence constructions (sentences that start with a preposition, for instance) or from sensitive stories. Mainland, Lavallee, and Harris also keep an eye on the haiku being created to see if anything untoward sneaks through.

But Harris also has to do some syllable counting himself, teaching the bot words that appear in the Times (“Rihanna,” for instance) that it doesn’t know. Henry Higgins would be proud.

May 24 2011

19:37

Liz Heron and Lexi Mainland now run the New York Times Twitter account

Poynter :: The New York Times is turning off the automatic feed for its main Twitter account this week in an experiment to determine if a human-run, interactive approach will be more effective. Social media editors Liz Heron and Lexi Mainland are taking turns running the @nytimes account during weekday business hours, hand-picking and writing the tweets and engaging with readers.

Continue to read Jeff Sonderman, www.poynter.org

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