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May 6, 2011

News is a wave

By coincidence, here are two related posts.

Gilad and Devin at Social Flow track the enormous kinetic energy of a single twitterer who figured out shortly before President Obama’s announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. But my way of putting this — kinetic energy — is entirely wrong, since it was the energy stored within the Net that propelled that single tweet, from a person with about a thousand followers, across the webiverse. And the energy stored within the Net is actually the power of interest, the power of what we care about.

Meanwhile, The Berkman Center today announced the public availability of Media Cloud, a project Ethan Zuckerman and Hal Roberts led. Ethan explains it in a blog post that begins:

Today, the Berkman Center is relaunching Media Cloud, a platform designed to let scholars, journalists and anyone interested in the world of media ask and answer quantitative questions about media attention. For more than a year, we’ve been collecting roughly 50,000 English-language stories a day from 17,000 media sources, including major mainstream media outlets, left and right-leaning American political blogs, as well as from 1000 popular general interest blogs. (For much more about what Media Cloud does and how it does it, please see this post on the system from our lead architect, Hal Roberts.)

We’ve used what we’ve discovered from this data to analyze the differences in coverage of international crises in professional and citizen media and to study the rapid shifts in media attention that have accompanied the flood of breaking news that’s characterized early 2011. In the next weeks, we’ll be publishing some new research that uses Media Cloud to help us understand the structure of professional and citizen media in Russia and in Egypt.

Now Media Cloud is going to be a very useful tool. And it was not trivial to build. Congratulations to the team. And thank you.

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April 21, 2010

Mediabugs: Keeping the media honest since today!

Mediabugs has a live beta up for reporting errors in media reports, initially in San Francisco. The site hopes that media will eventually put “Report an error” links into their online articles, as Scott Rosenberg (one of the folks behind Mediabugs) has started doing at his Wordyard blog.


March 15, 2010

Americans wants news, not newspapers (from sheep to bees)

Pew Internet has released its contribution to Pew’s annual report on the state of the news media.

My take on the results: Online users generally want news, but we don’t much care where it comes from. 71% of us get our news online, but only 35% of us have a favorite site. Of those 35%, only 65% check it every day. And only 18% of us are willing to pay for online news (a percentage that includes those of us who already do pay). Most of us which would switch sites if they began charging.

The report casually describes our activity as “grazing,” which I’d push back on. My guess is that often we’re going to news sites because someone we know or someone we read has linked to the site. We’re more like bees than like sheep, darting out of the hive when one of our co-bees does an interesting enough little dance.

Anyway, it’s the usual great work by Pew. Thanks, and thanks for posting it for free.

And while were on the semi-subject, here’s a status report from Google about what it’s been doing with DoubleClick and display ads.


March 1, 2010

Pew on how we get our news these days

Pew Internet has published the results of an important survey on how we’re getting our news today.

I haven’t read the whole thing but one little point leaps out already:

Among those who get news online, 75% get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites and 52% share links to news with others via those means.

Note that this breaks the usual rule that 1% of the online population does the work that the other 99% “consume,” which applies (extremely roughly) to Wikipedia edits, tagging, etc.

[LATER that day:] In fact, it’s fun watching tidbits from the report surfacing on Twitter.E.g. Jay Rosen @(jayrosen_nyu) points to Micah Sifry‘s writeup (@Mlsif). Scott Rosenberg (@scottros) reminds the Pew folks that “participatory news consumer” is an oxymoron. Meanwhile, Steve Rubel (@steverubel) points to Mike Melanson’s post at ReadWriteWeb about a report that says that Facebook drives three times as much traffic to broadcast media websites than Google News does.


December 26, 2009

Amplification, retweeting, and the loss of source

Jos Schuurmans usefully coins “Amplification is the new circulation.” And then he usefully worries about how to handle the fact that with each amplification, the link to the source becomes more tenuous.

The problem is that the amplification metaphor only captures part of the phenomenon. Yes, a post from a low-traffic site that gets re-broadcast by a big honking site has had its signal amplified. But the amplification happens by being passed through more hands, with each transfer potentially introducing noise, as in the archetypical game of “telephone” or “gossip.” On the other hand, because this is not mere signal-passing, each transfer can also introduce more meaning; the signal/noise framing doesn’t actually work very well here.

Retweeting is a good example and a possibly better metaphor: Noise gets introduced as people drop words and paraphrase the original, and as the context loses meaning because the original tweeter is now a dozen links away. But, as people pare down the original tweet, the signal may get stronger, and as they add their own take and introduce it into their own context, the original tweet can gain meaning.

