What people really want online

In one of the latest reports from the Project for Excellence in Journalismone of the most interesting things was tucked at the bottom of a page titled The Importance of the Home Page.

Another finding was that the data suggest that news online remains a heavily text-oriented environment. Online video did not rank high on any of the sites as a place that people clicked to– even on the sites whose legacy product is affiliated with television, except CBSNews.com

This is something that I’ve always suspected to be true based on my personal preference for web content. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I can watch dozens of movies a month streamed to my computer, and I’ve been known to watch a cute puppy video or two, but the vast majority of my online news viewing is text.

This is because I surf the internet at work (or class), where video would be obtrusive, and because when I’m looking for news, I’m mostly looking to skim an article to get the basic idea. Then, I can decide if it’s worth a closer read. No such option is available on video stories, so I have to already be pretty invested to make the initial decision to watch.

This is also because, the video content I’m looking for is much harder to find, based on Google’s text-based algorithm. Companies, including one I used to work for, are working on ways to make video content search-able, but the technology is not widely available or particularly accurate.

I would guess that the reasons for the PEJ finding are similar to mine, with one addition: the amount of video content available, when compared to text, is still very tiny. It will be interesting to see if video can ever close the gap, or if new, animated, interactive graphics will largely take the place of both.

Privacy settings, the California Way

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

California law sets privacy bar high for social media

Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Twitter may seem like a strange alliance, but the internet companies have come together in California to fight a bill that proposes to control how social media applications can use their use data.

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, a Democrat, proposed legislation this month that sets privacy requirements for all social media sites operating in the state.  It also requires that the social media company allow parents access to their children’s accounts.

As reported at SFGate.com, and picked up by Tech Crunch and several other web media blogs, the legislation requires social media companies to have users set up their privacy settings during the initial sign-up period, and requires those settings to default to private, meaning users would have to opt-in to having any of their information shared.

Currently, Facebook and other sites use default settings that make most user information public (or at least allow the company to share the information with its “partners”).

Facebook and other major social media companies, including Google and Yahoo, are fighting the legislation stating in a letter to Sen. Corbett that the legislation “gratuitously singles out social networking sites without demonstration of any harm.”  Analysts contend that the internet companies are probably more concerned with the slippery slope that any government-mandated privacy settings could signify.

It seems likely, in addition, that Facebook and other companies are concerned with the requirement that users opt-in to information sharing.  It could be a generational thing, but it seems unlikely to this reporter that anyone would willingly click a button to allow Facebook to share private information about themselves with third-party partners (re: advertisers).

Facebook now relies on the fact that their privacy settings are so complicated and confusing, that many people just allow the defaults to ride, allowing the company to share at least some of their personal information.  Not that information sharing is necessarily a bad thing, but it sure does get some negative press, due largely to the fact that Facebook has been less than forthcoming about just where that information is going and to what use.

More concerning is the fact that the California law, if passed, could set a precedent for other states to follow, creating a patchwork of 50 or more privacy laws across the country.  This patchwork could make it difficult for Facebook, Twitter, and other major companies to develop privacy settings that meet the requirements of all 50 states, not to mention those of the international community.  And it would make it nearly impossible for a start-up company to get out of the gate.

Some bloggers and columnists have suggested that a national privacy law will be the inevitable outgrowth of the discussion underway in California.  But it seems unlikely given the current political climate, and the ramifications of such a bill beyond social networks.  What the country will likely be left with is a range of requirements and a plethora of lawsuits in the coming years.


SEO: Changing the way we write?

Are the SEO experts of the world killing the witty headline?

The Poynter Institute certainly seems to think so. In a review of an article from The Atlantic, Jim Romanesko talks about how copy editors are fighting back.

You might file this one under “things only journalists (and newspaper junkies) care about,” but there is something to be said for a clever headline in some situations. Features and second-day stories might even benefit from interesting headlines.

But for routine news, SEO headlines may be not only good for the Google Bot, but also for readers. While it’s true that “(name) dead at (age)” is not the most attractive headline, it does give the user a good idea of what the article is going to tell them, something not all newspaper headlines can claim.

