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August 14 2012

14:00

What's Next for Ushahidi and Its Platform?

This is part 2 in a series. In part 1, I talked about how we think of ourselves at Ushahidi and how we think of success in our world. It set up the context for this post, which is about where we're going next as an organization and with our platform.

We realize that it's hard to understand just how much is going on within the Ushahidi team unless you're in it. I'll try to give a summarized overview, and will answer any questions through the comments if you need more info on any of them.

The External Projects Team

Ushahidi's primary source of income is private foundation grant funding (Omidyar Network, Hivos, MacArthur, Google, Cisco, Knight, Rockefeller, Ford), and we don't take any public funding from any country so that we are more easily able to maintain our neutrality. Last year, we embarked on a strategy to diversify our revenue stream, endeavoring to decrease our percentage of revenues based on grant funding and offset that with earned revenue from client projects. This turned out to be very hard to do within our current team structure, as the development team ended up being pulled off of platform-side work and client-side work suffered for it. Many internal deadlines were missed, and we found ourselves unable to respond to the community as quickly as we wanted.

This year we split out an "external projects team" made up of some of the top Ushahidi deployers in the world, and their first priority is to deal with client and consulting work, followed by dev community needs. We're six months into this strategy, and it seems like this team format will continue to work and grow. Last year, 20% of our revenue was earned; this year we'd like to get that to the 30-40% range.

Re-envisioning Crowdmap

When anyone joins the Ushahidi team, we tend to send them off to some conference to speak about Ushahidi in the first few weeks. There's nothing like knowing that you're going to be onstage talking about your new company to galvanize you into really learning about and understanding everything about the organization. Basically, we want you to understand Ushahidi and be on the same mission with us. If you are, you might explain what we do in a different way than I do onstage or in front of a camera, but you'll get the right message out regardless.

crowdmap-screenshot-mobile-397x500.png

You have a lot of autonomy within your area of work, or so we always claimed internally. This was tested earlier this year, where David Kobia, Juliana Rotich and myself as founders were forced to ask whether we were serious about that claim, or were just paying it lip-service. Brian Herbert leads the Crowdmap team, which in our world means he's in charge of the overall architecture, strategy and implementation of the product.

The Crowdmap team met up in person earlier this year and hatched a new product plan. They re-envisioned what Crowdmap could be, started mocking up the site, and began building what would be a new Crowdmap, a complete branch off the core platform. I heard this was underway, but didn't get a brief on it until about six weeks in. When I heard what they had planned, and got a complete walk-through by Brian, I was floored. What I was looking at was so different from the original Ushahidi, and thus what we have currently as Crowdmap, that I couldn't align the two in my mind.

My initial reaction was to shut it down. Fortunately, I was in the middle of a random 7-hour drive between L.A. and San Francisco, so that gave me ample time to think by myself before I made any snap judgments. More importantly, it also gave me time to call up David and talk through it with him. Later that week, Juliana, David and I had a chat. It was at that point that we realized that, as founders, we might have blinders on of our own. Could we be stuck in our own 2008 paradigm? Should we trust our team to set the vision for a product? Did the product answer the questions that guide us?

The answer was yes.

The team has done an incredible job of thinking deeply about Crowdmap users, then translating that usage into a complete redesign, which is both beautiful and functional at the same time. It's user-centric, as opposed to map-centric, which is the greatest change. But, after getting around our initial feelings of alienness, we are confident that this is what we need to do. We need to experiment and disrupt ourselves -- after all, if we aren't willing to take risks and try new things, then we fall into the same trap that those who we disrupted did.

A New Ushahidi

For about a year we've been asking ourselves, "If we rebuilt Ushahidi, with all we know now, what would it look like?"

To redesign, re-architect and rebuild any platform is a huge undertaking. Usually this means part of the team is left to maintain and support the older code, while the others are building the shiny new thing. It means that while you're spending months and months building the new thing, that you appear stagnant and less responsive to the market. It means that you might get it wrong and what you build is irrelevant by the time it's launched.

Finally, after many months of internal debate, we decided to go down this path. We've started with a battery of interviews with users, volunteer developers, deployers and internal team members. The recent blog post by Heather Leson on the design direction we're heading in this last week shows where we're going. Ushahidi v3 is the complete redesign of Ushahidi's core platform, from the first line of code to the last HTML tag. On the front-end it's mobile web-focused out of the gate, and the backend admin area is about streamlining the publishing and verification process.

