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January 20 2011


Boston Hack Day Challenge: An open door to Boston.com

Count The Boston Globe among the growing number of organizations that want hackers to come in from the cold. On the weekend of Feb. 25 they’re holding a three-day event called the “Boston Hack Day Challenge” where developers, designers, coders and anyone else inclined to make apps will gather to “create new online and mobile products that can make life better for Bostonians.”

We’ve got our share of tech heads around the area thanks to schools like MIT and Harvard, not to mention start-ups (perhaps you’ve heard of SCVNGR?), and the Globe is looking to capitalize on that to help promote their new digital test kitchen, Beta.Boston.com.

In the last few years a number of companies, in and outside of media, have dabbled in hackathons, sometimes to try and associate their name with innovation, other times to try and find the best new talent and products to cherrypick. The New York Times started the Times Open series a few years ago to get New York’s tech community tied into the newspaper and help nudge along the concept of the journo-programmer. We’ve also seen journalists, programmers and developers come together in crises like last year’s earthquakes in Haiti, to try and build tools to aid in communication and emergency response. (And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Hacks/Hackers, which has held a number of developer events like Hacks/Hackers Unite.)

At the Boston Hack Day Challenge, teams will use the weekend to build a site or app dedicated to alleviating one problem or another in the Boston area. (One example would be something like the OpenMBTA app, which I can vouch for as making it easier to catch the bus or T.)

All of these fit quite nicely with Beta.Boston.com, where the Globe’s digital team has been quietly releasing online products, and highlighting apps and sites created by others, including Citizen’s Connect, an app to report issues to the mayor’s office. You’ll also find their early OpenBlock demo with news and data from Boston neighborhoods.

The team at the Globe says to keep an eye on the beta space as they roll out toys and features for BostonGlobe.com, the new subscriber site that will parallel Boston.com.

August 30 2010


An iPhone app developer’s diary, and some thoughts on Android

The reaction to our new free iPhone app has been tremendously positive — if you’ve got an iPhone and haven’t downloaded it yet, I suggest you hop to. On my post announcing the app, there were a few comments I wanted to respond to. First, this one from Robin Sloan, who wants a little background on how the digital sausage got made:

I’d love to read a little mini “developer diary” about the behind-the-scenes process here — tools/frameworks you used, surprises along the way, etc. Bet it would be useful to a lot of folks working on iPhone apps at news organizations, too!

So, for those interested, here’s my tale of how the Lab iPhone app came into being — a tale I hope lots more news organizations can tell. Because if I can do it for a total cost of $624, there’s no reason more newspapers shouldn’t be on the platform.

Building with frameworks

I’m nerdier than your average journalist, and I’ve done some small, basic projects in Xcode — Apple’s development environment for Macs and iPhones/iPads — before. But there’s no way I could have built this app without the help of a framework. Frameworks are tools to abstract away layers of complication — they take a variety of common tasks and handle them for you, leaving you more time to deal with tasks specific to your app. (You may have heard of Django and Ruby on Rails, popular web frameworks for building web applications.)

The framework I used is TapLynx, which is aimed at building apps from one or more RSS feeds. It’s built by Brent Simmons, best known in the tech world as developer of the first great RSS reader for the Mac, NetNewsWire. Much of the guts of TapLynx uses the feed reading and parsing code from the iPhone version of NetNewsWire.

With RSS feeds as a base, the decisions around content are both more restricted and a little easier. We produce one major RSS feed — our posts. Another one comes from our Twitter feed. So those were obvious choices as the first two tabs. In TapLynx, creating tabs is largely a matter of editing a .plist file in Xcode with some simple customizations and editing an HTML template for the display of the individual story pages. If you don’t know any HTML or CSS, you’d find the latter a challenge, but the templating language is simple enough.

Beyond that, I knew I wanted to embed some of the best publicly available feeds related to journalism, so that the app could be a concentrated shot of news-about-news. And I also wanted it to be a tool that would also promote some of our friends here around Harvard. So I added a tab that would pull in some of those feeds called Friends of the Lab. That created some new challenges, since some of the feeds were malformed in a variety of ways. One didn’t present post dates correctly, so I ended up removing dates from the presentation of all feeds in the tab. (TapLynx, unfortunately, won’t let you customize presentation for different feeds in the same tab.) I also had to build in a few template-file CSS hacks for feeds that presented images incorrectly.

