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March 15 2011


How Social Media, Internet Changed Experience of Japan Disaster

The reports and pictures of the devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last week reminded me of reporting on the earthquake that leveled Japan's port city of Kobe in 1995.

On a personal level, I am praying for the people in a country I have come to see as a second home.

As a media observer, what struck me this time was how rich and multifaceted the information flow was. In 1995, I worked in the AP bureau in Tokyo, trying to understand what I could from Japanese broadcast news reports. We were sometimes able to reach someone, official or not, in the Kobe region via phone for a quick interview as the death toll rose, eventually reaching more than 6,400.

We, of course, covered the major news conferences held by agencies and government offices. For information from the region, I relied largely on the reporters and photographers  (including me three weeks and then six months after the quake) who were dispatched to the scene. Listening to and watching the broadcast channels and the other wire services was an overwhelming and chaotic but -- by today's standards -- thin experience.

Multi-platform Experience Today

The past few days, sitting at home and in my office in New York, it felt like I had more information and contacts at my fingertips than I did then as a reporter in Japan. The morning I learned of the quake, I had a TV connected to digital cable, an iPad, a Blackberry and a web-connected computer in my living room.

I flipped among ABC, NBC, MSNBC, Fox, CNN, and BBC on TV. An iPad app gave me video of quake alerts in English and other languages from Japanese national broadcaster NHK. I dipped into the Twitter and Facebook streams.

A photo slideshow on the front page of the New York Times only a few hours after the quake gave a sense of not just the depth of destruction but also the geographic breadth. The towns being mentioned in captions spanned multiple prefectures (similar to states).

I was able to watch Japanese TV network TBS live via a Ustream link I was referred to in a "Japan Quake" page assembled by my New York-based friend and media colleague Sree Sreenivasan.

sree japan page.jpg

Huge Amounts of Video

The sheer amount of video -- from a country that may have more cameras and camera-equipped cell phones than any other per capita -- was so much greater than ever in the TV-only era. Even on TV, I saw constantly updated videos among the various channels, rather than the same loop of packaged videos used in an earlier era.

TV anchors such as Christiane Amanpour, Shepard Smith and Anderson Cooper all are doing shows live from Japan. If it seemed crass that some American networks quickly moved to a branded logo and dramatic music for their quake coverage, it was also intriguing how they now used reports from people talking via webcams.

One Westerner who spoke English with an American accent sat in his Japanese apartment and showed the cup of noodles and the Dole pineapple juice he had had for dinner 11 hours earlier and said he didn't know what else he'd be able to eat.

The technology also allowed everyone to see video I would have been able to see only as a news editor back then.

On Facebook, my stepmother from California, shared a six-minute video from Asahi TV that I'd seen clips of on TV. It showed water rushing through the streets of one town. With the natural sound, it had that much more impact than with newspeople talking over it. The surprisingly calm expressions on the faces of bystanders watching from high ground puzzled both my stepmother and me, and was something I didn't see in the multiple TV clips I had seen pulled from this video.

Soon after the quake, I got a hold of one Tokyo resident, one of my best friends, via a Skype connection to his cell phone in Osaka, where he was traveling on business. He said people there had felt the quake but that life was basically unchanged in Japan's second-largest city.

Updates on Facebook, Twitter


I confirmed that another close friend, an American who is a highly skilled translator in Tokyo, was fine by reading her Facebook wall. There, she also posted constant updates that told all her "friends" the latest reports she was seeing and hearing, as well as her feelings and what she could see with her own eyes. I could see that yet another friend was OK by reading her bylines in AP reports.

A decent amount of the Twitter stream, especially in Japanese, was not very useful in an informational sense; there were exclamations of relief or horror, or strange exclamations that seemed almost senseless. But there were also referrals to data, reports, information I could tap into quickly.

I learned, and was able to confirm, that this was either the 5th or 6th largest quake in recorded history, that a nuclear plant was having trouble with its coolant, that 200-300 people had died in one area, that a bunch of new cars were washed from a port.

nytimes image.jpg

Satellite imagery combined with Google Earth technology let many news organizations show overhead images of how towns looked before the tsunami, then after they been flooded.

