links for 2010-10-11

  • Kevin: Tim Bray has a nice comparison of tablets including the Samsung Galaxy (he works for Google, and it runs Android), the iPad and mobile phones. He talks about the different ways that you'd use both a 7-inch tablet like the Galaxy and a 9-inch tablet such as the iPad. He also talks about contexts where you wouldn't want to use a tablet, such as for snapping a picture or for checking directions in a slightly sketchy neighbourhood. It's well worth reading.

Many journalists see numbers as ‘research rather than journalism’

That’s a paraphrase from my former colleague and good friend, Simon Rogers, the editor The Guardian’s Datablog. Simon is a true champion of best practise using data in journalism, and here is what he had to say to Chris Elliot, The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor:

First, I think there’s a cultural challenge. Many journalists are arty types who traditionally have thought of anything to do with numbers as ‘research’, rather than journalism. That’s combined with an unwillingness to ask difficult questions about data, or read the notes that get attached to spreadsheets [that journalists receive]. This doesn’t apply to everyone – the specialists know all about this.

I applaud Simon for his frankness. As Suw and I talk about frequently, many of the issues that we deal with in our work are relate to culture. I wrote recently how journalists’ identity is often a barrier to the adoption of technology, and in some ways, technology and statistics are lumped into the same bucket by a number of journalists (unless you’re a stats-junkie sports journalist).

Chris also interviews Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science column in The Guardian, for his column about statistics. Ben hits on one of the issues that drives me nuts about my profession, statistics inflation. Sure, we can shout to the hills about a 200%  CORRECTION 100% (thanks Vincent) increase in the number of children who have been killed by albino elephants in zoos, but if that dramatic increase is from one child to two children, it’s not really a story. As a journalist, I can spot statistics abuse from a mile off, and I tend to think that many readers can too. Big percentages are always a tip off, especially if the reporter obscures or leaves out the actual figures entirely. Ben also raiss the issue of dealing with relative risk.

Another issue raised in the article is basic innumeracy in journalism. It’s shocking to see how often journalists conflate mean with median or use mean when it’s actually not representative or skewed by outliers. Mean is a simple average whereas median is a the middle value in a set of values. Depending on your set of numbers, mean and median can diverge by quite a lot. It’s not a hard and fast rule that one is better than the other. It’s worth checking the distribution of values first to decide which one is more representative of the data, and reasonable people can disagree about which one is more representative as Chris Elliot points out in the piece. The problem is that too few journalists know the difference.

There is a comment on the article from a biological scientist that is worth reading:

May I just ask why Journalists don’t have to study a minimum level of statistics before they are employed?

Don’t you people have to have some common level of understanding of the world you live in before you describe it.

And the:-

“who traditionally have thought of anything to do with numbers as ‘research’, rather than journalism.”

I take (that) means (sic) your writers value writing more than they value understanding what they write about.

I can see why journalists score as well as they do on respect polls.

I’m a biological scientist, I have have had (sic) to study statistics and ethics as part of my training.

I have to take and pass courses on toxins/hazards, clinical ethics, animal ethics and quite a few other courses, every year.

If I were to treat choice of mean, medium or mode as a matter of personal choice I would be torn apart by my referees.

With the number of choices that people have for information, we journalists need to step up our game. We do need to do more to understand the world we live, ask tougher questions and be more serious about the flood of numbers that inundate us everyday. Again, as a journalist, I know when a reporter has written around a hole in their reporting, relating to numbers or not. It’s pretty easy to spot. (I’ve had to do it myself.) It’s foolish to think that our readers can be duped so easily.

HTML5, touch and new interfaces for news

I feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Woah. When Zee at Next Web posted this HTML5 news timeline from AP Labs, I was blown away. It’s such an intuitive, rich interface for exploring news from multiple angles, and after a lot of years of stagnation in terms of interface design, I’m really excited to see HTML5 and touch interfaces motivating designers and coders to explore some new ideas.

You can explore stories by time, choosing different subjects as you go. The stories drop into the timeline with colours related to their topics.

AP HTML5 Timeline News Reader

Clicking on a story in the timeline opens up a small preview window.

AP HTML5 Story Preview

You can then open the full story that brings up this three-pane window in which you can make adjustments to the text, see additional information about the image with the story and read the story itself.

AP HTML5 Story Preview

Now, as Conrad Quilty-Harper says on Twitter, it “runs like a dog on the iPad”. I was viewing it in Chrome on a four-year old, much-repaired MacBook. It was very fluid on the MacBook. I should probably try it in Safari and see if it has something to do with Safari’s support for HTML5. That might explain why it’s slow on the iPad. However, Conrad has a point. Creating a site in HTML5 should allow it to run on an iPad, but it looks like it might take some optimisation. However, designing the interface is half the battle. As a first effort, it’s an excellent starting place, and it’s very exciting to finally start seeing some experimentation with interface like this. HTML5 might not be production ready, according to the W3C, but it’s very promising to see this level of sophistication at this stage.

