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Obama and McCain’s Blogs, Writ Large

3, September, 2008

A while ago I wrote about a very cool tool called Wordle. You stick a URL or feed into the tool and it produces a visualization–a word cloud–that demonstrates how often words are used in a particular document or blog feed.

Just for sport, I compared results from an official Obama blog and an official McCain blog.

Obama’s blog:

And here’s McCain’s:

Fun stuff: The candidates talk a lot about themselves. Obama’s focused on Ohio, McCain on Missouri. Obama’s often used words: “get” and “can.” McCain’s: “reform” and “America.” Both write more about Gustav than each other.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. The Obama blog I’ve Wordled is the campaign’s main one. McCain’s main blog doesn’t have a single RSS feed [the feeds are parsed by issue]. So I had to cut and paste text from a bunch of recent entries from McCain’s blog and let Wordle have at it.

As for McCain blogs that do have a single RSS feed, let’s look at what they’re talking about in the “McCain Report” blog, written by the trench-warfare-mustard-gas-tosser Michael Goldfarb.

That blog talks about Obama a lot.

Alas, no apples-to-apples there, either. Obama’s site doesn’t have a negative campaign blog.

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Reposting: The Candidates’ $2,500 Fixation

10, August, 2008

[This is a repost from The Health Central Network’s Healtcare08 Web site, where I write about the politics of healthcare [I also helped build the cool app appearing on the front page there]. It also appears on The Health Care Blog, to which I also contribute as part of my work in the Health 2.0 space.

The $2,500 question

There’s some peculiar numerology going in the presidential candidates’ health reform plans.
John McCain proposes that every American receive a $2,500 tax credit ($5,000 for families) to help them afford health insurance bought in the private market.

Barack Obama says his health care plan will save the average American family $2,500 per year.

I mean, what are the chances?

I suspect both campaigns are shrewd enough to know that “a couple hundred bucks a month” [middle-class citizen’s translation of $2,500 per year] is likely to get a voter’s attention. The fact that both campaigns came up with an identical figure is eerie, however. It’s enough to make you wonder whether anti-trust laws should apply to political campaigns.

To be plain, there is no good reason to believe these campaign promises more than others, despite the precision of the dollar amount cited.

Obama’s $2.5k promise was recently picked apart by the New York Times.

Reported the Times:

“Even if the next president and Congress can muster the political will, analysts question whether significant savings would materialize in as little as four years, or even in 10. But as Mr. Obama confronts an electorate that is deeply unsettled by escalating health costs, he is offering a precise “chicken in every pot” guarantee based on numbers that are largely unknowable. Furthermore, it is not completely clear what he is promising.”

Meanwhile, McCain’s $2,500 per person tax credit doesn’t look like much when you consider the cost of health insurance purchased in the open market. Currently employers and workers together pay about $4,400 per person for insurance premiums, about $12,000 for families.

Individual policies–which McCain’s policies are designed to encourage, perhaps at the expense of employer-supported plans–often cost more. They certainly cost more for people who have one or more chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, depression or arthritis–which is to say, a vast majority of the adult population.

That couple hundred bucks a month you just pocketed from President McCain? You’ve got to spend that, and add a couple hundred more–and maybe a couple hundred more than that–just to pay for your premiums in the open market.

So what are we to make of this? What’s so magic about the number $2,500? Why would this figure stand out in the heads of political operatives trying to craft policies to appeal to supporters?

Hard to tell. But I got to wondering. Let me check a figure here at the Federal Elections Commission website a second. . .there it is! I thought this all seemed familiar.

The most money an individual can give to a presidential candidate to show their commitment is. . .$2,300. Five thousand if you’re a PAC.

I mean, what are the chances?

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Web 2.D’0h! Roundup: Message Boards, Razume & Drew Carey, cont’d

8, August, 2008

The latest sweepings from the factory floor of Web 2.0. . .

