Posted tagged ‘media’

Visualizing the Iraq War, and the Scary Future of Journalism

9, July, 2008

I’m not sure how I missed this wonderful act of journalism-by-data visualization produced by Mother Jones magazine.

Titled “Lie by Lie,” it’s the wayleft publication’s “history of the Iraq War.” The project was undertaken, the editors state, “to create a resource we hope will help resolve open questions of the Bush era. What did our leaders know and when did they know it? And, perhaps just as important, what red flags did we miss, and how could we have missed them?”

Why I love this work of journalism [my own political inclinations notwithstanding]:

1. It’s nothing fancy, hardly a data visualization at all. It’s essentially a timeline navigation of information on the Iraq War. The only visual grace note is the roulettey spin of the date slider as you move it around. But the tool is functional: It permits navigation of the same data by topic, tags or search. It engages and it works.

2. It is an aggregation of content reported by others. This is a great example of curation, of journalism by assembly. Clearly, smart people knowledgeable about public affairs paid close attention to a huge amount of information, made careful selections and used available digital technology to make it accessible and flexible in a way no print publication could.

3. It proves you can advance a political agenda with digital journalism just as easily as you can in the analog world. Edit, select, tweak, ignore. . .and you can assemble your own version of history, just as certainly as the wingnuts at The Washington Times or the pinkos at the New York Times.

4. By virtue of its form, it surfaces new understandings that a reader of the original reports would not achieve. For instance, noodle around with the “Dick Cheney” taq and you’ll discover, right at the top, this entry dated . . . over 15 years ago:

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, speaking to the Discovery Institute in Seattle, says the first President Bush was right not to invade Baghdad: “The question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many. So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that…we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”–Aug. 14, 1992

But even as it offers a great example of digital journalism, “Lie By Lie” raises troubling questions about same.

Most of the information is drawn from reports that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Knight-Ridder, the New Yorker and many more. Yes, some bloggers made significant contributions. But it’s hard to imagine there would be much of a record of events to assemble without mainstream journalism’s (eventual! shame-faced!) commitment to digging for facts about the runup to Iraq.

The rub: This original reporting cost a fortune. It was produced under the old, dying model of journalism, wherein investigative reporting is funded by advertisements for cell phones, new subdivisions, mattress-chain mega-sales, designer clothing, and so on.

It’s important to remember that for all their swashbuckling highbrow bravado, the authors of New Yorker articles write on the back of designer vodka ads.

As Mother Jones has shown, people who are passionate about telling a story have powerful new tools at their disposal to do so. But without high-quality content–difficult, time-consuming, intellectually demanding, butt-numbing, sometimes actually dangerous reporting–the tools are just toys.

And who will pay for that reporting as we glide forward into the age of paper-free journalism?

Pour yourself a designer vodka and think about that one.


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?

2.D’oh! The Weekly Roundup

20, April, 2008

A weekly sweeping of the inane, inspired and utterly inexplicable from the world of Web 2.0

News to me: Google Tip

When searching Google, you can add a tilde ~ [it’s probably just to the left of your 1/! key] to instruct Google to search both the word and its synonym. It will also search alternate endings. From Google Guide:

  • [ ~inexpensive ] matches “inexpensive,” “cheap,” “affordable,” and “low cost
  • [ ~run ] matches “run,” “runner’s,” “running,” as well as “marathon

[This tip came to me via David Rothman, medical librarian and walking wiki of infotech. He learned about it from Ellen Detlefsen, herself an infoguru, who was presenting at an AMA conference the three of us attended.]

An “Oasis of Creativity” in a Desert of Debt

Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams promises the breathtakingly leveraged, horrifically downsized, real-estate-mogul-owned Tribune Co. will become “an oasis of creativity” in journalism. Read the interview.

Most intriguing, if exaggerated, observation:

I was looking at newspaper front pages from 1938 through to 2008. Put them all next to each other and they pretty much look the same. Meanwhile, there’ve been inventions like TV and cellphones and computers. Yet, the newspaper front page hasn’t changed.”

Join the Content Conservation Movement: Shut Up

Scott Karp, CEO of the social bookmarking service for journalists called Publish2, offers this solution to information overload: Clean up the info environment by producing less content.

We don’t need better tools to filter infocrap, he argues. We need to produce less crap. [“Crap” is my word, not his.] Writes he:

“Everyone can have electricity — which means we need lots of fossil fueled power plants. Everyone can have a car — which means that we have more car exhaust in the atmosphere. Everyone can choose from a large variety of packaged goods in the supermarket, produced in factories and distributed by trains and trucks — which means we produce more trash. . .

“On the web, everyone can publish — which means we have more content than all the people consuming content on the web can possibly consume.

“How did we deal with excesses from technology that damaged the environment? By starting a conservation movement?”

Which seems like an ideal time to end this utterly derivative, frankly low-value post, which I felt I needed to do to keep my blog fresh. Geez, now I feel like I just tossed a Dr Pepper can out the car window.

To do my part, I’m turning comments off for this post.

SEO good. User experience bad.

