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October 13 2010


Behind-the-scenes innovation: How NPR’s Project Argo is making life more efficient for its bloggers

Remember the days before the roundup post existed? Neither do I. [Laura's making me feel old. —Ed.] The roundup is a longstanding staple of the blogosphere, an expected post for loyal readers who want a rundown of the best new stuff around the web on a given topic. But can a staple still have room for innovation? Over at Argo Network, the new blog network at NPR, the leadership team is giving it a shot on the back end. They’ve designed a workflow that makes it easier for their bloggers to cull through links and produce a roundup post. The result: a simpler process for the blogger, and added benefit for the reader. It’s no technological revolution, but an example of the kind of small improvement that can make it easier to share work with the audience.

“We realized the workflow inefficiency of how a blogger would create a link roundup — copying and pasting URLs from places,” Matt Thompson, Argo editorial project manager, told me. “We were thinking about workflow and how can we make this as easy as possible. How do we take an action the blogger is making regularly and make it more efficient?”

Thompson puts workflow innovation in the broader context of the Argo Project, which NPR see as an experiment in form. The Argo team sees blogging — or online serial storytelling, as Thompson put it — as a medium still in its infancy. There’s still time, they say, to think about how it can be improved, including how to do it more efficiently. And they plan to release the new tools that come out of their experimentation to the general public. The team’s developer, Marc Lavallee, said they’re trying to create tools that fit the workflow of the lone blogger. “Most of what we build will be the type of thing a person running a solo site would find useful,” Lavallee said. “When you’re thinking about a product, it’s so much easier to say: ‘One person is behind this blog. Would I do that every day? No? Then let’s not build that.’”

The roundup tool is a good example of the Argo team’s thinking. As bloggers go through their links each day, scrolling through stories and posts looking for the most interesting stuff on their beat, they tag the links using Delicious. Their Delicious accounts are synced up with the Argo’s backend (WordPress modified using Django) to match up the tags. The backend pulls in the links, letting bloggers quickly put together a nice-looking post without all the copy/pasting and formatting. Thompson made a screen-capture video of the whole process, which you can check out below. Here’s a sample of what the roundup would look like published.

Using Delicious as a link-post builder isn’t new, of course, but Argo’s version integrates specifically into their sidebar, a special WordPress post type, and Lavallee’s code.

The tagging tool also feeds into the sites’ topic pages. Those of us who spend all day on the Internet encounter great links all the time that aren’t right for a full post, or maybe even for a spot in a roundup post — but for people interested in a particular topic, it could still be valuable. The Argo process lets bloggers make use of those links with the same tagging function, making the site’s content pages a bit better than a purely automated feed. Check out the ocean acidification page over at the Argo blog Climatide (covering issues related to climate change and the ocean on Cape Cod) — in the sidebar, “Latest Ocean Acidification Links” contains (at this writing, at least) links pulled in through the Delicious tagging process. Others are drawn from Daylife or handmade Twitter lists around certain topics.

Thompson is passionate about contextual news, so I asked him if his topic pages might serve, perhaps, a more noble function than driving search traffic, which is arguably why most news organizations have topic pages at all. Thompson was quick to point out that the Argo topic pages are still new; he’s working with bloggers on their “tagging hygiene,” he says. And he admits that others at Argo is a bit “skeptical of topics pages,” which “is probably a good thing.” But the pages have potential, when built out, to let readers drill down into narrow-but-important topics in line with the goal of the blog. “These pages aren’t just sort of random machine driven pages,” Thompson said. The humanized topic pages help Argo bloggers get their sites, as Thompson puts it, to be “an extension of their mind and their thinking.”

Photo by Benny Mazur used under a Creative Commons license.

March 30 2010


“Follow, Then Filter”: from information stream to delta

A year or two ago, as Twitter and FriendFeed in turn made headlines, much was made of how we were increasingly consuming information as a stream. Last January I blogged along those lines on why and how I followed 2,500 people on Twitter – why? I dip in and out rather than expecting to read everything. How? I used filters and groups for the bits I didn’t want to miss.

That behaviour now looks like a precursor to a broader change in my information consumption facilitated by new features in Twitter and Google Reader. And I wonder what that says about wider information consumption now and in the future.

From a stream to a delta

The features in question are Twitter lists and Google Reader bundles.

Now that lists are integrated by Twitter clients such as Tweetdeck and Echofon, it’s easy to switch your default view of Twitter from ‘all friends’ to ‘List X’ – and from ‘List X’ to ‘List Y’ and ‘List Z’ and so on.

