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June 24 2013

13:42

How’d you find that hijacker story, Brendan Koerner?

Brendan Koerner‘s new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, dropped last week to critical acclaim. It tells the story of a pair of unlikely hijackers (a “troubled Vietnam vet;” a “mischievous party girl”) against the backdrop of American air travel in the 1960s and ’70s, when a hijacking occurred nearly once a week. Koerner writes:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 11.29.17 AM

Koerner goes on to hold his readers in thrall. Of the book the New York TimesDwight Garner wrote: “…It’s such pure pop storytelling that reading it is like hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio. Both the author and his subjects are so audacious that they frequently made me laugh out loud.” Garner’s engaging synopsis:

The best move that Mr. Koerner makes…is wrapping all his information around one incredible single story, that of a veteran named Roger Holder and an imposingly beautiful would-be hippie named Cathy Kerkow, who in 1972 hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701, on its way from Los Angeles to Seattle, as a vague protest against the Vietnam War.

bookauthorpageThis event started small. It grew big and shaggy, as if a vision concocted by the director Robert Altman. It became the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. The plane ended up in Algiers.

Along the way, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Paul Sartre became involved. Astrology charts were consulted midflight, and a lot of marijuana was smoked while cruising over the American heartland. Mr. Holder and Ms. Kerkow joined the mile-high club. Did I mention that while they were in the air, a second plane was hijacked over American airspace?

The couple became folk heroes of a sort, Bonnie and Clyde at 33,000 feet. Later they would mingle in Paris with movie stars and the social elite…. 

Koerner, who writes for Wired and others, told Longreads how he came across the idea:

On the morning of October 11, 2009, I encountered the 616-word newspaper story that would change my life. It was a New York Times report about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had helped hijack a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968. After spending the next 41 years living in Fidel Castro’s socialist ‘paradise,’ he had decided that he could no longer bear to remain apart from the wife and daughter he had left behind. So at the age of 66, Soltren had voluntarily returned to the United States. He had been arrested the moment he stepped off his plane at JFK Airport; he now faced a possible life sentence if convicted of air piracy.

I was first struck by how much Soltren’s longing for his family had slowly swelled as the years flew by; it had taken him over four decades to muster the courage to risk his freedom for a chance to see his wife and daughter again. (I’ve always been drawn to tales of fugitives and exiles, who must often pay a steep psychological price in order to reinvent themselves.) But the more I thought about Soltren’s predicament, the more I was intrigued by its historical element—namely, the fact that he and two comrades had actually managed to hijack a Boeing 707 to Cuba in the first place. The New York Times piece gave the impression that such crimes were run-of-the-mill during the Vietnam Era. Given the airport security gauntlets we’re forced to endure these days, that seemed an almost unfathomable notion.

Read the rest here, on Longreads, along with an excerpt from the book.

Further Koerner reading recommendations:

—Koerner dissects Scott Anderson’s “The Hunger Warriors” for “Why’s this so good?”
—”How’d you find that secret-compartments story, Brendan Koerner?” in which he backstories a Wired piece.
Piano Demon: the globe-trotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia, via The Atavist

April 04 2013

14:20

August 24 2012

14:35

This Week in Review: Twitter’s ongoing war with developers, and plagiarism and online credibility

[Since the review was off last week, this week's review covers the last two weeks.]

More Twitter restrictions for developers: Twitter continued to tighten the reins on developers building apps and services based on its platform with another change to its API rules last week. Most of it is pretty incomprehensible to non-developers, but Twitter did make itself plain at one point, saying it wants to limit development by engagement-based apps that market to consumers, rather than businesses. (Though a Twitter exec did clarify that at least two of those types of services, Storify and Favstar, were in the clear.)

The Next Web’s Matthew Panzarino clarified some of the technical jargon, and Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan explained whom this announcement means Twitter likes and doesn’t like, and why. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Frommer gave the big-picture reason for Twitter’s increasing coldness toward developers — it needs to generate tons more advertising soon if it wants to stay independent, and the way to do that is to keep people on Twitter, rather than on Twitter-like apps and services. (Tech entrepreneur Nova Spivack said that rationale doesn’t fly, and came up with a few more open alternatives to allow Twitter to make significant money.)

That doesn’t mean developers were receptive of the news, though. Panzarino said these changes effectively kill the growth of third-party products built on Twitter’s platform, and Instapaper founder Marco Arment argued that Twitter has made itself even harder to work with than the famously draconian Apple. Eliza Kern and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM talked to developers about their ambivalence with Twitter’s policies and put Twitter’s desire for control in perspective, respectively.

Several observers saw these changes as a marker of Twitter’s shift from user-oriented service to cog in the big-media machine. Tech designer Stowe Boyd argued Twitter “is headed right into the central DNA of medialand,” and tech blogger Ben Brooks said Twitter is now preoccupied with securing big-media partnerships: “Twitter has sold out. They not only don’t care about the original users, but they don’t even seem to care much for the current users — there’s a very real sense that Twitter needs to make money, and they need to make that money yesterday.” Developer Rafe Colburn pointed out how many of Twitter’s functions were developed by its users, and developer Nick Bruun said many of the apps that Twitter is going after don’t mimic its user experience, but significantly improve it. Killing those apps and streamlining the experience, said GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, doesn’t help users, but hurts them.

Part of the problem, a few people said, was Twitter’s poor communication. Harry McCracken of Time urged Twitter to communicate more clearly and address its users alongside its developers. Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash offered a rewritten (and quite sympathetic) version of Twitter’s guidelines.

There’s another group of developers affected by this change — news developers. The Lab’s Andrew Phelps surveyed what the changes will entail for various Twitter-related news products (including a couple of the Lab’s own), and journalism professor Alfred Hermida warned that they don’t bode well for the continued development of open, networked forms of journalism.

Plagiarism, credibility, and the web: Our summer of plagiarism continues unabated: Wired decided to keep Jonah Lehrer on as a contributor after plagiarism scandal, though the magazine said it’s still reviewing his work and he has no current assignments. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post lamented the lack of consequences for Lehrer’s journalistic sins, and both he and Poynter’s Craig Silverman wondered how the fact-checking process for his articles would go. Meanwhile, Lehrer was accused by another source of fabricating quotes and also came under scrutiny for mischaracterizing scientific findings.

The other plagiarizer du jour, Time and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, has come out much better than Lehrer so far. Zakaria resigned as a Yale trustee, but Time, CNN, and The Washington Post (for whom he contributes columns) all reinstated him after reviewing his work for them, with Time declaring it was satisfied that his recent lapse was an unintentional error. However, a former Newsweek editor said he ghost-wrote a piece for Zakaria while he was an editor there, though he told the New York Observer and Poynter that he didn’t see it as a big deal.

Some defended Zakaria on a variety of grounds. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon evaluated a few of the arguments and found only one might have merit — that the plagiarism might have resulted from a research error by one of his assistants. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, meanwhile, argued that plagiarism has a long and storied history in American journalism, but hasn’t always been thought of as wrong.

Others saw the responses by news organizations toward both Zakaria and Lehrer as insufficient. Poynter’s Craig Silverman argued that those responses highlighted a lack of consistency and transparency (he and Kelly McBride also wrote a guide for news orgs on how to handle plagiarism), while journalism professor Mark Leccese said Zakaria’s employers should have recognized the seriousness of plagiarism and gone further, and Steven Brill at the Columbia Journalism Review called for more details about the nature of Zakaria’s error.

A New York Times account of Zakaria’s error focused on his hectic lifestyle, filled with the demands of being a 21st-century, multiplatform, personally branded pundit. At The Atlantic, book editor and former journalist Peter Osnos focused on that pressure for a pundit to publish on all platforms for all people as the root of Zakaria’s problem.

