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July 29 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: Design and the Times, Google+ growing pains, and the extinction of the mogul

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Debating the Times’ paywall and design: In its quarterly earnings call late last week, the New York Times gave the clearest picture yet of how its new online pay plan is working. As usual, it turned out to be something of a Rorschach test: BNET’s Erik Sherman called the numbers evidence that the paywall isn’t protecting the Times’ print subscriptions, as it was intended to. On the other hand, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum argued that the Times’ big digital subscription figure (224,000) “proves that, contra the naysayers, readers will pay good money for quality news.” The Times’ paywall adds an important digital revenue stream, he said, while also letting in enough casual readers to keep the value of digital advertising up.

The most thorough defense of the Times, though, came from New York magazine’s Seth Mnookin: “The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice.” BNET’s Jim Edwards said it’s premature for Mnookin to say the Times is back, but Reuters’ Felix Salmon, a former Times paywall skeptic, agreed with Mnookin that the paywall is working, saying he’s glad the Times has shown a porous paywall can work.

The other Times-related item is firmly in the hypothetical realm, but it generated at least as much conversation as the real-world pay plan. Last week, web designer Andy Rutledge critiqued the Times’ online design and proposed his own version, emphasizing headlines, timestamps, authors, and separating news from opinion.

The response wasn’t particularly positive. The redesign was generally trashed on Twitter, with a typical sentiment expressed by 10,000 Words’ Lauren Rabaino: “It’s hard to take seriously a design that completely ignores the constraints of a typical newspaper.” One of the most comprehensive responses came from Guardian developer Martin Belam, who pointed out things like faces, article summaries, and points of social connection that Rutledge was missing.

The Lab’s Joshua Benton argued that Rutledge’s redesign doesn’t acknowledge that “the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems.” Meanwhile, Belgian developer Stijn Debrouwere went the other direction, asking for more unrealistic mockups like this one to help us brainstorm what news sites could look like. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the problem with the Times’ site is that it’s designed as if readers are interested in everything the paper produces, which is almost never the case. And Paul Scrivens said both Rutledge and the Times should look outside the news industry for design cues.

The Google+ lockout: Google+ continues to grow at a ridiculous pace — far faster than either Facebook or Twitter, as Idealab’s Bill Gross pointed out — and as Simon Dumenco of Ad Age argued, the platform represents a social media do-over for a lot of users. It’s still generating dissent, though, with much of it stemming from Google+’s policy toward business pages. As Google’s Christian Oestlien wrote late last week, the company is working on a business profile template that will be up in the next few months, but they’re deleting business pages (including news organization pages) in the meantime.

A few companies will get trial pages before they’re available to everyone, and others have found workarounds — the tech blog Mashable managed to keep all its followers by simply changing its page name to the name of its CEO, Pete Cashmore. That got other members of the tech press worked up, including Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, who urged Google to restore the deleted pages and let businesses create pages normally. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler said Google is essentially creating its own version of Twitter’s Suggested User List, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM made the case for why this is a big deal.

Elsewhere in the world of Google+, Mathew Ingram wrote about the issues it’s dealing with regarding anonymity, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal is experimenting with a daily news roundup on his personal page there. The Next Web’s Martin Bryant examined Google+’s usefulness as a news tool, concluding that while it has potential, it needs a bigger, broader user base to start to really challenge Twitter and Facebook.

The last media mogul?: The News Corp. phone hacking scandal shifted down a gear this week, but there were still a few developments to report. The News of the World hacking victims also reportedly included the mother of an 8-year-old murder victim, and two former employees testified that they had told James Murdoch that the hacking was widespread, contradicting what Murdoch had told Parliament last week. Other News Corp. veterans challenged the picture Rupert Murdoch painted of himself as a largely hands-off newspaper boss.

The New York Times’ David Carr wrote that James Murdoch is done, and that Rupert has finally been revealed as vulnerable. CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis was more emphatic, calling Murdoch the last media mogul: “The mogul is extinct. The kind of big media institution he built will follow him. Lovely chaos will follow. It’s called democracy.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple took a quick look at what a post-Murdoch world might look like.

A couple of other News Corp.-related avenues to chase down: Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review argued that a scandal like News of the World’s won’t happen in the U.S., and News Corp.’s newest property, the tablet publication The Daily, appears to be floundering, according to a New York Observer feature, though a new version was released last week.

