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April 01 2013

18:15

Shaping technology to the story: The Brown Institute for Media Innovation is finding its niche

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation just began accepting applications from students or alumni of Columbia and Stanford for its second round of Magic Grants. Helen Gurley Brown made headlines last year when she donated $30 million jointly to Columbia and Stanford to found the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a bicoastal effort toward helping students build “usable tools” for the proliferation of “great content.”

The idea was that combining the engineering prowess of Stanford students with the journalistic know-how of Columbia students would propel innovation in the news industry. To that end, Columbia would construct a $6 million state-of-the-art newsroom within its j-school building (now under construction), and the institute would offer serious grant money — up to $150,000 per team, or $300,000 if it features members from both schools — for projects. Its next batch of Magic Grantees — due to be announced at the end of May — will go a long way toward further defining what a direct collaboration between computer science and journalism can produce.

The quest for personalized TV

The first three Magic Grants were awarded last June. Connecting the Dots is a project by two Stanford students dedicated to drawing out large, complex, data-heavy news stories through logic mapping, similar to the way that metropolitan transit maps simplify networks of trains and busses. Dispatch, a joint startup that already has an app for sale through Apple, helps journalists in crisis scenarios conceal their identities while publishing via mobile device.

The largest team belongs to the third winner, EigenNews — 10 members from both campuses combined. The idea: personalized television, built around a playlist of of national news clips based on the user’s selected preferences (by both category and by show) and by viewing behavior and user voting. (You can sign up and get a daily email update from EigenNews — it works pretty well.)

eigennews-screenshot

The design is meant to provide the user up-to-the-minute broadcast news while filtering out certain types of stories, but to maintain a sense of immediacy, some current very popular current stories make the playlist no matter what. “The playlist strikes a balance between presenting the most important stories currently and those stories that might be of particular interest to you,” wrote Stanford-based team member David Chen in an email. “For the second factor to be more evident, the user’s view history has to contain a sufficient number of samples.” As the project’s description puts it:

We forecast that next-generation video news consumption will be more personalized, device agnostic, and pooled from many different information sources. The technology for our project represents a major step in this direction, providing each viewer with a personalized newscast with stories that matter most to them…

Our personalized news platform will analyze readily available user data, such as recent viewing history and social media profiles. Suppose the viewer has recently watched the Republican presidential candidates debate held in Arizona, an interview with a candidate’s campaign manager, and another interview with the candidate himself. The debate and the candidate’s interview are “liked” by the viewer and several friends on Facebook. This evidence points to a high likelihood that a future video story about the Republican presidential race will interest the viewer. The user’s personalized news stream will feature high-quality, highly-relevant stories from multiple channels that cover the latest developments in the presidential race.

Chen said the EigenNews team wants to incorporate more sharability in the future — currently, you can generate a link by click a button on the player, but they hope to add comments soon. He also said they’re looking toward a future model that would incorporate more local coverage and user-generated video content.

“Seeing situations where the journalism is leading”

Mark Hansen, who was appointed director of the Columbia side of the Brown Institute last fall, says he imagines some form of the EigenNews project will probably live on. “That work is work that Bernd [Girod, his Stanford counterpart] does as part of his research program, so my guess would be that some part of that work will be funded consistently.” Hansen will be overseeing the administration of the second round of funding. Coming from the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at UCLA, where he gradually began to realize the implications of data journalism, he is a blend of journalist and statistician.

“Over the course of my ten years at UCLA, the Center shifted…to more participatory systems, where we were encouraging the public to get involved with data collection. As we started working with community groups, as we started reaching out to high schools, the character of the enterprise changed,” he says. While sensor networks are opening up the power of public data, coordinating the gathering, calibration, analysis, and dissemination of that information is no small order. Hansen says that realization has honed his understanding of the important role that journalists play. His students learn to code — not just how to work with engineers who code — but what he’s most interested in are projects whose genesis is a journalistic question, not a technological advancement.

“I’m interested in seeing situations where the journalism is leading. Where there’s some story that needs to be told, or some aspect of a story that can’t be told with existing technology, but then drives the creation of a new technology,” he said. “As opposed to, ‘Look, we made tablets — okay, now you guys tell stories around tablets.’”

Since moving to Columbia, Hansen has had ample opportunity to observe the interplay of hard science and journalistic practice. He teaches a course on computational journalism, and he says the transition from teaching statisticians to journalism students has been enlightening. “When you teach a statistician about means, for example, their comment on the data will end with ‘The mean is 5.’ The journalist will say: ‘The mean is 5, which means, compared to this other country, or five countries, or other neighborhood…’ The journalists will go from the output of the method to the world. They contextualize, they tell stories — Emily Bell calls this narrative imagination — and they are hungrier than any other students I have ever worked with.”

Hansen plans to use the resources of the Brown Institute to recreate the open dialogue and experimentation of the classroom, in hopes of uncovering ideas for projects and prototypes to receive Magic Grant funding. “I’m usually the one writing the grants, not the one giving them away,” he joked. To that end, he’s been in conversation with industry professionals from the likes of ProPublica, The New York Times and Thomson Reuters, trying to figure out “what the interesting questions are,” he says. Defining what Brown can do that is distinct from the other institutes, labs, and other entities in the space is a top priority.

Organizing hackathons and other collaborative events is another route Hansen wants to explore. He is interested in a hackathon model with more concrete pedagogical objectives than the typical open-ended approach. The Brown Institute has already hosted a data hackathon, as well as a conference Hansen calls a “research threeway,” after the three sectors he aims to bring together — journalism, technology, and “opportunity” (that is, funding). Mixing speakers with journalism, media, and engineering backgrounds resulted in a “beautiful collision of language,” he said, and some intriguing ideas.

“There was a nice conversation around serendipity, especially as it connects to large data sets. I think often times we fall back on a kind of search metaphor where we are constantly googling something. If we don’t know what it is we’re looking for, how do we activate an archive, how do we activate a data set? How do you engineer serendipity?”