Shoehorning Hourly Press in

The most challenging tab (and the one that still needs some work) is the Hot Links tab. (The name is a slight nod to my Cajun heritage.) It uses Hourly Press, the great web service built by Steve Farrell and Lyn Headley, to pull in the most linked-to links in the future-of-news Twitterverse. For THP we define a set of “authorities” (see ours here) on Twitter; the people they follow end up having more weight in the system than people they don’t. Once an hour, everyone’s tweets are scanned for links, weighted according to how much authority the system gives them, and then output in a top-10 list. It’s perfect for those moments where you want a quick jolt of the biggest news of the moment, but curated within our particular field of interest.

Because TapLynx is optimized for RSS feeds, it’s a challenge to deal with HTML, which is THP’s output. I asked the THP guys to build an iPhone version of the rankings, formatted for the smaller screen and big fingers. But TapLynx works better with static HTML than with live web pages. So I ended up having to use a plugin called OOZWebView, built by Roberto Brega and expanded by Walter Tyree. It allows for some very basic web access in a tab. I even made a few changes to the code to allow user resizing of text in webpages — the only real Objective-C I wrote. It’s not perfect — refresh behavior is unreliable, particularly in iOS4 with state saving, and the UX looks as hacky as it is. But it was the best way available. (Any Objective-C coders want to help make it better? Lemme know.)


Beyond that, the search tab just uses WordPress little-known search RSS feed to dive into our archives on command. There was a fair amount of Photoshop work to create transparent PNGs at precisely the right size (and again at twice that size, to look good on the better Retina Display of the iPhone 4). I built a few of the tab icons myself as greyscale PNGs with transparent alpha channels; others I took from the Glyphish collection of icons, including the Retina icons just released via Kickstarter. For the static About page and the Twitter template, I ended up using data URIs to embed our icon into the HTML itself — that prevented a weird resizing when the image was loaded after the rest of the page. And I, like many app developers, had to navigate the new waters of Twitter’s xAuth system (newly mandatory as of a few weeks ago) to allow tweeting from within the app.

All this is to say that the process was more complicated and self-directed than most people would be able to manage — but easy enough that any shop that has a Mac and a few nerds could pull it off. There’s nothing impossibly hard here. From my viewpoint, I don’t understand why more news organizations don’t use frameworks to build out apps quickly and easily. Even if the ad revenue from a mobile app isn’t astounding, it’s still better than nothing — and it’s a foot in the door for increasingly mobile news consumers.

The upfront costs of development were minimal. I paid $500 for a license to TapLynx (it currently goes for $599). It was $99 to get into Apple’s iPhone developer program and $25 for the Retina Glyphish icons. Total cost: $624. And a fair amount of my time, to be honest.

One constant throughout the process was that there were factors outside my control. Our app would have launched sooner if Apple hadn’t made the move to iOS 4, which necessitated waiting for a new TapLynx library to work with it. It would have launched sooner if the impending Twitter xAuth switchover hadn’t made me wait. It would have launched sooner if I wasn’t relying on the generous work of guys like Roberto and Walter to made one of my tabs function. And, frankly, it would have launched sooner if I wasn’t doing all this work on evenings and weekends around my other duties — or if I’d been happy with something closer to the TapLynx defaults in a number of cases.

Now comes the challenge of keeping the thing up-to-date and functional. They say a band has a lifetime to write its first album and six months to write its second; I feel the same thing is true for version 1.0 and version 1.01. I’ve already got a list of improvements and fixes ready to move on. I’d love to hear any suggestions on how to make it better.

On Android, BlackBerry, WebOS, Windows Phone, Symbian, et al.

Back to my original post. Another thread of comments — on the post and on Twitter — were from people upset there’s only an iPhone app. “Nothing for Android, huh?” one commenter wrote. “Seems shortsighted.” Others on Twitter called out for a BlackBerry app, or an iPad-specific app. (I didn’t see any calls for Windows Mobile/Phone, Symbian, or WebOS.) There are a few reasons why we’re just on the iPhone right now.

We’re tiny. The Nieman Journalism Lab is currently three people in a basement. (Two iPhones and one BlackBerry, if you’re counting.) Along with being director, I’m also house nerd. Our budget doesn’t allow for big investments in technology, which is why I ended up building the iPhone app as a personal side project. I’ve been a Mac guy since the early 1990s and an iPhone guy since 2007, so my own personal interests and knowledge base are going to play a role in what I develop in my spare time.