At Ushahidi we are still building, theming and using Ushahidi v2.x, and will continue to do so for a long time. This idea of a v3 is just vaporware until we actually decide to build it, but the exercise has already born fruit because it forces us to ask what it might look like if we weren't constrained by the legacy structure we had built. We'd love to get more input from everyone on this as we go forward.

SwiftRiver in Beta

After a couple of fits and starts, SwiftRiver is now being tried out by 500-plus beta testers. It's 75% of the way to completion, but usable, and so it's out and we're getting the feedback from everyone on what needs to be changed, added and removed in order to make it the tool we all need to manage large amounts of data. It's an expensive, server-intensive platform to run, so those who use it in the future will have to pay for its use when using it on our servers. As always, the core code will be made available, free and open source, for those who would like to set it up and run it on their own.

In Summary

The amount of change and internal change that Ushahidi is undertaking is truly breathtaking to us. We're cognizant of just how much we're putting on the edge. However, we know this; in our world of technology, those who don't disrupt themselves will themselves be disrupted. In short, we'd rather go all-in to make this change happen ourselves than be mired in a state of stagnancy and defensive activity.

As always, this doesn't happen in a vacuum for Ushahidi. We've relied on those of you who are the coders and deployers to help us guide the platforms for over four years. Many of you have been a part of one of these product rethinks. If you aren't already, and would like to be, get in touch with myself or Heather to get into it and help us re-envision and build the future.

Raised in Kenya and Sudan, Erik Hersman is a technologist and blogger who lives in Nairobi. He is a co-founder of Ushahidi, a free and open-source platform for crowdsourcing information and visualizing data. He is the founder of AfriGadget, a multi-author site that showcases stories of African inventions and ingenuity, and an African technology blogger at WhiteAfrican.com. He currently manages Ushahidi's operations and strategy, and is in charge of the iHub, Nairobi's Innovation Hub for the technology community, bringing together entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and the investment community. Erik is a TED Senior Fellow, a PopTech Fellow and speaker and an organizer for Maker Faire Africa. You can find him on Twitter at @WhiteAfrican

This post originally appeared on Ushahidi's blog.

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.

February 07 2011

15:00

“It just feels inevitable”: Nick Denton on Gawker Media sites’ long-in-the-works new layout

This morning, “the biggest event in Gawker Media history” took place: The nine sites of the group officially launched their redesigns. Go to gawker.com — or jezebel.com or deadspin.com or lifehacker.com or the five other sites that make up Gawker Media at the moment — and you’ll see the new page layout that’s been on display in beta-dot form for the past couple of months, brought to life on the properties’ home URLs.

The new look, overall, is a move beyond the blog — a move most aptly described, in a November Lifehacker post, by Nick Denton himself. And, in true blog style, the post-blogization of Gawker is something that’s been described and discussed on blogs long before today’s official drop date. The utter unsurprisingness of Gawker’s new look is probably a good thing for a web property, given how indignantly resistant to design change we web users tend to be.

“It just feels inevitable,” Denton says. “We have a crying need to showcase both exclusives and visual posts. The visual posts are now at least half of our top-performing stories. And audience growth on sites like Deadspin and Gawker has been driven by our most sensational scoops.”

The biggest change to note is the two-panel layout, which makes for a front page that, as Gawker editor Remy Stern put it this morning, is “dominated by one big story (or a roundup of several different stories), and a list of headlines appear in a column down the right side of the page.”

For that, “the antecedents are software products, however, rather than web sites,” Denton told me over Gchat. “We’ve definitely been influenced by two-pane email and news reading apps.” One of the keys to the redesign is the new emphasis on visuals — most strikingly embodied in the huge slot As Denton noted in his Lifehacker post, “This visual slot will be 640×360 pixels in size — that’s 64 percent larger than in the current design — and be in the most prominent location on every page, above even the headline itself. Viewers will be able to toggle to a high-definition 960×540 version — a full 3.7 times larger than the current video standard.” Gizmodo, notably, has been investing in bigger and better visuals as a way to make stories stand out.

The redesign is a kind of convergence in action: blog, magazine, and television, all collapsing into each other.  Though “outside observers will note that this layout represents some convergence of blog, magazine and television,” Denton notes — yup — and though “that’s true in the abstract but it’s more of a description than an argument” — fair enough — when it comes to marketing, the redesign is a kind of argument. A big one.