Building a space

Meanwhile, Hansen has also been overseeing some engineering in a more concrete sense. He hopes to unveil the Brown Institute’s newsroom by summer 2014, a two-story facility which he says draws inspiration from both traditional newsrooms and the “large, open, reconfigurable workspace” that we associate with startups and tech incubators. The space will feature a mezzanine, transparent conference rooms, and shared workspaces called “garages.” It’ll be a wireless office space with flat panel displays and a number of projectors, shared by Brown grantees, fellows, and faculty. “Emily Bell will be teaching a class on the sensor newsroom, a kind of pop-up newsroom,” Hansen says, “and that space will be the perfect space to try out the ideas that are coming out of that class.”

Hansen says one of the most rewarding parts of his directorship so far was having the chance to share the plans for the newsroom with donor Helen Gurley Brown just before she passed away last August. Both the architects and the web designers for the Institute’s new website were told to use the creative output of Brown and her husband, film producer David Brown, as a design compass. As a result, the website will feature a rotating color palette, updated on a monthly basis to reflect covers from Cosmopolitan magazine throughout Brown’s career.

Running a bicoastal institute is not without its challenges, and the hope is that the new space in New York and a newly unified website should help to deal with those. Stanford grantees and fellows don’t have a centralized office space like their New York counterparts, but travel costs are covered by Magic Grants for bicoastal projects and regular project reviews.

Still, Hansen says figuring out how to operate as one entity has been challenging. “Not only is [Stanford] 3,000 miles away, and not only is it two different disciplines,” he says, “but it’s also the quarter system and the semester system, and three hours’ [time] difference — every little thing you could imagine is different is different.” In addition, engineering grad students study for four to five years, while Columbia’s main graduate journalism program is only one year long. To allow the journalism students equal opportunity to participate, they’ll be eligible to apply for Magic Grants as part of an additional, second year. Says Hansen: “We’re doing what we can to make it feel like a cohesive whole.”

The Brown Institute is also invested in ensuring that, when it funds successful projects, they have the opportunity to live on. While grant winners can apply for a second year of funding, Hansen is also focused on communicating with private investors, companies, and other foundations. He’s particularly excited about the potential addition of computational journalism to the National Science Foundation‘s official subfields, which would open up significant additional funding for Brown Institute alums.

“It does really feel like a great moment to be thinking about technology and storytelling, technology and journalism,” Hansen says. But in addition to using technology to propel the journalism industry into the future, he takes cues from the memory of the Browns, and hopes to shape the Institute into something that reflects them both.

“Helen and David were showmen, if you will,” Hansen says. “They really understood audiences and how to tell a good story.”

April 12 2012

16:49

‘Hypothesis generator’ helps mine huge datasets

A tool created through a collaboration with Harvard and MIT could soon help journalists find relationships in massive amounts of data — even if they don’t know what they’re looking for. Read More »

October 07 2011

19:59

Measuring the Facebook effect: are content services gaining from new apps?

paidContent :: Two weeks in, some of Facebook’s new media partners are finding triple the listeners and a small uplift in readers from their new “frictionless” apps, paidContent is told. But how much do these gains really amount to… ? - "Looking beyond the services’ own disclosures and in to Facebook data itself shows a different angle," writes Robert Andrews.

Continue to read Robert Andrews, paidcontent.org

June 30 2011

19:31

Why the “Cost to the economy” of strike action could be misleading

It’s become a modern catchphrase. When planes are grounded, when cars crash, when computers are hacked, and when the earth shakes. There is, it seems, always a “cost to the economy”.

Today, with a mass strike over pensions in the UK, the cliche is brought forth again:

“The Treasury could save £30m from the pay forfeited by the striking teachers today but business leaders warned that this was hugely outbalanced by the wider cost to the economy of hundreds of thousands of parents having to take the day off.

“The British Chambers of Commerce said disruption will lead to many parents having to take the day off work to look after their children, losing them pay and hitting productivity.”

Statements like these (by David Frost, the director general, it turns out) pass unquestioned (also here, here and elsewhere), but in this case (and I wonder how many others), I think a little statistical literacy is needed.

Beyond the churnalism of ‘he said-she said’ reporting, when costs and figures are mentioned journalists should be exercising a little scepticism.

Here’s the thing. In reality, most parents will have taken annual leave today to look after their children. That’s annual leave that they would have taken anyway, so is it really costing the economy any more to take that leave on this day in particular? And specifically, enough to “hugely outbalance” £30m?

Stretching credulity further is the reference to parents losing pay. All UK workers have a statutory right to 5.6 weeks of annual leave paid at their normal rate of pay. If they’ve used all that up halfway into the year (or 3 months into the financial year) – before the start of the school holidays no less – and have to take unpaid leave, then they’re stupid enough to be a cost to the economy without any extra help.

And this isn’t just a fuss about statistics: it’s a central element of one of the narratives around the strikes: that the Government are “deliberately trying to provoke the unions into industrial action so they could blame them for the failure of the Government’s economic strategy.”

If they do, it’ll be a good story. Will journalists let the facts get in the way of it?

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December 07 2010

08:47

One ambassador’s embarrassment is a tragedy, 15,000 civilian deaths is a statistic

Few things illustrate the challenges facing journalism in the age of ‘Big Data’ better than Cable Gate – and specifically, how you engage people with stories that involve large sets of data.

The Cable Gate leaks have been of a different order to the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. Not in number (there were 90,000 documents in the Afghanistan war logs and over 390,000 in the Iraq logs; the Cable Gate documents number around 250,000) – but in subject matter.

Why is it that the 15,000 extra civilian deaths estimated to have been revealed by the Iraq war logs did not move the US authorities to shut down Wikileaks’ hosting and PayPal accounts? Why did it not dominate the news agenda in quite the same way?

Tragedy or statistic?

Generally misattributed to Stalin, the quote “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” illustrates the problem particularly well: when you move beyond scales we can deal with on a human level, you struggle to engage people in the issue you are covering.