As a news consumer, there is nothing more frustrating than clicking on an interesting headline only to read a totally uninteresting story, or clicking on a headline that promises one thing only to get a story that delivers something entirely different.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten eulogized the end of the clever head, claiming that the Post’s SEO policy was taking away the only creativity that copy editors had left. (This might not be such a problem anymore, given that the Post and other papers have eliminated a lot of copy editing positions in the past few years).

Love it or hate it, SEO is here to stay. Outspoken Media would like journalists to just stop whining already and embrace the power of Google’s algorithm over our lives. And the Neiman Lab reported that journalists are increasingly being asked to include search engine optimized terms in their lede paragraph, so it’s not only the headline that’s suffering.

For print journalists, it may be hard to let go of the puns and innuendo that populated headlines past, but in a world where the most coveted position in the newsroom is at the top of the Google search results, it seems it’s a necessary sacrifice.

At least until the Google Bot gets a sense of humor.

Why didn’t I think of that?

From the students at the Columbia School of Journalism comes this insightful and interesting project on the future of journalism. Fast Forward News is the culmination of an idea dreamed up by 18 graduate students in a video journalism class and features interviews with industry leaders of the past and future.

I’m loving this project for three reasons. One, I, too am a graduate journalism student, although one at that other J-school. Two, I’m looking pretty carefully at the future of news since I’m soon-to-be over-educated and unemployed and because I subscribe to the notion that journalism is not slowly dying, but instead is in a period of great transition.

Which leads us to the third reason: This is something we should be doing at Medill. Yes, it’s self-serving and self-promoting. No one likes videos about journalists more than… other journalists. But it’s also an important look at how the industry is changing. And it’s an important message about how the great divisions between newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online journalism are falling away.

In my classes this quarter, we’re talking a lot about how the audience is changing both how much news they consume and how they consume it. We’re even talking about how previous ideas on audience are themselves changing. But what we’re lacking is a full discussion of what we can be doing to change with our audience, and that is where this Columbia project comes in. An innovative and easily accessible look at the changing world of media is just what I need to round it out. And it wouldn’t hurt to get picked up by Romanesko.

50 years of “A Vast Wasteland”

I had the honor (and the pleasure) of attending an event last Friday hosted by the Medill School of Journalism honoring Newton Minow, the FCC Chairman under Kennedy who coined the term “a vast wasteland” with regard to television programming.  The event was scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the speech Minow gave to the National Association of Broadcasters, during which he chided broadcasters for equating “the public interest” with whatever the public was interesting.

As part of the event, PBS NewHour’s Judy Woodruff, Virginia Heffernan, the New York Time television critic, and Torey Malatia, the president and CEO of Chicago Public Media talked about where the television industry has gone in the 50 years following Minow’s speech.  The news, I’m afraid, was mostly negative.  With the explosion of cable channels and the internet, the proportion of television and entertainment that does not need to hew to the public interest has grown, while broadcasters have mostly continued their policies of a few hours of children’s programming and a couple of news shows per week.  Radio has done no better.

Heffernan argued that there is television programming that exists that meets and exceeds the standards laid out by Minnow in his 1961 speech.  She went on to say that she hoped that people would watch more television, not less, and that the type and number of programs in existence today say a lot about our culture.

But perhaps the most entertaining and heartening portion of the evening came after dinner, when Minow’s three daughters stood up to speak about their remembrances of their father.  The three women, themselves highly successful lawyers and writers, remembered how their father always managed to get home in time for father-daughter time.

Martha, the dean of the Harvard Law School, remembered seeing questions about her father’s famous speech on her bar exam.  She and her father conferred after she discovered that she got two of the questions wrong, and sent a letter off to the test’s publisher questioning the “correct answers.”  They received in return a letter stating “We’ve been asking these questions for years and you are the first to complain.”

It was touching to see how close and connected this family remains, even with all of their various commitments around the country and the world.

In preparation for the event, I read the entire speech, as well as Minow’s update published in April’s issue of The Atlantic.

The idea that the airwaves belong to the public and that those broadcasters who “rent” space should program to the public interest seems almost quaint, given the explosion in the type and number of media.  But it is something that remains important, especially in the realm of public media, PBS and NPR.  For their commercial brothers, it seems that they are still hoping that they can do a little local news and a few children’s cartoons and call it a day.

The big question for me is does this still matter to people today?  Is it possible to have a public interest if the public isn’t interested?  If people can go straight to the internet or to niche cable channels to get news and information that speaks directly to their biases and interests, can local broadcast television even get through?