Online, increasingly, the ad-sales choice boils down to two general strategies: build ad revenues directly, or build audience (which in turn accrues to revenue). The new layout is a double-down on the latter. With the design’s increased emphasis on engagement/the lean-back experience/etc., Gawker properties will ostensibly beef up their time-on-site stats while — for the short term, at least — taking a cut on pageviews as readers engage with and lean back into their content. It’s an app-like approach being realized, intriguingly, on the open web. And, in it, Gawker’s taking a TV-like approach to ad sales: one that’s more about nebulous mass consumption — zeitgeist, if you will — than about simple CPMs. Essentially, as Salmon noted: Gawker is selling time, not space. It’s not selling reader eyeballs so much as reader attention.

And that’s an idea that’s been in the works for a while. Last spring, Gawker’s head of marketing and advertising operations, Erin Pettigrew, wrote a post about Gawker’s new emphasis on branded traffic via an attempt to measure “recurring reader affection.” I chatted with her about that post; here’s what she told me at the time:

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

That’s a magazine model; Gawker has simply been translating it to the web. (“If you’re going to working with the most storied brands,” Denton puts it, “the appeal has to go beyond the numbers. Conde Nast — at its peak — sold the magic.”) And Gawker certainly hasn’t been alone in doing that: See Slate, Salon, and their peer group, who go out of their way to emphasize the smartness (more cynically: the affluence) of their readers to advertisers. And yet Gawker seems to have reached a critical mass (or, to use the language of a writer from one of those Conde Nast titles, a tipping point): It’s moved, it seems, beyond simply selling its readers to advertisers. Now, it is simply selling itself. The readers are implied. They can be, in the best sense, taken for granted.

Check out, for example, the Advertising page on Gawker; in place of a traditional media kit (replete with demographic data about readers and the like), you’ll find a slickly produced video detailing Gawker’s (literally) storied history. The thing has the feel of an Oscar clip real, complete with a strings-heavy sidetrack; you’re compelled, almost in spite of yourself. And the video presents Gawker through the prism of a kind of epic inevitability, noting, accurately, how much the site and its sisters have done to change things. The message is, implicitly and essentially: Gawker is the future. Be part of it.

Which doesn’t mean that Gawker isn’t also selling readers to advertisers in the traditional magazine (and, for that matter, newspaper) model; it still is, definitely. It’s just doing it more indirectly. The advertising videos are “about the stories,” Denton says. “And the stories define the readers — and the readers define the stories.” The delivering-readers-you-want-to-reach aspect is only one part of Gawker’s marketing argument. “The pitch to advertisers is twofold,” Denton says. “One — and this is the constant — that our audience consists of the young and upscale people who have disappeared from newspapers and other traditional media. And, second, that we increasingly have the scale and production values of — say — cable television.”

It’s that second one that the redesign is trying to capture. And it’s the resonance, and competition, with cable that will be fascinating to see as the new Gawker layout becomes, simply, the Gawker layout. (Readers have the option of continuing with the blog format, if they prefer, which won’t serve the 640×360 ads; see the cola-nostalgic Deadspin Classic, for instance. But “I doubt it will represent any more than 10 percent of impressions, anyway,” Denton notes.) Denton sees his competition, he told me, not only as sites like TMZ and The Hollywood Reporter, but also — and more so — AOL. (A rivalry that, around midnight last night, suddenly got much more interesting.) “And — in the long term — we’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal,” Denton says.

It’s a big experiment — and a big gamble. One that, like so many similarly grand experiments being made by the big media companies out there — the Times’ paywall will rise any day now — will be fascinating, and instructive, to watch. History’s on Denton’s side — he’s been right about a lot so far — but it’s far from certain that the redesign, and the marketing logic that goes with it, will pay off.

Yesterday, after former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder observed that, since the redesign, pageviews were down at the beta sites of Jalopnik and i09, Rex Sorgatz issued a bet: “I’m on the record that I think the redesigns will fail. And I’m now officially opening the betting pool. I think Denton is going to be forced to pull back on this. If anyone wants to wager that the redesign don’t get yanked back (or greatly modified) by, let’s say, June 1… I’ll take your bet.”

Denton himself took the bet. (“Money where your mouth is,” he told me.) The measure is October pageviews on Quantcast. The market’s at 510 million pageviews at the moment — so “for every million over that, he pays me $10,” Denton says. And “for every million under, I pay him.”

“I’m going to clean him out.”