Research suggests this is a problem that not only affects journalism, but justice as well. In October Ben Goldacre wrote about a study that suggested “People who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm a smaller number. Courts punish people less harshly when they harm more people.”

“Out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who read the three-victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30-victim readers. Another study, in which a food processing company knowingly poisoned customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results.”

Salience

This is where journalists play a particularly important role. Kevin Marsh, writing about Wikileaks on Sunday, argues that

“Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the pubic interest – if we mean capturing the public’s attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material. “

He is right. But Charlie Beckett, in the comments to that post, points out that Wikileaks is not operating in isolation:

“Wikileaks is now part of a networked journalism where they are in effect, a kind of news-wire for traditional newsrooms like the New York Times, Guardian and El Pais. I think that delivers a high degree of what you call salience.”

This is because last year Wikileaks realised that they would have much more impact working in partnership with news organisations than releasing leaked documents to the world en masse. It was a massive move for Wikileaks, because it meant re-assessing a core principle of openness to all, and taking on a more editorial role. But it was an intelligent move – and undoubtedly effective. The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and now El Pais and Le Monde have all added salience to the leaks. But could they have done more?

Visualisation through personalisation and humanisation

In my series of posts on data journalism I identified visualisation as one of four interrelated stages in its production. I think that this concept needs to be broadened to include visualisation through case studies: or humanisation, to put it more succinctly.

There are dangers here, of course. Firstly, that humanising a story makes it appear to be an exception (one person’s tragedy) rather than the rule (thousands suffering) – or simply emotive rather than also informative; and secondly, that your selection of case studies does not reflect the more complex reality.

Ben Goldacre – again – explores this issue particularly well:

“Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months, which is about 6 weeks. Some people might benefit more, some less. For some, Avastin might even shorten their life, and they would have been better off without it (and without its additional side effects, on top of their other chemotherapy). But overall, on average, when added to all the other treatments, Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months.

“The Daily Mail, the ExpressSky News, the Press Association and the Guardian all described these figures, and then illustrated their stories about Avastin with an anecdote: the case of Barbara Moss. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, had all the normal treatment, but also paid out of her own pocket to have Avastin on top of that. She is alive today, four years later.

“Barbara Moss is very lucky indeed, but her anecdote is in no sense whatsoever representative of what happens when you take Avastin, nor is it informative. She is useful journalistically, in the sense that people help to tell stories, but her anecdotal experience is actively misleading, because it doesn’t tell the story of what happens to people on Avastin: instead, it tells a completely different story, and arguably a more memorable one – now embedded in the minds of millions of people – that Roche’s £21,000 product Avastin makes you survive for half a decade.”

Broadcast journalism – with its regulatory requirement for impartiality, often interpreted in practical terms as ‘balance’ – is particularly vulnerable to this. Here’s one example of how the homeopathy debate is given over to one person’s experience for the sake of balance:

Journalism on an industrial scale

The Wikileaks stories are journalism on an industrial scale. The closest equivalent I can think of was the MPs’ expenses story which dominated the news agenda for 6 weeks. Cable Gate is already on Day 9 and the wealth of stories has even justified a live blog.

With this scale comes a further problem: cynicism and passivity; Cable Gate fatigue. In this context online journalism has a unique role to play which was barely possible previously: empowerment.

3 years ago I wrote about 5 Ws and a H that should come after every news story. The ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of that are possibilities that many news organisations have still barely explored. ‘Why should I care?’ is about a further dimension of visualisation: personalisation – relating information directly to me. The Guardian moves closer to this with its searchable database, but I wonder at what point processing power, tools, and user data will allow us to do this sort of thing more effectively.

‘How can I make a difference?’ is about pointing users to tools – or creating them ourselves – where they can move the story on by communicating with others, campaigning, voting, and so on. This is a role many journalists may be uncomfortable with because it raises advocacy issues, but then choosing to report on these stories, and how to report them, raises the same issues; linking to a range of online tools need not be any different. These are issues we should be exploring, ethically.

All the above in one sentence

Somehow I’ve ended up writing over a thousand words on this issue, so it’s worth summing it all up in a sentence.

Industrial scale journalism using ‘big data’ in a networked age raises new problems and new opportunities: we need to humanise and personalise big datasets in a way that does not detract from the complexity or scale of the issues being addressed; and we need to think about what happens after someone reads a story online and whether online publishers have a role in that.

November 30 2010

15:00

CCTV spending by councils/how many police officers would that pay? – statistics in context

News organisations across the country will today be running stories based on a report by Big Brother Watch into the amount spent on CCTV surveillance by local authorities (PDF). The treatment of this report is a lesson in how journalists approach figures, and why context is more important than raw figures.

BBC Radio WM, for example, led this morning on the fact that Birmingham topped the table of spending on CCTV. But Birmingham is the biggest local authority in the UK by some distance, so this fact alone is not particularly newsworthy – unless, of course, you omit this fact or allow anyone from the council to point it out (ahem).

Much more interesting was the fact that the second biggest spender was Sandwell – also in the Radio WM region. Sandwell spent half as much as Birmingham – but its population is only a third the size of its neighbour. Put another way, Sandwell spent 80% more per head of population than Birmingham on CCTV (£18 compared to Birmingham’s £10 per head).

Being on a deadline wasn’t an issue here: that information took me only a few minutes to find and work out.

The Press Association’s release on the story focused on the Birmingham angle too – taking the Big Brother Watch statements and fleshing them out with old quotes from those involved in the last big Birmingham surveillance story – the Project Champion scheme – before ending with a top ten list of CCTV spenders.

The Daily Mail, which followed a similar line, at least managed to mention that some smaller authorities (Woking and Breckland) had spent rather a lot of money considering their small populations.

How many police officers would that pay for?

A few outlets also repeated the assertions on how many nurses or police officers the money spent on surveillance would have paid for.