But, Jos is particularly worried about the loss of source. As the original idea gets handed around, the link to its source may well break or be dropped. “TMZ says Brittany Murphy dead” becomes “TMZ says Brittany Murphy is dead” becomes “Brittany Murphy dead!!!!!!!!!” and then maybe even “Brittany dead!!!,” and “Britney Spears is dead!!!” Sources almost inevitably will be dropped as messages are passed because we are passing the message for what it says, not because of the metadata about its authenticity.

So, what do we do? I have a three part plan.

Part one: Continue to innovate. For example, there’s probably already some service that is following the tracks of retweets, so that if you want to see where a RT began, you can. Of course, any such service will be imperfect. But the all of the Internet’s strengths come from its imperfection.

Part Two: Try to be responsible. When it matters, include the source. This will also be a highly imperfect solution.

Part Three: Cheer up. Yes, it sucks that amplification results in source loss. But, it’s way better than it was before the Internet when all sorts of bullcrap was passed around without any practical way of checking it out. The Net amplifies bullcrap but also makes it incredibly easy to check it out, whether it’s a computer virus warning passed along by your sweet elderly aunt or a rumor about the spread of a real virus. Also, see Part Two: Try to be responsible. Check out rumors before committing to them. When amplifying, reintroduce lost sources.

As Jos says, amplification is the new circulation. And the new circulation tends towards source loss. It also increases both noise and meaning. And it occurs in a system with astounding tools — e.g., your favorite search engine — for the reinsertion of source.

Is it better or worse? Yes, definitely.


September 25, 2009

News is a river is a blog…

WLEX-TV in Lexington, Kentucky, an NBC affiliate, has turned its news site into a blog. It actually contains news produced independently of what goes out on broadcast. Very very interesting. It’s a different way of slicing the news, with much debt to Dave Winer’s river of news idea, and it’ll be fascinating to see how and in what ways it’s useful and how it changes our idea of what news should be.


September 22, 2009

[berkman] Clay Shirky on the future of news

Clay Shirky is giving a lunchtime talk at the Shorenstein Center, which may be a joint event with the Berkman Center.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. Posted without re-reading. You are warned, people.

p>The commercial structure of the newspaper industry means that it’s not enough for them to run at a profit. Advertisers had been forced to overpay because there weren’t other waysto reach people for display ads or coupons. This gave the newspaper enough capital to do long-term investigation; mere profitability wouldn’t have allowed this.

The advertisers were overcharged and under-served. That is, they couldn’t influence coverage.

Neither the overpaying and the underserving is true of the current market. The new market is efficient and so the price of advertising plummets. “We may be seeing advertising priced at its real value for the first time in history.” And if you want to sell a bike, you don’t go to the people who print news and crosswords; you go to Craigslist. As Bob Garfield says (says Clay), it turns out that people will go to sites that do nothing but post ads.

The news is now disaggregated and is re-forming itself around actual user desires. The aggregation is going from server-side to client-side. “The decision about what to bring together in a bundle” is made by the consumer, not the producer.

We should worry about echo chambers, although it turns out that people are interested in serendipity. But people are not interested in the omnibus approach. The number of people going to the NYTimes home page is going down because people go straight to the article. The bundle is put together more by other readers.

None of this will be reversed by increasing the commercial viability of printed newspapers.

“This doesn’t mean all newspapers go away. It does mean a lot of them go away.” “Newspapers will play a less significant role in accountability than they have in the past, which leaves us with a giant hole.” A big problem: Every town of 500,000 or less “sinks into endemic civic corruption” because no one is watching.

He refers to how a story in the Boston Globe went worldwide not because of the Globe but because its audience passed it around. “The public created itself.” “The penumbra of reuse around the article created an enormous amount of its value.” An article on a similar topic (priest pedophiles) in the early 1990s didn’t spread the same way, because the forward-and-recommend infrastructure didn’t exist.

If there were a pay wall around the later article, it would have forestall its effect and value. First, “We need the public good of accountability journalism.” Some newspapers are trying to get an anti-trust exemption to establish a pay wall for the sake of the public good. But that will destroy the village to save it. We should be looking at ways of balancing the cost of producing good journalism and the public good that comes from reuse.

There are three ways to create things accessible to the public. Private companies. NGOs. Social/peer production where people get together and do it. #3 had been confined to picnics, etc. Now it’s becoming a big part of the ecosystem. E.g., Pro Publica. Wikileaks. Open source. “The Internet makes all commercial models of journalism harder to sustain…and social models much, much easier to sustain.” “We’re seeing a re-balancing of the landscape” where all three of these modes of production will be operating. We want experiments across all three of these.

Also, we don’t want to replace newspapers. Newspapers have a single point of failure problem because they do 85% of accountability journalism. We don’t need a single point. We need someone who does 5% and then repeat that 15 times. “It’s a shift from one class of institutions to an ecosystem as a whole.”