January 18 2011

17:00

New Yorker web editor: The site is “guided by what’s on paper”

In a 2006 post at Design Observer, Michael Bierut praised what he termed the “slow design” of The New Yorker: “the patient, cautious, deliberate evolution of a nearly unchanging editorial format over decades.”

It’s an apt description. As Jon Michaud, the magazine’s archive director, told me, “There have been slight design changes over the years — the pages are now a little smaller than they used to be. We put the bylines at the top of articles, no longer at the bottom. We introduced photographs in the ’90s.”

But “for the most part, the magazine has evolved slowly over the decades.”

The New Yorker’s self-conscious connection to its own past is undoubtedly one of its key selling points. But what about the more future-oriented component of the publication: the digital magazine that lives on the web? When you redesign your site — as The New Yorker did late last year, in its first online revamp since 2007 — how do you balance “a nearly unchanging editorial format” with the needs of transition to (an at least partly) digital existence?

One way: Even online, preserve an ethos of print. “Designers who’ve worked on the print magazine week after week were intimately involved in the web design,” Blake Eskin, The New Yorker’s web editor, explained in an email. So “there are all sorts of ways, articulated and unarticulated, in which the look and feel of newyorker.com is guided by what’s on paper.”

Indeed, the new update is — as The New Yorker has always has been — spare in its use of text, minimal throughout, and squeaky clean. It even makes more use of Irvin, the iconic, 1925 typeface designed by (and named for) the magazine’s original art director, Rea Irvin. Illustrations and other art have also been more integrated into newyorker.com, and can be found at almost every turn — clever, and reliably unpredictable.

Then again, not everything on the new site is print-derivative. The magazine’s vintage sensibility notwithstanding, it was actually The New Yorker’s iPad app that inspired many of the site’s visual design choices, Eskin told me — like the greater use of images, both thumbnail and full-screen. “Before, our website, much like the printed magazine, had been more sparing in its use of art, and the iPad helped pave the way for using more images,” he says. “We tried to optimize both digital formats for readability. Which is why the default font size is bigger — one benefit of removing the sidebar on the left edge of most pages.”

SEO was a factor, as well. “The removal of the sidebar made a more open page, but it should also help search engines to notice our stories,” Eskin notes. (Headlines, with the help of Typekit, are also searchable.) Likewise, “as we’ve added more writing that isn’t from the magazine, and more audio and video and slide shows, we outgrew navigation that largely followed the structure of the print magazine.”

The most telling change, though, is as much about philosophy as it is about design. On the re-launched site, “we put less of the magazine online than we used to,” Eskin says. It’s a choice that will likely become more common as The New Yorker’s fellow outlets make key decisions about paid content. “Especially now that ‘Information wants to be free’ is no longer an article of faith — we wanted to tell our paying subscribers that they can access everything,” he says. “And to tell our non-paying visitors that there’s a lot that they’re missing.”

October 27 2010

19:00

MediaBugs revamps its site with a new national focus

When it launched in public beta earlier this year, MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg’s Knight News Challenge-winning fact-checking project, was focused on correcting errors found in publications in the Bay Area. Today, though, Mediabugs.org has undergone a redesign — not just in its interface (“just the usual iterative improvements,” Rosenberg notes), but in its scope. Overnight, MediaBugs has gone national.

Part of the site’s initial keep-it-local logic was that, as a Knight winner, the project had to be small in scope. (The News Challenge stipulates that projects focus on “geographically defined communities,” although this year they’ve loosened up that rule a bit.) But part of it was also an assumption that community is about more than geography. “My original thesis was that, first of all, it would be valuable to work on a small scale in a specific metropolitan area,” Rosenberg told me — valuable not only in terms of developing personal relationships with editors who oversee their publications’ correction efforts, but also as a way to avoid becoming “this faceless entity: yet another thing on the web that was criticizing people in the newsrooms.”

And while the community aspect has paid off when it comes to newsroom dealings — Rosenberg and his associate director, Mark Follman, have indeed developed relationships that have helped them grow the project and the cause — MediaBugs has faced challenges when it comes to “community” in the broader sense. “It’s been an uphill battle just getting people to participate,” Rosenberg notes. Part of that is just a matter of people being busy, and MediaBugs being new, and all that. But another part of it is that so much of the stuff typical users consume each day is regional or national, rather than local, in scope. When he describes MediaBugs to people, Rosenberg notes, a typical response will be: “Great idea. Just the other day, I saw this story in the paper, or I heard this broadcast, where they got X or Y wrong.” And “invariably,” he says, “the X or Y in question is on a national political story or an international story” — not, that is, a local one.