The Daily Mail quoted the report as saying that “The price of providing street CCTV since 2007 would have paid for more than 13,500 police constables on starting salaries of just over £23,000″. The Birmingham Mail, among others, noted that it would have paid the salaries of more than 15,000 nurses.

And here we hit a second problem.

The £314m spent on CCTV since 2007 would indeed pay for 13,500 police officers on £23,000 – but only for one year. On an ongoing basis, it would have paid the wages of 4,500 police officers (it should also be pointed out that the £314m figure only covered 336 local authorities – the CCTV spend of those who failed to respond would increase this number).

Secondly, wages are not the only cost of employment, just as installation is not the only cost of CCTV. The FOI request submitted by Big Brother Watch is a good example of this: not only do they ask for installation costs, but operation and maintenance costs, and staffing costs – including pension liabilities and benefits.

There’s a great ‘Employee True Cost Calculator‘ on the IT Centa website which illustrates this neatly: you have to factor in national insurance, pension contributions, overheads and other costs to get a truer picture.

Don’t blame Big Brother Watch

Big Brother Watch’s report is a much more illuminating, and statistically aware, read than the media coverage. Indeed, there’s a lot more information about Sandwell Council’s history in this area which would have made for a better lead story on Radio WM, juiced up the Birmingham Mail report, or just made for a decent story in the Express and Star (which instead simply ran the PA release).

There’s also more about spending per head, comparisons between councils of different sizes, and between spending on other things*, and spending on maintenance, staffing (where Sandwell comes top) and new cameras – but it seems most reporters didn’t look beyond the first page, and the first name on the leaderboard.

It’s frustrating to see news organisations pass over important stories such as that in Sandwell for the sake of filling column inches and broadcast time with the easiest possible story to write. The result is a homogenous and superficial product: a perfect example of commodified news.

I bet the people at Big Brother Watch are banging their heads on their desks to see their digging reported with so little depth. And I think they could learn something from Wikileaks on why that might be: they gave it to all the media at the same time.

Wikileaks learned a year ago that this free-to-all approach reduced the value of the story, and consequently the depth with which it was reported. But by partnering with one news organisation in each country Wikileaks not only had stories treated more seriously, but other news organisations chasing new angles jealously.

*While we’re at it, the report also points out that the UK spends more on CCTV per head than 38 countries do on defence, and 5 times more in total than Uganda spends on health. “UK spends more on CCTV than Bangladesh does on defence” has a nice ring to me. That said, those defence spending figures turn out to be from 2004 and earlier, and so are not exactly ideal (Wolfram Alpha is a good place to get quick stats like this – and suggests a much higher per capita spend)

November 17 2010

12:00

Data journalism stats time: seasonal adjustment

seasonal adjustment image from Junk Charts

When you start to base journalism around data it’s easy to overlook basic weaknesses in that data – from the type of average that is being used, to distribution, sample size and statistical significance. Last week I wrote about inflation and average wages. A similar factor to consider when looking at any figures is seasonal adjustment.

Kaiser Fung recently wrote a wonderful post on the subject:

“What you see [in the image above] is that almost every line is an inverted U. This means that no matter what year, and what region, housing starts peak during the summer and ebb during the winter.

“So if you compare the June starts with the October starts, it is a given that the October number will be lower than June. So reporting a drop from June to October is meaningless. What is meaningful is whether this year’s drop is unusually large or unusually small; to assess that, we have to know the average historical drop between October and June.

“Statisticians are looking for explanations for why housing starts vary from month to month. Some of the change is due to the persistent seasonal pattern. Some of the change is due to economic factors or other factors. The reason for seasonal adjustments is to get rid of the persistent seasonal pattern, or put differently, to focus attention on other factors deemed more interesting.

“The bottom row of charts above contains the seasonally adjusted data (I have used the monthly rather than annual rates to make it directly comparable to the unadjusted numbers.)  Notice that the inverted U shape has pretty much disappeared everywhere.”

The first point is not to think you’ve got a story because house sales are falling this winter – they might fall every winter. In fact, for all you know they may be falling less dramatically than in previous years.

The second point is to be aware of whether the figures you are looking at have been seasonally adjusted or not.

The final – and hardest – point is to know how to seasonally adjust data if you need to.

For that last point you’ll need to go elsewhere on the web. This page on analysing time series takes you through the steps in Excel nicely. And Catherine Hood’s tipsheet on doing seasonal adjustment on a short time series in Excel (PDF) covers a number of different types of seasonal variation. For more on how and where seasonal adjustment is used in UK government figures check out the results of this search (adapt for your own county’s government domain).

November 11 2010

10:17

What inflation has to do with the price of fish

One of the forms of data that journalists frequently have to deal with is prices. And while it’s one thing to say that things are getting more expensive, making a meaningful comparison between what things cost now and what things cost then is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Factoring in inflation can make all the difference between arbitrary comparisons that provide no insight whatsoever, and genuinely meaningful reporting.

Thanks to computing power it’s actually quite easy for journalists to factor inflation into their reporting – by using an inflation calculator. It’s also easier to find historical price data with data-driven search engines like Wolfram Alpha.

But inflation is only half of the calculation you need. The other is earnings.

Professor Ian Stewart illustrates this perfectly in this article in The Telegraph:

“[A] 1991 pint cost around £1.40, which is £1.80 in today’s money. The current price is around £2.80, so beer really is more expensive. On the other hand, the average salary in 1991 was £19,000, and today it is £38,000. Relative to what we earn, a pint costs exactly the same as it did 19 years ago.

“Our house? That would be £125,000 today, so it has gone up by 84 per cent. Relative to average earnings, however, the increase is only 10 per cent.

“The Guardian knows about inflation, and said that the pub pint has increased by 68 per cent in real terms. But this compares the real increase in new money with the original price in old money. If I did the calculation like that for my house it would have gone up by 850 per cent. Calculated sensibly, the rise in the price of beer is about 55 per cent relative to inflation, and zero per cent relative to earnings.”