Innovation: Focusing on finding “The Next Big Thing” leads to performance pressure

This cross-posted from The Media Briefing, a new site in the UK for media professionals. ?I like the cut of their jib. They are not only creating content, but they are also adding value to their content using semantic technologies to make it easier for busy professionals content relevant to them.

You want innovation? You can’t handle innovation.

Seriously though, once they’re established, most companies are geared toward stability, not disrupting their own operations. Newspaper and magazine companies are no different.

And print media had no real impetus to change radically until recently. Newspapers and magazines took the challenge from television and radio in its stride – but it took the combined impact of multi-channel television, video games and the internet to challenge print media’s dominance. But if you thought the last five years were disruptive, brace yourself for the next five.

The change in media economics has been a shift from scarcity – with few sources of information and entertainment – to more content choices than the human brain can possibly process. In this super-saturated media market, it’s about to get even more crowded.

AOL and Yahoo have decided to focus their strategies on content, although Yahoo in particular has tried this before and failed. Even if AOL fails, its efforts will put additional pressure on print media. AOL launched a local news service, Patch, in the US: Warren Webster, Patch’s president, recently told Ken Doctor in the that he can match the content production of a like-sized newspaper for 4.1 percent of the cost. As Ken wrote:

“Patch can produce the same volume of content… for 1/25 the cost of the old Big Iron newspaper company, given its centralized technology and finance and zero investment in presses and local office space. (Staffers work out of their homes.)”

Demand Media is already operating in the UK, bringing its model of consistent work for freelancers at ridiculously low rates. They march to the beat of Google‘s drum, commissioning content based on popular search terms. The content may be easy to parody, but Demand is preparing for what many are predicting will be a US$1.5bn floatation on the market.

So how will you turn staid institutions into nimble players in the new media environment?

One strategy that won’t work is locking a bunch of smart people in a room to come up with The Next Big Thing. The Economist, as successful it is, tried to do that with Project Red Stripe. It didn’t work, leading to a kind of performance anxiety and creative paralysis.

The industry has spent a lot of time hiring innovation officers and investing innovation in a few positions. In the not-so-distant past, the people in these positions have had no budget, no staff, an ill-defined role and, therefore, little impact. Clay Shirky in his seminal blog post, Newspapers: Thinking the Unthinkable, said that these people saw what was happening and simply described it to their colleagues. Clay says:

When reality is labelled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.

Innovation is about creating a culture of constant of improvement. If you could do one thing that would save every single journalist in your organisation ten minutes on every story – it might not be sexy – but these cost savings are necessary to compete with someone who does what you do for a fraction of the cost.

Steve Yelvington, a digital content pioneer in the US, worked on the NewspaperNext Project, and he’s been working on digital projects long before most media execs even knew what a computer was.

The NewspaperNext project looked at disruptive innovationthrough the lens of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. The basic question was this: “How and why (did) simple, low-end, inadequate, ‘junk’ products and services so often topple the big guy?”

These insurgents do it by starting with a product that is “good enough” and then constantly improve it. Insurgents start out “beneath” the incumbents, but then move upmarket. Recent hires by the Huffington Post, Yahoo and The Daily Beast show how pure digital companies are now starting to lure top talent away from the once imperious names of US journalism.

Wracking your brains for the next Big Thing is not the answer. The rules of the media market have already changed and it’s time to listen to the people you once thought were barking mad. Your survival might just depend on it.

Newsrooms vs. the Volcano

Over in Geneva, the EBU Radio News Conference 2010 is underway, and I’m watching from afar via the wonders of Twitter.

Late yesterday, Michael Good of RTE talked about how they covered the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and, finding that the “public wanted more than radio programmes could give”, had to turn to the web and networked journalism to improve coverage. Charlie Beckett reports:

In the final session it was made clear by speakers such as Michael Good of RTE that mainstream media can’t cope with big complex crisis stories such as the volcanic ash story: ‘ the public wanted more than radio programmes could give’

RTE responded by using social media connected to their coverage to fill the gaps and to tell the micro as well as the macro story. To provide context as well as drama, information as well as narrative. As Michael put it, it showed how social media has to be at the heart of the newsroom.

Brett Spencer also reported that “SWR say if it happened again right now they would approach the science and the experts with more caution” and “Richard Clark of the BBC Newsroom says an awful lot of experts got airtime who actually didn’t know very much.”

As someone who followed Eyjafjallajökull’s progress from the beginning of the first ‘tourist eruption’ right the way through to the final gasps of the phreatomagmatic eruption (i.e. the big explosive bit), I can say with some certainty that the mainstream media did a pretty appalling job of choosing experts to talk about the eruption. Often, they chose to speak to industry representatives, such as union leaders or airline owners, who knew very little about the eruption itself but had very strong views on what they thought reality ought to be. They also had a vested interest in portraying the situation in a particular light.