Shared Details Could be Gut-Wrenching

Sometimes the little details were the most heart-wrenching, such as when a broadcaster droned the numbers of dead town by town, or when my friend on Facebook told us of the man who was riding his bicycle around with a note pinned on it about his missing wife. Here's that report from NHK via CNN:

The combination of reports provided details that gave a sense of daily life in the affected regions that in the pre-web era I never would have had living overseas, no matter how good a correspondent's reports.

By watching the live stream of TBS on Monday, for example, I learned that gas was being rationed at one station where motorists had to wait 30 minutes to get in line; heard a woman in a store complain she'd been looking for batteries but couldn't find them anywhere; and heard another express relief that one store's shelves had some instant ramen noodles. I learned details of how planned blackouts instituted to conserve electricity would take affect as a stream of related tweets moved by on the side.

Some things were much the same as in 1995: the weak pronouncements of government officials who seemed reluctant to say anything meaningful; the frustration of victims angry at not being told what to do or where to go; the sense of foreboding as the death count continued to rise.

I knew from my Kobe experience that the couple hundred pronounced dead in the initial reports would grow by orders of magnitude. I had seen Japanese reports of entire neighborhoods, even villages, that were "missing" after the mid-afternoon tsunami.

This time the feeling of being connected was much stronger, even though I was thousands rather than hundreds of miles away.

Some connections were possible this time only because of technology. I was able to observe New Jersey-based relatives of my Tokyo-based translator friend express love and relief that she and her family in Japan were safe. My friends in the U.S. and elsewhere used Facebook, Twitter and text messages to ask me about my loved ones in Japan, which let me reply in a way that was much easier to handle than in the previous era.

The media and communication technology of course do not change the scope of the disaster but do change the way we are able to experience and share it.

Resources like the Google People Finder in Japanese and English, links to aid sites, like the one on this WNYC.org page, and some social media outreach may have even changed things in a more fundamental way.

I do hope the pain and struggles of people affected are mitigated by knowing their plight can be seen and understood in a richer way, and by help they may receive more easily because of new technologies.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.

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March 12 2011


Japan: When public broadcasting meets limited access

On the long list of things I know nothing about are (a) the Japanese language, (b) the state of fair use in Japanese media law, and (c) the legal structure of Japanese public broadcaster NHK. But this article seems to hit on a lot of the same issues we see in the American future-of-journalism world: How far can (and should) a news organization go to protect the products of its journalists? How do the duties of a publicly funded news organization differ from those of a private one? And how does the mission of serving the public match up with the mission to sustain a news organization?

The brief story, in the Japanese business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, is in Japanese, so I asked our Twitter followers if someone was willing to translate.

(Huge thanks to Chris Salzberg, Annamaria Sasagawa, Carlos Martinez de la Serna, Tana Oshima, and Ally Millar for volunteering to help. Our readers are awesome.)

Here’s how one of our readers, Takaaki Okada, translated the text:

NHK disallows the transmission of earthquake footage over the web

On the 11th of March, NHK disallowed the online transmission of earthquake footage by other news media outlets. “We are sending our correspondents to the ground so we can broadcast the footage ourselves, so it makes sense that the public watches it on NHK’s TV channel or website,” said NHK’s Public Relations Department.

NHK is allowing newspapers to publish images of their footage as long as they are credited, but they are not allowing other media outlets to transmit their footage online. Because of this unprecedented emergency, Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei Newspaper) has requested the NHK — a public broadcasting organization — to offer their important video footage, so it can reach a wide audience, but NHK has declined this request.

Again, I have no idea what Japanese law around fair use is, or how NHK as a public broadcaster views (or should view) its role in a moment of national crisis. And NHK is no doubt spending a ton of money covering the earthquake and tsunami, and it makes sense that it should reap the rewards of that work in terms of audience. But it’s an interesting place to draw the line to say that no NHK footage should be allowed on the website of a leading national newspaper. It’s particularly interesting given that, as I type this, there are over 1,000 videos uploaded to YouTube in the past 24 hours with “NHK” in the description or title — and from scanning them over, most seem to be straight copies of NHK disaster footage.