The Times’ David Carr pinpointed another factor — the availability of shortcuts to credibility on the web that allowed Lehrer to become a superstar before he learned the craft. (Carr found Lehrer’s problems far more concerning than Zakaria’s.) At Salon, Michael Barthel also highlighted the difference between traditional media and web culture, arguing that the problem for people like Zakaria is their desire to inhabit both worlds at once: “The way journalists demonstrate credibility on the Web isn’t better than how they do in legacy media. It’s just almost entirely different. For those journalists and institutions caught in the middle, that’s a real problem.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that linking is a big part of the web’s natural defenses against plagiarism.

Untruths and political fact-checking: The ongoing discussion about fact-checking and determining truth and falsehood in political discourse got some fresh fuel this week with a Newsweek cover story by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson arguing for President Obama’s ouster. The piece didn’t stand up well to numerous withering fact-checks (compiled fairly thoroughly by Newsweek partner The Daily Beast and synthesized a bit more by Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review).

Ferguson responded with a rebuttal in which he argued that his critics “claim to be engaged in ‘fact checking,’ whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts.” Newsweek’s editor, Tina Brown, likewise referred to the story as opinion (though not one she necessarily agreed with) and said there isn’t “a clear delineation of right and wrong here.”

Aside from framing the criticism as a simple difference of opinion rather than an issue of factual (in)correctness, Newsweek also acknowledged to Politico that it doesn’t have fact-checkers — that its editors “rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material.”  Poynter’s Craig Silverman provided some of the history behind that decision, which prompted some rage from Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society. Apple asserted that any news organization that doesn’t respect its readers or public-service mission enough to ensure their work is factually accurate needs to leave the business. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates said the true value of fact-checkers comes in the culture of honesty they create.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered if that fact-checking process might be better done in public, where readers can see the arguments and inform themselves. In an earlier piece on campaign rhetoric, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic argued that in an era of willful, sustained political falsehood, fact-checking may be outliving its usefulness, saying, “One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.” The Lab’s Andrew Phelps, meanwhile, went deep inside the web’s leading fact-checking operation, PolitiFact.

The Times’ new CEO and incremental change: The New York Times Co. named a new CEO last week, and it was an intriguing choice — former BBC director general Mark Thompson. The Times’ article on Thompson focused on his digital expansion at the BBC (which was accompanied by a penchant for cost-cutting), as well as his transition from publicly funded to ad-supported news. According to the International Business Times, those issues were all sources of skepticism within the Times newsroom. Bloomberg noted that Thompson will still be subject to Arthur Sulzberger’s vision for the Times, and at the Guardian, Michael Wolff said Thompson should complement that vision well, as a more realistic and business-savvy counter to Sulzberger.

The Daily Beast’s Peter Jukes pointed out that many of the BBC’s most celebrated innovations during Thompson’s tenure were not his doing. Robert Andrews of paidContent also noted this, but said Thompson’s skill lay in being able to channel that bottom-up innovation to fit the BBC’s goals. Media analyst Ken Doctor argued that the BBC and the Times may be more alike than people think, and Thompson’s experience at the former may transfer over well to the latter: “Thompson brings the experience at moving, too slowly for some, too dramatically for others, a huge entity.” But Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said that kind of approach won’t be enough: “The bottom line is that a business-as-usual or custodial approach is not going to cut it at the NYT, not when revenues are declining as rapidly as they have been.”

Joe Pompeo of Capital New York laid out a thorough description of the Sulzberger-led strategy Thompson will be walking into: Focusing on investment in the Times, as opposed to the company’s other properties, but pushing into mobile, video, social, and global reach, rather than print. And Bloomberg’s Edmund Lee posited the idea that the Times could be in increasingly good position to go private.

The Assange case and free speech vs. women’s rights: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange cleared another hurdle last week — for now — in his fight to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault accusations when Ecuador announced it would grant him asylum. Assange has been staying in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for two months, but British officials threatened to arrest Assange in the embassy. Ecuador’s decision gives him immunity from arrest on Ecuadorean soil (which includes the embassy).

Assange gave a typically defiant speech for the occasion, but the British government was undeterred, saying it plans to resolve the situation diplomatically and send Assange to Sweden. Ecuador’s president said an embassy raid would be diplomatic suicide for the U.K., and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick was appalled that Britain would even suggest it. Filmmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone argued in The New York Times that Assange deserves support as a free-speech advocate, while Gawker’s Adrian Chen said the sexual assault case has nothing to do with free speech. Laurie Penny of The Independent looked at the way free speech and women’s rights are being pitted against each other in this case. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian excoriated the press for their animosity toward Assange.

Reading roundup: We’ve already covered a bunch of stuff over the past week and a half, and there’s lots more to get to, so here’s a quick rundown:

— Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams announced the launch of Medium, a publishing platform that falls somewhere between microblogging and blogging. The Lab’s Joshua Benton has the definitive post on what Medium might be, Dave Winer outlined his hopes for it, and The Awl’s Choire Sicha wrote about the anti-advertising bent at sites like it.

— A few social-news notes: Two features from the Huffington Post and the Lab on BuzzFeed’s ramped-up political news plans; TechCrunch’s comparison of BuzzFeed, Reddit, and Digg; and a feature from the Daily Dot on Reddit and the future of social journalism.

— The alt-weekly The Village Voice laid off staffers late last week, prompting Jim Romenesko to report that the paper is on the verge of collapse and Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray to chronicle its demise. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon said the paper still has plenty left, and The New York Times’ David Carr said the problem is that the information ecosystem has outgrown alt-weeklies.

— Finally, three great food-for-thought pieces, Jonathan Stray here at the Lab on determining proper metrics for journalism, media consultant Mark Potts on a newspaper exec’s 20-year-old view of the web, and Poynter’s Matt Thompson on the role of the quest narrative in journalism.

Photo of Jonah Lehrer by PopTech and drawing of Julian Assange by Robert Cadena used under a Creative Commons license.

August 16 2012

14:34

Daily Must Reads, August 16, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Lily Leung

1. Reuters gets hacked for the third time in two weeks (Guardian)

2. An early review of HuffPost Live (Adweek)

3, TBD.com is no more (Washington Post)

4. Wired stands by Jonah Lehrer and his work (BuzzFeed)

5. 13 ways to view new social platform Medium (Nieman Lab)





Subscribe to Daily Must Reads newsletter

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May 03 2012

13:35

April 26 2012

13:30

January 18 2012

23:10

Your Guide to the Anti-SOPA Protests

Today was an important day in the history of the Internet and activism. While the U.S. Congress expected to quickly pass two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), mounting opposition online has led them to reconsider. That all came to a head today when various sites such as Wikipedia and Reddit decided to black out their content, and others such as Google put up anti-SOPA messages on their sites. The following is a Storify aggregation of all those efforts, including explainers, stories, tweets, parody videos and more.

[View the story "A Guide to the Anti-SOPA Protests" on Storify]

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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July 25 2011

09:12

Flipboard kicks off its first advertising program with Condé Nast

paidContent :: David Kaplan, paidContent, reports that users who follow The New Yorker magazine’s Twitter and Facebook stream through iPad social reader Flipboard will start noticing advertising as part of the mix. The ads, beginning with a campaign by American Express, are part of a deal with the magazine’s publisher, Condé Nast, which will be working with Flipboard on ads for Wired and Bon Appétit and other titles over the course of the year.

The changes - continue to read David Kaplan, paidcontent.org

July 24 2011

06:59

Google+ deleting accounts en masse, as it struggles with real name policy

ZDNet :: A striking number of Google+ accounts have been deleted in the last 24 hours as the new social network struggles with its community standards policy around real names - alienating and frightening the people it aims to serve. Removed but restored through influence is Limor Fried- AKA Lady Ada / Adafruit Industries: She was recently featured on the cover of WIRED Magazine. Her account has just now been mysteriously restored, though only after a groundswell of complaints. Suffice it to say, the rest of the deleted accounts will not have such well-placed advantages.

