The Republican Party’s Built-In Liability

When I first moved to Washington, about 6 years ago, my roommate at the time worked for a liberal non-profit, and as you do when you’re 22 and new to town, I spent a good deal of time with her colleagues and friends, all of whom shared her ideological bent.

At the time, we lamented that the Republican Party was so good at messaging and ideological purity that it left the Democrats to be “the party of everyone else.” We thought that meant the Democrats would never be able to form a unified front, to counter the focus of the Republicans.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll released last week, the Post reported that”only 39 percent of Republicans gave positive marks to their own party’s representatives.”

Which led me to question, does the Republican party as it stands right now have a built in liability? Do people who think government is too big, too overreaching, inevitably see those who govern in negative light, regardless of party and platform? And if you run on the idea of the less government the better, are you running yourself out of a job?

Poll after poll shows that politicians with unbelievable approval ratings during primary and general election campaigns find an immediate drop off when the get down to the business of governing. For small-government Republicans, does the very act of governing betray the ideas they ran on?

Now, the vast majority of the Republican Party wants smaller government, not no government. Most understand that there are functions that only the federal government can accomplish. But a growing subset of the party holds the vast majority of government in contempt, meaning that the second a Republican stalwart is elected, he becomes part of the problem.

The younger me finds this comforting, a leveling of the playing field. If the Democrat’s tent is too big, then the Republican’s tent may be growing just small enough to squeeze out all but the most ideological incumbents in the federal government.

A Bandana-Wearing Rodent and A Staid Network

The company I work for can hardly be seen as “on the cutting edge” of anything. In focus groups, the words boring and slow come up almost as often as interesting and informative. And the work culture behind the scenes matches the product on the screen most of the time.

So when my boss asked me to look into a new social media product called RebelMouse and to investigate how we might use it to enhance our users’ experience at our website.

Basically, it’s a social media aggregation tool. At first look, you hook up your social media feeds (currently, it supports Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, Google+ and Tumblr), and it creates a neat, infinitely scrolling display page of your tweets, posts, and photos. You can either send people to the page hosted by RebelMouse, or embed the page in your website using a WordPress plugin or a simple embed code.

At first, I was a little skeptical. While I saw the benefit of using this for organizations that traffic in news, our focus is on events coverage and, because of that, many of our social media posts contain the words “Live Now” or “Watch now,” which become useless once the event ends. But then we looked at Time Magazine’s Person of the Year announcement. Time used RebelMouse to aggregate social media postings about their Person of the Year, and embedded those posts in their site.

We decided to use RebelMouse for Inauguration, focusing on photos and videos. We wanted to give our users a behind-the-scenes look at Inauguration day in our nation’s capitol. We knew from prior events that people on our staff and the public at large would be tweeting photos of themselves on the National Mall, along the parade route, and at the Capitol and White House. We thought that users who couldn’t be in Washington for the event could get a glimpse of what it was like to produce and attend this enormous event.

So we worked with RebelMouse to develop an embedded site and widget that we hosted on our own site, and then we got to work choosing photos to post on the page and making sure we had a variety of viewpoints and media. We linked prominently to the page from the top banner section of our homepage, and we promoted it heavily during our TV coverage of the Inauguration events.

So… was it a success? It’s hard to say. From an editorial standpoint, we thought it performed exactly as we had hoped it would. We got great pictures from our camera crews, producers, and viewers, and the RebelMouse feed was constantly updated through the hard work of our Developer-turned-editorial director of the project and our Vice President, who chipped in for breaks and evening coverage.

By traditional measures, however, we were less impressed. Our page views were mediocre and we did not get a lot of feedback from users or other staff. But we were encouraged by how quickly we were able to implement the tool, and are looking forward to trying some different promotions and link wording in the future. Overall, we’re calling it a success.

Hopefully our users will see it that way too.

Turns Out You Don’t Learn Something New Everyday… Unless You Try

You know that phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”?

When I was in grad school, I couldn’t wait to re-join the workforce and have my nights and weekends to myself. I recalled lazy weekends spent reading, and actually being caught up on all the TV shows that everyone is always talking about. Now that I’ve been out for a little over a year, I miss school. I miss having someone push me to learn new things and solve problems. I miss the structured discussions and the camaraderie of working exclusively with people who were all focused on the same life stage.

I figured out recently that one of the things I like most about online journalism is that there is constantly something new to learn, from stuff as basic as a new HTML tag or CSS property, to whole new social networks and web apps.