Of course the danger in averages is that they only illustrate aggregate change, and if you’re talking about a purchase that a particular section of the population makes – or you’re only talking to a particular region – then a national average may not be as meaningful a comparison to make.

If the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer then a pint of beer really is more expensive for some – and cheaper for others – than it used to be. Likewise, particular parts of the country might be suffering more from house price increases than others because of local average wages and local house prices.

It’s also worth pointing out that, when talking about financial data, a median is a much more useful measure to take than a mean.

Finally, aside from the statistical considerations it’s worth coming back to some of the basics of pricing. Ian again:

“There are two things to remember about prices. One is basic economics: if something gets too expensive for people to buy it, they don’t. So prices and wages have to stay in step, broadly speaking – though with big fluctuations in some commodities, such as housing. The other is inflation. We all know it exists, but we forget that when we start comparing prices. ‘My God! A Ford Anglia cost only £295 in 1940!’ True, but the average salary then was £370. The equivalent price today is £30,000, which will buy you a Jaguar XF.”

October 12 2010

09:25

Statistical analysis as journalism – Benford’s law

 

drug-related murder map

I’m always on the lookout for practical applications of statistical analysis for doing journalism, so this piece of work by Diego Valle-Jones, on drug-related murders, made me very happy.

I’ve heard of the first-digit law (also known as Benford’s law) before – it’s a way of spotting dodgy data.

What Diego Valle-Jones has done is use the method to highlight discrepancies in information on drug-delated murders in Mexico. Or, as Pete Warden explains:

“With the help of just Benford’s law and data sets to compare he’s able to demonstrate how the police are systematically hiding over a thousand murders a year in a single state, and that’s just in one small part of the article.”

Diego takes up the story:

“The police records and the vital statistics records are collected using different methodologies: vital statistics from the INEGI [the statistical agency of the Mexican government] are collected from death certificates and the police records from the SNSP are the number of police reports (“averiguaciones previas”) for the crime of murder—not the number of victims. For example, if there happened to occur a particular heinous crime in which 15 teens were massacred, but only one police report were filed, all the murders would be recorded in the database as one. But even taking this into account, the difference is too high.

“You could also argue that the data are provisional—at least for 2008—but missing over a thousand murders in Chihuahua makes the data useless at the state level. I could understand it if it was an undercount by 10%–15%, or if they had added a disclaimer saying the data for Chihuahua was from July, but none of that happened and it just looks like a clumsy way to lie. It’s a pity several media outlets and the UN homicide statistics used this data to report the homicide rate in Mexico is lower than it really is.”

But what brings the data alive is Diego’s knowledge of the issue. In one passage he checks against large massacres since 1994 to see if they were recorded in the database. One of them – the Acteal Massacre (“45 dead, December 22, 1997″) – is not there. This, he says, was “committed by paramilitary units with government backing against 45 Tzotzil Indians … According to the INEGI there were only 2 deaths during December 1997 in the municipality of Chenalho, where the massacre occurred. What a silly way to avoid recording homicides! Now it is just a question of which data is less corrupt.”

The post as a whole is well worth reading in full, both as a fascinating piece of journalism, and a fascinating use of a range of statistical methods. As Pete says, it is a wonder this guy doesn’t get more publicity for his work.

09:25

Statistical analysis as journalism – Benford’s law

 

drug-related murder map

I’m always on the lookout for practical applications of statistical analysis for doing journalism, so this piece of work by Diego Valle-Jones, on drug-related murders, made me very happy.

I’ve heard of the first-digit law (also known as Benford’s law) before – it’s a way of spotting dodgy data.

What Diego Valle-Jones has done is use the method to highlight discrepancies in information on drug-delated murders in Mexico. Or, as Pete Warden explains:

“With the help of just Benford’s law and data sets to compare he’s able to demonstrate how the police are systematically hiding over a thousand murders a year in a single state, and that’s just in one small part of the article.”

Diego takes up the story:

“The police records and the vital statistics records are collected using different methodologies: vital statistics from the INEGI [the statistical agency of the Mexican government] are collected from death certificates and the police records from the SNSP are the number of police reports (“averiguaciones previas”) for the crime of murder—not the number of victims. For example, if there happened to occur a particular heinous crime in which 15 teens were massacred, but only one police report were filed, all the murders would be recorded in the database as one. But even taking this into account, the difference is too high.

“You could also argue that the data are provisional—at least for 2008—but missing over a thousand murders in Chihuahua makes the data useless at the state level. I could understand it if it was an undercount by 10%–15%, or if they had added a disclaimer saying the data for Chihuahua was from July, but none of that happened and it just looks like a clumsy way to lie. It’s a pity several media outlets and the UN homicide statistics used this data to report the homicide rate in Mexico is lower than it really is.”

But what brings the data alive is Diego’s knowledge of the issue. In one passage he checks against large massacres since 1994 to see if they were recorded in the database. One of them – the Acteal Massacre (“45 dead, December 22, 1997″) – is not there. This, he says, was “committed by paramilitary units with government backing against 45 Tzotzil Indians … According to the INEGI there were only 2 deaths during December 1997 in the municipality of Chenalho, where the massacre occurred. What a silly way to avoid recording homicides! Now it is just a question of which data is less corrupt.”

The post as a whole is well worth reading in full, both as a fascinating piece of journalism, and a fascinating use of a range of statistical methods. As Pete says, it is a wonder this guy doesn’t get more publicity for his work.

October 05 2010

21:46

Six Stunning Projects That Show the Power of Data Visualization

Data visualization is taking the web by storm and, with a little luck, it might be the next big thing in online journalism. Buoyed by the open data movement and accelerating change in newsrooms around the country, it has become something more than just flashy graphics and charts -- it is a new form of visual communication for the 21st century.

In the coming months, I'll be writing about this emerging field for MediaShift. We'll cover best practices, free tools and resources. We'll also analyze the best of the best and talk to some data visualization or viz bloggers about what's hot and what's not. From time to time, I'll share some of my own data viz experiences with you and seek your feedback.