More stories - continue to read Violet Blue, www.zdnet.com

July 16 2011

06:42

Josh Tyrangiel: in a "culture of rapid-fire news" essays are too long - or will long-form ressurrect?

The Independent :: Last summer, the editor-in-chief of technology magazine Wired wrote and ran a cover story declaring, "The Web is Dead". A year earlier, the then managing editor of Time.com had rung the death knell on long-form reportage journalism. Wired's Chris Anderson claimed that newer, better ways to use the internet – apps, say – were pushing the conventional web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox et al) into terminal decline. Time's Josh Tyrangiel argued that the culture of rapid-fire news on the internet meant that Time magazine's distinctive essays were just "too long" to work on its website. In his view, the web had rendered the entire form obsolete.

Now, judging by an emerging online trend, both theories seem to have awkwardly mutated to produce a wobbly, exciting new truth: narrative journalism, the kind of expertly crafted piece that sprawls over thousands of words and swallows up a whole lunchtime to read, is far from dead.

Continue to read Nosheen Iqbal, www.independent.co.uk

July 09 2011

16:09

Google+ (Plus) accounted for 35% of Tweeted news links last week

PEJ New Media Index :: Google's new Tool was the Talk of Twitter last week. On Twitter the new Google+ social networking tool took top billing, with 35% of news links for the week. Tweeters were mostly excited about the new Facebook competitor, especially when it came to the issue of privacy. A June 28 Wired article about how Google+ has better privacy features than Facebook triggered several tweets. Other tweets linked to a lengthy Wired article about Google+, and tweeters alerted their followers that it was a hefty piece. "a long fantastic read on the Google+ team, project changing company culture," wrote Jenn Van Grove.

Social Media trends last week - continue to read PEJ, www.journalism.org

July 05 2011

16:00

Condé Nast’s Scott Dadich on reinventing mags for the iPad and why partnering with Apple matters

As the man tasked with giving new life to magazines on new platforms for Condé Nast, Scott Dadich says there are some things, old-school things, that don’t change whether you’re dealing with print or tablets.

“The cover. As magazine makers, we see the cover as the one and only ad we have for your purchase and your time,” said Dadich, Condé’s vice president of digital magazine development. “It’s an inducement to pick it up and give us your time.”

The magazine cover may be ascendant once again thanks in part to the debut of Apple’s Newsstand for iPad and iPhone. Combined with Apple’s subscription policy, the Newsstand could potentially be the bridge to the wider adoption of magazines on the iPad that publishers have been hoping for.

“To have a dedicated container on a tablet device, the iPad, where covers are the primary means of purchase and browsing is something we’ve been looking for for a long time,” Dadich told me.

But the future still remains imperfect for publishers, some reluctant to give Apple its 30-percent cut, others wanting to get their hands on precious customer data without interference from Apple. Condé Nast is already onboard with Apple, though, with more than 30 apps and almost 10 magazine editions on the iPad and digital subscriptions available for the big titles. Dadich is a true believer in tablets: He lead the team responsible for Wired’s first iPad app. Still, he hedges that idealism with heavy doses of pragmatism. In an interview that covered everything from publishers’ relationship with Apple to developing a new design guide for the tablet, Dadich outlined a future that will find magazines thriving again.

“It’s not that far-fetched to imagine 20 to 25 percent of magazines’ readership existing in a digital platform three to four years from now,” he said.

Apple: “They have the marketplace, they built the store”

Partnering with Apple is a necessary element of experimentation right now, Dadich said. Instead of getting hung up on debates over divvying up revenue and ownership of data, companies could be spending that time trying to reinvent themselves. Besides, as Dadich sees it, media companies have always had to make friends in order to deliver their products on time. Apple’s just the next step in that.

“Look, they have the marketplace, they built the store, they have the credit cards and the eyeballs,” Dadich said. “We definitely want to be in front of those folks.”

Apple, he said, offers a new kind of delivery and distribution chain, one that could eventually cost publishers less than the analog model of printing press/delivery truck/mail box/newsstand. And the benefits extend to consumers, he pointed out: With Newsstand, in the same way you can be confident that your copy of GQ will arrive in the mail the second Monday of the month, iPad editions deliver content on time, every time. Instead of having to rush to download the latest New Yorker before a flight, it’ll just be there.

The “Design Fidelity Spectrum” for news apps

The idea of a world where everyone’s favorite magazines are delivered seamlessly is great, but not a reality yet. Tablet adoption remains far from universal, and converting readers, even the faithful ones, can be a complicated dance. Or, maybe, a game of whack-a-mole. Even with lower pricing on digital editions, a better subscription system in place, and improvements to file size and downloading (Dadich told me Condé’s digital editions now have a progressive download, which allows subscribers to read part of an issue as the rest downloads), there’s still a raft of readers not using the iPad. “One hundred and ninety million people read magazines in this country,” while “there’s 25 to 30 million iPads out there,” Dadich said. The goal is convincing people “that these magazines they love are just as good or better under a piece of glass.”

Which is where the design element comes in. As we already know, taking one form of media (newspapers and magazines) and trying to graft it wholesale onto another (the Internet, mobile devices, tablets) doesn’t generally work. But even within magazines, there’s no one right answer. While Dadich and the team at Wired were lauded for their success with launching Wired’s app, the same principles wouldn’t apply to, let’s say, The New Yorker. Different publications, different design needs.

For a company like Condé Nast, differentiating its titles on tablets is as much about the brand as it is about the reader — which is why Dadich relies on something he calls the “design fidelity spectrum,” a concept that slides from rigid faithfulness to the original product on one end to a completely new and unique look on the other. Most newspaper and magazine websites, and to an extent mobile apps, have little in common with their print counterparts. Conversely, The New Yorker and GQ, even with the addition of audio, video, and animation, still track fairly closely to their origins. Finding the right spot for your title, and determining how it meets up with your readers’ needs, is the big question, Dadich said.

“To say we have the answers would be lying. We don’t,” he said. “Apps like Flipboard and Zite, the feed-based apps, allow users to shape the news and reading they do. But I feel like, and numbers confirm, there is a place for editors still.”

Attacking on multiple fronts

Because media apps now compete not only with each other, but also with aggregation, reading, or social news apps, Dadich said it’s become more important to experiment with the way you package your content. While the iPad offers the opportunity for magazines to recreate an immersive, intimate reading experience, the iPhone can offer a different scale of opportunities, he said. “The completeness of an entire issue isn’t the attraction on the phone, but the service-oriented content is,” he said.


Gourmet Live, the departed magazine reinvented in app form, is one example, placing an emphasis on recipes and curated meal ideas. Dadich said he could easily see similar spinoff apps, things like a branded New Yorker listings app, which would take all the front-of-the-book material on goings-on around town and repackage it. Dadich’s strategy is one that calls for an attack on multiple fronts, a reinvention (and reclamation) of what it means to read a magazine. “Ultimately, a subscription to a magazine is about the relationship you have with it,” Dadich said. “If we can transform that into something that lives with you in your pocket all the time, we’re going to try that.”

Image by John Federico used under a Creative Commons license.

May 27 2011

06:04

Jeff Howe and The Atlantik start Twitter based #1book140 monthly book club

Mashable :: The Atlantic has announced the first selection for 1book140, an online reading and discussion club that will span the publication’s presences on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, as well its website.

[Jeff Howe:] What if everyone on Twitter read the same book at the same time and we formed one massive, international book club?

1book140 is an expansion of a project Howe began a year ago at Wired, where he previously served as a contributing editor, called One Book, One Twitter. “

Continue to read Lauren Indvik, mashable.com

Official Twitter account www.twitter.com/1book140

Wired One Book, One Twitter, www.wired.com

March 08 2011

18:21

What we’re reading: death in all its guises

A week into March, we’re anxious for spring, but the narrative stories we’ve unearthed lately consistently offer up darker themes that go against the promise of the season. We’ve rounded up a few that focus specifically on death: murder on campus, suicide at work, death in combat and perhaps most surprising, a delicately crafted obituary for a rat. So as not to leave you in a winter funk, we’ve added two posts on craft to the end of the list: a primer for profile writing and an essay exploring the first use of cinematic scenes in writing.