Our mobile audience is overwhelmingly on Apple devices. Here’s data from the past 30 days, as of August 24, 2010: 84 percent Apple (45 percent iPhone, 35 percent iPad, 4 percent iPod touch); 10 percent Android; 5 percent BlackBerry; 0.3 percent Symbian; 0.2 percent Windows Mobile.

(If you’re curious about the overall numbers for desktop and mobile combined, our readers are about 54 percent Windows, 34 percent Mac, 4 percent iPhone, 3 percent iPad, 3 percent Linux, 1 percent Android, 0.5 percent BlackBerry.)

If, as some predict, Android sweeps aside the iPhone and becomes the dominant platform on mobile, then maybe we’ll build one. But for now, we’re just putting our limited resources where we think they can have the most impact.

We need the tools. As I said above, if there wasn’t a framework like TapLynx to make the process easier, we wouldn’t even have an iPhone app. Google’s new App Inventor would seem to be a move in that direction, but the initial reviews I’ve read don’t make it seem particularly user-friendly. (And this TechCrunch piece indicates “there isn’t any RSS functionality baked in” App Inventor, which would limit its usefulness for our app.)

That said, I don’t pretend to be up to date on the latest state of Android development frameworks — or their equivalents on other platforms. If someone out there is interested in volunteering to help build an Android (or WebOS, or BlackBerry, or Windows Phone, or Symbian) version, I’d love to hear from you. We’ve got no animus against other platforms; we just don’t yet see an audience big enough to justify our scant resources.

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May 21 2010


The programmer majored in English: A fascinating study of the NYT’s Interactive News unit

At the University of Texas’s International Symposium on Online Journalism conference last month, a series of academics presented papers on the future of news. There’s great stuff, including (Lab contributor) Seth Lewis’s analysis of the professional and participatory logic of the Knight News Challenge and (Lab contributor) C.W. Anderson’s argument for a more holistic approach to academic analysis of news structures.

One that we, at least, found particularly compelling: Cindy Royal’s study of the New York Times’ vaunted Interactive Newsroom Technologies unit. (Think of it as the academic, ethnographic version of “The Renegades at the New York Times,” last year’s New York magazine profile of the team.)

Royal, a Texas State University assistant professor who focuses on digital media and culture, spent a week with the team in an effort to “gain a systematic understanding of the role of technology in the ever-changing newsroom, driven by the opportunities and challenges introduced by the Internet.” The resulting paper examined the group of eleven guys (they’ve since added one gal) widely recognized to be the vanguard of the hacker-journalist movement — and put fascinating anecdotal data behind team leader Aron Pilhofer’s insistence that the group’s mandate is editorial as much as technological.

Though the full paper (PDF) is well worth a read, here’s the slide deck:

One of Royal’s more intriguing findings: Many members of the team don’t have traditional education in programming. “Undergraduate degrees were varied in Art & Design, Anthropology, English, History, Urban Planning, Rhetoric and of course, Journalism. Only two had done extensive educational preparation in a computer-oriented field, and another two had received technical-oriented minors in support of liberal arts degrees.” And their hacking skills? Largely self-taught. “Most had either taken up computing on their own at a very young age or had gravitated toward it due to necessity for a specific job.”

The core unifying quality Royal found among the staff wasn’t a specific programming skill or even a set of those skills. It was passion. Curiosity. Enjoyment of the work and openness to new processes and approaches. “More than half our team members didn’t know Ruby on Rails [one of the Times' core web framework technologies] before they started here,” one member notes. (Team member commentary throughout Royal’s paper is anonymous.) “It’s really more about the concepts inherent in the language,” says another.

However: The editorial part — “getting” the journalism — is also key. (“When I was hired, they definitely cared about how much I was interested in journalism and what my ideas were for projects.”) As is the collaboration part — the institutional realization of the open-source-centric approach the team takes toward its work. The department, Royal notes, “was founded to reduce bureaucracy and introduce flexibility in the process of creating each project, so the group could react more like a reporting team than a support organization.” That’s a goal that the Times is still actively pursuing — most recently, of course, with its decision to move Jill Abramson from her managing editor post to allow her to focus intensively, if temporarily, on digital operations. Abramson will likely be spending at least some of that time in the same way Royal did: studying and learning from the paper’s Interactive News unit.

“The culture of technology is different than that of journalism,” Royal notes. “They each carry different ideas about objectivity, transparency, sharing of information and performance. By merging these cultures, what emerges in terms of a hybrid dynamic? How do the actors, their backgrounds and training, their processes and the organizational structure affect the products they deliver?”

