Archive for December, 2008

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December 30, 2008
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December 29, 2008

Tools for online journalism in 2009

December 29, 2008

Tools for journalists are going to be a interesting area to watch for developments during 2009.  It has been heavily reported, and will continue to be as the topic enters the mainstream, that online has overtaken print as a source of news, at least in the US.  This is largely thanks to big media organisations such as NYTimes.com, washingtonpost.com, the BBC and The Guardian throwing huge amounts of effort and investment into their online offerings.

But the transition to being the major medium for news holds certain paradoxes for staff within these organisations.  Designers and developers have often bemoaned the drawbacks inherent in web publishing, e.g.

  • difficulty in overcoming the rigid nature of the html/css layout process ( static pages, templating etc )
  • a lack of flexible tools ( compared to print apps like InDesign, Quark, Photoshop etc )
  • lack of immediacy in delivery of content ( compared to print, the workflow of getting a new ‘page’ onto the screen is positively excrutiating )

Coupled with these challenging problems is the perception, widely held, of online delivery as cheap and immediate.  This inevitably leads to a stand-off between designers and developers, who work hard to make a website fast, appealing and accessible, along with a CMS  which needs to be almost infinitely flexible within rigid boundaries; and editors, who feel they have lost individuality, spontaneity and a certain amount of control over their own content.

During 2009 I think we will hear a lot more about:

  • tools available for journalists and editors which will enable them to more easily create and distribute innovative, unique content
  • automated mechanisms for updating and releasing content — eg. data sources that can be managed, amended or replaced easily and discretely by journalists or other third parties
  • tools for data visualisation (this one’s been floating around for a long time now, but this year will see it break into the mainstream in more innovative and accessible ways ie. usable apps that journalists can actually employ without having to learn a programming language)
  • packaged-up newspaper CMSs — how different can each newspaper’s needs be?  And yes, Django is probably the answer to this one, but there will be others.
  • the standardisation of news — consumption via RSS renders a nifty design unnecessary.  Google News has undergone development and is gaining traction — it is already vital in the unique views chase.  How long before news as a content item is standardised into a W3C recognised format alongside audio, video etc.?  How long before, as Jeff Jarvis proposed, all news is distributed by Google?
  • greater integration between journalists and development teams.  NYTimes.com, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian are examples of media groups which have already started to combine their editorial and technical staff to produce better content more quickly.

Chase Davis said it very well last year,

“Do most journalists need to learn how to code? No. Should some? Yes…If you like programming, do it. If you don’t, find another technology you enjoy: Flash, CSS design, audio/video — whatever. No matter what, you can’t avoid technology.”

Jim Brady steps down as executive editor of washingtonpost.com

December 23, 2008

One of the most interesting points about the news that Jim Brady will be stepping down as executive editor of washingtonpost.com is a reference to the clear division of labour that exists between the online and print operations there.

The article, by Washington Post staff writer Zachary A. Goldfarb, says,

“Since the early days of washingtonpost.com, the leadership of the Web site has been separate from that of the newspaper.”

While this doesn’t surprise me, it does emphasise a misunderstanding, if not ignorance, of their own assets that afflicts not only washingtonpost.com but newspapers everywhere.  The segregation of the two information streams is myopic and self-defeating.  Goldfarb goes on,

“That began to change earlier this year when Katharine Weymouth was named chief executive of Washington Post Media, which consolidated the online and print operations into one unit.”

This year?  This year was 2008, people.  How many years ago was repurposing content a hot buzzword?  How long will it take most newspapers to catch on that their staff is their greatest asset, be they editorial or technological?  Your website should be serving the journalists who work for you, not existing in isolation, serving up trimmed down content in bite-size chunks.  Your web team should be a creative force.  Treating your website as an appendage to your main body of business is a worthless and outdated concept, and those institutions who realise this the quickest will dominate online news.

Robert Niles at ojr.org argues that,

“…[the] news industry’s collective failure to accurately portray the world over the past decade has done as much, if not more, to drive readers to the Internet than any inherent attractiveness of this new medium. If existing news businesses wish to have any hope of surviving the current downturn, in any medium, they cannot continue to perform as they have over the past decade.”

I read that claim as a call for innovation in the news industry.  Technical innovation.  Combining the best journalists with the best technology and tools available will enable us to portray the world more accurately than ever.  Niles continues,

“But no newspaper is a monopoly anymore. They all are now just voices among many others in broader information market, grown by the Web. In this new information market, news organization must stop acting like a monopoly and instead adopt and amplify a more powerful editorial voice.”