The Roamin’ Forum

Not long ago I wrote about Twing, a search engine that plumbs message boards for what’s known as “deep content”–the stuff Brother Google and his ilk often miss or dismiss. Twing is a great way to find content you won’t find elsewhere. Some is valuable, some. . .not so much.

Which brings me to an excellent item this week on the Mashable blog, which surveys a group of message boards 2.0. My favorite of the bunch: Lefora, a hosted plug-and-play forum you can attach to just about any site to which you’d like to add talk-among-yourselves functionality. [I’ve kicked the tires on this one on behalf a client, but haven’t implemented it anywhere yet.]

There’s a simplicity to Lefora that I like. Many of the 2.0 message boards tack on features designed to make the board the center of a social community–live chat, blogs, etc. I’m skeptical that’s possible or wise. Still, most of the newcomers are a major upgrade in usability compared to the old-school forums we all knew in our callow youth.

Crowdsource Your Resume?

Speaking of callow youth, a D.C.-based incubator/very-early-stage funder of promising startups called Lauchbox Digital recently previewed an upcoming demo of nine companies in its portfolio. Of the bunch, my favorite is Razume, a service that essentially lets you use the wisdom-of-the-crowds to burnish your resume.

Here’s a snap of my comment on one of the resumes posted on the beta site:

Sure, I’m being tough on the kid, but I’m just trying to help. . . Speaking of professional, though, the site is a model of excellent usability. Should all startups come out of the gate so easy-on-the-brain and friction-free.

Are you sure there are no dumb questions?

I always get a kick out of seeing what keyword searches lead people to this blog. A recent one was “what dorm did drew carey live in at kent sState?”

Alas, the blog entry Brother Google sent the searcher to–the preposterously popular “Al Gore vs. Drew Carey: Another Nail-Biter”–doesn’t answer that question. The entry compares Al Gore’s Current TV left-leaning web video operation to comedian Drew Carey’s libertarian-cranky ReasonTV. [Gore wins by a nose.] Along the way, I confess to having been Drew Carey’s dormmate at Kent State.

But I try to answer all questions on this blog. So, for posterity: Leebrick Hall, 3rd floor.

And finally, our regular sighting of the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse ™:

BigThink, a site that presents brand-name thumbsuckers responding in four-minute videos to the kind of Big Questions that briefly entertain college freshman [at least on the 3rd floor of Leebrick Hall]. What is your personal philosophy? Is the American justice system fair?

Is there a more vivid illustration of medium-message mismatch anywhere online? Pull an all-nighter with a six-pack of Pabst and discuss.

B&N Studio: The Weird, Wired Word

21, June, 2008

It’s one of the most neuron-twisting meta-multi-maxi-media concoctions I’ve come across: A website that uses original video, podcast audio and a broad range of social media such as message boards, wisdom-of-the-crowds surveys and user-generated content to build market share of. . ink-on-paper books.

I refer to B&N Studio, a newish area of Barnes&Noble’s website. While it’s been live since March, the launch of three new features brought it to my attention.

It\'s About the Books

I found it to be mostly good stuff. Among the new features is something called Book Files, which delivers brief stories-behind-the-story. (One retells the hoary publishing world tale wherein an untitled, retyped version of a Jerzy Kozinski novel is submitted to 14 publishers and rejected by all.)

There’s the new Guest Books, in which well-known writers (Anne Rice, David Sedaris) select and offer mouseover blurbs on three favorite books by other people.

There’s Tagged, a too-cute-by-two-thirds gals’ book-clubby “video magazine” [B&N’s words, not mine]. There are admirably inobstrusive links to buy books along the way.

The whole site is tricked out with viral sharewidgetry, and few pages do not permit some sort of rating, commenting, reviewing or feedbacking.

There is some lousy execution here: An 11 minute “video” which consists of an author interview running behind a single grating photo of the author. It’s a podcast repurposed for the web and fails utterly. Mini-documentaries that pay tribute to the “Book Obsessed” are 5 minutes long–about twice what they should be. Some of the video carries the whiff of filmmaker auteurs chafing against the realities of web-native video.