Reading roundup: There wasn’t a whole lot to take in this week, but here’s a quick sampling:

— The FCC is releasing a series of studies on media ownership, one of the newest of which suggested that media cross-ownership (ownership of multiple media outlets within a single market) doesn’t hurt local news, and may actually help it.

— Wisconsin j-prof Stephen Ward made a thoughtful case for redefining objectivity in the digital age.

— Particularly for the Twitter skeptics and writing teachers out there, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore put together a great post outlining the ways Twitter has made her a better writer.

— Finally, I’ve been trying to cover this piecemeal discussion here, but the AP’s Jonathan Stray did a much better job of summarizing the recent conversation about the changing structure of news stories with a fantastic reading list. Now that you’re done with this link-fest, be sure to give that one a look-through, too.

December 01 2010

15:30

Keeping track of political candidates online: Web archiver Perpetually follows the digital campaign trail

There is one huge, almost infinitely wide memory gap in our culture that can be summed up with this question: Where does the Internet go when it dies? Not the whole Internet, but the individual websites and pages that every day are modified and deleted, discarded and cached. Who can a journalist turn to when needing to look up the older version of a website, a retired blog, or a deleted Facebook post?

It turns out, not many people. The hole that Nexis plugs for academic papers and the newspapers of the world has few equivalents online. The once excellent Wayback Machine: Internet Archive — an attempt at a complete, Library of Congress-worthy web archive — is now fairly useless in today’s social-media driven web world, storing a slipshod record of photos, multimedia, and basically anything that’s not Web 1.0, and on top of that, taking up to a year for updates to appear in its index after its spider has crawled a site.

This election season, as candidates propped up their digital campaign booths online with Twitter feeds and new, snazzy websites, Darrell Silver, founder of the Perpetually Public Data Project, realized this was actually kind of terrifying. For all the thousands of reporters following candidates’ buses and rallies, there was no mechanism to follow the campaign trail online. Anything pledged on a candidate’s website could be wiped out with the click of a mouse — and without so much as a peep.

To fill this collective memory hole, for the 2010 midterms, Perpetually archived the websites — and the Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts — of every politician it could find: all the major candidates for all 435 House and 37 Senate races. And it archived every change at every second of every minute: Flash, blog posts, photos, whatever — with the exception of YouTube videos, which have a copyright conflict, and he decided to discard.

The result has been a great experiment that’s made at least one news splash and brought the technology onto the Huffington Post. After the election, Silver added every congressperson — newly elected or not — and every governor to Perpetually’s database. Imagine the difference at some point in the future: Anyone will to be able to zoom into any point in the past, load up a politician’s website, and see how things stood on any given day in any given year. And then, a few clicks more, to be able to scroll through the politician’s history and to create a larger story about the politician over a wide, career-length timespan. “We’re trying to be the undebatable reference point for the source material and the proof of what happened when,” Silver said.

The site, thus far, has given that goal its best shot, although it has got a way to go. In terms of the breadth of his archive and the depth of its storage, Silver’s peerless. ProPublica’s Versionista is perhaps his closest competitor, but for now it doesn’t track candidate sites, only the Whitehouse.gov site. Moreover, the Versionista platform shows only specific html-coded changes, so it monitors mostly text and lacks a screenshot archive, a complete record of images, and interactive elements. Silver had many of the same critiques — lack of interactive elements, a generally superficial archiving — for the Wayback Machine (not to mention its dinosaur lag-time in updating its archive).

If his database is the gold standard for Internet archiving, on Perpetually’s front-end — the site visitors use to navigate the database — the story was less nice. In the rush to get things up, a shaky vision for the project created the odd mess of creaky widgets, bridge-to-nowhere links, and brilliant data-archiving that were the site for the few weeks it was live.

The site as it existed is a good case study in how a great concept with poor execution can crash and burn — and then potentially redeem itself. In Silver’s defense, he had little time to get things together. Perpetually began archiving candidates’ sites in June — not knowing exactly what he would do with the data — and managed with only a team of five to have a website up for the general public by early October.

But it was painful to use. You could see that some idea, some vision, was at work, but it was hard to see how whoever was behind the thing actually thought they could pull it off. Links broke, videos gave errors, and community was non-existent. The annotations page — an absurd Tumblr-style page with no entries limit — with a larger user base would have sent an average laptop crashing to its knees, and text-diff mode gave an html page read-out, a fairly frightening chunk of words and symbols specializing in alienation and confusion.