For me, this realization led me to another. That the only person pushing me to learn new things… is me.

So, since I’m not in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, I will set a goal instead: I will structure in time to my life to learn new things, at least one session a week, starting with an open course I bookmarked at NiemanLab in August. (I’m starting the “summer reading” this week, so that’s how far behind I am with that).

It won’t be easy. Since coming back from grad school, I’ve fallen into a lazy pattern of dinner and TV after work. Weekends are scarcely better. Somehow, errands that took an hour a week in grad school seem to take all day back in D.C., but I am committed to trying.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

If I Have to Explain Sequestration to One More Person…

If there is one thing I have learned from the past couple of years, it’s that I know basically nothing about how the economy actually works. I have a firm grasp of federal budgetary procedures and thanks to a great grad school course on how to report on the economy, a fairly good understanding of the Federal Reserve, the stock market, futures, options, and all of that stuff.

But as to how the economy actually works, what forces actually affect the rise and fall of the average person’s fortunes, I have to admit that I’m still a little in the dark. And that’s how it should be… right? If the economy is chugging right along, if everything is going as it is supposed to be going, if there aren’t any wayward bankers and investment advisers altering the flow of things, I shouldn’t need to know what things are.

Then came 2011 and 2012. Congress decided they were going to fight over every. little. thing. and that we might default on our debts. The only way to get anyone to agree to anything at all was to implement what is known as sequestration. In other words, the 435 men and women in the congress and the president couldn’t agree on budget cuts now, so they agreed to massive, economy-altering, but hypothetical, budget cuts about a year in the future.

Fast forward a year and, guess what? They still can’t agree and now those hypothetical budget cuts aren’t seeming so hypothetical anymore.  If the lame-duck session after the election can’t come up with some agreements on budget cuts and deficit reduction, those hypothetical budget cuts will become oh, so real.

In a recent episode of “The Bugle,” a satirical news podcast by The Daily Show’s John Oliver and his cricket-obsessed, London-based friend Andy Zaltzman, John Oliver went on a rant about having to explain LIBOR (the London InterBank Overnight Rate, or the interest rate banks pay to other banks to borrow money from them). “I don’t want to know what that is!” he yelled. And if it weren’t for the actions of some banks to allegedly affect the rate to make their businesses look more attractive, he wouldn’t need to.

But maybe this is all for the best. After all, now that I know all this stuff, maybe I could have a promising career explaining it all to my fellow Americans, most of whom remain blissfully unaware that these things exist, and how they are subtly changing the future of the world’s economy.

Design Delight

Ever clicked a link on Twitter or Facebook to a news article that sounded interesting and then realized you don’t have time to read it now, but want to save it for later?

I have this problem all the time, and recently found ReadItLaterList, now called Pocket. It’s a browser plug-in and a collection of apps that allow you to save articles for later. On the iPhone and iPad, the interface is extremely clean and easy to read, giving you just the text and the photos or video from the article (although this is not without some bugs/missed text, due largely, I believe to legacy design elements on webpages like drop caps and text that is actually an image).

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying this app both at work on my Firefox browser and at home, and especially appreciate the ability to save and view articles across browsers/apps using a single log-in.

What I really want to talk about, though, is one particular function that I find, well, delightful.

When reading articles in the iPad app, if the device is rotated, the app immediately asks if you want to lock the rotation, by bringing up the Apple “rotation lock” icon in the center of the screen. One touch and the screen is locked so you can view the page from any angle (say, laying on your side in bed) without triggering the screen rotation.

The first time this happened, I locked the screen rotation and kept reading, not thinking much about it. But the next time it happened, I realized what a delightful function this was. Screen rotation isn’t inherently a function or problem associated with this basic reader app, but it’s something that would require at least a couple of touches to adjust, if not for the built-in icon. Few apps consider these user experience issues for things only tangentially associated with the function of their apps.

And it’s the same for many websites, but not all.

Nieman Journalism Lab, a blog that focuses on news about news and the media, and on cutting edge news technologies, has a very subtle, but charming user experience function that few people might notice, but that makes reading it’s articles easier and more attractive.

When you click on an article, it takes you to a standard page, with menus, sidebars, and a header. But as you scroll down (or, as I like to think about it, engage the page), the sidebars fade to almost invisible, leaving the text of the article the only thing your eye focuses on. If you scroll over the sidebar, it reappears so you can click additional links.