10, April, 2008

I have been accused of giving my former employer, The Washington Post, a big juicy kiss a couple days back. I looked at how well the Pulitzer Prize winners integrated digital journalism into their prize-winning work. The Post came out on top. Hey, I tried to be objective.

Anyhow, today’s topic gives me the opportunity not just to cast a weary eyebrow at, but to throw sand in its face and kick it in the nuts. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The topic is how mainstream news sites–the Post is just one egregious example among many–sacrifice user experience as a matter of daily practice in order to trick Google into ranking its contents higher on its search results.

Delivering poor user experience in the name of building traffic is, we all know, built into the very DNA of web publishing. But one particular practice of mainstream web journalism is so deeply annoying, so persistent, so widespread, so pernicious and so baffling to outsiders that it’s worth pointing out.

I refer to the Inexplicable and Distracting Hyperlink.

Let’s look at the news story that’s currently in the lead position on the home page.

Bush to Cut Army Tours to 12 Months

President Supports Suspending Pullout Of Forces in Iraq

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 2008; Page A01

President Bush plans to announce today that he will cut Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months, returning rotations to where they were before last year’s troop buildup in an effort to alleviate the tremendous stress on the military, administration officials said.

Note how the Post has kindly offered that hyperlink to “President Bush.” Who exactly is being served by this hyperlink? Let’s see. . .that would have to be someone reading Washington Post coverage of national affairs yet is wondering who this Bush feller is, anyway.

Same with Iraq. The audience for that hyperlink is probably that guy who’s been taking ice core samples in Antarctica since 1990 and is wondering what all the fuss is about.

But the Post doesn’t stop there. It offers handy hyperlinks to the following terms that demand explanation for the discriminating consumer of public affairs news: Capitol Hill. Afghanistan. Marines. White House. And my favorite of the day, U.S. military.

To be fair, the article also offers links of some potential value when it blue-fonts the names of prominent figures in the story.

But the stuff you might really want more background about? No links. If you want to know about the details of that Democrat proposal on a torture ban, troop relief-and-refresh and withdrawl timetable, for instance, sorry. You’ll need to visit with Brother Google.

You don’t have to be a search-engine optimization wizard to know what’s going on here. Google and other search engines read the language of hyperlinks as markers for story content. So if somebody is searching the term President Bush (and therefore likely to be looking for biographical information, not what he said yesterday about troop withdrawl) this story will bounce up higher on Google results.

But frankly, that’s SEO chump change.

The really big payoff is revealed if you click on one of those hyperlinks. Go ahead, click on the President Bush link above. You’ll be taken to what’s known in the trade as a “link farm” (or “index page”)–links to dozens of stories (and video, audio and blog entries) more or less related, in at least some tangential way, to President Bush. Torch relay to go on despite protests, IOC says (CNN). Bloomberg’s Zacharia Discusses NATO summit in Bucharest. And so on.

So why do these auto-generated pages exist? We return to the demands of Brother Google. If Google’s silent patient spiders see pages loaded with links about Bush–or Capitol Hill, or the Marines, etc.–they infer that the site is very content-rich about the topic. Up go the pages in search results. Even if the links are nonsensical, worthless or utterly baffling. (Say It Ain’t So, Colin (Balkinization)). Next time some Googler searches for President Bush, wham! is right on top.

Except when it’s not.

Go ahead, Google President Bush. Of the mainstream media sites, the well-tended New York Times link farm (led by Campaign 2004 content!) rides highest. As does (twice!) the New York Sun. And the Bush index page of the Tribune Co.’s The Swamp political blog. I got tired of clicking through results to find a story. But I passed the bushisantichrist and bushorchimp sites along the way.

SEO is a darker and far more complex art than this, and let me state plainly that I am a rube. There are complex traffic-steering and -aggregating services ( uses Inform and Aggregate Knowledge, at least) that play into this. There are many things going on behind the scenes that I am clueless about. And the thing Google spiders reward the most is links to the content from other credible sites, which is at least an attempt to validate content value.

But my point is this: A reader of online news is constantly distracted by all this blue-spatter spiderbait. It degrades the user experience. It offers no user value. It adds an unsavory layer of trickery to serious-minded content. Like the worst of all journalism, it places the institution’s commercial interests above those of the reader.

The question for serious journalistic enterprises: How can you maximize traffic to great content while keeping the reader’s needs at the forefront?

And isn’t that the same question we’ve been asking as long as this profession has existed?

Proposed: A Stock-Table Newspaper Tax

25, February, 2008

Those of us who wish a long and stable future for strong journalism of significant civic value have to bring about change in the news business. Necessary transformation is not coming from newsroom management. Therefore it is time to force their hands.

So I propose to levy a new tax on newspapers that continue to publish daily stock tables.

First, let’s agree that it’s wasteful and foolish to publish yesterday’s closing price of individual stocks on pressed pulp and petroleum-based inks.


In the Internet publishing world we think a lot about “use cases.” This means imagining individual readers and how they use a product. Now try to imagine a user well served by the printed publication of these prices. I can’t either.

