Category: Web

Have I Read Everything on the Internet?

I work in news. Some days I can barely make it to the refrigerator to grab my lunch. Other days, I do practically nothing. It’s the nature of the business. On the latter days, a former coworker and I used to joke that we’d “finished the Internet,” as in, “I’ve read everything on the Internet, want to go get a smoothie?”

Obviously it is impossible to read everything on the internet, in a literal sense, but lately I’ve been finding these strange loops in my reading habits online, where I find myself back at an article that I’ve already read, though my path to get there was different.

An example:

Wired Magazine recently celebrated 20 years of publishing by producing a special issue with some of the best articles from the past 20 years. This anthology included Disneyland with the Death Penalty by William Gibson, from the Sept./Oct. 1993 issue. I am a tablet subscriber to Wired and read the article, along with most of the special issue, during one of those slow days at work. Just last weekend, I picked up a book that I had purchased after reading an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab site about journalists learning to code. That book: a collection of essays, forewords and speeches by William Gibson, Distrust that Particular Flavor.

Not being good with names, and not being a particular fan of science fiction, I had no idea who William Gibson was, until I made it to about the halfway point of the book, and came across “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” again, which got me thinking about this particular circular phenomenon.

In this case, the reference came from two different media entities, but just as often I find that I read an article straight off the homepage of something and a few weeks later circle back to it through a Facebook or Twitter recommendation. Sometimes it’s been so long since I read the article the first time that I end up reading several paragraphs before the deja vu feeling sets in.

Some days it feels like I could never read everything I want to read on the homepages and twitter feeds of my favorite news sites. But on other days I find myself wondering if there is really that much new out there. When you narrow your sights from “everything on the internet” to everything worth reading on the internet, the list sometimes seems very short, indeed.

News Euphemisms

I was reading this excellent piece on the Republican position on Latinos and immigration, and how that affects their electoral strategy when I came across this sentence:

“Every election cycle, more of them will become eligible to vote, while the oldest, whitest and most Republican generations age out of the electorate on the other end. (‘Age out of the electorate’ is a euphemism for ‘die.’)”

It got me thinking about my favorite news, public policy, and academic euphemisms, those little phrases that reporters and academics use when they want to say something (often something crass or disturbing) but need to maintain a modicum of dignity.

One of my (morbid) favorites is “placed himself deliberately on the tracks,” used by WMATA and the Washington Post whenever a person commits suicide by jumping in front of a subway train (almost always on the Red Line, almost always shortly before rush hour). I think the reason I find this one (morbidly) amusing is that while it is a much more verbose way of saying something that is a little unseemly, it doesn’t leave nearly as much to the imagination as NBC News reporter Benjy Sarlin’s gem above.

What are your favorite news euphemisms?

The Cable Industry

On a recommendation from someone, somewhere (the exact source has escaped me; another issue of my infinite reading list – see below), I just finished reading an article from the December 1996 issue of Wired about the laying of transoceanic cables (Mother Earth, Motherboard, 4.12).

This article, written on the cusp of the internet revolution, describes a cable being run from Cornwall to Japan, crossing over land, but mostly buried at the bottom of a very complicated ocean. The writer, who describes himself as a hacker-tourist back when few people knew what hackers were to begin with, focuses on the technology that made these transoceanic cables possible.

But one particular part of the article hit home to me. For five of the last six years, I have worked for a cable network (the television kind). In one of the myriad positions I have held at this company, I used to request out of town, and sometimes international, video feeds.

In 2013, there are multiple ways we get these feeds. Some come off of a satellite dish in the sky. Some come to use via FTP (across the web). Some still come to us via microwave signals, which require a line of sight. Our newest technology is video feed via cellular signal, which, as a new technology, is spotty at best. But the vast majority of our coverage, from across the street at the U.S. Capitol building to across the ocean in London, comes to us via fiber link, or physical cable.

I have booked fiber feeds and cross-connects too numerous to count, but I never really thought about what this meant until I read this article from 1996. There are literally cables running across the ocean, carrying the BBC’s coverage of the British House of Commons to my building in Washington, D.C. There are cables in the White House and in the Capitol, there are cables in most of the “think tanks” and in the State Department and Pentagon.

There are buildings, like the one the author describes in Alexandria, Egypt, where people literally connect this fiber coming in from one location to one going out to another location, creating a world encircling network of fiber cables.

In the modern era, we take for granted that these fiber networks work, and have significant built in redundancies to prevent an interruption of service. But not so long ago, at a time in most of our lifetimes, this was not guaranteed. It amazes me to think that these systems only exist because a very talented team of engineers, cable layers, and sailors physically laid the cable that enables our nearly instantaneous around-the-world communications.

What amazing everyday feats of engineering and science are we performing right now that children born today will completely take for granted? What will we be unable to live without?