The good news, though, is that as far as Perpetually’s future is concerned, its history doesn’t matter: Perpetually has gone into hibernation for a complete overhaul and redesign. “One of the things I learned is that there’s a huge amount of interest of tracking politicians who are nationally or locally interesting,” said Silver. “But you have to provide a lot better and more immediate goals and feedback.”

Silver’s looked at the Guardian’s expense-scandal tracker for ideas on how to use better crowdsourcing mechanisms, like promoting what’s interesting and highlighting top users. And he likes Versionista’s feed-subscription service that gives users instant notification of changes made by a specific candidate. Silver — who is far more of a tech geek than politico — just did not understand a political junkie’s motivations, but he’s clearly getting there, and it is likely that his redesign will showcase a savvy pastiche of social media tools he culls from around the Internet.

If these changes make the site user-friendly, journalists should rejoice. As it stands, the tools available to journalists to retrieve information about a candidate’s online campaign trail are unreliable and incomplete, jeopardizing online accountability. We’ve already seen how easily that can happen. Perpetually provides a common resource to circumvent this problem. “That ability to see, to go beyond the Wikipedia summary is vital to…the history to what this person is saying,” Silver put it.

Non-journalists — whoever these people might be — have reason to celebrate, too. It’s easy to imagine a day when early website incarnations have Americana value, like The Museum of Moving Image has archived online has rediscovered in presidential TV ads. The White House itself seems to be getting in on the idea. It’s created “frozen in time” portraits of previous administrationswebsites, anointing them with the exclusive “.gov” extension along with the program.

These are big ideas — an institutional memory hole, the making of a blog into classic memorabilia — and the opportunity is there for Silver to make them a reality. But before any of that happens, he still has to get the details right. He says has set forth three things he believes his audience wants and that a remade Perpetually must do for them:

“People want to know about significant changes and want to research the candidates they don’t know about. [They] want to be kept up to date and want a way to do that really easily. The third thing they want is to participate. They all want to improve the election process and want to discuss and do it in an efficient way.”

News organizations, take note: Leading up to 2012, Perpetually’s a site to watch.

November 30 2010

20:35

Content or design? Using analytics to identify your problem

editorial analytics

As an industry, online publishing has gone through a series of obsessions. From ‘Content is King’ to information architecture (IA), SEO (search engine optimisation) to SMO (social media optimisation).

Most people’s view of online publishing is skewed towards one of these areas. For journalists, it’s likely to be SEO; for designers or developers, it’s probably user experience (UX). As a result, we’re highly influenced by fashion when things aren’t going smoothly, and we tend to ignore potential solutions outside of our area.

Content agency Contentini are blogging about the way they use analytics to look at websites and identify which of the various elements above might be worth focusing on. It’s a wonderful summary of problems around sites and an equally wonderful prompt for jolting yourself out of falling into the wrong ways to solve them.

The post is worth reading in full, and probably pinning to a wall. But here are the bullet points:

  • If you have a high bounce rate and people spend little time on your site, it might be an information architecture problem.
  • If people start things but don’t finish them on your site, it’s probably a UX problem.
  • If people aren’t sharing your content, it may be a content issue. (Image above. This part of their framework could do with fleshing out)
  • If you’re getting less than a third of your traffic from search engines, you need to look at SEO

Solutions in the post itself. Anything you’d add to them?

November 01 2010

16:00

Getting lapped by innovation abroad? Mario Garcia’s path to better designed newspapers

In seeking out inspiration for its print redesign, Canada’s Globe and Mail didn’t look south of the border, as one might expect. Instead, the national daily focused its gaze overseas, pilfering design tips from newspapers in southern Europe, Latin America and Asia. Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse went so far as to call the U.S. market “fairly depressed in terms of newspaper innovation.” It doesn’t get more blunt than that.

Not to flog a dead horse, but newspaper design guru Mario Garcia reported a similar sentiment back in 2008, this time from an anonymous Indian editor expecting to ooh and ah while touring American newsrooms. The editor was less than impressed.

“I am disappointed, to be honest,” he told Garcia. “I went to the U.S. to learn, to get ideas on how to improve our newspapers here, but in every case, I was faced with newspapers that are hardly innovative. Why are American newspapers less willing to experiment, to take that leap into the future, to analyze their products and to adapt them to the realities of a multi-platform world?”