What made this university scientist snap?” by Amy Wallace of Wired. “Bishop stood near the loading dock, unarmed. On her way down from the third floor, she had ducked into a restroom to stuff her Ruger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and blood-spattered black and red plaid jacket into a trash can. The 45-year-old assistant professor had also phoned her husband, James Anderson, and instructed him – as she often did – to come pick her up. ‘I’m done,’ she’d said.”

Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice” by Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. “Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. ‘Please don’t mention my son,’ he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him.”

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?by Joel Johnson in Wired (via @longreads). “It’s hard not to look at the nets. Every building is skirted in them. They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out 20 feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter. The nets went up in May, after the 11th jumper in less than a year died here. They carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.”

S.F. kids spend recess toasting the best rat who ever lived,” by Steve Rubenstein from the 2002 archives of the San Francisco Chronicle (via @gangrey). A sendup of a classic obituary, this tribute to a classroom pet parodies the form while delivering a touching eulogy.

THOUGHTS ON WRITING

Profile Writing: The Basics” by Chris Jones, Esquire correspondent. Jones offers some fundamental rules, including that “Good features often have a ‘theme’ as well as an ‘idea’ – they’re about something, but they’re also about something else, if that makes any sense. They’re about beauty or art or the fragility of life. They’re inspirational or devastating. They’re not just a story; like fairytales, they have a moral, too.”

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar” by Rob Goodman on The Millions (via @TheBrowser). Did literature teach us how to connect scenic jumps and read panoramic shots centuries before moving pictures appeared?

January 14 2011

18:44

Harvey Smith on environmental storytelling and embedding narrative: “It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful”

In a bit of serendipitous surfing last fall, I stumbled onto “What Happened Here?” a presentation by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch at the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The presentation focused on environmental storytelling and referred not only to gaming, but also to documentary photography, narrative journalism and a treatise on comic books.

It’s hard to imagine news organizations spending the kind of resources on game design that commercial developers do, but in efforts such as Nonny de la Peña’s Gone Gitmo” and Wired’s “Cutthroat Capitalism,” storytellers are already exploring how game experiences can intersect with journalism. And the Online News Association’s Interactive Narratives site includes hundreds of projects that give the audience a hand in events (though some are simply multimedia).

All of which makes Smith and Worch’s presentation to their commercial-designer audience relevant. Their distinctions between what film does and what games do, their thoughts on players’ relationship to the game environment, and their ideas on enriching interactive narrative deserve some pondering.

I decided to call Harvey Smith with some questions. What follows is a summary of the notes from their conference presentation, followed by comments from Smith related to the idea of nonfiction or reality-based games. It’s heady stuff, but worth a look for anyone thinking about how stories work in different media.

Smith and Worch contrast gaming with fictional exposition, arguing that gaming requires the player to take a role in interpreting information, building a story of “what happened here.” While a lot of stellar narrative nonfiction also leaves room for readers or viewers to interpret events, they suggest that gaming takes it to another level entirely.

Surroundings help create and reinforce the identity of the player. Signs of violence and looting may suggest to a player that future violence will happen, or that the player will be called on to perform similar behaviors. Lab-rat-type mazes will probably make the player feel, well … like a lab rat.

At root, Worch and Smith suggest that environmental storytelling involves the player making connections: “What we’re talking about here is subtext, which transforms simple scenes into something with a deeper meaning.” While all stories have subtext, Smith and Worch say that in games, subtext emerges differently. While print and film direct the audience’s gaze and focus its attention, Smith says, “In games, we explore.”

The pair illustrate their point with photos from a book by Robert Polidori. The first image is two goldfish that almost seem to float in the air, but on close examination look to be stuck to a screen door or window. Each subsequent image pulls back on the view and examines other perspectives – a muddied room with furniture topsy-turvy, a damaged house, a devastated neighborhood, and then a wide-angle overhead picture that shows a flooded, pulverized landscape. The series of photographs are taken from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and their accumulation into meaning mimics the kind of narrative experience that games offer, in which player exploration both yields and shapes a narrative. According to Smith and Worch, environmental storytelling “fundamentally integrates player perception and active problem solving, which builds investment.”

So a central question of the narrative is to create a desire in the player to find out “What happened here?” But all players may not answer the question the same way – clues left in game environments can be interpreted differently. Why is interpretation more compelling than exposition? Smith asks then answers the question:

What that really comes down to is the fact that environmental storytelling is active. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget showed that play, discovery and interaction are key to learning. This active approach to learning creates participation, which breeds investment. Students and players alike bring their own experiences, so the act of interpretation gains personal meaning.

“Active” also means that the story isn’t shoved down the player’s throat – quite the opposite, discovery is self-paced. The player is pulling the narrative. This leads to a familiar world, which is self-reinforced, more complete, and more immersive.

The concept behind this is the Law of Closure. As humans we have an innate need to categorize and fit visual elements into a larger framework. To do so, we draw conclusions. Scott McCloud applied this concept to visual storytelling in “Understanding Comics”: “What’s important is what happens between the panels.”

Smith and Worch urge developers who are creating a setting to “think about how the elements connect. A single prop can transform the scene … In good environmental storytelling the elements combine to a larger picture, but have individual significance as well.” To keep the story coherent, they suggest having environmental elements draw from the main premise and echo the larger setting. The premise generates the events of the story, and the events remind players of the premise. “Every anonymous environmental storytelling moment wastes the opportunity to say something about the game.”

Talking with Smith by phone, I asked him about challenges and ideas particular to nonfiction settings. I mentioned a few examples, including “Peacemaker,” a game that allows users to play as Israeli or Palestinian leaders, requiring them to manage an escalating crisis. Smith was not familiar with the game but said that factional setups might be ideal for generating powerful narratives: “That strikes me as a really great way to give them an implicit understanding of why the conflict exists and what the motives are. It’s sort of a stealth way of putting a player in the shoes of another faction that they normally might pass judgment on and not understand at all.”

He repeatedly noted the difference between a “push narrative” and a “pull narrative” – both of which are embedded in a story but unfold very differently.

If you walk into a room and a character pops up and says, “Hi, I’m going to be your ally, and I’m at the edge of this ruined city, and I’ve been trading with these people. If you take this gem over to the edge of the city, I’ll give you some gold,” that’s an embedded narrative.

But you can also embed narrative not in a push way, but in a pull way. If I leave a body in a cave and put some monsters in the cave wandering around, some rocks on the ground near the body, and a  hole in the ceiling with a shaft of light coming down, and the body has prospector gear, things that you might find on a miner, the player might look at that and say, “Oh, this guy was mining, and he fell through the hole and they killed him. I might need that equipment.” That’s still embedded narrative; the designer still places those elements. But instead of the designer pushing it to you through a conversation, you pull it from the environment yourself.  You walk past it, you observe the scene, and you infer what happened. Or you might miss it. That’s the thing.

Discussing the temptation to prioritize newsworthy elements in a nonfiction game and force viewers to encounter them in a certain way, Smith noted that there’s a tradeoff. You may want to herd players through certain experiences, but it often works best if you let them get there themselves. He explains:

That’s the classic insecurity of interactivity: Things might go badly. If you set up some systems where the player can’t fail, and everything is very protected, it’s not a game anymore. It’s boring, in fact. It has to be possible to make bad decisions in order to make the good decisions meaningful. It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful. You have to trust your players. Depending on execution, you can be successful at providing those details to the player while making it likely that they’ll find them.