Infinite Reading List

I’m currently reading James Gleick’s 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, which tells the story of how information came to be, and came to be classified and organized. I’m just starting the book, but the chapter I read today, on the process of recording and organizing words and definitions into dictionaries, was fascinating.

A large part of Gleick’s explanation, at least in the early part of the book, has to do with how everything we think about through history is informed by our current circumstances. He likens it to trying to explain horses as four-legged automobiles without wheels. Words, he says, for much of human history were oral, not written, and it was only with the invention of the printing press that humans felt the need to create lists of words with standardized spellings and definitions.

In the chapter on dictionaries, Gleick notes that during the early production of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, the editors put out a call for readers to cover 16th and 17th century literature. At that point, they believed that the entirety of human literature was finite.

The modern editors face an infinite, ever-expanding amount of written knowledge. I can relate.

It seems like no matter how much I read, my reading list just keeps getting longer and longer. And now, with web tools like Pocket and Instapaper, I can quantify just how infinite my reading list is. I save long-form articles in Pocket, I use Chrome bookmarks to save websites that require more interaction or specific notes, I have a Google Doc Spreadsheet of books that I have saved from lists, book reviews, and interviews I see, I have a stack of paper magazines a foot high and a stack of virtual magazines on my iPad twice that size. And everyday, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sources, I discover new articles and websites that I never would have found before.

Sometimes, on particularly slow news days, a coworker and I joke that we’ve “read the whole internet,” and sometimes, especially when it comes to news of the day stories, it feels that way. But mostly, I feel like I’m buried under piles and piles of reading that I want to do, but may never get to. And each day, the piles get bigger.

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…

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.

Hello, Tech Support?

When I worked at a traditional television network, there were two kinds of tech support.

Our IT guys worked primarily on our regular desktop computers, installing programs, updating systems, and setting up our Blackberries (I had three in the course of two years).

Our engineering staff worked on all of the servers, transponders, and other mess of wiring behind master control which actually made the network go up to the satellite and back down to cable systems across the country.  These guys were amazing.  I could give them incomplete coordinates for a satellite feed that I needed, like, five minutes ago and they’d find it, downlink it, and get it on the air.

Now that I’m working on a website, I find myself in need of an additional brand of tech support.  Video for TV and video for the web are two very different animals.  The shooting and editing are the same, but the encoding, uploading, and display seem to be a never ending headache.

We decided early on that we were going to build an HTML5 compatible site, with all of the bells and whistles.  Unfortunately, the video standards are -not- standard, and trying to balance quality with file size is becoming a huge headache.  We’re also working from a WordPress CMS, in the interest of ease for those colleagues who are not web people, but we’re finding the quirks of the system to be a little constraining.

Oh, and did I mention that we’re supposed to be live in 24-hours?

It’s going to be a long day, but when it’s over (probably Tuesday or Wednesday) we’re going to have a site up at Northwestern’s News 21.  Wish me luck.

When reporters became brands (and other signs of the impending armageddon)

It may seem strange that I am writing a post about the shameless self-promotion that many journalists (especially those of my generation) engage in on a regular basis on the very day that I published my own resume website, but this is a topic where I seem to have a particularly crotchety point of view.

From your “social media presence” to “building your brand,” the buzz words of marketing run rampant through journalism schools and the trade press.  There was a day when this sort of self-interested promotion was exercised by only the most vain of television news personalities, but now, it is seen as the only way to make oneself relevant in the changing journalism world.

I have always been a “let my work speak for itself” kind of person and am generally uncomfortable with the level of marketing that journalists are expected to do in the name of becoming a valuable asset to a news organization.  I thought, for a time, that this kind of personal branding was a reaction to the steep decline in journalism jobs, but now I see it more as a result of the “cult of celebrity” that has taken over popular culture.

In a world where you can be famous for being famous (or rather for doing very little of any value), it is not surprising that journalism schools are focused on creating their own little celebrities whose personalities, rather than talent, will earn them a job.

I still have hope that there is a market for journalists who are doing good work without seeking to create their own 140 character caricature that can be easily marketed by the ad department.  At many of the nations highest pinnacles of journalism – the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC Nightly News – there are old-school news hounds looking to ply their craft in relative anonymity.

A colleague of mine at school had a class assignment for a course called “21st Century Media.”  She was to choose a journalist and ask them about their “brand.”  She chose a favorite of mine, Gene Weingarten, a curmudgeonly columnist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) for the Washington Post Magazine.  His response, and the column that resulted, pretty well sums up how I feel about the movement.

And while I feel a little concerned that my professional philosophy tends to line up closer with the reporters of my father’s generation, I am comforted by the fact that, for now at least, those are the people who still hold the hiring power.

So, check out the website (still a work in progress, but maybe now that real people can look at it, it will light a fire under me to complete the features on my to-do list) and let me know what you think.  As for my “personal brand,” is “Female Gene Weingarten” taken?