The Now/ledge

A Guide to the 'Now' Revolution in News / by Alan Soon

What journalism needs in 2011

The smartest minds in the business have already put out their best predictions for 2011. So I’ll do mine differently; here’s my list of what I think journalism needs in order to thrive in 2011.

1. Tablet-only publications and redefining our metrics

Tablet devices offer the best opportunity yet for us to redefine online journalism/publishing. It’s like hitting the reset button. For one, this is our best chance yet to do away with the obsolete metric of counting page views, which in my opinion represents the worst contamination of online journalism. Story-telling is undermined by numerous “link bait,” all for the purpose of collecting more clicks. More than ever, engagement matters. It’s time we measured that in minutes and not clicks. Tablets, and their more natural way of interaction, offer the best chance to get that right.

My other hope is that tablets, with increasing competition in the apps ecosystem, will favor niche and curated stories with differentiation. The current Web ecosystem is plagued by weeds — a result of the rise of content farms. It’s time to return to considered curation. Try this analogy: instant coffee didn’t kill the barista profession; in fact, it’s taught many people about the beauty of a fabulous brew. I hope content is headed in the same direction.

2. Social news

Storify is the best example of the potential of social news. Think of it as a “news of news” platform. The Washington Post used Storify recently during the U.S. mid-term election to monitor allegations of fraud and irregularities.

I’d love to see other rivals to Storify emerge. I’d bet that the competition will come from none other than the social media networks themselves. Social updates are already the gold mine of the content age — and there’s no reason why a company like Facebook would leave this lying on the table. How long will it be before Facebook enters the social news business?

3. Data mining as a news profession

Yahoo’s country editor in Vietnam Nguyen Tran Ha often reminds me that “information only exists when it is read.” In the age of “leakification” provided by WikiLeaks and its copycats, data exists — but it needs to be interpreted and mined. Like library science, data mining is a profession in its own right and such professionals are needed to pull in and interpret the numbers.

ProPublica demonstrated with great success this year what some have called “computational journalism” — the marriage of algorithms, computing and investigation. Here’s an example of data they put together detailing which banks received the largest bailouts from the Fed.

Data is after all, the raw material for investigative journalism. It’s time to see this reflected in a profession created around it. Would someone like to attempt a job description for such a role?

Filed under: Facebook, General, Jobs, News, , , , , , ,

How will the news syndication model evolve?

In his piece for Nieman Journalism Lab’s predictions for 2011, Clay Shirky makes a big deal of the disruption of the syndication model in a social news environment. His prediction works like this: bloggers are ripping off and building on reporting done by news agencies like Reuters and AP, so why will newspapers even need to buy wire subscriptions anymore when they can, in turn, just get it off the blogs?

He writes:

“This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.”

Sure, journalism is not an efficient value system. As Ken Doctor described it, “journalism is essentially a manufacturing process, with as much or as little value added as we want.”

In the case of newspapers, no one called the end to wire reporting just because columnists were building opinion pieces on top of the work done by their colleagues in the field. This is the same of the blogosphere — you will always need the raw materials on which you build an opinion. In television news (where I’ve spent most of my career), much of what makes it on air comes from wire services — videos, photos, articles. The spit and polish comes from talking heads — an evolving industry trend (now largely the norm) in the past 15 years.

News agencies, in my view, will continue to evolve and in my prediction, this will be no different from any other industry that works directly with raw materials. Reuters, AP and AFP won’t go the way of the dinosaurs. Instead, their business model and more importantly, the product, needs to change. The goal is can no longer be a final piece that ends up published in a newspaper. The mandate instead, needs to be to provide columnists, editors and bloggers the raw facts — data, photos, analytics — in which they then build their own versions of the story.

Now that’s the value-add for 2011.

Filed under: Newspapers, Publishing, Social Media, Television,

Gaming Google — a bully’s guide to success

A story that appeared in the New York Times this weekend about an obnoxious and threatening e-retailer is nothing short of horrific. It tells of one consumer’s experience in dealing with a virtual bully — a eyeglasses retailer who used his negative reputation on the Web to game Google in sending him traffic.

Vitaly Borker, the founder and owner of DecorMyEyes.com, told the NYT in a surprisingly candid admission, “I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment,” he said. “So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

Google acted quickly by apparently tweaking its algorithm. It didn’t say exactly how or what it did, but it admitted that sentiment analysis is difficult.

As it turns out, Google has a world-class sentiment analysis system (Large-Scale Sentiment Analysis for News and Blogs). But if we demoted web pages that have negative comments against them, you might not be able to find information about many elected officials, not to mention a lot of important but controversial concepts. So far we have not found an effective way to significantly improve search using sentiment analysis. Of course, we will continue trying.

In the most straightforward, no bullshit statement from the otherwise enigmatic search giant, Google added:

We can’t say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms in the future. We know that people will keep trying: attempts to game Google’s ranking, like the ones mentioned in the article, go on 24 hours a day, every single day. That’s why we cannot reveal the details of our solution—the underlying signals, data sources, and how we combined them to improve our rankings—beyond what we’ve already said.

So on to my favorite topic — the need to balance algos and human editors. Google is naturally cagey about its backend because it doesn’t want anyone to figure out how it works. Fair enough. But you can’t ignore the fact that any person of the right mind would have spotted what DecorMyEyes was doing and so take it lower in the results.

I’m also interested to see how sentiment analysis will affect content farms. As you’ll have seen from my previous posts, I’m not totally excited about how these companies are in effect also gaming Google with top-notch SEO while delivering low-quality content. I’d love to see an algo that’s smart enough to tell the difference. But until then, human search editors and community managers should get to keep their day jobs.

Filed under: SEO

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