I have lists for my MA Online Journalism students, for my undergraduate online journalism students, for data geeks, for people I’ve met in person, for formal news feeds – and I’m switching between them like TV channels.

Likewise, as I start to gather my Google Reader subscriptions into some sort of order, I’m moving from a default behaviour of dipping into ‘all items’, to switching between particular bundles of feeds along the same lines: data blogs, technology news, my students’ blogs, and so on.

To continue the ’stream’ metaphor, I’m breaking that torrent into a number of smaller rivers – a delta, if you like. (Geographers: feel free to put me right on the technical inadequacy of the analogy)

Follow, Then Filter

Just as the order of things in a networked world has changed from ‘filter, then publish’ to ‘publish, then filter’, it strikes me that I’m adopting the same behaviour in the newsgathering process itself: following first, and filtering later

Why? Because it’s more efficient and – perhaps key – the primary filter is search. And you have to follow first to make something searchable.

In fact, Google itself is a prime example of ‘Follow, Then Filter’, following links across the web to add to its index which users can filter with a search. (another good example is Delicious – bookmarking articles you’ve not read in full because you may want to access them later).

When bandwidth ceases to become an issue – when storage ceases to become an issue – then we can follow as much as we like on the premise that, later, we can filter that information to suit our particular needs at that moment, for the one thing that does have a limit – our attention.

November 06 2009


I Wouldn't Want to Belong to Any Twitter List That Would Have Me as a Member

Networks are funny. As soon as they get big enough to have a lot of value, it gets harder to separate the signal from the noise.

That's obvious enough -- just ask anyone using AT&T in an area densely populated with bandwidth-hogging iPhone users like me.

Or ask any Twitter user.

But with the launch of Twitter Lists in recent days, it's now theoretically easier for users, news organizations, bloggers, and companies to create little tributaries off the main river of news. Bu building these subsets out of the main stream, you can find tweets from a group of users, which means a news organization can create a list of reliable sources.

And in theory, this has value, because the list of users has been hand-picked by journalists.

But what happens when everyone makes lists that look the same, full of the same sources?

I started thinking about this because I now find myself on 179 lists. Of those, the titles of 123 include some form of the words "media" or "journalism." That's 123 lists with a lot of overlap.

The same idea ran me down yesterday as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post, among others, made Twitter lists related to the shootings in Fort Hood, Texas. (And as I write this, they're all doing it again in Orlando.)

The Fort Hood Lists

There are differences between these lists, but there are also a lot of similarities, as you can see here:

fthoodtwitterlists.png (Click on the image to see the large version. Those lists are from the LAT, NYT, and HuffPo, left to right.)

Now, while they're not identical, there's strong overlap in the type of sources in the first two examples. They're all experts. News organizations. Government. The Red Cross. And, inexplicably, Chuck Todd...

Meanwhile, on the far right, is my favorite list -- the Huffington Post's "Fort Hood Locals." It contains the sort of tweets I was spotting in this search yesterday while I was tracking the story and wondering how many primary sources I could find on Twitter.

Personally, I prefer curating individual tweets, rather than pointing a fire hose of information at the reader. But everyone is experimenting at the moment, and there's nothing like breaking news to get people like me excited about their shiny new toys. As we should be. I just worry that we're going to end up tripping over each other instead of working with each other.

Two Other Takes on Fort Hood Twitter List Efforts:

I encourage you to read two other stories about the Fort Hood Twitter Lists. The first is
Fort Hood Shooting Shows How Twitter, Lists Can be Used for Breaking News" at Poynter. Craig Kanalley's round-up of Twitter use on the Fort Hood story covers the Austin American Statesman's choice to launch a one-story Twitter account, as well as the New York Times list efforts.

the other story is "Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists" at Columbia Journalism Review. Megan Garber takes a look at Twitter List use by the media for the Fort Hood story. She has this take on the overlap in mainstream lists:

"Yes, there was overlap and redundancy in yesterday's coverage -- the "Fort Hood" lists all generally contained the same local news outlets, the same official sources, etc. -- but, then, that's the case whenever different media outlets cover the same events."

I think there's a problem with that. I don't want to see Twitter Lists become a piece of commodity news.

But I do want to keep chasing after shiny toys...

(Bonus link: Andy Carvin of NPR did a similar bit of navel-gazing and list-counting in this post at All Tech Considered.)

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