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January 25, 2015

[2b2k] Inside.com’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism?

Inside.com is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all?

Inside.com has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.

 

Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world Inside.com has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at Inside.com as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …

And Inside.com:

A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.

Inside.com’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at CNN.com in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. Inside.com tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at Inside.com (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

Inside.com:

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet.

Inside.com hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. Inside.com links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Inside.com. Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Inside.com:

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of Inside.com as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that Inside.com is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that Inside.com gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide, Inside.com’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With Inside.com, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if Inside.com can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that Inside.com is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that Inside.com will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form Inside.com has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.

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September 16, 2014

[liveblog] Hendrik Hertzberg on the quick fix for our Constitutional morass

I’m at a Shorenstein lunch talk where Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker is talking about the difficulty of electing a government with the infrastructure we have. The place is packed. HH was one of the very first Shorenstein fellows. When he was here he was covering the 1988 presidential campaign. (I’m sitting immediately behind him, so I will be able to report in detail on the expressiveness of the back of his head.)

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. You are warned, people.

He says that we keep thinking that if we could just elect the right president, everything would be fine. We have a cult of presidents. But the problem is in the Constitution. “The machine that elects the president is a machine for disappointment.” You get elected by announcing ideals, not by saying that you’re going to have to engage in a series of ghastly compromises. “So much is due to the Framers, who were at the cutting edge in their day.” He points out that when the Constitution was being framed, framing it was illegal, for we already had the Articles of Confederation that said any changes required a unanimous vote by the thirteen colonies. “We should try to be like them [the Founders] and think boldly about our system,” rather than merely worshipping them.

HH reads some selections from the Framers. First, a letter from G. Washington stating that the Constitution is imperfect but was the best that could be agreed upon; he put his hopes in the process of amendment.

HH says we should be wary of the Federalist Papers. “They were op-eds written to sell a particular compromise.” They’re high-minded and don’t reflect what really happened. E.g., Madison and Hamilton hated each state getting the same number of senators. Hamilton wrote that letting a minority rule would lead to gridlock, compromise, and near anarchy…our current situation, says HH.

We are still told the Electoral College exists to to protect the interests of the smaller states and prevent mob rule. “The truth is that it was adopted in order to protect slavery.” Madison, perhaps half-seriously, suggested that the lower house be elected by vote and that the upper house should be elected with the three-fifths rule. The lower would represent the interests of the citizens and the upper would represent the slave states’ interests, because that was the real distinction. “The Electoral College system was born in sin.”

In 1968, we almost got a Constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College, but it was fillibustered by Sam Ervin.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will change this. (The idea for making this into an interstate compact came from a Stanford computer science prof., John Koza.) The Constitution instructs the states to come up with electors who then vote for the state in the presidential election. The states that support the NPVIC say their electors will vote for whoever wins the national popular vote. It goes into effect when the compacting states add up to 270 votes, which would guarantee that the election goes to the winner of the popular vote. This does not require changing the Constitution. And it’s 60% of the way to happening: 11 states + DC. (Mass. has adopted it.) All eleven states are blue states, but there’s Republican support, although their platform came out against it. New Gingrich is a recent convert. Fred Thompson. Many others.

This reform would be an enormous move toward civic health, HH says. No more battleground states. No more spectator states. It would affect how campaign money is spent, although not how it is raised; it would have to be spent all around the country. It would boost turnout by increasing turnout in the spectator states.

Q: How does this compact ensure the electors keep their promise?

A: It’d be a state law. And it says states cannot withdraw from it during the campaign period.

HH continues. We have a controlled experiment: There are a lot of things wrong with Obama, but we’re not going to get anyone much better. This has made apparent the weaknesses in the system. Our dysfunction is the result of people responding to rewards and punishments built into the system. NPVIC is the “gettable reform.” We could get this one by 2016, although 2020 is more likely. “I’m all for campaign reform, but the Supreme Court stands in the way.”

HH says that NPVIC is a mom-and-pop outfit. He’s hopeful because the state electors have a reason to vote for this, because right now “no one returns their calls.” The focus now is on getting a first red state. If you’re interested in donating money, HH suggests you give to FairVote.

Q&A

Q: How might this change the geographic location of campaigns? Will this lead to an urban/rural divide? Will Dems campaign more in the North and Reps in the South, thus polarizing us more?

A: That ignores that only 10-15% lives in big cities. [The Census figures are somewhat hard to parse on this. source.] And it would be cost-effective to buy ads in the poorer and less dense parts of the country. “Every single vote is equally worth going after” in this scenario.

Q: Would this shift parties to nominating people more in the mainstream? And what about third parties?

A: The two-party system is essential to a winner-take-all system likes ours. (I’m also in favor of the instant runoff voting reform.) NPVIC gives its votes to the winner of a plurality.

Q: Why isn’t this being talked about more?

A: It’s weirdly hard to grasp. And it can be demagogued against: “So you think you’re smarter than the Framers??” The media will pay more attention once the count gets close to 270.

Q: Even in states that have passed it, nobody knows about it. It looks like a move among political elites.

A: You’re right that nobody knows about it. But people of all parties do favor electing the president by popular vote. The outcome reflects the wishes of the majority of Americans. But, yes, NPVIC is a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Rube Goldberg machine

Q: Have the Tea Party stars — Limbaugh, Beck, etc. — staked out positions?

A: It may have come up for a few minutes, but it hasn’t become a fixture.

Q: The question will be which party is losing more Electoral College votes.

A: Because of 2000, the sense is the Democrats throw away more. In 2004 if 30K votes had shifted in Ohio, Kerry would have won the election while losing the popular vote. [There is a rapid debate about which party throws away more votes. Couldn’t capture it.

Q: Has there been a non-partisan anaysis of this proposal? And why doesn’t the NPVIC campaign have more educational outreach?

A: There has not been much non-partisan analysis, although there’s some. And many governors are directly elected, so I don’t see how much more we need to learn about this. Plus, when you have a quiet, calm conversation with state legislators, they often tend to like it.

Q: Do you worry that linking this movement to others might break apart the coalition?

A: They’re only linked in my mind. “If I had my way, I would translate the German constitution into English and be done with it,” HH says. Americans wrote it. “If the Framers were around now, they’d write that constitution.” “I hope that once this reform kicks in, people will think more about imitating the Framers rather than worshipping them.”

Q: How is political coverage these days?

A: Political coverage tends to ignore the ways in which the hydraulics limit and affect politicians. And since by definition the US Constitution is perfect (we assume), when things go wrong, it must be because of bad people. It’s still basically a morality tale about Good and Bad. You still hear “If only Obama were more like LBJ: get in their and get stuff done” and it drives me nuts. LBJ did that, but he had a huge majority in the House and Senate. When he lost that, he got nothing done. Or, Tom Friedman pushing for a centrist third party, ignoring the fact that we already a centrist party: The Democrats — ignoring that this would make the right the governing party.

Q: Any major figures backing it?

A: I expect Obama and Clinton would be for it, but saying so wouldn’t help. Tying this up with particular personalities can be risky.

Q: Effect on primaries?

A: It wouldn’t affect that directly. They’d want a candidate who can do well in the entire country, not just in the swing states. It would likely cause people to look at the nominating system.

[Next day: I corrected a statement that I’d recorded as certain rather than probabilistic.]

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