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August 28 2011

21:17

Now can we all agree that the "high quality web content" experiment has failed?

TechCrunch :: It’s hard to imagine anything more perfect than Slate’s decision to lay off its respected media critic Jack Shafer. What better illustration could there be of online media’s woes than an ezine laying off its media critic because the economics of web content don’t support a writer of his stature and specialism?

[Paul Carr:] At least Shafer can take some satisfaction in the fact that his departure is in and of itself an absolutely perfect piece of media criticism: Jack Shafer as both medium and message.

Continue to read Paul Carr, techcrunch.com

April 13 2011

15:30

Newsgames Can Raise the Bar for News, Not Dumb It Down

Earlier this month a group of journalists, game designers, and academics gathered at the University of Minnesota for a workshop on newsgames. I was there, as was fellow Knight News Challenge winner and San Jose Mercury News tech business writer Chris O'Brien. After the event, Chris wrote a a recap of the meeting here on Idea Lab. TechCrunch's Paul Carr penned a grouchy reply, and O'Brien responded in turn.

As an early advocate and creator of newsgames who has spent the last several years researching and writing about the subject, I'm encouraged to see debate flaring up on the subject. But it's important to note that there's not one sole position for or against newsgames. For my part, I can't embrace either Carr's critique or O'Brien's defense.

Carr's riposte boils down to this: If people can't process news without having it turned into a game for them, something's tragically wrong. That's not the position I advocate, of course, so it's heartening to see O'Brien respond so quickly with objection.

But O'Brien's response isn't right either. His retort amounts to: Games are an increasingly popular medium that can keep people engaged; since news doesn't seem to be doing so, why not try something that does?

He's not fundamentally wrong, of course. Games are becoming increasingly popular, and they can capture people's interest differently and sometimes more effectively than other media.

How Games Engage

But vague ideas like popularity and engagement aren't the interesting aspects of games.

newsgames cover.jpg

In fact, there are many different sides to newsgames. My co-authors and I identify seven different approaches to the form in our book "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," including current events, infographics, documentary, literacy, puzzles, community, and platforms.

But the most interesting aspect of games in the context of news is their unique features as a medium. Games communicate differently than other media: They simulate processes rather than telling stories. For this reason, games are great at characterizing the complex behavior of systems.

While traditional methods of newsmaking like writing and broadcasting may seem more sophisticated and respectable than videogames in theory, the opposite is true in practice. In fact, the type of knee-jerk, ad hominem rejoinder and rapid-fire retort that Carr's and O'Brien's posts represent offer a superb example of precisely what's wrong with news today -- online or off. Personality and gossip reigns, while deliberation and synthesis falter.

Because complex characterizations of the dynamics underlying events and situations are already scarce in the news, to accuse games of trivializing civic engagement risks hypocrisy. But it's more than that: The forms of traditional storytelling common to written and broadcast journalism just can't get at the heart of systemic issues. They focus instead on events and individuals, not on the convoluted interconnections between global and local dynamics.

Yet, systemic issues are the most important ones for us to understand today: economics, energy, climate, health, education—all of these are big, messy systems with lots of complex interrelations. As we put it in "Newsgames": "Games offer journalists an opportunity to stop short of the final rendering of a typical news story, and instead to share the raw behaviors and dynamics that describe a situation as the journalistic content."

Intoxication with Games

Despite their recent dispute, O'Brien and Carr share something in common: an affiliation with Silicon Valley-oriented publications. Over the past year, the Valley tech sector has become intoxicated with games, particularly the runaway growth of social network games and the promise of "gamification," the application of arbitrary extrinsic rewards for desired actions on websites or smartphones.

In championing newsgames, I'm advocating something different and more sophisticated than low-effort user acquisition, blind trend-hopping, or crass incentives. It is a value completely at odds with both Carr's critique, and one that O'Brien's defense doesn't adequately capture.

Newsgames don't make news easier and more palatable; that's the negative trend the media industry has embraced for three decades, from USA Today to Twitter.

Instead, newsgames make the news harder and more complex. We shouldn't embrace games because they seem fun or trendy, nor because they dumb down the news, but because they can communicate complex ideas differently and better than writing and pictures and film. Games are raising the bar on news, not lowering it.