This seemingly small and almost invisible function makes reading an article easy and eliminates distraction, focusing the entire user attention on the writing, which is key purpose of the site.

These two examples share a certain aesthetic, which I admit not everyone will find attractive, but I appreciate the simplicity and beauty of the site and app almost as much as I do the content, and it definitely makes me more likely to return (as a counter example, see, which I think has the ugliest user interface on the web, and as a consequence, rarely finish articles on that site, even when they’re really interesting).


(In) Credible

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the way that the essential journalistic concept of “credibility” is evolving in the new media world, mainly about two tangentially related topics.

1. I think people my age and younger care less about credibility as a marker of legitimacy. If your main source of news is Twitter, Facebook, or another online, social-based app, then the credibility you are seeking is from your social contact, not their sources. If I post a story on my Facebook timeline, I am saying that the story is credible, regardless of where the link leads. Journalists need to be wary of this development, because real journalism, and real credibility is hard-won and expensive, but is now being placed on an even plane with any kid who’s got an iPhone and is in the right place at the right time (and is possibly participating in the “news,” raising important ethical questions).

2. In a world of 24 hour, I needed it 5 minutes ago deadlines, the competition to be first, a relic from older styles of news consumption, can cause news organizations to jump the gun on reporting events. Case-in-point, CNN and Fox News raced to be the first on the air with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Obamacare case, and, as everyone knows by now, both reported the ruling incorrectly. They were jumping to be first and ended up being wrong. The obvious cost here is that CNN and Fox News lost a some credibility in future breaking news situation. We can’t know what would have happened had they waited to read the decision fully and come in 2nd or 3rd, but I know that, even as someone who works in this business and knows exactly what happened, I looked skeptically at any news story that contained the words “according to CNN” for the next few weeks.

It’s a bit of a double edged sword for traditional media. They’ve built up reputations based on journalistic integrity and credibility, but they compete against, seemingly, every internet connected person in the world. But the costs of a mistake for the traditional media are much steeper than the costs for that kid with an iPhone reporting for himself and his friends.

The Fallacy of False Equivalency

Gather ’round children, and I’ll tell you a tale.

Once upon a time, journalists got it into their heads that every story had (at least) two sides. And that was good. A reporter would interview one person, he would say something about someone else, and then the reporter would go ask that person or someone who knew them about it. For really complicated stories, this often involved asking many, many people about their perspective and their grasp of the facts at hand. Barring video evidence, this was the best way to get an idea of the scene, event, story, or whatever.

This took time, lots of time. Reporters, especially good investigative reporters, would work a story for days, weeks, even months. The same story. Just one.

For many years this went on, until a series (or confluence, really) of events took place that changed the paradigm for reporters everywhere.

1. Newsrooms got smaller

2. Right wing activists got organized

3. The Internet got invented (you know, by Al Gore, or Rush Limbaugh, or some government and defense scientists)

When these three things happened, Journalists found themselves with a lot less time, a lot more competition and a lot more vocal partisan chatter.

And thus was born the fallacy of false equivalency.

Reporters, struggling against deadlines and decimated newsroom staffs, still strove to tell both sides of a story. But instead of a well-researched, well-reporting accounting of the facts, journalists were forced to get action-reaction stories and crank them out at high volume. An industry developed around providing those reactions and suddenly a “consultant” or “analyst” was just a phone call or email away.

When reporters tried to analyze information and provide an account of the facts instead of this action-reaction (he said-she said) story, the organized right wing (and to a much, much lesser extent a few on the left) charged the media with “bias,” it being well-known at this point that all journalists are commie pinkos who seek socialized everything (or something), and the reporters were forced back into the “Republicans say this and Democrats say that” format.

It became common practice to treat each side like their position and information was equally valid. And not just in politics, but in science, medicine, education, and other seemingly fact-based disciplines.

Jay Rosen of NYU has taken an active role pointing out these false equivalencies, as has the Atlantic.

Treating Republicans and Democrats as equal players in the “truth” game may not seem like a big deal. In fact it may seem like the right thing to do. So what’s the big problem.

The big problem is this: Journalists treating climate change deniers like they are equal in number and quality of proof to the hundreds of thousands of scientists in the mainstream makes news viewing and reading citizens think there is actually a debate going on. Treating everything a politician says as fact, even when it’s fiction, does a disservice to democracy and the intelligence of the public. And it’s not really journalism at all.