This is exactly the time to consolidate your offerings and present a single, powerful, recognisable voice across print, online, TV, radio and any other channel to the market.

NYTimes.com retires its Times File bookmarking service

December 22, 2008

NYTimes.com is today retiring its Times File service.  Times File is a tool that allows you to save articles into an online library for later reading.  You’re not restricted to NYTimes.com content either — you can save any URL to Times File.

An email communication to Times File users states that,

as of Dec. 22, 2008, we are removing the ability to save articles to Times File from NYTimes.com pages, and on Jan. 21, 2009, we are removing Times File from the site entirely.

The email goes on to note the proliferation of social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Digg which are available through the NYTimes.com Share tools, and which in effect duplicate the functionality of Times File.

Is this decision to divert resources from Times File to other areas of the site an economic one?  How much maintenance, hardware, capacity or bandwidth could Times File have possibly used?  I’d like to see some statistic for the usage of Times File — perhaps it’s being turned off through lack of take-up.  This seems unlikely, as they only recently released their Community API and surely this service could have been bound in and exploited through that?

Reading further into the email, it becomes clear that the service was provided by a third party, LookSmart (watch out, they have a Flash intro) — a publicly traded company.  LookSmart probably costs money, and a fair chunk of it.  If other social bookmarking sites are available for free then why not use them?  I think it’s a smart move from NYTimes.com — outsource those things that don’t contribute to making your offering unique.

Another slant on this is that NYTimes.com’s recent manoeuvres towards the forefront of online journalism and publicly available data would soon have rendered this service inadequate and underwhelming.  Interestingly, they’ve opted to go with Furl if you decide you want to export your currently stored Times file data, rather than either of the two sites they cite as contributing towards the redundancy of Times File: Delicious and Digg.  I wonder what business decisions were involved there?

Represent from nytimes.com gives New York City residents information about their elected representatives

December 21, 2008

Represent, a beta product from nytimes.com, provides detailed information on New York City’s elected representatives, from the city Council to the Senate, similar to what TheyWorkForYou.com has been doing for a while now.

Nice touches Represent provides include:

This site is a powerful combination of public data and nytimes.com’s own content, and I imagine it will soon expand to include all representatives on a national basis.  Yesterday Jeff Jarvis argued that,

“national papers – especially the Post but also the NY Times… – could become the Washington bureau to the nation’s papers, saving them all money, giving them all the flexibility to redirect staff (reporters and editors) to local coverage, and giving their readers the best coverage.”

This move certainly puts them in a strong position to do that, but in a way it also bypasses what Jarvis calls ‘reverse syndication’ and provides the information to anyone who wants it.  I couldn’t find an RSS feed for it or any API, but I’m sure that will follow.

Represent was created by Andrei Scheinkman, an interactive developer for nytimes.com, and Derek Willis, a member of its web development group.  Derek Willis has written an interesting blogpost on Represent and GeoDjango — ‘…the part of Django that makes spatial work easy enough that even I can manage it’.  He also gives some informaton on how Represent came to be.  It was the result of,

“…[a New York Times] internal technology challenge. We ended up being a finalist with our entry, which became the app you see today, thanks to design work by Stephan Weitberg and advice from a lot of folks.  Since Andrei and I both liked Python, and the contest asked for a working prototype, we built Represent using GeoDjango…”

 

UPDATE :  Represent now has RSS feeds available.

Jeff Jarvis argues that the LA Times should go online only

December 20, 2008

Everyone’s favourite creator and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly, Jeff Jarvis, today argues that since the LA Times website makes enough revenue to cover newsroom costs, they should go online only.

Although I think his economic argument is simplistic, not taking into account, for example, such things as presence and branding generated by the print edition, his argument is superficially convincing.

It is also a slightly scary proposition, positing a huge loss of jobs and possibly status apropos of what exactly? Cost savings, says Jarvis. But the loss of a large number of a newspaper’s staff, its voice, seems a high price to pay for the monetary savings made.

Indeed, Jarvis admits,

“There’s no question that the scale of the business would be smaller, much smaller. But with only edit and advertising sales costs…it could be a profitable business.”

Could be profitable?  That’s not confidence talking, there, is it?