November 08 2010

08:05

On publishing – and deleting – allegations online

TechCrunch’s Paul Carr has a thoughtful piece on “cyber-vigilantism” where citizens witness or experience a crime and go online to chase it down, name the alleged perpetrators, or pressure the authorities out of complacency:

“[W]hen that naming happens, the case is over before it’s begun: no matter whether the accused is guilty or innocent, they are handed a life sentence. Until the day they die, whenever a potential employer or a new friend Googles their name – up will come the allegation. And, prison terms notwithstanding, that allegation carries the same punishment as guilt – a lifetime as an unemployable, unfriendable, outcast. There’s a reason why the Internet is a great way to ruin someone with false allegations – and it’s the same reason why falsely accused people are just as likely to harm themselves as guilty people.”

The post was written after TechCrunch decided to delete a story about an alleged sexual assault and is a useful read in provoking us as journalists in any medium to reflect on how we treat stories of this type.

There are no hard rules of course, and associated legal issues vary from country to country.

In the Judith Griggs case, for example, was I right to post on the story? My decision was based on a few factors: firstly, I was reporting on the actions of those on her magazine’s Facebook page, rather than the ‘crime’ itself (which was hardly the first time a publisher has lifted). Secondly, I waited to see if Griggs responded to the allegations before publishing. Thirdly, I evaluated the evidence myself to see the weight of the allegations. Still, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

August 16 2010

11:38

Murdoch’s new iPad newspaper: doomed already?

Predictions are already being made about the potential of Rupert Murdoch’s reported plans to produce a national newspaper available only on the iPad, as we discussed last month.

Over on Tech Crunch Paul Carr doesn’t mince his words, insisting that the concept is “doomed”. It is not about marketing the value of the contents but a simply money-making exercise he says, which is not a long term solution.

Of course the idea is doomed – that much should go without saying. Like so many of Murdoch’s recent forays into paid-for online news, it reflects less a bold strategy to convince a new generation of readers that good journalism is worth paying for and more the 79-year News Corp proprietor’s desperation to keep the cash flow coming until the company’s profitability becomes someone else’s problem.

But what’s remarkable about this current escapade is that Murdoch is actually proposing to sell a product that people have previously failed to even give away for free.

The LA Times, who also ran an editorial on the plans this weekend, added that News Corp is just another news organisation “scrambling to prop up their bottom lines with new sources of revenue”.

The initiative, which would directly compete with the New York Times, USA Today and other national publications, is the latest attempt by a major media organization to harness sexy new devices to reach readers who increasingly consume their news on the go. The development underscores how the iPad is transforming the reading habits of consumers much like the iPod changed how people listen to music.

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April 02 2010

20:02

The Curator's Dilemma: Individuals and Institutions in News

I like to listen before I talk. Which means that during my morning routine I read before I write. But where to turn and what to read?

One of the most oft-repeated statements I heard at conferences last year: "our problem isn't information overload, it's crappy filters." In other words, we shouldn't complain about all that amazing, free information out there. We just need to get better at finding what we care about and ignoring the rest.

The podium speakers suggested that this would happen in two ways. First, through a variety of crowd recommendation sites like StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit, NewsTrust, and Delicious.

These algorithm-based, automated services would then be supplemented by a new wave of mega-content sites that are curated by human (often volunteer) editors: True/Slant, The Daily Beast, Global Voices, Huffington Post, Global Post.

But increasingly I'm finding that neither the crowd recommendation sites nor the human edited sites are my first stop for news. I still read quite a few blogs and I still check in at NYTimes.com, but at least half of what I read these days comes from links on Twitter. To everyone's surprise, Twitter has turned out to be less an inane lifelog of what we ate for lunch and much more a streaming list of cleverly editorialized headlines with links to the main article. For many of us, Twitter is becoming the front page of our morning newspaper. Either in perception or in practice, our reporters are becoming our friends and our friends are becoming the editors of our Twitter-based newspaper.

As a curation of news and interest, Twitter has its pros and cons. The re-tweet function spreads news across networks of followers. Cultural rituals like "Follow Friday" introduce new individuals into like-minded networks. Hashtags allow discussions to take place around certain topics or events.

But perhaps no form of communication - other than arguments between couples - has a more frustrating permanent archive than Twitter. What you post today is just about gone forever tomorrow. (You can only search for a message that has been posted on Twitter in the past 10 days. After that it disappears into the deep sea of the forgotten.)