Hence, MediaBugs’ new focus on national news outlets. “I thought, if that’s what people are more worked up about, and if that’s what they want to file errors for,” Rosenberg says, “we shouldn’t stand in their way.”

The newly broadened project will work pretty much like the local version did: The site is pre-seeded (with regional and national papers, magazines, and even the websites of cable news channels), and it will rely on users to report errors found in those outlets and others — expanding, in the process, the MediaBugs database. (Its current data set includes not only a list of media organizations, their errors, and those errors’ correction status, but also, helpfully, information about outlets’ error-correction practices and processes.)

For now, Rosenberg says, the feedback loop informing news organizations of users’ bug reports, which currently involves Rosenberg or Follman contacting be-bugged organizations directly, will remain intact. But it could — and, Rosenberg hopes, it will — evolve to become a more self-automated system, via an RSS feed, email feed, or the like. “There isn’t really that much of a reason for us to be in the loop personally — except that, at the moment, we’re introducing this strange new concept to people,” Rosenberg notes. “But ultimately, what this platform should really be is a direct feedback loop where the editors and the people who are filing bug reports can just resolve them themselves.” One of the inspirations for MediaBugs is the consumer-community site Get Satisfaction, which acts as a meeting mechanism for businesses and the customers they serve. The site provides a forum, and it moderates conversations; ultimately, though, its role is to be a shared space for dialogue. And the companies themselves — which have a vested interest in maintaining their consumers’ trust — do the monitoring. For MediaBugs, Rosenberg says, “that’s the model that we would ultimately like.”

To get to that point — a point, Rosenberg emphasizes, that at the moment is a distant goal — the MediaBugs infrastructure will need to evolve beyond MediaBugs.org. “As long as we’re functioning as this website that people have to go to, that’s a limiting factor,” Rosenberg notes. “We definitely want to be more distributed out at the point where the content is.” For that, the project’s widget — check it out in action on Rosenberg’s Wordyard and on (fellow Knight grantee site) Spot.us — will be key. Rosenberg is in talks with some additional media outlets about integrating the widget into their sites (along the lines of, for example, of the Connecticut Register-Citizen’s incorporation of a fact-checking mechanism into its stories); but the discussions have been slow-going. “I’m still pretty confident that, sooner or later, we’ll start to see the MediaBugs widget planted on more of these sites,” Rosenberg says. “But it’s not anything that’s happening at any great speed.”

For now, though, Rosenberg will have his hands full with expanding the site’s scope — and with finding new ways to realize the old idea that, as he notes, “shining any kind of light on a subject creates its own kind of accountability.” And it’ll be fascinating to see what happens when that light shifts its gaze to the national media landscape. “That dynamic alone, I think, will help some of the publications whose sites are doing a less thorough job with this stuff to get their act together.”

October 21 2010

20:30

June 30 2010

22:00

Google News revamps with “news for you” angle

A few moments ago, the Google News homepage rolled out a redesign — a revamp meant to make the algorithm-driven news site “more customizable and shareable.”

“There’s an old saying that all news is local,” writes Google software engineer Kevin Stolt in a blog post announcing the design changes. “But all news is personal too — we connect with it in different ways depending on our interests, where we live, what we do and a lot of other factors. Today we’re revamping the Google News homepage with several changes designed to make the news that you see more relevant to you. We’re also trying to better highlight interesting stories you didn’t know existed and to make it easier for you to share stories through social networks.”

In other words, the new site is trying to balance two major, and often conflicting, goals of news consumption: personalization and serendipity.

The more specific purpose of today’s changes, Google says, is threefold: first, to have consumers tell Google what stories most interest them; second, to help those consumers keep track of ongoing stories; and third, to help them share stories with others.

Among the changes being implemented, per Stolt’s explanation of them:

Customizable interest areas: “The new heart of the homepage is something we call ‘News for you’: a stream of headlines automatically tailored to your interests. You can help us get it right by using the ‘Edit personalization’ box to specify how much you’re interested in Business, Health, Entertainment, Sports or any subject you want to add (whether it’s the Supreme Court, the World Cup or synthetic biology). You can choose to view the stories by Section view or List view, and reveal more headlines by hovering over the headline with your mouse. We’ll remember your preferences each time you log in.”