Sid Meier is one of my heroes, and he says, “A game is a series of interesting decisions,” or something to that effect. I would add to that: a game is a series of interesting decisions in an emotionally meaningful context or situation. You can do a lot with a little. You don’t have to simultaneously make the most elegant artful, state-of-the-art game ever and also get your point across. The main reason for trying to adhere to some of this is that the experience is more powerful. The more it feels interactive, that the player authored it based on the outcome, the more powerful and memorable it is.

For more, see the full presentation, which includes images from games such as “Doom” and “Bioshock.” It’s not particularly graphic but might not be ideal for the tenderhearted.

January 07 2011

17:30

This Week in Review: The FCC’s big compromise, WikiLeaks wrestles with the media, and a look at 2011

[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]

A net neutrality compromise: The Review might have taken two weeks off for the holidays, but the rest of the future-of-news world kept on humming. Consider this more your “Holidays in Review” than your “Week in Review.” Let’s get to it.

The biggest news development of the past few weeks came just before Christmas, when the FCC passed a set of Internet regulations that were widely characterized as a compromise between net neutrality advocates and big Internet service providers. In essence, the rules will keep ISPs from blocking or slowing services on the traditional wired Internet, but leave the future of wireless regulation more unclear. (Here’s a copy of the order and a helpful explainer from GigaOM.)

In the political realm, the order drew predictable responses from both sides of the aisle: Conservatives (including at least one Republican FCC commissioner) were skeptical of a move toward net neutrality, while liberals (like Democratic Sen. Al Franken) fervently argued for it. In the media-tech world, it was greeted — as compromises usually are — with near-universal disdain. The Economist ran down the list of concerns for net neutrality proponents, led by the worry that the FCC “has handed the wireless carriers a free pass.” This was especially troubling to j-prof Dan Kennedy, who argued that wireless networks will be far more important to the Internet’s future than wired ones.

Salon’s Dan Gillmor said the FCC paid lip service to net neutrality, paving the way for a future more like cable TV than the open web we have now. Newsweek’s Dan Lyons compressed his problems with the order into one statement: “There will soon be a fast Internet for the rich and a slow Internet for the poor.”

From the other side, Slate media critic Jack Shafer, a libertarian, questioned whether the FCC had the power to regulate the Internet at all, and imagined what the early Internet would have been like if the FCC had regulated it then. The Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey told both sides to calm down, and at the Knight Digital Media Center, Amy Gahran used the story as an object lesson for news organizations in getting and linking to the source documents in question.

WikiLeaks and the media’s awkward dance: The long tail of this fall’s WikiLeaks story continues to run on, meandering into several different areas over the holidays. There are, of course, ongoing efforts to silence WikiLeaks, both corporate (Apple pulled the WikiLeaks app from its store) and governmental (a bill to punish circulation of similar classified information was introduced, and criticized by law prof Geoffrey Stone).

In addition, Vanity Fair published a long piece examining the relationship between WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and The Guardian, the first newspaper to partner with him. Based on the story, Slate’s Jack Shafer marveled at Assange’s shrewdness and gamesmanship (“unequaled in the history of journalism”), Reuters’ Felix Salmon questioned Assange’s mental health, and The Atlantic’s Nicholas Jackson wondered why The Guardian still seems to be playing by Assange’s rules.

We also saw the blowup of Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald’s feud with Wired over some chat logs between alleged WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning and the man who turned him in. It’s a complicated fight I’m not going to delve into here, but if you’d like to know more, here are two good blow-by-blows, one more partial to Wired, and another more sympathetic to Greenwald.

Greenwald has also continued to be one of the people leading the inquiries into the traditional media’s lack of support for WikiLeaks. Alternet rebutted several media misconceptions about WikiLeaks, and Newsweek attempted to explain why the American press is so lukewarm on WikiLeaks — they aren’t into advocacy, and they don’t like Assange’s purpose or methods. One of the central questions to that media cold-shoulder might be whether Assange is considered a journalist, something GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram tried to tackle.

Other, more open critiques of WikiLeaks continue to trickle out, including ones from author Jaron Lanier and Floyd Abrams, a lawyer who argued for The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case. Abrams’ argument prompted rebuttals from Jack Shafer and NYU prof Clay Shirky. Shirky in particular offered a nuanced comparison of the Pentagon Papers-era Times and the globally oriented WikiLeaks, concluding that “the old rules will not produce the old outcomes.” If you’re still hungry for WikiLeaks analysis, John Bracken’s rounded up the best of the year here.

Looking back, and looking forward: We rang in the new year last week, and that, of course, always means two things in the media world: year-end retrospectives, and previews of the year to come. The Lab wrapped up its own year in review/preview before Christmas with a review of Martin Langeveld’s predictions for 2010. PBS’ MediaShift also put together a good set of year-end reviews, including ones on self-publishing, the rapidly shifting magazine industry, a top-ten list of media stories (led by WikiLeaks, Facebook, and the iPad). You can also get a pretty good snapshot of the media year that was by taking a look at AOL’s list of the top tech writing of 2010.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds examined the year in newspaper stock prices (not great, but could’ve been worse), while media consultant Alan Mutter explained that investors tended to stay away from debt-laden newspaper companies in particular.

As for the year to come, the Lab’s readers weighed in — you like ProPublica, The Huffington Post, and Clay Shirky, and you’re split on paywalls — and several others chimed in with their predictions, too. Among the more interesting prognostications: New York Times media critic David Carr sees tablets accelerating our ongoing media convergence, The Next Web forecasts a lot of blogs making the Gawker-esque beyond the blog format, Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik predicts the death of the foreign correspondent, TBD’s Steve Buttry sees many journalism trade organizations merging, and the Lab’s Martin Langeveld thinks we’ll see John Paton’s innovative measures at the Journal Register Co. slowly begin to be emulated elsewhere in the newspaper industry.

Two other folks went outside the predictions mold for their 2011 previews: media analyst Ken Doctor looked at 11 pieces of conventional wisdom the media industry will test this year, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing outlined his wishes for the new year. Specifically, he wants to see News Corp. and The New York Times’ paid-content plans fail, and to see news execs try a value-added membership model instead. “This will require that news publishers actually work their butts off to sell, rather than sit back and expect people to fork over money “just because” everyone should support journalism,” he wrote.

Rethinking publishing for the tablet: One theme for the new year in media that’s already emerged is the impending dominance of the tablet. As The New York Times’ Joshua Brustein wrote, that was supposed to be the theme last year, too, but only the iPad was the only device able to get off the ground in any meaningful way. Several of Apple’s competitors are gearing up to make their push this year instead; The Times’ Nick Bilton predicted that companies that try to one-up Apple with bells and whistles will fail, though Google may come up with a legitimate iPad rival.

Google has begun work toward that end, looking for support from publishers to develop a newsstand to compete with Apple’s app store. And Amazon’s Kindle is doing fine despite the iPad’s popularity, TechCrunch argued. Meanwhile, Women’s Wear Daily reported that magazine app sales on the iPad are down from earlier in the year, though Mashable’s Lauren Indvik argued that the numbers aren’t as bad as they seem.

The magazine numbers prompted quite a bit of analysis of what’s gone wrong with magazine apps. British entrepreneur Andrew Walkingshaw ripped news organizations for a lack of innovation in their tablet editions — “tablets are always-on, tactile, completely reconfigurable, great-looking, permanently jacked into the Internet plumbing, and you’re using them to make skeumorphic newspaper clones?” — and French media consultant Frederic Filloux made similar points, urging publishers to come up with new design concepts and develop a coherent pricing structure (something Econsultancy’s Patricio Robles had a problem with, too).

There were plenty of other suggestions for tablet publications, too: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said they should focus on filtering the web, MG Siegler of TechCrunch asked for an easy-to-use newsstand rather than a system of standalone apps, and Alan Mutter suggested magazines lower the prices and cut down on the technical glitches.