Into the abyss of unemployment

You may be wondering where I’ve been…

After finishing my master’s degree in December, I moved back to Washington, DC, to start the job hunt.  A trying process in any economy, in this economy it has been particularly tough.  Staying with whatever friends would host me, I sent out dozen of resumes, emails and requests for networking opportunities.

I finally landed back at my old company, at least for now, and it feels great to have somewhere to be five days a week.

In my last few months of grad school, I was actually looking forward to some time off.  I would have time to exercise, and see those museums that I never managed to get to when I lived here before, I thought.  And, most importantly, I would be able to fully dedicate myself to the job hunt.  Looking for a job would be my full-time job.

What I discovered, though, is that unemployment, for someone like me who craves deadline pressure, can be a huge black hole of free time.

I would sleep until noon, because I had no where to be.  I would then eat breakfast and read the paper for an hour.  I justified this by noting that all of the job search articles I had read said that the job search is only 20 percent applying to jobs, and 80 percent getting yourself ready for the application process.  I wanted a job in news, so reading the news was a good way to keep myself abreast of important events.

Then I might surf some job boards for an hour or so.  Then, if I was feeling really productive, I’d write a cover letter.  And before I knew it, my friends who were so generously allowing me to stay with them would be home from work and my day was over.

When I finally found a job (even though it’s a temp job), that amazing time hole that I had to fill went away.  All of a sudden, I’m running all my errands in one day.  I’m searching job boards at night when I get home.  And I’m finally getting to those museums and monuments that I’ve always wanted to see.  (It helps that it has been about 75 degrees out in DC for the past few weeks).

In light of the fact that I’m already into week 4 of my 12 week assignment, and of the fact that I just signed a year-long lease, I know I need to come up with some additional strategies for unemployment in the future.  What have you done to help you stay on the wagon?

The heat is on…

We’ve got four weeks left in our project this quarter.  Four weeks to finish producing an iPad magazine and to present it to potential investors and to the faculty.

We’re at that crucial point where it feels like there’s no way we’ll ever get done and yet we make leaps and bounds every day.  I’ve been looking forward to this part of the project from the beginning.  Everyday we are closer to having a completed magazine and it’s really exciting.

I can’t wait to share it!

When is a protest not a protest

About a week ago, I found myself heading down to the Occupy Chicago protest to complete an Oral History assignment for my Audio reporting class.  I had been through the protest a couple of days earlier, but due to unsuitable audio conditions (i.e. massive road construction 10 feet away), had decided to return at a later time.

When I walked up Jackson Place towards the Fed and the Chicago Board of Trade, I had a flash of panic.  Where were all the unwashed protestors?  I expected to find people sleeping on the sidewalk and some volunteers serving up hot coffee to the early risers, but what I found instead was a giant pile of signs and one guy with a donations box.

I later discovered that this was normal.  The protestors didn’t usually show up until 1pm or so and didn’t march until 5pm, when they would have the largest audience of commuters and pedestrians.  Furthermore, I learned, all of these details were carefully laid out, along with the structure of the organization and its various committees, in a Google Calendar.  Had I bothered to Google ‘Occupy Chicago Schedule’ I could have saved myself a lot of time.

At the time, however, I felt totally disillusioned.  Where were the masses of people who had left their previous lives to join the movement?  Where were the young people braving the cold nights to make their point to the establishment?  Where were the sign holders and petition carriers and drum circlers?

As it turns out, they’re in New York (and Oakland, Calif. and a few other major demonstration locations).  The reason I was expecting to come across a mass of protestors at 9:30 in the morning is that most of the coverage I have seen of the movement comes out of the national news bureaus located, conveniently, just a few short miles from the original and largest Occupy protest, Occupy Wall Street.

This is partly my fault.  Having come from a national politics job, I tend to still read the national papers and watch the national news before turning to NBC5 or the Chicago Tribune.  But partly, this expectation and subsequent disappointment was a result of a (very) successful message campaign by the protestors themselves that stated that they were not getting fair coverage in the media.  Here they were, they said, day after day, protesting the 1 percent and no one came to amplify their message in the mass media.

Admittedly, I still managed to complete my assignment and did not return later when the bulk of the scheduled activities commenced, but I left with a renewed sense that what you see on the news, even without an intentional bias, can greatly affect what is known in the general public.  And journalists can lose sight of this.  They’re entrenched in the story and forget that the public only sees the minute-twenty package on the evening news.  Coming to this story as someone who only glanced at it before Monday, I was reminded how what we leave out of the story can affect it more than what we put in and that editing can distort both the scope and importance of a story.