“The Journalist as Programmer” builds on the work of academics like Michael Schudson and Dan Berkowitz, taking an ethnographic (and, more broadly, sociological) approach to news systems — under the logic, as Royal writes, that “news products and ultimate change are not the result of one force or set of forces, but a complete system that encompasses the organization, individual actors and the culture that surrounds them.”

As she explained it to me: “I just wanted to learn about the processes, and who these people were. I knew that they had to be a unique department with unique skills and backgrounds. Because the average programmer really doesn’t have much interest in traditional journalism or storytelling. And the average journalist doesn’t know a lot about programming. So who are these hybrid people — and where did they come from, and how did they learn this stuff?”

After all, “programming and data is journalism,” Royal says. “And it can be practiced in such a way that it can create interaction, user engagement, and more information in terms of seeking the truth. Especially when you talk about Freedom of Information access to government data — if the public can have access to that in a way that makes sense to them, or in a way that’s easy for them to use, then that’s just really powerful.”

April 09 2010


This Week in Review: The iPad has landed, WikiLeaks moves toward journalism, and net neutrality is hit

[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]

The iPad unleashed: If you’ve been anywhere near a computer or TV this week, it’s not hard to determine what this week’s top journalism/new media story is: Apple’s iPad hit stores Saturday, with 450,000 sold as of Thursday. I’ll spare you the scores of reviews, and we’ll jump straight to the bigger-picture and journalism-related stuff. There’s a ton to get to here, so if you’re interested in the bite-sized version, read Cory Doctorow and Howard Weaver on closed media consumption, Kevin Anderson on app pricing, and Alan Mutter and Joshua Benton on news app design.

If you’re looking for the former, The New York Times and the current issue of Wired have thoughts on the iPad and tablets’ technological and cultural impact from a total of 19 people, mostly tech types. We also saw the renewal of several of the discussions that were percolating the weeks before the iPad’s arrival: New media expert Jeff Jarvis and open-web activist Cory Doctorow took up similar arguments that the iPad is a retrograde device because it’s based around media consumption rather than creation, strangling development and making a single company our personal technology gatekeepers. In responses to Jarvis and Doctorow respectively, hyperlocal journalist Howard Owens and former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver defended those “consumers,” countering that not everybody consumes media like tech critics do — most people are primarily consumers, and that’s OK.

Meanwhile, two other writers made, judging from their pieces’ headlines, an almost identical point: The iPad is not going to save the news or publishing industries. Leaning heavily on Jeff Jarvis, The Huffington Post’s Jose Antonio Vargas made the consumption argument, saying that consumers want to tweak, question and pass around their content, not just passively consume it. And Harvard Business Review editor Paul Michelman contended that publishers are trying to retrofit their media onto this new one.

News business expert Alan Mutter and Poynter blogger Damon Kiesow offered some tips for publishers who do want to succeed on the iPad: Mutter wrote a thorough and helpful breakdown of designing for print, the web and mobile media, concluding, “Publishers who want to take full advantage of the iPad will have to do better by creating content that is media-rich, interactive, viral, transactional and mobile.” Kiesow told news orgs to consider what the iPad will be down the road as they design.

There was also quite a bit written about news organizations’ iPad apps, most of it not exactly glowing. Damon Kiesow provided a helpful list of journalism-related apps, finding that not surprisingly, most of the top selling ones are free. The high prices of many news orgs’ apps drew an inspired rant from British journalist Kevin Anderson in which he called the pricing “a last act of insanity by delusional content companies.” Poynter’s Bill Mitchell took a look at early critical comments by users about high prices and concluded that by not explaining themselves, publishers are leaving it to the crowd to make up their own less-than-charitable explanations for their moves.

As for specific apps, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore was wowed by USA Today’s top-selling app, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum compared The New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s apps, and news industry analyst Ken Doctor looked at the Journal’s iPad strategy. Finally, the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton found three intriguing news-navigation design ideas while browsing news orgs’ iPad apps: Story-to-story navigation, pushing readers straight past headlines, and the “cyberclaustrophobia” of The New York Times’ Editors’ Choice app.

Is WikiLeaks a new form of journalism?: On Monday, the whistleblower website WikiLeaks posted video of civilians being killed by a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad in 2007. In a solid explanation of the situation, The New York Times’ Noam Cohen and Brian Stelter noted that with the video, WikiLeaks is making a major existential shift by “edging closer toward a form of investigative journalism and to advocacy.”