Yes, the idea of using video in a 2.0 environment to push Gutenbergware is unsettling, like a key moment of cultural dislocation. Purists will sniff.

But compared to that other online book retailer Amazon–whose hyperpersonalized, multiproduct, endlessly dynamic, long-memoried merchandise-o-matic makes me feel force-fed, like one of those poor foie gras geese–the B&N Studio is a pleasant place to visit, sort of like the book stores themselves on a good night.

Unlike Amazon, B&N Studio feels like it’s about the books.

2.D’oh! Weekly Round-Up: Print ‘n’ Read!

7, June, 2008

Click to Print

A key moment in Web 2.0h. . .really? history: I’ve decided to include in my weekly round-ups one story worth actually printing out on paper to read.

Every once in a while, I find an in-depth article is too long and annoying to read on the screen. It may have more lasting value than even a bookmark allows. Occasionally–occasionally!–there’s a story worth going totally retro with. Hit print. Staple. Read in bed.

[I hereby promise to plant one tree each year to offset my increased forest-products footprint. ]

This week’s Print ‘n’ Read (sm) item:

A long-form interview with John Byrne, Business Week executive editor/ editor-in-chief. A former ink-in-the-arteries guy reborn in his 50s (!) as digital evangelist, he delivers haymakers to his web-averse colleagues and has very smart things to say about how journalism–even hard-core investigative work–can flourish in a digital world.

Favorite idea from the interview: Context, not content, is king.

The interview was conducted by Chris Roush for Talk Biz News. Print out the comments too–the BizWeek vs. Forbes flamewar is an idiot’s delight.

Crowdsourcing for Fun and Profit–But Mainly Fun

A new service called Name This invites companies to have random webbists suggest names for their business, product, idea, dog, etc.

A name-seeker pays $99 for 48 hours of worldwide cogitation. Winners gets $80, distributed among the top namer and “influencers” of the final selection. The remaining $19 goes to Kluster, the company behind Name This.

But Name This is only an adequate business name–clear but not much fun. It’s almost worth spending $99 to see if the system itself can beat its own name. MoniKernels? NameTag? Handler?

And Finally, Our Weekly Sighting of the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse ™

Disqus blog proposes an online Commenters’ Bill of Rights.

Two News”paper” Site Re-do’s: Washington Times, SFGate

4, June, 2008

Two major news-related websites have debuted redesigns.

One of them serves the most sophisticated, affluent digital market in the country and is backed by a strong, tenured publishing brand.

The other is funded by a company controlled by a mephistophelian international cult leader that serves second-rate content to one of the most blockheaded audiences in the nation.

You can guess which has debuted the better site.

It’s the Washington Times, funded by the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and the sweetly obedient house organ of the Bush administration and those who feed off it. If ever you’ve wondered who those 23 percent of American are who think Bush is going a good job, the answer is “people who read the Washington Times.”

The new Washington Times homepage is far superior to the updated, the site operated by the Hearst Corporation and serving the San Francisco and greater Silicon Valley area.

The Washington Times homepage is — I use this word carefully and rarely — groundbreaking in its presentation of information, at least in a popular medium like news. More than any newspaper-born site I have seen, it has disposed of the idea that a news written for a daily newspaper should be presented facefirst on the web. The project leaders seem to have started with a slate clean of many of the assumptions that have held back newspaper sites for over a decade.

Have a look:

New Washington Times Website

A quick glance reveals how different this is from most news”paper” sites (I may punctuate it that way from now on). One big story given billboard play, a big headline and enough text to let you know whether you want to click in or not. The two bigger stories topping the second column attract more attention and top a column of crisp headlines.

This is all smart and satisfying stuff. But the money shot here is the semitransparent Dig Deeper thingbat that lies over the main image. Click on it and the entire main image flips over like a playing card. On the “other side” you’ll find either related media (pictures, videos), themes (topics) or stories.

