Friday, June 24, 2005

Making reading on the web "better than on paper"

A research project at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is using artificial intelligence to identify relevant sections of text in a document based on the search terms you used to find it. provides an internetworked compendium of commentary and analysis of Shakespeare's masterwork. And the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab is using Rapid Serial Visual Presentation to enable long texts to be read on tiny cell phone screens.

The projects are all mentioned in a Christian Science Monitor piece entitled 'How the Web changes your reading habits'. But I think this headline is a misnomer. What the projects show is that reading can be enhanced by leveraging the unique aspects of the web.

News organizations need to embrace these techniques -- hyperlinking, natural language processing and other AI techniques, and the low cost of providing large archives of information -- to give readers a reason to use their websites for more than a quick scan of the top headlines. Granted, these types of sites aren't cheap to implement, so maybe they could be provided as a premium service -- readers need a reason to pay news organizations, and providing commodity news just doesn't meet the value test anymore.

Of course, given the lameness of most MSM efforts to take advantage of the web (see Wikitorial Pulled Due to Vandalism, these types of sophisticated information applications are likely out of their reach for the foreseeable future.

More on the LA Times wikitorial fiasco to come. For now, let me sum up my opinion on the subject with one word: Duh.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Slashdot: LA Times Pulls Wikitorial, Blames Slashdot

From Slashdot:

"The LA Times pulled down it's "beta" wikitorial after people began inserting obscene content faster than the editors could remove it... The NY Times notes the fact that the bulk of the vandalism occurred after a posting about the wikitorial appeared on Slashdot."

Friday, June 17, 2005

Article on citizen journalism omits a key component

Steve Outing has written a wonderful overview of styles of citizen journalism. The article contains a lot of interesting tidbits to comment on, but I'll restrict myself to the two most pertinent IMHO:

1. I strongly suspect that most newspaper reporters, editors, and executives would cringe at most if not all of the ideas presented here.

2. Outing left out one important feature that can help mitigate many of the problems raised by citizen journalism (offensive comments, inaccuracies, filtering based on quality), namely, moderation. Slashdot has been using it for years, and frankly the site wouldn't work without it. With it, the site has remained one of the most popular technology news/discussion sites on the web.

Slashdot grants moderation points to a select group of users (not always the same ones), based on users who have logged in and created accounts, frequency of visits to the site, length of readership (how long ago you registered), and 'karma', or the number of moderation points a reader has collected on his or her postsl.

Here's an excerpt from Slashdot's FAQ:

The end result is a pool of eligible users that represent (hopefully) average, positive Slashdot contributors... It all works to make sure that everyone takes turns, and nobody can abuse the system, and that only "regular" readers become moderators (as opposed to some random newbie ;)

When moderators are given access, they are given a number of points of influence to play with. Each comment they moderate deducts a point. When they run out of points, they are done serving until next time it is their turn.

Moderation takes place by selecting an adjective from a drop down list that appears next to comments containing descriptive words like "Flamebait" or "Informative." Bad words will reduce the comment's score by a single point, and good words increase a comment's score by a single point.

Moderation points expire after 3 days if they are left unused. You then go back into the pool and might someday be given access again.

And from the FAQ question 'Moderation seems restrictive. Is it really necessary?'

In short, yes.

As you might have noticed, Slashdot gets a lot of comments. Thousands a day. Tens of thousands a month. At any given time, the database holds 50,000+ comments. A single story might have a thousand replies- and let's be realistic: Not all of the comments are that great. In fact, some are down right terrible, but others are truly gems.

The moderation system is designed to sort the gems and the crap from the steady stream of information that flows through the pipe. And wherever possible, it tries to make the readers of the site take on the responsibility. (emphasis added)

The goal is that each reader will be able to read Slashdot at a level that they find appropriate. The impatient can read nothing at all but the original stories. Some will only want to read the highest rated of comments, some will want to eliminate anonymous posts, and others will want to read every last drip of data, from the First Posts! to the spam. The system we've created here will make that happen. Or at least, it sure will try...

Lots of people complain about the system and disagree on the quality of posts, but overall the system works extremely well - I tend to read comments filtered down to the top 40 or 50, and I almost always find that one or two add valuable information and/or insight to the original story. On the other hand, I almost never see juvenile or inflammatory posts at this level of filtering.

I really wonder if people in the mainstream journalism arena aren't aware of this system (which is available free through Slashdot's open source content management system, so no one has to reinvent the wheel) or if there's something about it that they feel wouldn't work for their sites. I think I see an article in this...

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Congress takes a step away from 1984

Against the Bush Administration's wishes, the House of Representatives has voted to repeal one of the more obnoxious provisions of the Big Brother is Watching... er, I mean, the US Patriot Act.