Twitter as a tool for curation has helped a few special twitterers become practically professional curators. Maria Popova is a native of Sofia, Bulgaria now based in Los Angeles who describes herself as "a cultural curator and curious mind at large." Which is to say that she graduated from college in 2007, started a blog ("curating eclectic interestingness from culture's collective brain"), and then began posting interesting links on Twitter as if it were a way to earn income. In a way it was. Maria was featured in a New York Times blog post by Nick Bilton which drew the conclusion that "we are all human aggregators now", and which also drew a lot more attention to Miss Popova. In addition to her day job at TBWA\Chiat\Day, she has also taken her curatorial skills to TED, Good Magazine, and Wired UK.

Last year we thought that the problem of crappy information filters would be solved either by fancy algorithms on crowd recommendation sites like Digg and StumpleUpon, or with the help of new, human-edited portals like the Huffington Post and Global Voices. Instead it seems that many of us are increasingly depending on individuals; talented curators of the web like Popova, Gina Trapani, and Andrew Sullivan.

In 2005 the rise of the weblog was supposed to turn us all into pundits, voicing our opinions on this matter and that. Five years later, notes Marisa Meltzer in The American Prospect, and everyone seems more interested in curation than opinion: "With blogs, everyone became a critic. With Tumblr, everyone's a curator."

content_curation_why_is_the_content_curator_the_key_emerging_online_editorial_role_of_the_future_id54287021_size485.jpg

If "crappy filters" was one of the big conference talking points last year, then "online curation" is quickly making a name for itself this year. Robert Scoble - a conference careerist - says it is the word he hears the most these days, especially at last month's SXSW. (Though Andrew Lih said that 'curation' was also the word of the day at the 2009 SXSW.)

All of this talk about the individual curator has me wondering about the future of news organizations. When someone visits Global Voices or the Daily Beast are they coming for a view of the world through the eyes of the entire organization, or do they come specifically for particular writers and editors who they've come to trust?

Personally I visit The Atlantic for Jeffrey Goldberg and Graeme Wood. When I go to Foreign Policy it's specifically to read the latest from Joshua Keating, Evgeny Morozov, and Marc Lynch. I have absolutely no interest in TechCrunch, but I do try to keep up on the latest from Paul Carr, who happens to write there.

Maybe I am the outlier here, the one who spends too much time reading news and too much time following the evolution of thought and interests of certain individuals. But I also feel like this is a general trend for everyone - that we all are increasingly depending on individuals and not organizations to curate the day's news for us.

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January 22 2010

15:06

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ paywall plans, and what’s behind MediaNews’ bankruptcy

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

The Times’ paywall proposal: No question about media and journalism’s biggest story this week: The New York Times announced it plans to begin charging readers for access to its website in 2011. Here’s how it’ll work: you can view an as-yet-unidentified number of articles for free each month before the Times requires you to pay a flat, unlimited-access fee to see more; this is known as a metered system. (If you subscribe to the print edition, it’ll be free.) Two Times execs answered questions about the plan, including whether you can still email and link to articles (you can) and why it’s different from TimesSelect, the abandoned paid-content experiment it tried from 2005-07. Gabriel Sherman of New York’s Daily Intel, who broke the rumor on Sunday, has some details of the paywall debate within the Times.

There’s been a ton of reaction to the Times’ plan online, so I’ll tackle it in three parts: First, the essential reading, then some other worthwhile opinions, and finally the interesting ephemera.

Four must-reads: It makes sense to start with New York Times media critic David Carr’s take on the plan, because it’s the most the thorough, cogent defense of the Times’ paywall you’ll find. He argues that Times execs “have installed a dial on the huge, heaving content machine of The New York Times,” giving the site another flexible revenue stream outside of advertising. If you’re up for a little algebra, Reuters’ Felix Salmon has a sharp economic analysis of the paywall, arguing that the value of each article will become much greater for subscribers than nonsubscribers. For the more theoretical-minded, CUNY prof C.W. Anderson has some fascinating thoughts here at the Lab on how the paywall turns the Times into a niche product and what it means for our concept of the “public.” And as usual, Ken Doctor thoughtfully answers many of the practical questions you’re asking right now.

Other thoughtful opinions: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell poses a lot of great business questions and wonders how the Times will handle putting the burden on its most loyal online-only users. Steve Yelvington reminds us that we’re not going to learn much here that we can apply to other papers, because “the Times is fundamentally in a different business than regional dailies” and “a single experiment with a single price point by a single newspaper is just a stab in the dark.” Before the announcement, former Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, Forrester Research’s James McQuivey, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon gave the Times advice on constructing its paywall, almost none of which showed up in the Times’ plans. Two massive tech blogs, TechCrunch and Mashable, think the paywall won’t amount to much. Slate’s Jack Shafer says people will find ways to get around it, NYU’s Jay Rosen echoes C.W. Anderson’s thoughts on niche vs. public, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis doesn’t like the Times’ sense of entitlement.