Three others focused specifically on the tablet publishing business model: At the Lab, Ken Doctor gave us three big numbers to watch in determining where this is headed, entrepreneur Bradford Cross proposed a more ad-based model revolving around connections to the open web, and venture capitalist Fred Wilson predicted that the mobile economy will soon begin looking more like the web economy.

Reading roundup: A few items worth taking a look at over the weekend:

— The flare-up du jour in the tech world is over RSS, and specifically, whether or not it is indeed still alive. Web designer Kroc Camen suggested it might be dying, TechCrunch’s MG Siegler fingered Twitter and Facebook as the cause, Dave Winer (who helped develop RSS) took umbrage, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and The Guardian’s Martin Belam defended RSS’ relevance.

— Add the Dallas Morning News to the list of paywalled (or soon-to-be-paywalled) papers to watch: It announced it will launch a paid-content plan Feb. 15. The Lab’s Justin Ellis shed light on Morning News’ thinking behind the plan. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer also broke down a Pew report on paying for online content.

— For the many writers are considering how to balance social media and longer-form writing, two thoughtful pieces to take a look at: Wired’s Clive Thompson on the way tweets and texts can work in concert in-depth analysis, and Anil Dash on the importance of blogging good ideas.

— Finally, NPR’s Matt Thompson put together 10 fantastic lessons for the future of media, all coming from women who putting them into action. It’s an encouraging, inspiring set of insights.

August 20 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Patch’s local news play, Facebook takes location mainstream, and the undead web

[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]

Patch blows up the hyperlocal model: AOL’s hyperlocal news project, Patch, launched a site in Morristown, New Jersey, this week — not a big story by itself, but Morristown’s site was also the 100th in Patch’s network, part of the Internet giant’s plan to expand to 500 hyperlocal news sites by the end of the year. Newark’s Star-Ledger and NPR both profiled AOL’s hyperlocal efforts, with The Star-Ledger focusing on its extensive New Jersey experiment and NPR looking more at the broader picture of hyperlocal news.

PaidContent added some fascinating details from Patch president Warren Webster, such as the tidbit that Patch determines what communities to enter by using a 59-variable algorithm that takes into account factors like income, voter turnout, and local school rankings. And Advertising Age’s Edmund Lee compared Patch with several of its large-scale-content rivals, finding it most closely comparable to Philip Anschutz’s Examiner.com.

patchAs Steve Safran of the local-news blog Lost Remote noted, Patch is hiring 500 journalists to run those sites and is touting itself as the nation’s largest hirer of journalists right now. That, of course, is good news for people who care about journalism, but the far bigger issue is whether Patch will be financially sustainable. Safran was skeptical, arguing that Patch needs relevant local advertising, which requires not just reach but relationships. The Boston Phoenix found several other people who also wonder about Patch’s long-term prospects. Ken Doctor asked some good questions about Patch’s implications for local news, including whether it will disrupt the handcrafted local ad networks that have been the domain of non-templated startup local news blogs.

Facebook is going Places: Facebook made a long-anticipated announcement Wednesday, rolling out its new location-based service, Facebook Places. It’s all the tech blogs have been talking about since then, so there’s plenty to wade through if you’re interested in all the details, but Search Engine Land did a good job of discussing the basics of the service and its implications. It made one particularly salient point, given that Facebook has partnered with all of the leading location-based services (FoursquareGowallaBooyah, and Yelp): Location check-ins have officially become a commodity, and location services need to expand beyond it. (It also means, to borrow Clay Shirky’s point, that location-based technology is about to get socially interesting, since it’s quickly becoming technologically boring.)

Facebook isn’t yet doing anything to drive revenue from Places, but Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman noted that Places’ inevitable widespread acceptance could “usher in a new era of local advertising” when Facebook incorporates proximity-based advertising. Facebook is already paving the way for that shift, asking advertisers to help fill out its directory of places. Fast Company’s Kit Eaton took a deeper look at how Facebook Places will change location-based advertising, though Terry Heaton called Facebook Places’ revenue potential a missed opportunity for local news organizations.

Despite Facebook’s preemptive privacy defense with Places — by default, check-ins are visible only to friends and can be limited further than that — it still faced some privacy pushback. Several privacy advocates argued that people are going to have a difficult time finding ways to control their privacy on sharing locations, and the ACLU said that, once again, Facebook is making it much easier to say “yes” to Places than “no.” One of those advocates, dotRights, provided a guide to Facebook Places’ privacy settings.

Is the web really dead?: In its most recent cover story, Wired magazine declared the web dead, with its editor, Chris Anderson, arguing that in our quest for portability and ease of use, we’ve moved into an app-centered world led by Apple, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, Netflix, and Pandora. The result, Anderson said, is that we now prefer “semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display,” a universe not ruled by Google or HTML.

Not surprisingly, such a sweeping statement was met with quite a bit of resistance. Web luminaries Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle dived into the arcane in their lengthy debate with Anderson, while plenty of others across the web also had problems with his decree of death. Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza provided the most cogent statistical argument, showing that while Anderson depicts the web as decreasing in the percentage of Internet use, its total use is still exploding. Terry Heaton and TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington argued that the web still functions well and serves as the basis for many of the “apps” Anderson makes his argument from, with Heaton positing that Wired (and Apple) are still operating on a set of scarcity-based presumptions in a world now defined by abundance. Gawker’s Ryan Tate noted that Wired first released its article on its profitable website, while sales of its iPad app are down.

Quite a few others took issue with the idea of declaring things dead in the first place. ReadWriteWeb and Technologizer tallied lists of very-much-alive things that were long ago declared dead, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal criticized Anderson’s view that tech is “just a series of increasingly awesomer things that successively displace each other” as long ago proven wrong. Here at the Lab, Jason Fry made a similar point, writng that “the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day.”

Murdoch’s tablet newspaper plan: The Los Angeles Times reported late last week that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is developing a new national U.S. “digital newspaper” to be distributed solely as a paid app on tablets like the iPad. The publication would feature short, easily digestible stories for a general audience, and would compete with papers like USA Today and The New York Times. Its newsroom would be run under the New York Post. Murdoch said he sees this as a “game changer” in the news industry’s efforts to reach younger audiences, but news industry vet Alan Mutter was skeptical: “Newspaper content tends to attract — whether on print or on an iPad or however — mostly the same kind of readers,” Mutter told the Times. “Not necessarily younger readers.”

Mutter wasn’t the only dubious one. Murdoch biographer/gadfly Michael Wolff ripped the idea, and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr noted that News Corp. tried a similar idea in Britain in 2006 for free, which bombed. The idea this time around, Carr argued, “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.”

Drawing on a survey of iPad users, Mario Garcia said that Murdoch’s plan for quick, snappy stories doesn’t fit well with the iPad’s primary role as a relaxing device. At least one person was encouraged by Murdoch’s idea, though: Missouri j-prof Clyde Bentley called it the cannon shot that will scare the herd of newspaper executives into seriously pursuing mobile media.

News Corp. also made news by donating $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. I’ll leave most of the analysis of that move to the politically oriented media critics, though media consultant Ken Doctor outlined a good case for the gift’s importance in the journalism world. We also got a report that Murdoch’s British tabloid, News of the World, will go paid online by October. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade wasn’t impressed by that initiative’s prospects for success.

Reading roundup: Lots and lots to get to this week. In the spirit of Rupert Murdoch, I’ll keep it short and snappy:

— The fallout from last week’s Google-Verizon proposal continued into the weekend, with both watchdogs and Google allies raising concerns about the future of net neutrality. Harvard Internet law professor Jonathan Zittrain had plenty more thoughtful things to say about the flap, and The Wall Street Journal had a lengthy interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt about that issue and several others.