I was particularly disgusted by people like Richard Branson, who threw a strop because he thought the flight ban was unnecessary. The BBC reported Branson being either disingenuous or dangerously ignorant:

Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson meanwhile told the BBC that he believed governments would be unlikely to impose a blanket ban again.

“I think if they’d sent up planes immediately to see whether the ash was actually too dangerous to fly through or to look for corridors where it wasn’t very thick, I think that we would have been back flying a lot sooner,” he said.

This fundamentally misrepresents the monitoring that was going on at the time (planes were being sent up to look at the ash cloud) and, more importantly, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of ash clouds. They are not a uniform blanket of ash floating through the air, but a constantly changing area of high and low ash densities: Any ‘corridor’ there today probably wouldn’t be there tomorrow.

But in the scramble for experts, no one flubbed quite as badly as the Wall Street Journal and CNN, who both featured Robert “R.B.” Trombley, a self-styled volcanologist who turned out to be not quite the expert they had assumed.

Going back to #RNews10, Charlie Beckett said, “Yes the volcano exposed limits of MSM & value of social media bt it also exposed lack of data transparency from airlines, govt etc” to which Mike Mullane replied, “Beckett: Don’t beat yourselves up. There was failure on the part of governments and meteorologists to provide data for journalists”. And, in a related point, Andy Carvin Tweeted, “Don’t think anyone mentioned maps, though, whether newsroom generated, user-generated or both. Were there any?”

Mike and Charlie’s assertions are only true for the UK and the air travel industry: The airlines were, unsurprisingly, entirely opaque. The UK Met Office had some data, particularly on ash measurement and predictions, but could have done a much better job of communicating what they were doing and providing data. That’s a problem they seriously need to fix: They opened themselves up to undeserved criticism because no one had any idea what they were actually doing. The Civil Aviation Authority and the National Air Traffic Services should also be soundly criticised for appalling communications as well. Their online information and data was not well organised, to say the least.

But there was a huge amount of data coming out of other sources, particularly the Icelandic Met Office, which the mainstream media completely ignored. The IMO was providing near-live earthquake data for the Mýrdalsjökull area, which includes Eyjafjallajökull icecap, available as a map or a data table. And, as I discovered when I did this myself, if you sent them a nice email they would send you the raw data to play with. There is no reason why the media could not have contacted the IMO and used some of this data in visualisations for their coverage, like this one done by

There was quite a lot of ash forecast data coming out of various different institutes, primarily the UK Met Office. There were videos (search for Eyjafjallajökull) and photos taken by scientists, tourists, locals and the Icelandic news organisations (whose coverage was obviously much better). There were multiple live webcams and volcano enthusiasts captured and shared webcam timelapses showing the eruption and jökulhlaups (flash floods of ash and meltwater) on a daily basis. There was even a cut-out-and-keep model of the volcano, made by the British Geological Society.

And there was some flight data available, as exemplified by this fabulous timelapse of the European flights resuming after the ban:

The problem was that most news journalists, obviously, do not have the kind of specialist knowledge to be able to assess sources, experts, or data for an event that is so far outside of their usual field of experience. I understand that journalists can’t be experts in everything, but I do expect them to know how to find information, find sources, and to find data, and to do so reliably.

But they seemed oblivious to the online communities that were following this eruption closely and where there were people who could have helped them. I spent a lot of time on Erik Klemetti‘s wonderful blog, Eruptions (new site, old site). Erik, a vulcanologist at Denison University in Ohio, played host to a community of scientists and amateurs who discussed developments in detail and answered questions that people had about how all this volcano stuff really works.

I was on that blog almost every day, I don’t remember a single journalist ever asking in the comments for help in finding information or understanding its implications. I do remember, however, a lot of people popping in to get clarification on the misinformation promulgated by the media, particularly rumours that Eyjafjallajökull’s neighbour, Katla, was about to erupt.

The truth is that Eyjafjallajökull was probably the best observed, monitored and recorded eruption in history. The sheer volume of data produced was enormous. And the mainstream media ignored everthing but the pretty pictures.

