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

Murdoch and the modern newspaper

When was the last time you were excited about the launch of a newspaper?

Come mid-December (or early next year — depending on which rumor you trust), Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp will be putting out what appears to be the world’s first digital newspaper, called The Daily, made exclusively by a new editorial team for Apple’s iPad. That’s right — this is an iPad-only publication, with no (union/legacy) strings attached to a printed issue.

Seldom has the launch of yet another iPad app attracted such attention in the press. Rumors have been flying and this is what appears to be coming down the line according to several reports:

  • News Corp will invest $30 mil in the first year
  • Content is focused on the U.S. market
  • It will cost 99 cents a week
  • 100-150 journalists have been hired
  • Jesse Angelo, the managing editor and schoolmate of Lachlan Murdoch (Rupert’s son), will run it
  • According to The Guardian, Rupert Murdoch came up with the idea after examining a survey that showed readers were spending more time on the iPad than on the desktop. No surprise. Murdoch believes that The Daily will prove that consumers will pay for high-quality, original content online.

    But the biggest challenge is the platform itself. In an age of social media, there is apparently neither inbound nor outbound links on The Daily. What’s the point of a great article if you can’t share it?

    An official announcement has been expected in mid-December at an Apple event, though the FT citing people familiar with the project says a launch in 2011 is more likely.

    Such an endeavor requires the support of Apple, which has so far refused to allow publications to seek subscriptions through its iTunes Store. I’m sure Steve Jobs is no dummy — there is plenty of money on the table for subscriptions. Amazon is doing it with the Kindle, why not Apple?

    Filed under: Newspapers, Publishing

    Blekko scores one for human curation — and why content farms should worry

    Human curation still matters. And that’s the bet that search engine startup Blekko is making.

    It’s premise is simple — add a dose of “social” and what it calls “slash tags” and there you have it: a collection of hand-picked sites that focus on what people (not algorithms) look at.

    The move takes aim at the rise in content farms such as Demand Media and Associated Content that focus on ways to game Google’s through clever SEO techniques. While this is a profitable, scalable way to create content (Demand is off to an IPO soon), users are led down the path of dodgy content whose source or credibility can’t be determined. Would you go to eHow.com for medical advice? (I kid you not — people do because that’s what Google serves up)

    “I personally don’t like getting content aggregators like Demand Media in my results,” said Rich Skrenta, the CEO of Blekko. “They’re polluting the Web.”

    Skrenta, the ex-founder of Topix, has raised $24 million in venture-capital funds. He’s also tapped famous angel investors like Marc Andreessen.

    With a touch of social magic dust, Blekko has brought together in a private beta more than 3,000 collections of sites that can be found through slash tags.

    It’s vertical search meets social. And score one for human curation. Sometimes there just some things that people do better.

    Filed under: SEO, Social Media

    AOL loses its top editors amid shift to amateur journalism

    Is AOL’s push toward amateur journalism sending its veteran journalists out the door?

    The media company, which once boasted of its more than 500 journos (among them nine Pulitzer prize winners), is now seeing its key assets walk out the door. Reuters reports that the company has now lost its Editor-in-Chief Mike Nizza to News Corp. Other departures include World Editor James Graff and Enterprise Editor James Burnett.

    Some ex-AOL execs blame CEO Tim Armstrong — who is said to be taking the company from one chaotic project to another without a focus or strategy. For the editorial teams, emphasis has clearly shifted from “professional” to “amateur” journalism, as seen in AOL’s push toward quick-and-cheap content in projects like the hyperlocal network Patch and freelance content by Seed.

    Preisdent of AOL Media and Studios David Eun told PaidContent that isn’t the case and that the company was building a balance between professional and amateur.

    “If you go to our Travel site, I think you’ll see a very well-programmed experience, that includes articles our staff journalists have written, content from partners and local content from people in our Seed network. We also have videos from our StudioNow network. What we’re doing is creating the largest virtual newsroom of the future. Ultimately that’s run by the people on staff here, who produce our editorial.”

    Eun in another interview (this time with Reuters) defended the company’s strategy, saying it’s still about content.