What is Data Visualization?

At its core, data visualization is the visual representation of information served up with a healthy dose of innovation and creativity. A truly stunning data viz becomes more than the sum of its parts. This new digital alchemy can turn a simple spreadsheet into something that can shake up the debate, measure progress or even change the world.

This periodic table of visualization methods by the folks over at VisualLiteracy.org illustrates a number of different elements or viz building blocks. A data viz can take the form of an infographic, a timeline or a map. It can be a motion chart, a short video clip, an interactive dashboard, or even a web app.

Below, you'll find six examples of data visualization from around the web and across the globe that provide an overview of the techniques and approaches to data visualization.

1. Work With Passion Like Hans Rosling

Data_viz_1.jpg

Any discussion about data visualization has to start with Hans Rosling. He is a professor of international health and co-founder/director of the Gapminder Foundation. He created the Trendalyzer, an advanced motion chart that makes statistics come alive.

If you are not excited about the power of data visualization, you will be after this video of his talk at TED where he talks about health in the developing world. The magic begins at around three minutes in:

You can make your own international health comparisons using an interactive motion chart or download the free Gapminder desktop application for a hands-on data experience.

2. Visual Can Also Be Visceral

Latoya Egwuekwe, a former classmate of mine at American University's Interactive Journalism program, made national headlines with her visualization of county-level unemployment data. See it for yourself: The Geography of a Recession. This viz has received over 1 million hits since it was launched in October 2009.

Data_viz_2.jpg

Every day, I work with labor statistics and I am still floored every time I see this viz. It goes to show that you don't have to be a pro to have an impact. Around the web, students, citizen journalists and bloggers are breaking new ground.

3. Making a Story Hit Home

Data visualizations can be used to tease out and illustrate trends from data in new and unexpected ways.

Timothy Noah over at Slate introduced the concept of "the Great Divergence" and then he used a data viz to take readers on a visual tour of income inequality in America.

data_viz_3.jpg

Dubbed the United States of Inequality, this 10-part series and viz shows a widening income gap.

4. Use Motion to Move Your Audience

A visual look at aging around the world by General Electric incorporates motion beautifully. It allows you to compare age cohorts from different countries over time -- think Baby Boomers, Generation X, etc. Watch as your generation grows old and dies based on United Nations population projections.

data_viz_4.jpg

This viz is called Our Aging World and is presented as an interactive motion chart.

5. Seeing Something in a New Light

This viz by NMAP.org shows the web like you've never seen it before. If you've ever clicked a mouse before, you're probably familiar with favicons -- the tiny images that appear next to the website URL in the address bar of your browser. This viz includes close to 300,000 of them.

data_viz_5.jpg

The size of a company's favicon corresponds to the reach of its website on the web. As you might have guessed, Google is the largest. Check out Icons of the Web, a gigapixel image with an interactive viewer.

6. What's A Billion Dollars Between Friends?

Visualizing numbers can add context to any story. Last but not least, we have a viz by Information is Beautiful's David McCandless. It's called the Billion Dollar-O-Gram and is an interactive tree map. He created this viz out of frustration with media reports citing billion-dollar amounts without providing the proper context.

data_viz_6.jpg

Not only is this viz useful and informative, it's also an example of open data in action. McCandless does something that should be an industry standard -- he links to the entire data set used to create the viz. You can also see how he has updated the viz over time; view the original version, which uses different facts and figures.

How Else Can Journalists Use This?

Besides using them to tell data stories, journalists can use visualizations in the newsroom or on the go for several essential activities. Here are a few more examples of how data visualization can play a role in finding, processing and communicating information:

The Most Beautiful Viz You Have Ever Seen

What is the most beautiful viz you have ever seen? What is your favorite viz of all time?

My pick for most beautiful is more form than function. It's Chris Harrison's Visualizing the Bible. Check it out for yourself.

data_viz_beautiful.jpg

My current favorite viz is a triple threat. It's beautiful, useful and also a great way to link to old movie reviews. It's the New York Times' Ebb and Flow of Movies.

I'd be doing you a disservice if I also didn't share with you a data visualization that I produced. This viz examines the state of the nuclear stockpile, and is called Between Five Countries, Thousands of Nukes.

Please share your favorite examples of data visualization in the comments, and stay tuned for my future posts about this emerging storytelling form.

Anthony Calabrese is journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in data visualization and digital storytelling. He works as a web producer for the State of the USA where he blogs about measuring the nation's progress. Previously, he worked as a data researcher on the Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools publications at U.S. News & World Report. He holds a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University and is an active member of the Online News Association.
You can follow him on Twitter @2mrw

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August 19 2010

08:48

Internet use in the UK – implications from Ofcom’s research for publishers

Apart from photo sharing and social networking, most internet users have little interest in UGC

I’ve just been scanning through the internet section of Ofcom’s latest report on The Communications Market 2010. As always, it’s an essential read and this year the body have done a beautiful job in publishing it online with unique URLs for each passage of the document, and downloadable CSV and PDF files for each piece of data.

Here are what I think are the key points for those specifically interested in online journalism and publishing:

1: Mobile is genuinely significant: 23% of UK users now access the web on mobile phones (but 27% still have no access to the web on any device).

Implication: We should be thinking about mobile as another medium, with different generic qualities to print, broadcast or web, and different consumption and distribution patterns.

2: 23% of time spent online is on social networks – and there has been a 10% rise in the numbers with a social media profile across all demographics. Mobile emerges as an important platform for social media access, particularly among 16-24-year-olds. Twitter is has 1m more unique visitors than MySpace, but Facebook has 20m more than Twitter.

Implication: We should have social network strategies not only around distributing content but also commercial possibilities such as embedded advertising, diverting marketing budget, etc.

3: Display advertising grew slightly, but search advertising continues to gain market share.