links for 2010-10-07

  • Kevin: An interesting look at content through the eyes of the seed funders at Seedcamp. Jos White writes: "The Internet over the last few years has been about getting as much content to as many people as possible – bringing an incredible range of content to our screens like never before. The problem is that we are now surrounded by too much content that takes too much time to find, qualify and consume." Out of the 12 winners at Seedcamp, "seven are involved in optimising content in some way and making it more personalised to the user".
  • Kevin: Robert Andrews at looks at a report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau report on the first half 2010 ad revenues in the UK. Online ads are up by 10%, but TV has edged ahead of the internet. Cinema and outdoor increased, but print, classified, direct mail and directories were down. One interesting thing to note about the survey is that search accounts for just shy of 60% of digital ads. That sector was up 8.8%, however online classifieds were up 11%. Display was up by 6.4% by comparison.
  • Kevin: Tanja Aitamurto at PBS MediaShift looks at Aftonbladet in Sweden and their freemium strategy. The premium part of the freemium model is called Plus. "The Plus service includes lifestyle material, such as over 200 different travel guides, health articles, and reviews of cars, gadgets and other products and services." One interesting element of her analysis is looking at the introduction of micropayments in what had previously been a subscription-only paid content strategy. The subs went down after micropayments were introduced.
  • Kevin: Megan Garber does a review and a bit of a live test of Storify, a new tool for collecting social media elements into a story format. It's been created by former AP reporter Burt Herman. She concludes: "And, for breaking news, where journalists might just be interested in the quick curation of tweets and videos, Storify’s drag-and-drop simplicity could be amazingly useful. It’s a simple mechanism for curating and contextualizing the atomized tumult that is the web — a little lifesaver for selected bits of information that otherwise might be lost to the news river’s rapids."
  • Kevin: More details on how to use the open-source Geodict tool to extract location from text. It lists some very useful details on how to get the most out of this tool and also comparing it to other tools such as Yahoo's Placemaker and also more general semantic APIs such as OpenCalais and Alchemy.
  • Kevin: A listing of some of the six and seven-figure salaries being paid in the US to star 'talent'. These hires are described as the top 1% of the talent pool in the article, but the reporter is clearly sceptical that such star power can help the ailing print media.
  • Kevin: Simon Dumenco at AdAge says that Rupert Murdoch is waging a war against reality in his attempt to put his general news sites behind paywalls. "I mean the reality of free vs. paid in the web's general-interest news ecosystem. Murdoch is currently engaged in a quixotic quest to get online newspaper readers to pay up, sealing News Corp. papers, tomb-like, behind paywalls — including, starting next month, News of the World (hilariously enough)." News Corp isn't letting media buyers know the numbers at The Times (of London) and The Sunday Times since they put up the paywall, and media buyers are striking back, with Publicis owned Starcom MediaVest cutting its ads on the sites by 50%. It's a simple issue of knowing what they are buying. If times were good at The Times, they would be crowing from the hills. They are being mum, and the market is punishing them.
  • Kevin: A report from Bloomberg quoting a media buyer from Starcom Mediavest Group, part of Publicis, saying that they have cut their buying from News Corp's Times and Sunday Times by 50% because News Corp's refuses to reveal online figures to media buyers. “I can go to the Guardian or CNN and get an audience,” said Chris Bailes, digital trading manager at Starcom MediaVest. That's a corporate kick in the teeth to News Corp. The Guardian is seen on the other side of the paid versus ad-supported news argument in the UK, and CNN competes with News Corp's Fox News in the US. Them's fighting words.
  • Kevin: A harrowing tale reported by David Carr of the dysfunctional and misogynistic culture under Sam Zell at The Tribune Corp. It is a depressing story of a cowboy corporate culture that equated sexual harassment with innovation and creativity. It also paints an almost comic picture of Tribune management that seems straight out of some sitcom about the media. Apart from the misogyny, the other depressing fact is how executives brought in as FOS (Friends of Sam Zell) have enriched themselves while destroying the Tribune, its sister papers and its flagship radio station, WGN. Just depressing.
  • Kevin: A report from Jan Schaffer, the executive director of the J-Lab at American University in Washington, looking at 46 community projects funded from 2005 to 2009. A third have shut, and of those still operating, they endure because their founders are willing to work for little to no pay. She is very frank that there is still no sustainable business model for these community journalism projects.
  • Kevin: An absolutely must-read post by Alan Mutter looking at community news projects funded by Knight in the US. Of 46 projects under its New Voices programme between 2005 and 2009, a third have shut and the "remainder endure because the founders are working for little or no pay". Jan Schaffer of the J-Lab at American University said: “Community news sites are not a business yet."
  • Kevin: A great post on how to use Yahoo Placemaker and open-source technology Geodict to extract location from content. Geodict has about 2m locations in its database. This is a great tutorial showing just about anyone who is comfortable with the command line in Linux how to use these services.
  • Kevin: Patricio Robles at EConsultancy looks at the imminent release of Google TV. One of the interesting things here for news organisations is that Google TV is working with The New York Times and USA Today to optimise their content for the platform.
  • Kevin: An interview with John Ridding at the Financial Times about their paid content model. "When times get tough, there are two ways you can respond, including, as lot of publications have done, by trying to cut newsroom costs. The danger of that is you get into a death spiral by reducing the quality of what you’re doing and exacerbating the sales and readership issue."

links for 2010-10-05