To be fair, that was two years ago and major dailies are, slowly but surely, becoming multi-platform vehicles. Still, the disappointment expressed by Stackhouse and the Indian editor speaks to what Garcia calls the general dearth of innovation in American newspaper design. For whatever reason — financial difficulties, tradition, sacred cows — American design innovation has stagnated. (For the record, design consultant Ron Reason is more optimistic than Garcia on the point.)

“When you look at newspaper design overseas — like Spain and Latin America — they’re much more adventurous, much more interesting, much more magazine-like,” Newsonomics author (and Lab contributor) Ken Doctor says. “It’s all about presentation; there’s a visual surprise.”

The surprise, however, has more to do with information architecture — how papers structure headlines and sections — rather than color and typography. “Pure design is just cosmetic,” Garcia told me last week. “It’s not going to solve the problem.”

Garcia, a sort of newspaper-design Carmen Sandiego, has consulted newsrooms in over 96 countries, including Hong Kong, where he’s currently working with the South China Morning Post, and Colombia, where he recently helped re-launch the Bogotá-based El Tiempo, which he chronicles, step-by-step, on his blog in refreshing and lengthy detail.

Garcia readily admits the continued (and often growing) interest in print overseas has given foreign newspapers some of its room to innovate. American editors are “plagued by a sense of malaise, that print is going to die,” Garcia says. Foreign newspapers, on the other hand, take a more carefree approach: As circulation increases, why not take some risks? The outcome might be a fresher, more navigable newspaper. “American newspapers think of death and dying; foreign newspapers think of birth and renewal,” Garcia says.

Over the course of our interview, Garcia laid out some design innovations popping up in the foreign market, citing the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News, which devotes an entire, editor-run page to online citizen journalism, and New Delhi’s Hindustan Times, which reaches its millions of readers by publishing nearly 20 regional editions. It’s as if The New York Times ran an edition for each of New York’s five boroughs.

Foreign newsrooms, he argues, are well attuned to the newspaper’s role in the online/mobile/print/tablet nexus. Papers are usually considered supplementary, rather than top-dog, all-that-matters news sources. Here are three ways Garcia sees international newspapers innovating design:

Information architecture comes before design

In its redesign, El Tiempo eschews traditional sections in favor of a more guided approach. The paper splits into three sections: Debes Saber (What you must know); Debes Leer (What you must read); Debes Hacer (What you must do).

Debes Saber covers local, national, world, sports, and business news. Garcia describes it as the “kitchen,” where you hastily gather news over your morning coffee. Debes Leer, the “living room,” provides opinion and analysis; it’s the newspaper’s salon, a more leisurely, end-of-the-day read. Debes Hacer, the “outdoors,” covers health, fitness, food, and fashion.

Garcia writes in his blog that he was “thinking like a reader” when he sat down to help overhaul El Tiempo. Indeed, El Tiempo’s compartmentalization gets to a news consumer’s most basic needs. “It’s about how you get the content flowing better for people who have less time,” Garcia says.

Respect the cult of personality

“People desire to hear the opinions of others, even if it’s nonsense,” Garcia says. Analysis should be on the front page, not reserved for back-page editorial sections. English-language weekly The Moscow News, which will be relaunched as a daily — under Garcia’s guidance — in early 2011, will publish celebrity journalist commentary on A1. Garcia concedes American papers might find this unseemly — where’s the objectivity? where’s the integrity? — but a newspaper, he says, should be the most obvious place to find must-read writers.

Sound like tomorrow, not yesterday

“To find your place, you need to relinquish your time advantage,” Garcia says. Online provides the five w’s as they happen; print needs to find, and accept, its place as an ancillary source of information.

Foreign newspapers are less afraid to publish “headlines in the future tense, running second-day headlines on the first day,” Garcia says, pointing to Spain’s El Pais, which routinely pushes stories forward by focusing on what comes next, not what happened yesterday. More recently, The Independent’s Metro-style i, the UK’s first new national daily in quite some time, scatters snappy news briefs around ideas-driven articles, refusing to dwell on yesterday’s news .

American newsrooms may be handcuffed by traditions and finances. Garcia thinks they see him as an “interior decorator,” which may explain why he hasn’t consulted stateside in three years. But American editors, like Stackhouse, may be wise to pay attention to design changes in the foreign market: Before long, they may be the ones globetrotting to international newsrooms.

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