Customizable news sourcing: “To give you more control over the news that you see, we’re now allowing you to choose which news sources you’d like to see more or less often. You can do so in News Settings. These sources will rank higher or lower for you (but not for anyone else) in Google News search results and story clusters.”

An emphasis on local news: “And then there’s local news; we’re now highlighting weather and headlines about your city or neighborhood in their own section, which you can edit with whichever location you want to follow.”

An increased emphasis on the Spotlight section: “We’re also more prominently displaying the Spotlight section, which features stories of more lasting interest than breaking news and has been one of our most popular sections since we introduced it last fall.”

Communal (read: non-customized) story highlights: “There are the subjects that interest you and then there’s the major news of the day. To make it easy for you to find the big stories like Hurricane Alex, we’re adding links to topics that many outlets are covering. You’ll find these topics in the Top Stories section on the left side of the homepage as well as in linked keywords above headlines. Clicking on a topic link takes you to a list of related coverage that you can add to your news stream.”

(This is also a nod, I’d add, toward serendipity — a goal Google News has expressed interest in before, most notably through its Spotlight and its Editors’ Picks features.)

The changes are pretty fascinating, all in all (especially in the context of Google’s rumored move into Facebook territory); we’ll likely have more to say on them later on. In the meantime, here’s more on the changes, from the horse’s mouth:

13:00

ProPublica’s website redesign puts “future of context” ideas to work

Late last night, ProPublica launched a redesign of its website. As most site revamps tend to be, the new propublica.org is sleeker, slicker, and generally more aesthetically pleasing than its previous incarnation. But it’s also more intuitively navigable than the previous version, incorporating the accumulated changes that the investigative outfit has learned about its users, its contributors, and its journalism in the past two-and-a-half years. As Scott Klein, the outlet’s editor of News Applications and the site revamp’s chief architect, puts it in his intro to the redesign:

When we first sat down to design our website in early 2008, we had just started as an organization, and we had yet to publish anything. We had only a skeleton staff. We had to create something of a Potemkin village website, guessing at the kinds of coverage we’d be doing and how we’d be presenting it. In the two years since, we’ve constantly tweaked the site, and have bolted on new features that we never imagined we’d be doing.

With this redesign, we’ve tried to take everything we’ve learned, and everything we’ve added, and put it together into one nice, clean site. Our hope is that the level of design sophistication now matches the sophistication of our reporting.

The revamp has been in the works, in earnest, basically since November, Klein told me — with many of the intervening months spent not in designing and coding, but in conversing: explaining to the designers the outlet hired to help with the overhaul (the San Francisco-based firm Mule) what ProPublica does and what it’s about. Before they could design ProPublica’s new website, Mule essentially “needed to get a Masters degree,” Klein says, in the organization itself.

It seems they did. Propublica.org now feels more mission-coherent than the original site. The “Donate” button is more prominent than on the previous — a not-so-subtle reminder that ProPublica, known as it is for the substantial funding it’s received from the Sandler Foundation, is always looking for more money, from more sources, to sustain its work. (Speaking of, scratch that: It’s “Donate” buttons that are prominent, three on the front page.)

The site has also added, in its “About Us” section, a list of FAQs — complete with (helpfully, delightfully) an audio-filled name-pronunciation guide: “Some pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica, some Pro-POOB-lica. Most folks here in the newsroom pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica. Of course we’re always happy to be mentioned, using any pronunciation.” (The ProPublica staff were inspired to write FAQs, senior editor Eric Umansky told me, by fellow-online-only-nonprofit Voice of San Diego — which posted its own FAQs last week.)

The new site tries to answer questions in the broader sense, too. In a recent episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the systemic challenges of the multi-level crowd: audiences — or users, or readers, or whatever term you prefer — who come into stories with differing amounts of prior knowledge, differing contextual appreciations, differing levels, essentially, of interest and information. One problem news organizations face — and it’s a design issue as much as a strictly editorial one — is how to engage and serve those different users through the same interface: the website.