In any event, NHK World is streaming free on its website for anyone looking for it. Our best to all our readers in Japan and everyone else affected by today’s disaster.

March 18 2010


The Newsonomics of emerging news video

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

The New York Times. Video. Three years ago, that seemed like an oxymoron, save the Times’ occasional forays into TV experiments. Now, Times TV pops up in front of us on airplane TVs and news video has become an emerging feature of Times sites. As Apple and NYT staffers plot behind closed doors in the Times building, we can expect that Times video will be a key element of the iPad NYT launch.

Behind what we see, though, are some critical developments in processing of digital video, the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting that often determines time-to-market, and business failure or success.

We can get a glimpse into that with the Times’ recently announced deal with Thought Equity Motion (TEM). Founded in 2003, the company now has an impressive list of customers: BBC, CBS (the current NCAA Vault, a March Madness-related product was co-produced with TEM), NBC and Japan’s NHK, among more than a dozen top brands in total. The New York Times, importantly, is the company’s first newspaper client.

Before we look at what TEM does for these companies, consider two big numbers here: 10.5 million hours and 10 percent.

The 10.5 million hours is the number of hours of video content contracted by TEM, under its management. The 10 percent: that’s all it has been able to get to, so far.

So, look at how early we in this news video business. Most of what will be out there in the digital world — on our phones, tablets, desktops and laptops — isn’t out there yet, but will be over the next several years. It may take mid-2011, robust 4G networks to power our daily video usage, but it’s clear where this movie is headed.

What TEM does for content producers is make their assets more easily usable in the digital world.

It’s no surprise that broadcasters have lots of moving pictures, but the “film” has not been easy to make readily accessible for web use and monetization. First off, there are formatting issues — TEM does transcoding and digitization here. Then there are issues of knowing what’s in the video: Try finding video through search now, and it’s still far more limited than finding text. That’s a matter of tagging and metatagging, categorizing content to harvest the many keywords within. That takes some speech-to-text technology, a still-evolving art. Then you’ve got rights management and all the little things you have to do to make video commercially, contextually, and instantly available. All of that is what TEM calls “Managed Services.”

For the Times, it’s not a matter of harvesting decades of archived film; it’s about making the most of its last three years of a video push. The Newsonomics are these:

  • Make more licensing income off the video. The New York Times Syndicate has long been a high-margin revenue source for the company. Now, with a growing stockpile of video content, it can better manage a new line of licensed content. Think PR usage, think ads, think movies, think other news websites. The key here is having the news video accessible and discoverable. As TEM CEO Kevin Schaff told me, “We’re going after speed-to-context.”
  • Better usage of companies’ own produced video (and partnered video) on their own websites, apps, and tablets. Video still produces among the highest effective ad prices, well into the double digits for premium brands. If a site can present more of it, relevantly and prominently, that’s more good inventory to sell. With video keywords more available — TEM is now testing ad matching with Google — more targeted advertising means more revenue.
  • Put your content into new marketplaces. There have been numerous attempts to create first-generation video syndication marketplaces (Clip Syndicate, Grab Networks, Mochila, and more), some of which were too early for the technologies and viewer adoption curves. New ones will develop — TEM is among those developing one — and whichever get traction off new commercial opportunities for those companies that are ready to exploit them.

Lastly, the outsourcing here is essential. News companies are in learning mode — what is it they do best?; what do they leave to others. In this case, the Times and others are applying my Newsonomics Law #9: Apply the 10 Percent Rule, the heavy lifting of journalism can be aided and abetted by smart use of technology.

Video is in the air — C-SPAN’s release of its volumimous archives reenforces that notion — but as usual, it’s the less-glamorous, behind-the-scenes work that will separate the winners from the companies stuck in text mode.

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