Implication: Not good news for publishers – the question to ask might be: why? Is it because of the mass market search engines enjoy? Or the measurability of being able to advertise against search terms? Is that something news websites can offer too – or something similar?

4: 48% of 24-34 year olds use the internet to keep up with news – more than any other age group – older people are least interested in news online.

Implication: confirms not only that our online audiences are different demographically, but young people are interested in news. What’s missing is an elaboration of what they consider ‘keeping up with news’ – that doesn’t necessarily mean checking a news website, but might include letting news come to them via social networks, email, or finding ‘news’ about their friends.

5: Google literacy - only 20% think search results are unbiased & accurate; 54% are critical.

Implication: surprising, and challenges some assumptions.

6: Google Image Search becomes a significant search engine on its own, above all other general search engines (Bing, Yahoo, MSN) apart from Google’s main search portal. Curiously, YouTube is not listed, although it is widely known that it accounts for more searches than Yahoo! I am guessing it was not classified separately as a search engine (it is, however, the second most popular search term, after ‘Facebook’).

Implication: emphasises the importance of SEO for images, but also the growing popularity of vertical search engines. A news organisation that created an effective search facility either for its own site (most news website search facilities are not very good) or in its field could reap some benefits longer term.

7: UGC is changing – there is an overall decline in uploading and adding content. “The only age group in which this figure did not fall since 2009 was 45-64 year olds, while the number
of 15-24 year olds claiming to upload content fell by 10 percentage points.”

That said, in the detail there are increases in the numbers of users who have created UGC in certain categories – there was an 8% increase in those who have commented on blogs, for example, and a 6% increase in those who have uploaded images to a website. It may be that UGC activity is being concentrated in social networks (the numbers who have created a social network profile doubled from 22% to 44%)

Implication: There seems to be a limit to the people who will contribute content online (even where there were increases, this appears to be drawn from the proportion of people who previously wanted to contribute content online – see image at top of post). And these appear to be gravitating towards particular communities, i.e. Facebook. There may be a limited window of opportunity for attracting these users to contribute to your site – or it may be that publishers have to work harder to attract them with functionality, etc.

8: News and information is the 4th most popular content category – although ‘search and communities’ are lumped together in first place. Time spent on news and information is significantly lower than other categories, however. Likewise, the BBC and Associated Newspapers both feature in the top 20 sites (along with more general portals AOL, Sky and Yahoo!) but have lower time per person.

Implication: the news industry has an ongoing ‘stickiness’ problem. People are clearly interested in news, but don’t stick around. Traditional cross-publishing and shovelware approaches don’t appear to be working. We need to learn from the areas where people spend most time – such as social networks. Research is needed into media types that appear to have a strong record here, such as audio slideshows, wikis and databases.

July 26 2010

08:00

#Tip of the day from Journalism.co.uk – Advice on reporting statistics

Statistics: BBC College of Journalism reinforces the importance of getting the numbers right. First in a series of tips from the BBC. Tipster: Rachel McAthy. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link - we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.


April 08 2010

13:58

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens - paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

March 19 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Loads of SXSW ideas, Pew’s state of the news, and a dire picture of local TV news

[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 raft of ideas at SXSW: The center of the journalism-and-tech world this week has been Austin, Texas, site of the annual conference South by Southwest. The part we’re most concerned about — SXSW Interactive — ran from last Friday to Tuesday. The New York Times’ David Carr gives us a good feel for the atmosphere, and Poynter’s Steve Myers asked 15 journalists what they took away from SXSW, and it makes for a good roundup. A handful of sessions there grabbed the attention of a lot of the journalism thinkers on the web, and I’ll try to take you on a semi-quick tour:

— We saw some conversation last week leading up to Matt Thompson’s panel on “The Future of Context,” and that discussion continued throughout this week. We had some great description of the session, between Steve Myers’ live blog and Elise Hu’s more narrative summary. As Hu explains, Thompson and his fellow panelists, NYU prof Jay Rosen and Apture founder Tristan Harris, looked at why much of our news lacks context, why our way of producing news doesn’t make sense (we’re still working with old values in a new ecosystem), and how we go about adding context to a largely episodic news system.

Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center echoes the panelists’ concerns, and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau pushes the concept further, connecting it with social gaming. Littau doesn’t buy the idea that Americans don’t have time for news, since they obviously have plenty of time for games that center on collecting things, like Facebook’s Farmville. He’d like to see news organizations try to provide that missing context in a game environment, with the gamer’s choices informed by “blasts of information, ideally pulled from well reported news stories, that the user can actually apply to the situation in a way that increases both recall and understanding.”

— NYU’s web culture guru, Clay Shirky, gave a lecture on the value that can be squeezed out of public sharing. Matt Thompson has a wonderful live blog of the hourlong session, and Liz Gannes of GigaOM has a solid summary, complete with a few of the made-for-Twitter soundbites Shirky has a knack for, like “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does,” and “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Once again, Jeremy Littau pulls Shirky’s ideas together and hones in on their implications for journalism in a thoughtful post, concluding that while the future of journalism is bright, its traditional players are clueless. “I just don’t see a future for them when they’re trying to protect information as a scarce commodity,” he writes. “The scarcity, in truth, is in media companies trying to create civic goods via user sharing.”

danah boyd, who studies social media and youth culture for Microsoft Research, gave a well-received talk on privacy and publicity online. It doesn’t have much to do directly with journalism, but it’s a brilliant, insightful glimpse into how web culture works. Here’s a rough crib of the talk from boyd, and a summary from TechCrunch. There’s a bunch of cool nuggets in there, like boyd’s description of the “inversion of defaults” in privacy and publicity online. Historically, conversations were private by default and public by effort, but conversations online have become public by default and private by effort.

— One of the big journalism-related stories from SXSW has been AOL and Seed’s efforts to employ a not-so-small army of freelancers to cover each of the 2,000 or so bands at the festival. The Daily Beast has the best summary of the project and its goals, and TechCrunch talks about it with former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, who’s directing the effort. Silicon Alley Insider noted midweek that they wouldn’t reach the goal of 2,000 interviews.