The ProPublica redesign tries to address that issue by making consumption of the journalism its site contains a choose-your-own-adventure-type proposition. The revamped site, like its previous version, features, at the top of every page, a list of topics that have become focus areas of ProPublica investigations (currently, “Gulf Spill,” “New Orleans Cops,” “Loan Mods,” and six more). Now, though, the landing pages of those topic-based verticals (whose content is generally organized chronologically, river-of-news-style) also feature curated, interactive boxes that incorporate live data from ProPublica’s new applications. Check out the “Calif. Nurses” vertical, above — anchored by “Problem Nurses Remain on Job as Patients Suffer,” a finalist for this year’s Public Service Pulitzer. Scroll down past that top curated box, and there are further options for self-navigation: Users can filter stories according to their general significance (the “Major Stories Only” button), their personal significance (the “Unread Stories Only” button), their author, or their age.

The idea was to give users several paths into, and among, stories and topics, Klein explains. It’s a kind Google’s Living Stories experiment was an inspiration in that respect, he says, as was the filter-focused layout of the website of Washington’s Spokesman-Review. The changes are about making the site a personal, and even somewhat personalized, place — and about making it accessible to new users while still compelling for the old.

June 08 2010

14:27

MediaStorm launches redesign and new projects

MediaStorm Launches Redesign
We’ve made it easier for you to find the information you need in our Publication, Client Services and Training Opportunities.

We hope you’ll take time to explore the site. A few highlights:

  • We added more functionality and content options to the home page.
  • We created a new video player with detailed information about each project.
  • We added full screen playback and higher quality video encodes.
  • Many of our projects are now available for embed on your websites and blogs.
  • Our projects can be filtered by type, client, and workshop.
  • Contributors, workshop participants, and staff now have dedicated pages.
  • We expanded our blog, store, awards, link to us and resource sections.

Airsick: An Industrial Devolution by Lucas Oleniuk

Created with 20,000 photographs and a haunting soundtrack, Airsick: An Industrial Devolution plays out like an unsettling dream. Toronto Star Photographer Lucas Oleniuk examines our addiction to fossil fuel — and its consequences.

Three Women by Eric Maierson

Three Women is a fictional film about women in pain, struggling to make sense of their lives. It is a series of stories reduced to their emotional essence.

MediaStorm Multimedia Workshops
Our next workshop will be held November 13-19, 2010. The application deadline is September 15, 2010.

The MediaStorm Multimedia Workshop is an intensive, hands-on educational experience in advanced multimedia storytelling, where participants work in a team to take a story from concept to publication-ready in a week.

Check out our past workshop stories, learn more about previous participants, or apply now.

Michele Asselin, participant in the March 2010 workshop, had this to say about her experience:

“On the first day of the MediaStorm workshop I understood how much was lacking in my work, by the last day I understood how much was possible. I never would have wanted to make this transition without their guidance and I have no doubt that I have learned from the best.”
 
 

February 23 2010

12:00

Spot.Us Adds Assignments, Widgets, Story Updates in Revamp

Since Spot.Us first launched in late 2008 as a simple wiki, I've wanted this to be a learning and growing endeavor both for myself and for  journalism as a whole.

There are so many lessons in starting a non-profit news project, especially one that is unique in its scope and mission like Spot.Us. I hope to share some insight below, but first the news.

spotus.png

Today Spot.Us takes a huge step forward with a new design and new features. This was made possible by lead designer Lauren Rabaino and the excellent development team of Erik Sundelof and Dan Newman. Please join me and Anh Do, managing editor of the Los Angeles branch, in thanking this team.

The new interface will continue to be tweaked, but it is already much more appealing and user friendly than our old design. I dare not call it "Spot.Us 2.0" just yet. There are two major new features planned before we hit that mark. This is Spot.Us 1.9.

New Features


Suggest a city: It's time to start looking beyond the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That's right -- expansion is a priority. Spot.Us is a tool or platform, not a news organization. With that in mind, we are looking to expand where we know people are interested in using the site. Would you intend on using it if it was available in your area? If so, suggest your city!

Assignments: This is a feature I am very excited about. In some respects it transitions Spot.Us out of "community funded reporting" and into "community powered reporting." It's a subtle but important distinction. Every reporter now has the option of creating "assignments" that are limited only by their imagination. A reporter could crowdsource a collection of photos, distribute the workload required for reviewing documents, etc. The reporter has control over who can and cannot contribute to an assignment, and how assignments exist, if at all, in relation to their pitch. This is an optional feature for anyone that wants to build a movement around their reporting efforts.

Widgets, Facebook, Twitter, Oh My!: Yes, it's been a long time coming. I admit we haven't been moving fast enough in this space. But we are making up for it ASAP! We aren't breaking ground here, but considering that we are playing in the new media space, it's a crime that we haven't had these features.