In a move that may signal a tougher battle ahead, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted Wednesday to remove the Patriot Act provision that "allows federal agents to examine people's book-reading habits at public libraries and bookstores as part of terrorism investigations."

Here's my favorite quote from a Patriot Act supporter in the article:

But supporters of the Patriot Act say the vote will make libraries a "safe haven" for terrorists.

"If there are terrorists in libraries studying how to fly planes, how to put together biological weapons, how to put together chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, ... we have to have an avenue through the federal court system so that we can stop the attack before it occurs," said Rep. Tom Feeney, (R) of Florida.

Yes, that's the problem. The terrorists are going to win because they are reading books. Do these people think before they talk?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

LA Times to introduce 'wikitorials'

LA Times Editorial Page Editor Andres Martinez recently wrote a letter to readers in which he announced several upcoming changes in the editorial section. There are some interesting ideas, such as allowing members of the editorial board to dissent from an editorial once a year.

But the biggest announcement has to be this:

Watch next week for the introduction of "wikitorials" — an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials.

Several members of a mailing list about online journalism objected strenuously to this idea. They gave several reasons, including the notion that allowing readers to edit editorials implies that the editorial board lacks the courage of their convictions.

For my part, I think it's brilliant. Newspapers will only improve their dismal public reputation by coming down off their pedestals. Involving readers in both reporting and editing is a key way to do this. Objections to the contrary signify a lack of self confidence, in my opinion. But at this point, how much do they have to lose?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

No wonder people have such a poor opinion of journalists

According to a survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 40 percent of Americans consider Fox News' Bill O'Reilly a journalist. Another 27 percent think the same of Rush Limbaugh. On the other hand, only 30 percent identified Bob Woodward as a journalist (the poll was conducted before the Deep Throat identity story broke, so I'm really hoping this is just ignorance.)

The following understatement comes from an AP story about the poll:

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the poll results suggest the public defines the word "journalist" far differently than those in the press define it.


'The Web can be anything, anywhere'

Neat story about services that allow you to 'hyperlink' in the real world, using coded messages and cell phones. Yellow Arrow, for example, lets you post a coded yellow arrow anywhere - on a building, street sign, or even a t-shirt. People who see the arrow can dial the code on their cell phone and get a message. One professor had students post arrows at 'overlooked historical sites.'

Yellow Arrow calls itself the 'first global art project.' But I see a potential application for journalists, particularly citizen journalists. When something happens, you can post an arrow, then send your 'report' to Yellow Arrow using your cell phone. Obviously this will work best in urban areas. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have a lot of potential.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Sign of the coming apocalypse: Abu Ghraib abuse called 'nonsense'

This isn't about online journalism, but I couldn't help raising this question - what is wrong with people? In a column entitled 'Newspapers on the front lines of today's cultural war,' (registration required) Sacramento Bee Public Editor Armando Acuna excerpts quotes from reader responses to his last column in which he puzzled about 'readers continuing to lose faith in American newspapers.' Here are two quotes from those readers:

"'Look at the media's obsession with reporting so-called prisoner abuse and desecration of the Quran. It's an unrelenting drive to discredit Bush, whom they hate and it's damaging the country immensely. Media reports exaggerate otherwise minor offenses and inflame other countries' hatred for us.' -- Jim Hudock, 57, a self-described 'Independent' who lives in Folsom, Calif. and works in the oil industry. (emphasis added)

'How many times did we hear that these conflicts [in Iraq and Afghanistan] would result in massive U.S. and civilian casualties? That we were bogged down? That there was no hope? The repetition of the Abu Ghraib nonsense, and now the same about Gitmo? Please.' -- Curt Swanson, 44, an attorney and registered Democrat who lives in Sacramento. (emphasis added)

I understand everyone is mad at Al Qaeda -- I've said many times I'd kill Osama bin Laden myself if I had the chance. I watched the Towers fall from across the Hudson River, not on television. My hometown at the time, Hoboken, reportedly lost more people per capita in the terrorist attack than any other.

I also understand that most people are mad at the media -- because of my background as a journalist, I shake my head in shame AND anger when I see the Fourth Estate tearing itself down.

But regardless of one's political, religious, or social views, I cannot fathom calling what I saw in those pictures from Abu Ghraib 'nonsense.' Nor can I imagine calling even unproven prisoner abuse a 'minor offense.'