Washington Times DigDeeper feature

Sure, lots of news sites do that sort of layered aggregation. And the Washington Times isn’t doing a very good job curating or automating the content so far. (The site almost operates as a beta at this point. Bully for them launching it anyway, I say. Meeker minds would have left it aging in the shop until it was “ready.”)

But the Dig Deeper tool itself is a joy — once again, a term I use rarely and carefully. When you flop back and forth the WT square spins like a die, and the whole flip-over motion provides the sort of brainpie satisfaction you get from any inherently entertaining interface, like the endless procession of currently viewed videos rising over the horizon on YouTube.

Meanwhile, on the Left Coast, the folks at Hearst have debuted an iteration of the news”paper”‘s (ok, last time, I’m tired of that already) home page. renovation

It manages to integrate just about every commodity-level news web design feature that has appeared over the past three years. I couldn’t find anything I hadn’t seen done many times, and better: you’ve got your blogsphotogalleriesyourcommentsmostreadtopicpagesmashupssocialmediasortastuff, in all their tepid familiarity.

News editor Vlae Kershner’s announcement has a bit of the involuntary cringe familiar to all editors who introduce changes that some readers are certain to hate. [“Our talented staff of online editors is still learning the new programming tools and figuring out where to best place content, so please bear with us.”]

Even the site’s “annotated tour” seems to have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for itself.

To be plain, there’s nothing bad about the renovated sfgate homepage. It’s just the newspaper of the leading technology community in the nation catching up to, oh, mid-2007. (In its previous re-do, last year, had essentially updated to 2005, in my estimation.)

The current re-do will do nothing to forestall the paper’s death or expedite its transformation. It’s just keeping pace with what the other folks do, though without much energy. Which is what newspapers have done for decades. Why start innovating now?

Which brings us back to our friends at The Washington Times. Why indeed start innovating now?

The paper has just undergone another of its major upheavals. [The history of the Times is a comic operetta of steadfastly conservative editors denying the Unification Church has any influence, and ultimately being ousted or quitting due to excessive church influence. In the background, a solemn chorus of Washington conservatives weeps, rends it garments and gnashes its teeth over the fact that the nation’s capital doesn’t have a legitimate answer to the Pinko Post. Like the Fantastiks in New York, it’s a Washington show that plays for decades.]

A site redesign cannot solve the fundamental problem of the Washington Times–that it is, politely put, rotten at the core.

But the folks who redid the Washington Times site were able somehow to engage with one fundamental problem of web news presentation by disposing of the “paper” and working directly with the news and how users interact with it. They ignored their peers’ habits. Along the way they’ve brought some new energy and ideas to web news design.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if a San Francisco news source took up a similar challenge?

How Twitter Finally Taught Me to be an Editor

27, May, 2008

I’ve been an editor for 20-plus years. But Twitter—that idiot desktop companion for the work-averse—has become my mid-career editing coach.

This may be due to how I use Twitter, at least some of the time: Less for top-of-brain me-spatter and more for tiny reports or editorials.

Fact is, it’s tough to convey any substance in 140 characters. You have to carefully weigh every word, letter and space. Even punctuation.

Here’s an example. I wanted to share a delicious, fantastically gross item of neighborhood gossip. But it’s not for this blog. So I Tweeted:

House that was site of mass murder 30 years ago–and where following owners’ dead body sat for 4 weeks in Dec–for sale in my ‘hood! Cheap!

Or this (unattractive) detour into moralizing. I Tweeted this after I observed the right-wingnuts’ tasteless glee at Kennedy’s brain tumor news:

The hate for Kennedy online right now is horrific. USAToday comment ref’d Kopeckne family. People can be so small. *That’s* the tragedy.

Okay, the prose is cramped, the comments elliptical. But writing substantial Tweets teaches a key journalism skill: Make every word count.

If I were teaching journalism (the academy shudders), I’d have students edit 500-word stories as Tweets. Not for the result, but the process.

I’ve edited miles of copy in my day. Nonetheless, I find that every time I sit down to write a meaningful Tweet I hone my craft a bit more.