Any trader who trades on daily price uses the Internet to conduct the trade or gather information to call (or e-mail) a broker. Anybody who has traded a stock online knows about the tools that provide significant advantages: real-time quotes during a trading day; alerts that tell you when a particular stock moves above or below a certain price; stock-price widgets on your desktop; related market and industry news; increasingly fast, cheap and friction-free trades; etc.

So: The user served by print publication of these figures would be (1) an active trader of individual stocks whose trades are based on daily closing prices who (2) is not a regular user of the Internet.

Anybody out there? Show of hands?. . .Ah, yes, one pensioner in the back there. Thanks for coming. Anybody else. . .?

There really isn’t a use case to justify continuing to publish daily stock tables. Many newspapers know this and have sharply reduced listings or simply stopped the practice. Often this has been done only with a gun to the head: Cut the tables or cut staff. Many operations have decided the listings should go after a few rounds of layoffs. Cutting employees before cutting stock tables is. . .well, let’s say any paper that continues to publish stock tables yet has laid off reporters has some explaining to do.

There should be three exemptions from the new Stock Table Tax.

A daily page of financial market data–broad indices for stock and bond markets, individual winners, losers, movers, key sectors, big mutual funds, most active, stocks in the news.

Any coverage of local stocks.

An extra page of tables on Sunday. Yes, it’s a bigger print run so it costs more, but a once-weekly deeper round-up for a larger audience arguably has value.

Any other daily newspaper that publishes daily closing prices of individual stocks should pay a tax equal to one-half the cost of the newsprint required to publish them. (I’m told this cost can range from $500 to $5,000 per page per day, depending on size of print run, page, stock used and other factors.)

This new tax will have two salutary effects:

It will provide newsroom management with incentive to quit a counterproductive old habit. Nothing else seems to be working. Each paper that has done buyouts or layoffs before cutting stock tables should be ashamed of itself. It needs a financial gun to the head–and a moment when they have to make the case to the newsroom staff for continuing a counterproductive practice at the expense of headcount.

It will make some money available to the paper for newer kinds of dynamic, multimedia, user-centered business coverage that may drive revenue for the website and other distribution platforms.

Papers that refuse to make the change will pay the new tax to a non-profit entity that supports independent new-media journalism projects. I’d recommend the Knight Foundation, which supports excellence in digital journalism of civic importance, but that’s just one of several options.

Essentially this tax will transfer income from those who are doing damage to the future of journalism to those who are moving it forward.

I have heard reasons for continuing to publish stock listings. They usually boil down to (1) the fear the paper would lose subscribers; (2) results of a focus group that found people liked the stock tables; (3) our publisher/editor emeritus/board of directors/influential stockholders insist we keep them.

No. 1: You’re hemmoraging readers anyway. The thought that a business decision with profound impact on the future bottom line should be driven by a couple of hundred indignant (let’s be plain) older readers who over-represent themselves with phone calls and (written!) letters to the publisher and top editors is. . . just plain bad business. Sure, you’ll get 200 calls. Accept them politely and forget them immediately. Like Odysseus, have your staff lash you to the mast, have them wax their own ears and sail past the sirens. Soon they will be silent and the ship will remain on course–toward a future built around new news consumers and rising media habits, not the old ones.

No. 2: Focus groups do not have to deal with zero-sum budgets. Focus groups like lots of stuff you can’t afford to keep. In fact, unless you give them a roster of features and tell them they have to lose half of them, you’re not gathering meaningful data. Secondly, doing focus groups with current readers isn’t a good idea anyway. Find potential future users of your news products online and in print. That’s who you have to re-build your business around.

No. 3: They are sentimental, retrograde, self-satisfied, isolated from reality or not paying attention. Do your best to make the case that the choice is another 10 percent staff cut or losing the stock tables. If they don’t buy that argument, do your best to subvert, ignore and marginalize them without getting fired.

Or just let your company pay the tax, layoff employees and allow important innovations in the future of journalism to occur elsewhere.

And tell them the TV-listing tax is coming in 2009.

Welcome to the world of Churnalism

21, February, 2008

Is journalism getting worse as reporters churn out more work faster to feed the hungry baby of the web?

Nick Davies believes the answer is yes, and has the documents to prove it.

In a recent column in the British newspaper the Guardian, Davies describes a study he had commissioned to investigate the issue. He writes:

I commissioned research from specialists at Cardiff University, who surveyed more than 2,000 UK news stories from the four quality dailies (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent) and the Daily Mail. They found two striking things.

First, when they tried to trace the origins of their “facts”, they discovered that only 12% of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. With 8% of the stories, they just couldn’t be sure.

The remaining 80%, they found, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry.

Second, when they looked for evidence that these “facts” had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12% of the stories.

His coinage to describe this kind of journalism: Churnalism.

In an interview with Heidi Dawley of Media Life, Davies elaborates: “Churnalism is the most important single example of the way in which commercialization has invaded and undermined newsrooms. . . .We had taken away from us our most precious working asset as a journalist, time.”

An arresting reality check for enthusiasts of “increased productivity” in newsrooms: What, precisely, is being produced?