    “We don’t believe the content on the Web will only be created within our walls, let’s be clear about that… A lot of great content is created originally within our walls… It’s our job to bring the best out there and mix it internally so our audiences get the benefit of both.”

    Filed under: General

    Guardian releases blogging, commenting guidelines for journos

    The UK’s Guardian newspaper has published its best practices for journalists blogging and responding to comments on its site.

    No major surprises and most are common sense (“Don’t reward disruptive behavior with attention, but report it when you find it.”) Perhaps the most interesting reminder to journos:

    #1. Participate in conversations about our content, and take responsibility for the conversations you start.

    Definitely worth keeping in mind.

    Filed under: Newspapers, Social Media

    Collaboration in journalism: Multiple partners

    Here’s a fantastic story — and an equally amazing push forward in the realm of collaborative journalism.

    For its latest investigative piece on the financial practices of U.S. pharmaceutical companies, ProPublica is working with five (yeah, five!) news organizations for coverage:

  • NPR
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Boston Globe
  • Consumer Reports
  • PBS

    This is a unique challenge for ProPublica, which in the past had favored single news agencies for coverage. For “Dollars for Docs,” each partner is running their own version of the story, backed up by common data provided by ProPublica. Some will be using ProPublica’s lead to drive the piece.

    Tom Detzel, the ProPublica editor in charge of the project described it to Niemen Lab:

    The partners all took initiative to do their own stories. We didn’t try to draw any lines in the sand: ‘Here’s what you can do, and can’t do.’ We just said, ‘Here’s the topic we want to work with, and here’s the data we have. Take it and run with it.’

    This is an interesting project and I hope it works out. I think it’s clear that the next era for journalism will be collaborative through shared resources, data and assets. I’d love to see a partnership like this thrive.

    Filed under: News,

  • The future of journalism: Entrepreneurial

    The Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York has embarked on a mission to save journalism. By making it entrepreneurial.

    It has received two $3 million grants to create the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and a Master of Arts degree in Entrepreneurial Journalism.

    This is worth celebrating. We’ve finally made peace with the fact that new journalism requires its practitioners to understand where technology is headed, and more importantly, how to build a sustainable news business around it. Kudos.

    In a statement, Executive Director Emily Tow Jackson said The Tow Foundation had become “concerned about the fate of print journalism in the digital age and the impact of its decline on the health of our democracy.”

    The first graduates are expected in the spring of 2012. Hopefully, that won’t be too late to save the industry.

    Filed under: Jobs,

    Why Facebook needs its own phone

    TechCrunch’s report on Facebook’s secret plans to build its own phone is thin on details. The idea is wild and it sounds somewhat insane. But according to TechCrunch, Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos (who seem suitably qualified) are working on a secret project. It provokes the question: Does Facebook even need a phone?

    Yes.

    It’s not so much about the phone in a hardware sense. It’s about building a platform and ecosystem to guarantee that Facebook continues to own its social footprint on the PC and mobile phones.

    Facebook already has a number of APIs, SDKs and plug-ins available to developers. The goal is simple — to get as close as possible to an operating (eco)system on the web.

    So why wouldn’t it try to do the same thing on mobile phones?

    Facebook’s size and reach put it in the cross hairs of rivals Google and Apple. Much of its survival on phones hinges on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. I just don’t see either rival providing deep Facebook deep access into their mobile operating system. Just look at how Apple’s Ping and Google’s Buzz are turning out. Facebook’s reliance on its rivals in the mobile space is downright risky.

    Also keep in mind the line between a traditional address book and a social one has blurred. Arguably, the people who matter to you are probably already on Facebook, along with all their contact details. It’s really up to Facebook to define what a “social contact book” looks like. This is the best way to do that.

    —–

    Update: Facebook issued a denial to Mashable the very next day:

    “The bottom line is that whenever we work on a deep integration, people want to call it a ‘Facebook Phone’ because that’s such an attractive soundbite, but building phones is just not what we do.”

    Filed under: Facebook, Social Media,

    Follow alansoon on Twitter

    Twitter Updates