The most important news of the century, brought to you by Twitter

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

When news started to slip out around 9pm ET on Sunday night that the President was making a big announcement regarding National Security, speculation was the game of the hour.  At first, people were assuming the big speech was to be on Libya, given that, about 24 hours earlier, the U.S. had announced that they killed Ghaddafi’s son in a mortar attack on the compound.

As the minutes wore on, key White House staff began to leak small details.  “Not on Libya” was the first word from journalists inside the press room.  Speculation then turned towards the “other war,” a war we used to call “the forgotten war” at internal meetings at my old job.  Could it be Afghanistan?

And then, like so many key aides before him, the leak came.  Donald Rumsfeld’s current chief of staff, Keith Urbahn, confirmed that he had heard “from a reputable source” that Osama Bin Laden was dead.

Nothing about this story, from the earliest speculation to the final, crucial leak, is unusual in Washington circles, except that all of this unfolded primarily on Twitter.

As the television networks scrambled to get a signal from the White House, reporters and producers tweeted out details they were hearing.  The TV networks, with the anchors in newsrooms in New York or Washington, then repeated the tweets, fueling the cycle.  The frenzy was aided by the fact that the Presidential announcement, originally intended for 10:30pm ET, actually took place closer to midnight on the East Coast, and so, network anchors had some time to fill.

On Monday, a Mashable.com poll asked readers “Where did you find out?” The response was clear.  Over 53 percent of the 19,900 responses were social media sources Facebook, Twitter, and Instant Messaging.

Mashable.com created a nifty interactive timeline of the some significant tweets last night, showing how the information spread from one key source through major news and opinion sites.  Twitter today reported that Sunday night’s announcement was the highest sustained activity ever seen on the micro-blogging site.

I was one of the people who found out on Twitter.  Because I used to work in Washington, I follow many of the DC Journalists that were at the White House last night when things began to stir.  In the coming days and weeks, I expect to hear many stories about where people were and what they were doing when they found out.  I expect many of those stories to include the social media that we all increasingly rely on for up-to-the minute developing stories.

I, for one, did my part, retweeting and posting to facebook as much information from as many reputable sources as I could gather.   The real news here is how one man, Keith Urbahn, who has less than 7,000 followers can become a celebrity overnight through reblogging and retweeting from his followers to their much larger networks.

Canadians’ tweets could violate 1930s law

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

Elections Canada, the non-partisan agency that conducts Canadian elections, has announced that it plans to enforce a ban on tweets about election results based on a provision in a 1930s election law designed to prevent news agencies from announcing results before all polls are closed.

The penalty for the 140-character offense? Up to $25,000 or 5 years in prison, according to Mashable.com. The original intent of the law was to prevent radio stations on the east coast from influencing voter turnout on the west coast, where polls close up to 4 and a half hours later.

Ottawa Citizen’s political commentator Kathryn Marshall questions the necessity of characterizing tweets and Facebook statuses as broadcasts. Does it matter, she asks, if the Facebook poster in question has 10 friends or 1,000? She notes that the “twitterverse” is planning a “tweet-in” of election results in protest.

Of course, in the U.S., with our First Amendment protections, no such law could hold water. And, yet, major broadcasters have long had a gentlemen’s agreement not to “call” a race until after all of the polls are closed. In presidential races, this has the effect of there being no clear winner until sometime after 9 p.m. Eastern Time. The idea is that if a news network in New York starts telling people in California that one candidate has won quite a few eastern states, those voters in California may be less interested in voting.

I’m not sure that me tweeting out 140-characters about voter turnout in Chillicothe, Ohio, has the same effect.

Besides the obvious free speech argument, Elections Canada has admitted that it is impossible to uniformly enforce this law with the resources that they have. Not being particularly familiar with the Canadian election system, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone would have any reliable information about winners and losers that doesn’t have access to a massive polling organization, like the Associated Press does here in the United States during our elections. Assuming that Canadian journalists work within the same ethical framework as American journalists, what exactly are they afraid people will announce?

Unfortunately, I can imagine that there are political strategists out there trying to figure out how and what to tweet on May 2nd to either encourage or discourage western province voters from going to the polls.

The issue of Twitter and the Canadian election may seem like a parody of the web age, but it does bring important questions to mind. Who is controlling the news now, and to what end?