— We got some discouraging news from a couple of surveys released this week: Gallup found that Americans’ trust in traditional news organizations remains historically low, while a comScore study found that (surprise!) even young news junkies don’t read newspapers. Each study had a silver lining, though — Gallup found that young people’s trust in newspapers is far higher than any other age group, and comScore showed that many young non-print readers are still consuming lots of news online. Here at the Lab, Christopher Sopher wrote a sharp two-part series on attracting young would-be news consumers.

— Google’s Lyn Headley is continuing his series of articles explaining the new Rapid News Awards, and each one is a smart analysis of the nature of aggregation and authority. They’ve all been worth checking out.

— Two great resources on interesting trends within journalism: the Lab’s series of videos, via the Knight Foundation, of a recent discussion among a who’s-who of nonprofit journalism leaders; and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore’s article on the encouraging resurgence of long-form journalism in its online form.

— Finally, Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams sparked a great discussion about what skills are necessary for today’s reporter. If you’re a college student or a budding reporter (or even a veteran one), give this conversation a close read.

August 19 2010

20:00

The web dies, the hype lives: What Wired left out of its eulogy

Maybe you heard: The web has been declared dead, and everybody’s mad about it.

I’ll get to checking the web’s vital signs in a moment, but one thing is clear: The hype and hucksterism of packaging, promoting, and presenting magazine articles is very much alive. I found Chris Anderson’s Wired article and Michael Wolff’s sidebar pretty nuanced and consistently interesting, which made for an awkward fit with the blaring headlines and full-bore PR push.

But looking past this annoyance, Anderson’s article makes a number of solid points — some I hadn’t thought of and some that are useful reminders of how much things have changed in the past few years. (For further reading, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a terrific take on why the model of continuous technological revolution and replacement isn’t really correct and doesn’t serve us well, and Boing Boing nails why the graphic included in the Wired package is misleading.)

Still, Anderson almost lost me at hello. Yes, I like to use my iPad for email — and I frequently check out Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times on it. But for the latter three, I don’t use apps but the browser itself (in my case, AtomicWeb). As I’ve written before, so far the iPad’s killer app is the browser — more specifically, the chance to have a speedy, readable web experience that doesn’t require you to peer at a tiny screen or sit down in front of a laptop or desktop. So going by Anderson’s own opening examples, the web isn’t dead for me — better to say that apps are in the NICU.

But I couldn’t argue with this: “Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.” That’s absolutely correct, as is Anderson’s observation that this many-platform state of affairs is “the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen).”

That not-going-to-the-screen is critical, and — again — a big reason that the iPad has been a hit. But as my iPad habits show, that doesn’t necessarily imply a substitution of apps for the web. Nor, as Anderson himself notes, are such substitutions really a rejection of the web. It would have been less compelling but more accurate to say that the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day. Sometimes a contact point is a different presentation of the web, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.

Do users care? Should they?

It’s also interesting to ask whether users of various devices care — and whether they should. Anderson brings up push technology and, with it, PointCast, a name that made me shudder reflexively. A long time ago, WSJ.com (like most every media company of the time) became infatuated with push, going as far as to appoint a full-time editor for it. It was tedious and horrible, a technology in search of an audience, and our entire newsroom was thrilled when the spell was broken and the damn thing went away. But Anderson notes that while PointCast didn’t work, push sure did. Push is now so ubiquitous that we only notice its absence: When I’m outside the U.S. and have to turn off push notifications to my phone, I have the same in-limbo feeling I used to get when I was away from my computer for a couple of days.

The problem with the first incarnation of push was that the only contact point was the computer screen, meaning information often wasn’t pushed close enough to you, or was being pushed down the same pipe you were trying to use for something else. Now, information is pushed to the web — and to smartphones and tablets and game consoles and social networks and everything else — and push has vanished into the fabric of How Things Are.

Generally, I think the same is true of the web vs. other methods of digital interaction — which is why the over-hyped delivery of the Wired article seemed so unfortunate. There isn’t a zero-sum game between the web and other ways of presenting information to customers — they all have their role in consumers’ lives, and increasingly form a spectrum to be tapped into as people choose. Even if apps and other methods of accessing and presenting that information take more parts of that spectrum away from the open web, I doubt content companies, telcos, or anybody else will kill the open web or even do it much damage.

The dogma of the open web

Frankly, both Anderson and Wolff do a good job of showing how adherence to the idea of the open web has calcified into dogma. Before the iPad appeared, there was a lot of chatter about closed systems that I found elitist and tiresome, with people who ought to know better dismissing those who don’t want to tinker with settings or create content as fools or sheep. Near the end of his article, Anderson seems to briefly fall into this same trap, writing that “an entire generation has grown up in front of a browser. The exploration of a new world has turned into business as usual. We get the web. It’s part of our life. And we just want to use the services that make our life better. Our appetite for discovery slows as our familiarity with the status quo grows. Blame human nature. As much as we intellectually appreciate openness, at the end of the day we favor the easiest path.”

That’s smart, except for the “blame human nature” part. Of course we favor the easiest path. The easiest path to doing something you want to do has a lot to recommend it — particularly if it’s something you do every day! I’m writing this blog post — creating something — using open web tools. Since this post is getting kinda long, I might prefer to read it on my iPad, closed system and all. The two co-exist perfectly happily. Ultimately, the web, mobile and otherwise, else will blend in consumers’ minds, with the distinction between the web and other ways of accessing digital information of interest only to those who remember when such distinctions mattered and/or who have to dig into systems’ technological guts. There’s nothing wrong with that blending at all — frankly, it would be a little disappointing if we stayed so technologically silo’ed that these things remained separate.

Even if “big content” flows through delivery methods that are less open and more controlled, anybody with bandwidth will still be able to create marvelous things on the open web using an amazing selection of free tools. As various technological kinks are worked out, traffic and attention will flow seamlessly among the various ways of accessing digital information. And social search and discovery will increasingly counteract industrial search and discovery, providing alternate ways of finding and sharing content through algorithms that reward popularity and scale. People who create good content (as well as a lot of content that’s ephemeral but amusing or diverting) will still find themselves with an audience, ensuring a steady flow of unlikely YouTube hits, Twitter phenomena, and hot blogs. The web isn’t dead — it’s just finding its niche. But that niche is pretty huge. The web will remain vigorous and important, while apps and mobile notifications and social networks grow in importance alongside it.

Top image by krossbow; image of iPads, below, by Kominyetska. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

August 10 2010

18:00

To click or not to click: Could tiered data plans water down advertising possibilities for news publishers?

In the good old days (of three months ago) you could surf the web on your iPhone with abandon. Do I want to watch this video? Sure! Do I want to download this huge attachment? Why not? Data plans were unlimited; there was no need to think twice, at least not about cost. And that offered news organizations hope, especially when the iPad came along. Maybe slick smart phones and tablet devices would usher in a new advertising revenue stream more akin to print advertising rates than the standard, abysmal web rates.

But now AT&T has nixed the all-you-can-eat data plans for users of the new iPhone 4 and the iPad. (Some lucky folks have been grandfathered in.) And rumor has it that Verizon will soon follow suit with their smartphone plans. It sounds like the Internet’s trajectory from dial-up pay-by-the-minute plans to unlimited — only in reverse. I can picture my mother now: It’s 1995 and she’s waiving the AOL bill frantically, exasperated. What are you spending all this time online doing? Back then, the Internet was like the worst big box store you can imagine: get in, get what you need, and get out. Quickly. When the billing structure for Internet usage went unlimited, Internet use exploded in our house — and everywhere. It’s a version of Chris Anderson’s “mental transaction costs” — even “very cheap” forces a thought process that “free” does not.

So what happens when we move back to a world where data is scarce? Will we act like I did in the days of my 300-minute cell phone plan? (Wherearewemeeting? OKbye!) With consumers facing an extra $15 per extra 200 MB used (depending on your plan), will news sites — particularly those heavy on video — suffer from user indecision? This New York Times video on New Orleans bounce weighs in at 32.9 MB; our latest video is 216 MB. Mobile versions are smaller when available, but even then, a few videos can send users of the cheapest iPhone plan down the toll road. (AT&T estimates that someone on that plan could watch only 20 minutes of streaming video a month before hitting the cap.)