With attitudes like these, we may win the war on terrorism, but we're going to lose our humanity. How can these people not see that?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Privileged reporter misses the point of the Internet

James Fallows calls search engines "pathetically weak" and "surprisingly ineffective." He bases these epithets on his personal experience:

Recently, for example, I was trying to track the changes in California's spending on its schools... When I finally called an education expert on a Monday morning, she gave me the answer off the top of her head... But that was only after I'd wasted what seemed like hours over the weekend with normal search tools."

Well, to put it bluntly, duh. Of course it's easier to get an answer to a complex question from an expert than by performing your own search (not that experts are always right...) But Fallows is overlooking one key fact: most people don't have the access to experts that a reporter has. Sure, you can call your local librarian, but there's a good chance he or she is going to search an online database, if not the Internet, for the information.

Fallows misses the point of the Internet: it provides access to every conceivable type of information to everyone with a Net connection, not just New York Times reporters. But then, that seems to be what old school journalists are afraid of.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

'Published' just doesn't mean what it used to

Over at Corante, Clay Shirky is talking about the "downside of the mass amateurization of pubishing." Namely, the ease with which an amateur publisher can generate buzz. Here's an excerpt:

This is the downside of the mass amateurization of publishing. Since the threshold for exclusion from the Wikipedia is so low, there is almost no value in thinking “Hey, it’s got a Wikipedia article — must be serious.” We have the sense-memory of that way of thinking from the days where it cost money to publish something, and this class of reputation hack relies on that memory to seed the network with highly targeted ads.

I can't say I agree with Shirky's view that this type of thing is the result of the Internet. As usual, the Internet is just magnifying an existing phenomenon. Information consumers are subjected to this kind of astroturfing in many forms of media.

However, this is an important issue to keep bringing up, because many information consumers are still far too gullible (or universally skeptical, which amounts to the same thing.)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Smart move by Newsweek

In a rare win-win situation for the blogosphere and the MSM, a Newsweek executive has announced that the weekly magazine will begin publishing links to relevant Technorati posts next to its articles. Newsweek gets more traffic and some virtual street cred, while some bloggers will significantly raise their profile in the blogosphere if they get mentioned.

I can't wait to see how this turns out...

The power of voice: Why blogs beat message boards

Lee LeFever of Common Craft has written an amusing little story about a hypothetical boxing match between Mean Mr. Message Board and Bad Bad Leroy blog. The gist of the story is that blogs beat out message boards because they are created and managed (usually) by a single person, while message boards rely on a group without a head for content creation and management.

This is one of the reasons why having a powerful voice is important to the success of blogs - voice personalizes a blog and makes it stand out from the blogosphere as a whole. It's also why blog journalism tends to toss objectivity out the window - it's much harder to develop a cult of personality when you're trying to repress your own opinions.

Thanks to BusinessWeek's Blogspootting for the link.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Citizen journalists investigate Gitmo

Susan Hu of the Booman Tribune is organizing volunteers to read the thousands of pages of documentation on detainees in Guantanamo Bay released during the past few months. The effort is quite disorganized (this page is the best one I could find to point to); but it's nothing short of brilliant. Even professional reporters these days don't have time to read this much documentation (one reason the government tends to release so much at one time.)

While some of the volunteers may be less qualified than the average journalist to dig through government documents, others are more so - the site lists five medical experts to whom other volunteers can direct questions.

I wish I had a class I could sic on this project.

(Thanks to Dan Gillmor for the link.)

Wired EIC explains why blogs are better than traditional journalism

I may have to stop reading Wired EIC Chris Anderson's website because I'm afraid I'm going to get whiplash from vigorously nodding my head in agreement.

This time, he elegantly sums up blog journalism's strengths, makes two points I tried to pound into my Online Newswriting students' heads, and properly scopes the domain of blogs (in short, niches).

He also admits his own publication could do a better job doing the things blogs do better.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Blog carnivals: Is this journalism?

Bora Zivkovic has posted an interesting article on his Science and Politics blog entitled Blog Carnivals And The Future Of Journalism. As he says, "A blog carnival is a blog-post that contains links to posts on other blogs." Could something like that possibly be journalism?

My answer for now: maybe. I have been arguing to my students that filtering is a primary valuable activity for online journalists to provide to their readers. But is it enough? I just don't know yet.

Bora doesn't seem to have any doubts. Toward the end of the article he makes this dramatic prediction:

I have a hunch that in the future it will be the blog carnivals that will emerge as the online equivalents of hard-copy media. Carnivals organized around strong concepts, published on rigorous schedules, well-archived, and community-run will outlive their mushy competitors and become the online equivalents of not just TIME magazine, but also GQ, Vogue, Parenting, National Geographic, People, and, why not, Science and Nature.

I'd hate to think that all journalists do, even the best, is to aggregate pointers to information produced elsewhere. But maybe I'm more biased than I think I am....