More on Widgets: This is a deceptively forward-looking feature. Our hope is that soon people will be able to donate through a widget without ever having to leave the site where the widget is placed. This could also pave the way for an API (which is much further out, but is along this train of thought). For now, widgets will be built into a "Spot.Us Lite" that can be hosted on your website by just copying and pasting some code. (This is coming soon.)

Story updates: We've had blog posts associated with every pitch, but the vast majority of blog posts have been overlooked. Now we are highlighting the latest story updates on the front page, and will encourage reporters to show the process of their reporting.

RSS: We now have an RSS feed for...everything: Latest stories, newest pitches, blog posts, even the most recent contributions -- and they can all be filtered by networks. Only interested in Los Angeles news? Go into the LA network and all the RSS feeds will be relevant to you.

Spot.Us Channels: The first channel we're creating is "Spot Us Picks." But in the future, channels, or filtered menus of pitches, can be created around topics (the health channel) general types of organizations (the public media channel) or specific partnering organizations (The Bay Area News Project channel).

There are also a few more minor features and tweaks. For example, we are finally able to better highlight our successful partnerships, our community advisory boards, and more.

General Lessons, Observations

I've learned more during this process than I can truly reflect on in a single blog post. But I have always seen winning the Knight News Challenge as a great privilege that has afforded me the luxury (and responsibility) to publicly expound on how Spot.Us is going, and what I'm learning along the way.

Many of those lessons are in past blog posts around being iterative, the things you must weigh in website development and collaboration. As of right now, these are some of the best lessons I've been able to articulate. I hope to share more as I continue.

How Is Spot.Us Doing?

I never know how to answer this question. No matter how many times I say it won't, some people still expect Spot.Us and crowdfunding to somehow replace the gobs of money that has been lost from traditional advertising.

Here's what I usually say: "Considering all the things that could have gone wrong, we are doing amazing!"

And that is true.

Now in our second year of an initial grant from the Knight Foundation, I am proud to say that with micro-donations and other foundation grants, we have almost raised a third of the amount of money given to us in that first grant. Which is to say: In another two years, we could be a net positive to the cash flow of working journalists. That, of course, assumes nothing changes.

This design represents a shift from the proof-of-concept stage to the expansion stage. Indeed, I'm talking to (and want to talk to more) folks around the country who want to use Spot.Us in their area. My hope is we can continue to funnel more money into the pockets of journalists who are reporting on important civic topics.

However, if people expect Spot.Us to replace major metro papers, then we are in trouble. As I often say, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Spot.Us is a new, growing revenue stream. It is not meant to be as big of a revenue stream as classifieds were 20 years ago; but it is a revenue stream that requires little effort (just create a pitch and embed a widget), and an option that can be combined with a multitude of other streams

We continue to be a platform -- a growing platform. This year is a make or break moment. At the end of 2010, Spot.Us could be a beautiful failure in that we can report back to the larger journalism community what we know, what we learned and how we think others could build off that. Or we will keep going -- the little startup non-profit that could ;)

I've always been an underdog, a nice guy that didn't buckle to authority. With that in mind, I have every intention of breaking through every barrier I see in front of Spot.Us. I hope you'll join me!

November 30 2009

16:35

N2 Redesign: What You See, Don't See, and Will See Soon

The first major round of the NetSquared site redesign is now live, but as you click around the site you might be thinking, "Where's the beef?"

Much of this upgrade was focused behind-the-scenes and not as much on the side of the site you see; though that will flip-flop in the next round in a couple weeks.  Below is a run through of what we've implemented so far that you can see, an overview of the dramatic back-end improvements we've made, and a preview of what is still to come in the first half of December.

read more

November 20 2009

10:23

What if a newspaper was designed using principles of user experience design?

What if a newspaper was designed using principles of web user experience design*? That’s the question that design agency Information Architects asked themselves when they put together a pitch for Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. They lost the pitch, but the blog post about their ideas is fascinating reading for anyone interested in usability and reinventing the print package for a multiplatform world.

front page

Their innovations included making the text scannable with blue text for key words (see above), high contrast, and being limited to two fonts. They cleaned up the logo (optimising it, essentially), and printed comments next to the articles they commented on. The blog post contains lots more images. In addition, they’ve put the original PDFs of their pitch online too – linked below:

Garcia Media has more context including why Garcia felt they failed.

H/t: Adrian Short. *I should have said user experience design not web design, which was the original headline.

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