Thinking about all this today, I decided to try a music review. It’s labored, I know. But I had my (brief) say about a song that moved me.

Nominate Tom Waits for Pulitzer: “Road to Peace” is growly, pounding, horrific news report on Mideast bloodwars. Quotes Henry Kissinger (!)

Yes, I may have lost it entirely. I’m writing in 140 word chunks and just nominated a musician for a Pulitzer. Go ahead. Tweet about it.


p.s. Every paragraph in this item is 140 characters or fewer. Whether it’s admirably tight, barely coherent or pointless, I leave to others.

Pulling Wikipedia’s Plug, cont’d.

30, April, 2008

Last week’s entry about Wikipedia–titled with characteristic subtlety “Wikipedia: Time to Pull the Plug“– resulted in the expected crapspatter in wikiville. But since nobody has created a fake Wikipedia bio of me featuring a photo of Curly Howard, I think I’ve emerged largely unharmed.

But I wanted to call attention to a reader comment which makes an excellent point my item did not–that, while both discussion forums and wikis are both 2.0 media types that give users a voice, they are very different products that produce very different types of information. Forums assemble individual voices on a topic. Wikipedia assembles collective knowledge from a group. Point taken.

The comment, from a guy named Greg, makes another point about the limits of the Wikipedia project. I think it’s a useful extention about the nature, and future, of Wikipedia.

So: At the risk of going so media-meta that I disappear into the back side of a Mobius strip, I print the comment, and my response to it, below.

The comment from Greg

I am something of a wikipedia apologist, but I think you are missing a key difference between the goals of wikipedia and support forums (if not the success of said goals). Wikipedia tries to be a generic and unbaised report on a topic backed up with citations from more credible sources. Whereas in a forum, an individual is forced to figure out which “opinion” is best for him or her to use. Yes a forum may have citations from more credible sources, but there is no guidelines or ideology to encourage it. So, two different beasts, no one inherently better than the other.

Of course wikipedia isn’t the the best place for any research past scratching the surface, there is no doubt of that. It’s a starting point at best, and everyone would do well to remember it. One should be checking the citations for detail. But alas, the ideas of primary, secondary, and tertiary research are being lost. You can certainly lay a bit of blame at wikipedia’s feet by not being more clear in its mission, but there are other forces at play as well.

One other thing wikipedia is not is a resource for, and that’s finding other websites related to a topic. The goal as I understand it is to facilitate finding other supposedly more credible and pointed bits of information. To find whole sites… that’s google’s job.–Greg

My response

Thanks much for your good comment. You’re absolutely right that forums and wikis (including Wikipedia) are two very different beasts roaming the odd landscape of 2.0land. We should not expect the same–or even more than a slice of “reality,” whatever that means–from both media types.

Your points about the limitations of Wikipedia–that it’s not great for researching beyond the surface, that it’s at best a starting point, that one should check citations etc.–are good to hear.

I will have to go back and look (in Wikipedia, maybe. Ahem) and compare this to what I recall to be the original claims and intent for the project. I recall an article, I believe in Wired, featuring Mssr. Wales, who spoke in quite utopian terms about the power and magnitude of the project and its vast potential for creating a well informed citizenry. Certainly I’ve read that since, and hear versions of it from folks who participate earnestly in the project. I don’t often hear the caveats you speak of very often from people who support the project.

All of which leads to a question that has been dogging me: whether it’s simply a case that (like any good 2.0 project) once turned over to creators and the audience, Wikipedia has become far different from what anybody anticipated.

For worse or better (I argue the former, others will argue that latter) Wikipedia commands center stage of the encyclopedic information universe right now. I’m beginning to wonder whether, given the flaws I mentioned in my piece and you cite in your comment, whether a big, visible disclaimer should appear on page one, or at the top of every entry. There is an acknowledgment of its limitations on various “about” pages, but I’m guessing Wikipedia’s metrics show that a tiny proportion of users spend much time with those pages.