Others noticed the journalistic implications as well, with Jonathan Stray of Foreign Policy wondering whether WikiLeaks is pioneering a new, revolutionary avenue for sourcing outside the confines of traditional media outlets. On Twitter, Dan Gillmor posited that a key part of WikiLeaks’ ascendancy is the fact that unlike traditional news orgs, it doesn’t see itself as a gatekeeper, and C.W. Anderson declared the video and an analysis of it by a former helicopter pilot “networked journalism.” If you want to know more about WikiLeaks itself, Mother Jones has plenty of background in a detailed feature.

Net neutrality takes a hit: In the tech world, the week’s big non-iPad story came on Tuesday, when a federal judge allowed Internet service providers some ability to slow down or regulate traffic on their network. It was a huge blow to proponents of net neutrality, or the belief that all web use should be free of restrictions or institutional control. The FCC has tried for years to impose net neutrality standards on ISPs, so it’s obviously a big setback for them, too.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNET all have solid summaries of the case and its broader meaning, and The Washington Post takes a look at the FCC’s options in the wake of the ruling. I haven’t seen anyone directly tie this case to journalism, though it obviously has major implications for who controls the future of the web, which in turn will influence what news organizations do there. And as Dan Gillmor notes, this isn’t just a free-speech issue; it’s also about the future of widespread broadband, something that has been mentioned in the past (including by Gillmor himself) as a potentially key piece of the future-of-news puzzle.

Murdoch rattles more sabers: As his media holdings continue to prepare to put up paywalls around their online content (The Times of London was the recent announcement), Rupert Murdoch made another public appearance this week in which he bashed search engines, free online news sites and The New York Times. There is one thing he likes about technology, though: The iPad, which he said “may well be the saving of the newspaper industry.” Staci Kramer of paidContent astutely notes that Murdoch’s own statements about charging for content imply that it will only work if virtually every news org does it. Meanwhile, Australian writer Eric Beecher argues that Murdoch’s money-losing newspapers subsidize the power and influence that the rest of his media empire thrives on.

In other paid-content news, the Chicago Reader has an informative profile of the interesting startup Kachingle, which allow users to pay a flat fee to read a number of sites, then designate how much of their money goes where and trumpet to their friends where they’re reading. Also The New Republic put a partial paywall up, and newspaper chain Freedom Communications took its test paywall down.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a pretty large collection of items for you this week, starting with a couple of bits of news and finishing with several interesting pieces to read.

Columbia University announced a new dual-degree master’s program in journalism and computer science. Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired has a deeper look at the program’s plans to produce hacker-journalists who can be pioneers in data visualization and analysis and device-driven design, along with a couple of brutally honest quotes from Columbia faculty about the relative paucity of computing skills among even “tech-savvy journalists.” Just about everybody loved the idea of the program, though journalist/developer Chris Amico cautioned that more than just dual-degree journalists need to be hanging out with the computer scientists.  ”The problem isn’t just a lack of reporters who can code, but a shortage of people in the newsroom who know what’s possible,” he wrote.

Down the road, this may be seen as a turning point: Demand Media, which has been derided lately as a “content farm” will create and run a new travel section for USA Today. As Advertising Age points out, USA Today isn’t the first newspaper to get content from Demand Media — the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gets a travel article a week — but this is collaboration of an entirely new scale.

Now the think pieces: Here at the Lab, former newspaper exec Martin Langeveld updated his year-old post asserting that more than 95 percent of readership of newspaper content is in print rather than online, and while the numbers changed a bit, his general finding did not.

In an interview with Poynter, Newser’s Michael Wolff had some provocative words for news orgs, telling them readers want stories online with less context, not more (as several folks asserted a few weeks ago at SXSW) and saying he would’ve told newspapers way back when not to go on the web at all: “[Online readers'] experiences have changed and their needs have changed, and I just don’t think traditional news companies are in a position to really understand that kind of change or to speak to it or to deliver it.”

At The Atlantic, Lane Wallace wrote that journalists’ (especially veterans’) strongest bias is not political, but is instead an predetermined assumption of a story line that prevents them from seeing the entire picture.

And lastly, two great academically oriented musings on media and society: Memphis j-prof Carrie Brown-Smith wonders if social media furthers our cultural knowledge gap, and University of Southern Denmark professor Thomas Pettitt talks to the Lab’s Megan Garber about the Gutenberg Parenthesis and society’s return to orally based communication with digital media. Both are great food for thought.

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