In an age before twitter and Facebook, mainstream news organizations could collude together to keep a story out of the press. This was sometimes used for political reasons, but more often was used for valid reasons, such as the safety of journalists in war zones. Now that the mainstream media has lost this option, there are conceivably things that will get out that maybe shouldn’t have. Is this a necessary evil of a democratic World Wide Web? What are the alternatives?

The days of “lady journalists”

Oh, to live in the time when women wore white gloves and hats and men drank scotch in dark, cigar-smoke-filled rooms.  Back when reporters were seen as romantic muckrakers who would do anything to get a story.

What’s that you say?  Those days never really existed?  Well they do in my mind and in the mind of many others thanks to Hollywood.

Through the wonder of Netflix, I have been watching a lot of movies that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about, including several that fall under the category “classic.”  For some reason, in this one-woman sample, I’m finding a lot of movies about reporters and newspapers back in the heyday of local news.

In the last week, I have watched “The Philadelphia Story,” “His Girl Friday,” and a modern take on the reporter story, “Morning Glory.”

One thing all of these movies have in common is a strong female journalist character.  I was surprised to find these women in movies from the ’40s and ’50s.

In “His Girl Friday,” the hard hitting reporter Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, is the only woman in a room full of classic male City Hall reporters.  She’s leaving the profession to get married until she gets sucked in to one last story.

For those of you who haven’t seen the classic 1940 story “His Girl Friday,” you can actually watch the whole thing here on Hulu.

In “The Philadelphia Story,” also from 1940, Liz Imbrie, a staff photographer for Spy Magazine is forced to pretend to be married to a reporter, played by Jimmy Stewart, in order to get the story.  In the end, her independence and feisty spirit almost cost her her happiness (seen here as getting the guy).

It’s interesting (and possibly a reflection of the fact that every movie needs conflict and romance) that in each of these movies the women are forced to choose between work as a journalist and happy home lives.  This is something you expect to see in movies made in the 1940s, but is it something we still need to see in 2010?

In “Morning Glory,” Rachel McAdams plays a morning television show producer who is chained to her desk (or blackberry), at the expense of her social life.  Ultimately, the movie is about finding balance and a sense of humor in your work and life, but it is interesting to me that she finds her strength at work while leaving her love life largely up to the man.

These three portrayals of journalism show the romanticism that many people still hold for the profession today, even though polls show journalists to be only slightly more popular than lawyers and politicians. Journalism has always been a fast-paced, conflict-ridden profession. And that makes for good entertainment, then and now.

The future(?) of Journalism

I just finished reading The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols and that, plus the fact that I’m getting a master’s degree in journalism has me thinking about the future of the journalism industry on a grander scale.

McChesney and Nichols propose a government-funded industry based on existing non-profit business structures or on a new business structure to be created by legislation. Even when the book was written, they understood the bile that a specific subset of conservatives hold for public broadcasting, but with the current budget negotiations, along with the release of tapes that showed the now former NPR fundraiser slamming conservatives, which led to the resignation of NPR’s CEO, it seems that the United States Congress may have even less taste for government funding of journalism than ever.

Aside from the small subsection of conservatives, governments from coast-to-coast are looking to cut budgets, not add to their long-term costs. It seems unlikely that a government-funded system would be a popular choice for Democrats or Republicans, at least at this point. And news organizations are slowly, but surely, losing staff and money.

So, just a year on from the publication of McChesney and Nichols’ book, what can be done about the state of the media.

I don’t buy the idea that online-only publications, as they stand today, are the answer. Their newsrooms are too small, they don’t have the international bureau structure of the major news organizations, and they also don’t have budgets that allow for the kind of investigative journalism that democracy calls for.

I also think the idea of online-only publications is indicative of a decidedly old-school way of looking at the media. The media brand is far more important to today’s news consumers than the platform.

I do think a non-profit news organization structure is going to be one of the answers for the future of news, but I agree with McChesney and Nichols that there may need to be a legislative restructuring of the not-for-profit business rules to allow newspapers to continue to publish editorials and endorsements of local candidates, an essential function of many papers.

In a 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to look only as far as the next big story. It is important to look for short-term and long-term solutions to what is a growing problem in the news industry. If the current system isn’t working (and it’s not), what next?