One of the big questions about AOL and Seed’s effort is whether they’re simply creating another kind of “content mill” that many corners of the web have been decrying over the past few months. Music writer Leor Galil criticized it as crass, complaining of the poor quality of some of the interviews: “AOL is shelling out cash and providing great space for potentially terrible content.” David Cohn of Spot.Us compared AOL to the most notorious content farm, Demand Media, concluding that journalists shouldn’t be worried about them exploiting writers, but should be worried about their threat to the journalism industry as a whole.

— One other session worth noting: “Cult of the Amateur” author and digital dystopian Andrew Keen gave a sobering talk called “Is Innovation Fair?” As Fast Company’s Francine Hardaway aptly summarized, he pointed to the downsides of our technological advances and argued that if SXSW is a gathering of the winners in the cultural shift, we have to remember that there are losers, too.

Pew’s paywall findings: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual “State of the News Media” study, and it’s a smorgasbord of statistics about every major area of journalism, from print to TV to the web. A summary of summaries: The study’s six major emerging trends (expanded on by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell), some of its key statistical findings, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s seven eye-popping statistics from the study.

The biggest headline for most people was the study’s finding that only seven percent of the Americans who get their news online say they’d spring for a favorite news source’s content if it went behind a paywall. (The AP writeup has a few more statistics and some analysis about online loyalty and advertising.) Jeff Jarvis, a longtime paywall opponent, wondered why newspapers are spending so much time on the paywall issue instead of their “dreadful” engagement and loyalty online. Former WSJer Jason Fry breaks down the study to conclude that the basic unit of online journalism is not the site but the article — thus undermining the primary mindset behind the paywall.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, who writes the study’s section on newspapers each year, said he’s done with dead-and-dying as an industry theme. Instead, he said, the problem with most newspapers is that they are becoming insubstantial, shells of their former selves. “They lack the heft to be thrown up the front porch or to satisfy those readers still willing to pay for a good print newspaper.” Editor & Publisher pulled some of the more depressing statistics from Edmonds’ chapter. Yet Lee Rainie, who co-authored the study’s section on online economics, said he was still optimistic about journalism’s future.

A bleak look at local TV news: Another fascinating journalism study was released late last week by USC researchers that found disappointing, though not necessarily surprising, trends in Los Angeles local TV news: Crime, sports, weather and teasers dominate, with very little time for business and government. USC’s press release has some highlights, and co-author Martin Kaplan offers a quick, pointed video overview of the report, concluding with a barb about wants and needs: “I want ice cream. I need a well-balanced meal. Apparently the people of Los Angeles want 22 seconds about their local government. Maybe if they got more than that, they’d want more than that.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was “flat-out alarmed” by the study and vowed some vague form of action. Jay Rosen was ruthless in his criticism on Twitter, and Los Angeles Times critic James Rainey used the study as the basis for a particularly well-written evisceration of local TV news. Rainey had the most promising suggestion, proposing that a cash-strapped TV station find a newspaper, nonprofit or j-school interested in partnering with it to build an audience around more substantive, in-depth TV news.

The iPad, magazines and advertising: As we expected, lots and lots of people have been ordering iPads since they went on sale — 50,000 in the first two hours and 152,000 in three days, according to estimates. We’re also continuing to get word of news organizations’ and publishers’ plans for apps; this week we heard that the AP will have an app when the iPad rolls out next month, and saw a nifty interactive feature for the digital Viv Mag. (The Guardian has a roundup of other video iPad demos that have come out so far.)

SXSW also had at least three sessions focusing on media companies and the iPad: 1) One on the iPad and the magazine industry focused largely on advertising — here’s a DigitalBeat summary and deeper thoughts by Reuters’ Felix Salmon on why advertising on the iPad could be more immersive and valuable than in print; 2) Another focusing on the iPad and Wired magazine, with Salmon opining on why the iPad is a step backwards in the open-web world; 3) And a third on iPad consumption habits and their effects on various industries.

Reading roundup: One ongoing discussion, two pieces of news and one smart analysis:

The conversation sparked by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen’s advice for newspapers to forget the printed paper and go all-in with online news continued this week, with Frederic Filloux noting that “there are alternatives to envisioning the transformation of the print media as only a choice between euthanizing the paper product or putting it on life support.” Steve Yelvington looked at setting up separate print and online divisions (been there, done that, he says), Tim Kastelle spun Andreesen and Google’s Hal Varian off into more thoughtful suggestions for newspapers, and Dorian Benkoil took the opportunity to marvel at how much things have changed for the better.

The first piece of news was Twitter’s launch at SXSW of @anywhere, a simple program that allows other sites to implement some of Twitter’s features. TechCrunch gave a quick overview of what it could do, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy looked at its targeting of Facebook Connect, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was unimpressed.

Second, ABC News execs revealed that they’re planning on putting up an online paywall by this summer. The Guardian and paidContent have detailed interviews with ABC News digital chief Paul Slavin.

And finally, newspaper vet Alan Mutter examines the often-heard assertion that small newspapers are weathering the industry’s storm better than their larger counterparts. He nails all the major issues at play for small papers, both the pluses (lack of competition and broadband access, loyal readership) and the minuses (rapidly aging population, some local economies lacking diversity). He ultimately advises small papers to ensure their future success by innovating in order to become indispensable to their communities: “To the degree publishers emphasize short-term profits over long-term engagement, they will damage their franchises — and open the way to low-cost online competitors.”

November 21 2009

21:31

Did the internet begin dying in September 2008?

Nicholas Moerman has put together an impressive collection of graphs showing a general decline over the past year in visits to mainstream websites across a raft of categories, from content and commerce to portals and porn. The only category that bucks the trend? I’ll let you guess.

He doesn’t know why this is (or even if he’s seeing things), which is rather refreshing, but offers some ideas, and it’s certainly food for thought. Here it is:

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