Clay says he wants to distance himself from the utopians and optimists. “I think a bad thing is going to happen.” People don’t take seriously that things may get a lot worse for a while. He doesn’t think there’s any way to get out of the coming of public corruption. Between the printing press and the Treaty of Westphalia there were a long 100 years when people didn’t know what to think. “Our goal should be to minimize the depth of that trough … and hasten its end.” But there’s not simple and rapid alternative to 20th century newspapers, in part because what held papers together was “so crazily contingent.”

“I believe that newspapers are irreplaceable in their production of accountability journalism.” Some think we should therefore spend whatever we have to in order to replace them. Others say we should be “transferring our concern to the production of lots and lots of overlapping models of accountability journalism.” “The next step needs to be vast and varied experimentation.”

Q: Alex Jones: I don’t agree that newspapers are ready to be abandoned. In the priest pedophile story you cite, the Catholic Church was brought to heel by the viral information but also by the institutional power of the Globe. As you imagine this future, do you see in this array of smaller entity an institutional power that can bring institutions of power to heel?
A: Not in any simple way. That is the great weakness of the experimental trough: No one news org has that sort of power. Hard news is cross-subsidized by people who buy the paper for the coupons. But the front page has institutional power. The media has lost its force in almost all cases. The question is: Can news gather a public the way newspapers have done? The optimistic face is: We don’t know yet, but it’s there. The pessimistic: The ability of media to bring institutions is fading with the mass audience. I don’t know enough about the economics of converting newspapers to nonprofits.

Q: How about magazines?
A: They’re essentially non-profits. The New Yorker has operated at a lost throughout most of its history. The amount of journalism done by non-NPR radio is very small. Magazines are subsidized by billionaires. “The way to get around the problem with the media model is to have lots of models.”

Q: The revenue base is shrinking but it’s also much easier to acquire information.
A: That’s why we need lots of overlapping 5% reporting. The last time we had a big push for transparency — Watergate — it created K Street: You now knew how people voted, so lobbyists could get paid for effects. “It’s not enough to make the data available. We also have to make the public able to assemble and act on the data.”

Q: What’s the model for something like Pro Publica, which is not reaching the ordinary joe?
A: In the past, city hall news generally wasn’t front page. We think readers of newspapers read the whole thing. But it was cross-subsidized. It’s never been that all citizens care about all news. Pro Publica is reaching elites, and the question is whether it’s giving them what they need. “The real danger is that our political life is organized around geography, but the Web not so much.” The midpoint between nation and neighborhood is hard to do on the Web. Web stories are either hyperlocal or spill across all borders. Pro Publica isn’t well suited to regional reporting. The media markets and the political markets overlapped, but not any more. The trough will be worst at state and county levels.

Q: How does The Economist fit? They’re growing.
A: The one big exception is to the sharing model is financial news. A pay wall damages general news and benefits financial news, because people want to act on that news before they share. The Financial Times’ online audience is 1% of the Times. I don’t believe the Economist, FT and WSJ model is applicable to the general news.

Q [bill mitchell]: As you describe your three models — commercial, public, social — what in each of them really holds value for the public at large. What might they pay for, whether in donations, contributing their own journalism, etc.?
A: The core of the value is the set of the values accuracy and timeliness, but also shareability. General news has more value the more people know about it. People contribute unexpectedly. E.g., SETI. People donate not just because they wanted to help but because they got a cool screensaver. NPR tote bags say “I’m paying for your radio.” The power of that type of mockerhood is under-estimated. 6-8% of NPR listeners contribute, which might be enough to keep a newspaper alive, doing something (but not all of what it used to do).

Q: The story on Randy Cunningham required figuring out how to take the database of info and turn it into a story. Who’s going to do this?
A: Richard Hackman [sp?] says that groups are no good at writing. E.g., Wikipedia’s writing isn’t its strong point. Amanda Michel at OffTheBus found out that most people can’t be David Broder. Instead, she had hundreds of people crowd-sourcing data, and then gave it to a writer. She had a professional-amateur fusion. “No one is smart enough to get it right, which is why we need lots of experimentation.”

Q: The NYT says it has 800K readers who have been with them for 2 yrs, and they pay $700/year. Is that sustainable?
A: No. Someone suggested that newspaper rename their obit column as “Reader countdown.” Many newspapers pursuing a pay wall are only trying to stave off the Web.


August 20, 2009

New issue of JOHO the Newsletter

I’ve just sent out the August 18, 2009 issue of JOHO, my newsletter. (It’s completely free, so feel free to subscribe.) It’s all new material (well, new-ish) except for one piece.

[email protected]: Recently, the tenth anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto came out, a book I co-authored. Here’s some of what we got wrong in the original version.

In the new edition’s introduction, I list a bunch of ways the world has become cluetrain-y, many of which we take for granted. The fact is that I think Cluetrain was pretty much right. Of course, at the time we thought we were simply articulating things about the Web that were obvious to users but that many media and business folks needed to hear.