The ephemera: The best stuff on Twitter about the announcement was collected at E&P In Exile and the new site MediaCritic. Steve Outing and Jason Fry don’t like the wait ’til 2011, and Cory Doctorow is skeptical that that’s even true. Former E&Pers Fitz & Jen interview a few newspaper execs and find that (surprise, surprise) the like the Times’ idea. So does Steven Brill of Journalism Online, who plans to roll out a few paywalls of his own soon. Dan Gillmor wants the Times to find out from readers what new features they’d pay for, and Jeff Sonderman makes two good points: “The major casualty of NYT paywall is sharing,” and “Knowing the ‘meter is running’ creates cautious viewing of the free articles.”

Apple’s tablet to go public: Apple announced that it will unveil its “latest creation” (read: its new tablet) next Wednesday. Since the announcement came a day after word of the Times’ paywall plans broke, it was only natural that the rumors would merge. The Daily Intel’s Gabriel Sherman, who broke the story of those Times plans, quoted Times officials putting the Times-tablet-deal rumors to rest. The Wall Street Journal detailed Apple’s plans for the tablet to do to newspapers, magazines and TV what the iPod did to music. Meanwhile, Columbia j-student Vadim Lavrusik and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr got tired of the tablet hype — Lavrusik for the print industry and Carr for tech geeks. (The Week also has a great timeline of the rumors.)

MediaNews goes bankrupt: Last Friday, MediaNews Group — a newspaper chain that publishes the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury-News, among others — announced it would file for bankruptcy protection. (A smaller chain, Morris Publishing Group, made the same announcement the day before.) For the facts and background of the filing, we’ve got a few sources: At the Lab, MediaNews veteran Martin Langeveld has a whole lot of history and insight on MediaNews chief Dean Singleton. News business analyst Alan Mutter tells us about the amazing fact that Singleton will come out of the filing unscathed but Hearst, which invested in MediaNews to save the San Francisco Chronicle, stands to lose $317 million in the deal. And MinnPost reports that the St. Paul Pioneer Press was the only MediaNews paper losing money.

Looking at the big picture, Ken Doctor says that bankruptcies like these are just a chance for newspapers to buy time while adjusting their strategy in “the fog of media war.” Steve Outing takes a glass-half-full approach, arguing that the downfall of old-media chains like MediaNews are a great opportunity for journalism startups to build a new news ecosystem.

How much do Google News users read?: An annual study by research firm Outsell and Ken Doctor on online and offline news preferences made waves by reporting that 44 percent of Google News users scan headlines without clicking through to the original articles. PaidContent noted that Outsell has a dog in this fight; it openly advocates that news organizations should get more money from Google. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan was not impressed, giving a thorough critique of the study and its perceived implications. Syracuse j-prof Vin Crosbie also wondered whether the same pattern might be true with print headlines.

In a similar vein, BNET’s David Weir used comScore numbers to argue that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft support big newspapers, and Jeff Jarvis made one of his favorite arguments — in defense of the link.

Heartbreak in Haiti: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the journalism and media connections to the largest news story in the world for the past two weeks — the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Several sites noted that Twitter led the way in breaking news of the quake and in raising money for relief. The money aspect is new, but as Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan noted last June, Twitter came of age a long time ago as a medium for breaking global news. That’s what it does. The coverage also provided an opportunity for discussion about the ethics of giving aid while reporting.

Reading roundup: In addition to being out in front of the whole New York Times paywall story, Gabriel Sherman authored a nice, long think piece for The New Republic on the difficulties of one of America’s other great newspapers, The Washington Post. For what it’s worth, Post patriarch Donald Graham thought it was “not even a molehill.”

Over at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan uses the economic concept of stock and flow to describe the delicate balance between timeliness and permanence the world of online media. It’s a brilliant idea — a must-read.

Finally, a promising new site named MediaCritic, run by Salon veteran Scott Rosenberg, citizen journalism advocate Dan Gillmor, and Lucasfilm’s Bill Gannon, had its soft launch this week. It looks like it’s going to include some nifty features, like Rosenberg’s regular curation of Twitter commentary on big media subjects.

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