I spoke with Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing for the online video platform Brightcove, which provides the video back end for lots of news sites. He said that while the shift may cause some changes in user behavior at the margins, he doesn’t predict a shift away from mobile video. If anything, he says, Brightcove has seen the opposite: The iPad has triggered immense interest among advertisers, who want to get rich media like video ready for mobile.

Whatcott suspects that AT&T wouldn’t set prices in such a way that they’d “kill the golden goose.” If users started seeing their monthly bill skyrocket, they might abandon their devices. But going over, say, ten bucks a month? Abandonment seems less likely. “The people that are buying [mobile devices] have disposable income and unless the cost of these new data plans are just exorbitant, where people are getting bills for hundreds or thousands of dollars, I think the costs are going to be in that reasonable range.” No one likes paying the cable bill, he points out, but most of us do anyway.

But what about just the threat of a higher bill? Could fear water down use? Whatcott says he can imagine that sentiment, it being somewhat like using a costly international data plan, which he does traveling. “I think it’s a real world concern,” he says, “but it hasn’t been an acute thing that has bubbled up to us as a crisis.”

I also reached out to Adobe, which helped Wired build its successful iPad app, which weighs in at a whopping 500 MB. Dave Dickson, product marketing manager for digital publishing at Adobe, said he didn’t think the move away from unlimited data would have a big impact on apps like Wired’s. AT&T already limits the downloading of large (over 20 MB) apps to wifi or desktop connections only, and downloading an entire magazine issue at once eliminates the slow dribble of data that its web equivalent would involve.

Indeed, a shift to wifi is a common prediction for how consumers would react to capped data plans. AT&T has in the past pushed iPhone owners to shift to wifi whenever possible.

Still, smartphones are designed to be mobile devices, and it’s not realistic to expect users to have wifi available anywhere they’d like to consume content. “Should smartphones emerge as the device class of choice,” Dickson emailed, “publishers may need to tailor their content package to the capabilities of the device (for example, streaming video instead of embedding it) so that users can more easily download and view content applications under bandwidth-restricted conditions.”

Mobile Marketer Daily explored this topic when the new data plans were announced, and analysts for the mobile ad industry agreed that the new structure is unlikely to reverse a trend toward an explosion in mobile devices. “I don’t think this move by AT&T will slow the adoption of smartphones and connected devices like the iPad, as enough consumers have experienced first-hand the benefits of how these devices enrich their daily life,” Paul Kultgen, director of mobile media and advertising at Nielsen Online, Chicago told Mobile Marketer Daily.

In any event, we’ll find out in the coming months whether there’s any real impact for mobile video. If you’re on a newly tiered plan and watching your KBs the way you once watched your minutes, has it affected how you surf the web?

August 03 2010

17:51

The Climate Desk: Time-Intensive Collaboration Pays Off

When I first heard about The Climate Desk back in April, I was impressed by its ambitious mission:

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact -- human, environmental, economic, political -- of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS's new public affairs show "Need To Know."

As someone who's managed several large-scale journalistic partnerships, I was curious to peek under the proverbial hood and see how the project was going several months in. Were the partners achieving their goals? What could other journalists interested in cross-organization collaboration learn from their experiences? I checked in with one of Climate Desk's de facto managers, Monika Bauerlein, co-editor at Mother Jones; a transcript of our email conversation follows.

Q&A

Please describe how Climate Desk is structured and staffed.

Monika Bauerlein: The Climate Desk is designed to produce a few major projects per year, with ad-hoc collaborations, content exchange, and link love continuing in between. Our first major project was a series exploring how business is adapting to climate change. We have several projects planned for the coming year. At the moment, we are focusing on collaboratively covering and exchanging content on the BP oil disaster.

It's a very flat structure, basically a consortium of peers -- there are one or two editors who serve as the main contacts at each of the partner organizations. We have met in person twice and talk via conference call regularly.

Among the group of editors involved, Clara (Jeffery, co-editor, Mother Jones) and I have thus far taken on most of the coordination and cat-herding (which can be quite time-consuming -- at key moments it's probably taken more than 50 percent of our time, but most of the time it's quite a bit less). All decisions are made collaboratively.

There was not really another project similar enough for us to model this collaboration on -- most of the ones we're aware of have been one-shot reporting projects (e.g. The Arizona Project and the Chauncey Bailey Project, both focused on the killing of reporters), whereas this is more of a soup-to-nuts, brainstorm-to-publication-to-"tweetstream":http://twitter.com/theclimatedesk collaboration.

But we certainly got ideas from a range of other projects and hope to in turn make our experience available to others.

How are project participants defining "collaboration" for the purposes of this project? How did you arrive at that definition?

bauerlein.jpg

Bauerlein: We started out with a very simple thought: How cool would it be if some of the smartest editors we know got in a room together? A cross between imaginary dinner party and dream-team edit meeting, if you will. We wanted to share three things: ideas, content, and audiences. We hoped that the resulting cross-pollination would produce a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. That's proven true -- we've all really enjoyed the exchange of ideas, we've all gotten great content out of it, and we've been able to introduce some of our users to each other's work.

In practice, here's what we did: We brainstormed how the collaboration should work and, for our first big project, settled on doing a distributed package of stories as a pilot project. As our topic, we chose an exploration of how business is adapting to climate change. Several of the main feature stories were conceived and assigned by the group; in addition, each partner organization produced stories that were made available to the group as part of the package. Some partners also produced stories that were not shared, but were linked to from other partner sites.

During the publication phase of this series (the two weeks surrounding Earth Day 2010), the stories ran on all the partner sites, and we used a collaborative widget from Publish2 to give users a running feed of the entire package. We also built theclimatedesk.org as a repository for our FAQ and story feed; it continues to be updated with reporting from the partner organizations.

What has been the project's biggest success so far, and why? What success metrics are you using?

Bauerlein: Honestly, for this many journalists from fairly different organizations to play well together and enjoy themselves felt like a big success. Demonstrating to ourselves that it could be done, and be fun, was great.

Beyond that, we produced a lot of really good content that got widely seen and commented on, as well as buzz in the trade press and great feedback from the rest of the journalism community. And, perhaps most importantly, through the pilot project we created both a framework for working together and a great deal of trust among the group, which has already helped us seize opportunities for further collaboration.

For example, we were in the planning stages for our next project when news of the BP oil spill hit; at that point, we shifted gears to focus on this major story, with an ongoing content exchange and ad-hoc collaborations among individual members of the group. In the past few weeks, "Need to Know" has teamed up with the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Grist to produce segments for its show. All the partners have exchanged content about the spill. In the meantime, we have started a podcast and are continuing to work on our next big project.

What has been harder than you expected? What would it take to ease this difficulty?

Bauerlein: It¹s really all about time and bandwidth, but we've managed to find both because the rewards are great. What we'd love to do is raise enough money to have a dedicated project manager as well as technology/interactive design and user participation talent. This would allow us to really pull in the best ideas from each of the partners and develop the collaboration to its full potential.

If a genie appeared and could grant you three wishes to make Climate Desk succeed beyond your wildest dreams -- what would your three wishes be?

Bauerlein: 1. Major celebrity and massive funder falls in love with this project.

2. We create cutting-edge projects that engage a broad audience -- even beyond our existing 27 million users -- and fundamentally change the conversation about climate. It's a very abstract concept for many people; what we want to do is make it tangible and intellectually engaging.

3. Is this where we ask the genie for three more wishes?

The former editorial director of PBS.org, Amanda Hirsch is a digital media consultant who recently managed the EconomyStory collaboration, a journalistic partnership between 12 public media organizations. Learn more about Amanda's background at amandahirsch.com and follow her on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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