But Cluetrain also got some important things wrong…and I don’t mean just Thesis #74: “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.”

Our kids’ Internet: 

Part 1: Will our kids appreciate the Internet?: Will the Net become just another medium that we take for granted? 

I love the Internet because even now, fifteen years into the Web, I remember what life used to be like. In fact, give me half a beer and I’ll regale you with tales of typing my dissertation on an IBM Model B electric, complete with carbon paper and Wite-Out. Let me finish my beer and I’ll explain microfiche to you, you young whippersnappers.

The coming generation, the one that’s been brought up on the Internet, aren’t going to love it the way that we do…

Part 2: The shared lessons of the Net: The Net teaches all its users (within a particular culture) some common lessons. And if that makes me a technodeterminist, then so be it.

In my network of friends and colleagues, there’s a schism. Some of us like to make generalizations about the Net. Others then mention that actual data shows that the Net is different to different people. Even within the US population, people’s experience of it varies widely. So, when middle class, educated, white men of a certain age talk as if what they’re excited about on the Net is what everyone is excited about, those white men are falling prey to the oldest fallacy in the book. 

Of course that’s right. My experience of the Web is not that of, say, a 14 year old Latina girl who’s on MySpace, doesn’t ever update Wikipedia articles, isn’t on Twitter, considers email to be a tool her parents use, and — gasp — hasn’t ever tagged a single page. The difference is real and really important. And yet …

Part 3: How to tell you’re in a culture gap: You’ll love or hate this link, which illustrates our non-uniform response to the Net.

The news’ old value:  

Part 1: Transparency is the new objectivity: Objectivity and credibility through authority were useful ways to come to reliable belief back when paper constrained ideas. In a linked world, though, transparency carries a lot of that burden.

Part 2: Driving Tom Friedman to the F Bomb: Traditional news media are being challenged at the most basic level by the fact that news has been a rectangular object, not a network.

Bogus Contest: Net PC-ness: What should we be politically correct about in the Age of the Web?

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August 9, 2009


With it’s new Fresh view, Delicious builds on the TweetNews idea of using links in Tweets (and other measures) as a way to find what’s newest and most interesting. As the blog post about it says:

Underneath the hood, Fresh factors several features into the ranking like related bookmark and tweet counts, “eats our own dogfood”  by leveraging BOSS to filter for high quality results, as well as stitches tweets to related articles even if the tweets do not provide matching URLs (as ~81% of tweets do not contain URLs). Try clicking the ‘x Related Tweets’ link for any given story to see the Twitter conversation appear instantly inline.

It’s a welcome reslicing, not a whole new beast, but it seems useful.

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July 6, 2009

News, process, webs and networks

Terry Heaton has yet another excellent entry in his continuing series on the media r/evolution. This one is on the news as a process — never done, never entirely right.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about the news as a network. I’ve been finding that the network view of institutions is helpful because it lets you think about the ways in which the odd properties of The Network, and especially the Web, may be getting applied to those institutions — how those properties fit and don’t fit, and what that means for how those institutions can and should interact with the Net. In fact, at the moment I’m thinking about that as the organizing principle of a talk I’m giving at the Open Gov Innovations conference in a couple of weeks.

Terry’s process view of the news is helpful because it reminds us that a news story is messily spread over time, with many hands touching, and thus contradicts the ol’ writing-boom-published timeline of yore. Nah, the news is always in process. Dave Winer’s river of news is another useful metaphor, capturing the flow of news that we care about.

Metaphors are not exclusionary, so I also like the network idea. The river of news as it flows past us is part of a continuing process, which has shape and some persistence because it is a network. And I think the news is a network pretty much fractally: A hyperlinked news story is embedded in a network of links. Stories are slices through complex webs of ideas, with connections through the river of time and the semantic space of causality and influence. A collection of stories (what we used to call a “newspaper” or a “nightly news show”) is a web of related pieces — related by chronology but also by cross-commentary and references. Reporters rely on networks of people. Readers read within networks of people and ideas. The events themselves that the news “covers” are so deeply enmeshed in networks of history and culture that the very notion of a “story” is now suspect.

There are at least three problems with networks of news. 1. Networks can be lazy; they are so sprawling and full of goodies that there’s some type of focused work they may not get around to. 2. Networks lower the barriers to social gravity, so that we can be irresistibly attracted to people who are like us. (Ok, so opposite magnetic poles attract, and thus my metaphor has failed. Damn!) 3. We know how to turn hard objects into money, whereas it’s way harder to figure out how to make networks of news economically sustainable.

But the networking of news feels to many of us like the news assuming a more natural, authentic shape, freed from the rectangle of paper into which it has been force fitted for so long.

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