A clearer statement of limits and approptiate uses would be a public service. It would enhance transparency. I hope these are principles to which the contributors to Wikipedia remain committed.–Craig Stoltz

Putting the “i-” in Pulitzer

8, April, 2008

So yesterday the 2008 Pulitzer prize winners in journalism were announced. It’s an inspiring group of works of what some are now calling “slow journalism”–carefully made, long-cooked, calendar-be-damned, properly staffed, well-written, old-fashioned gumshoe reporting.

[Now accepting proposed coinages for a term to replace the retro, Fedora-esque anachronism “gumshoe” to describe diligent fact-gathering].

Reading the entries (okay, some of the entries; that slow-cooked stuff is long) is enough to make one believe, as many of us refugees from the world of lumberjack journalism insist, that this kind of work must be sustained in the digital age. Not merely for the good of the self-involved journalists who care deeply, perhaps excessively, about the awards. But (to be plain, I intend no irony or sarcasm here) for the benefit of civic life. Each of the news-related winners holds power accountable, most of the projects producing results that clean up some mess or illuminate some untenable situation. Your blog gonna do that, buddy?

HAVING SAID ALL THAT. . .it’s at least interesting, and journalistically significant, to view the digital-only iterations of the winning work. This demonstrates how newsrooms, even when they do world-class work, embrace the new media world.

All a long way of saying: Which winners put the “i-” in Pulitzer? [Conflict-of-interest disclosure: I’m a former employee of The Washington Post, but have tried not to let that influence my opinions below.]

In this order:

1. With six winners, perhaps this rank is inevitable.

Why: Nearly every winning series or story has an elegant, deep, media-appropriate online iteration. The Walter Reed story includes narrated slide shows of genuine photojournalism, interactive explanatory graphics, an unusually rich PTSD primer, key videos showing political responses and public statements, and more additional features than I can list here. Even the feature writing winner, Gene Weingarten’s perfectly-pitched, daringly high-concept tale about luring world-class violinist Joshua Bell into performing in the local subway in disguise has three wonderfully curated and edited ‘hidden camera” videos of the stunt itself that truly enhance the (many!) words of the story in a way no other media could. Plus an audio tape of the entire performance. The bottom line with’s work is that the digital content is not a mere extension of the journalism, but appear to be built in from the ground up.

2. JSOnline, digital arm of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Why: Its relentless three-year pursuit of a shamefully self-dealing county executive that resulted in his resignation offers a startlingly long list of stories, explaineers, graphics, video and audio of press conferences, court actions, etc. (The videos are not just talking-head interviews–a common but largely ineffective digital-journalism gambit. They provide glimpses of the story unfolding over time, including public performances by the perp himself.) One wishes for a package that pulled it all together in a timeline, but to be fair MJS does not have the resources of a major newspaper. The point is, JSOnline added significant value with multimedia reporting and archive it in an accessible manner.


Why: The newspaper’s Kids at Risk series on dangerous products is well-curated and enhanced by an excellent set of resources for parents that help them take informed action. It also features an easy-to-navigate menu of 15 videos, which are on-point and produced more for the content they deliver than for the slickness they convey. They add information rather than recapitulate print content.


Why: The New York Times’ masterful investigation into how deadly fake drugs make it across the globe is enhanced by multimedia that is mostly slick decoration: Over-produced, TV-magazine-style mini documentaries that provide little value beyond the words themselves, competently scanned images of dead graphics published in the paper, an archive of the stories. With the exception of one excellent web-native interactive graphic that illustrates how a toxic solvent made its way from China to Panama, killing 100 people, the digital presentation of these stories consists of little more than what, back in the day, we referred to as “shovelware”–articles shoveled online after they’d been written and, it appears, published in the newspaper.

So what’s the message here? Slow-cooked journalism matters. It can be enhanced in meaningful ways when the projects are constructed, from the outset, as multi-media, cross-team efforts. I’m guessing that some day, the Pulitzers committee may come to recognize online presentation among its judging criteria.

If it doesn’t, it may find itself at the margins, rather than the center, of journalism excellence in the future.