Bookmarks for June 15th through June 19th

In order to share what I’ve found to be useful/interesting/etc. while browsing around below are my links for June 15th through June 19th. You can find my full set of bookmarks at my Delicious account.

Attractiveness vs. Volume – an explanation of news design

A portion of the NY Times homepage. This is worthless.
A portion of the NY Times homepage. This is worthless.

This post stems from a conversation between Max Cutler, Joey Baker, and myself that went on over Twitter this afternoon. It all stemmed from Max asking, “What’s more important: # of stories above the fold or catchy/pretty multimedia accompanying fewer articles?” Joey and I were in agreement that it was the visual appearance of a page that should be given priority while Max was (playing devil’s advocate?) arguing that perhaps a series of links are better because a reader can scan the top news quickly.

The short answer to Max’s question is that it’s better to use the homepage to display a select number of the most ______ (recent, topical, important, etc.) stories with their accompanying graphics (be they photos, video, info-graphics, cartoons, etc.).

Another way of approaching it, which is the one currently employed by many daily news organizations, is to display a list of various links and excerpts so that readers will presumably scan them to get the news.

I think the “list of links” approach is flawed for a couple reasons:

  1. It fails to recognize the limitless nature of graphics on the web. No longer must we be bound by the costs of printing large graphics. Yes, bandwidth can be more expensive with lots of graphics, but it’s an insignificant amount of money.
  2. It lacks the visual stimulus that our culture has saturated us with in so many other walks of life. We are conditioned to be drawn to images (be they ads, slideshows, television, etc.) and consequently find lists comparatively dull.

That second issue is the main one that I see as a problem. As Joey said, “print designers knew this: human eye goes Art → Hed → Cutline → Deck → Lede. Why only show the Hed!? We need art *at least*!”

One of the focal aims of a news site is to engage the user and bring them into a story. A plain text link is not going to do this for the majority of readers. Yes, perhaps it will allow some people to scan quickly and it may even draw in those with a specific interest in a topic but it will fail where it matters most: with the masses.

When people become accustomed to viewing sites that are a visual tour de force like Apple’s they will come back to a site like the LA Times and wonder, “What the hell happened?”

People like things in a nice package. It’s why more people buy iPods than SansDisk. It’s why people use an email client like Thunderbird or Gmail instead of Pine. It’s time that news organizations recognized the desire for the visual elements of a story.

The reality is that images can connect to emotions, text headlines not so much. The biggest thing that a story can have going for it is having readers that care about it. An image can do this, text headlines cannot.

Rejoice in the potential of the Iranian people

Photo by Farhad Rajabali
Photo by Farhad Rajabali

Bill Keller at The New York Times wrote an article yesterday titled, “Memo from Tehran – Reverberations as Door Slams on Hope of Change.” In this he writes that:

But for those who dreamed of a gentler Iran, Saturday was a day of smoldering anger, crushed hopes and punctured illusions, from the streets of Tehran to the policy centers of Western capitals. Iranians who hoped for a bit more freedom, a better managed economy and a less reviled image in the world wavered between protest and despair on Saturday.

Perhaps what Keller writes has some merit, but I think that its crucial that we look at the events of the past days in a different light. For me the events after the closing of the polls in Iran show what is possible when a country’s people decide that they have had enough. The events represent what happens when people take the tools of modern communication into their own hands and proclaim that they too have a voice that needs to be heard.

What seems to be happening on the streets of Tehran and other cities throughout the country is not the reverberations of lost hope, it is the explosion of a thundercloud of revolution. These are people who are willing to put themselves in danger by opposing a regime that has proven to be dictatorial in its use of force. They are people who understand the consequences but more importantly recognize the importance of the current moment.

Yes the initial victory for Ahmadinejad is not ideal for these people, but I think they are far from “[wavering] between protest and despair.” The people of Iran do not seem to be wavering; instead, they are shouting emphatically “NO!”

Perhaps these riots in the streets will result in no substantial regime change. Ahmadinejad may retain power. Mousavi may be imprisoned. But no matter the result, the actions of the people in Tehran have shown the world an important lesson: we too can change things if we’re determined. No longer can a people’s voice be suppressed. No longer must they rely upon the mass media to get their message out.

To me we should be rejoicing in the events of the past days as the first example of what today’s world and today’s technology can accomplish when the rights of a people are violated.

The conditions of today have created a situation wherein people can oppose an injustice immediately, effectively, and publicly. The protests in Iran may not succeed, but the message they proclaim and the images they present will influence those who desire social change for years to come. That’s something we should all be happy about.

Sullivan: “The Revolution Will Be Twittered”

One of the smartest things I’ve read today about the growing disturbance in Iran comes from Andrew Sullivan who writes:

That a new information technology could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times. It reveals in Iran what the Obama campaign revealed in the United States. You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.

Not only can people now bypass the established media and broadcast to one another I think that they have proven that they will and that when they do so they will do it with force.

Furthermore, I think that events like this go to show that the fascination with Twitter is more than just about Twitter, it’s more importantly about the medium of communication that it provides for. Perhaps Twitter provides the best current experience for this, but I think that the demand for such a form of communication will only grow as more people realize the power of organizing themselves.

Bookmarks for June 8th through June 12th

In order to share what I’ve found to be useful/interesting/etc. while browsing around below are my links for June 8th through June 12th. You can find my full set of bookmarks at my Delicious account.

Pausing development of News Evolved

Since I launched an early version of News Evolved, my WordPress theme for news, back in April I’ve seen a lot of interest for something like it. It’s clear to me that there are people looking for complex WordPress themes that are capable of handling a news site’s content. Unfortunately though I’m needing to pause the development of it right now.

Working on two big projects this summer, plus a regular job and the possibility of a third big project that’s in the works has proved to be about as much as I can handle right now. There are also a lot of things that I wish I had done differently when writing News Evolved.

So, I won’t be working on developing or refining News Evolved for the rest of the summer but here’s what will happen after that: I plan on rewriting the theme from the ground up. It’ll use a cleaner grid, better CSS styles so that they’re more intelligible classes. Also, I’ll be making the theme far more plugin independent so that you’ll be able to download and install quickly and easily.

With that said, if you’re interested in using the code behind the theme for your own ends just get in touch and I’ll send it to you and answer any questions.

Building off of a coral reef – a Whitman blog network

In the most recent episode of Dave Winer and Jay Rosen’s tremendous podcast titled “Rebooting the News” Dave mentions the metaphor of treating journalism like a coral reef. Basically the gist of the metaphor, as I understand it, is this: if you can put in the initial work to start covering many different aspects of a community then pretty soon that community will become involved in building and giving life to that local news site.

Daniel Bachhuber posted his thoughts on this a couple nights ago and expanded upon the concept in terms of data and information. This all got me thinking about how this concept could be applied to a small college paper like the Whitman Pioneer. As part of my work this summer on redesigning The Pioneer’s site I’m working to create a foundation from which the paper can build features in the coming years. Part of this involves creating a framework that can integrate and inspire community engagement. What better method of doing this than creating a “coral reef.”

Here’s what I’m thinking: Right now we have a few various blogs that are written by staff writers. Most of them are not updated all that frequently and those that we have essentially serve as beat blogs and expand the coverage of events and topics that The Pioneer already covers. What we don’t have that I think could prove to be incredibly interesting and engaging is a network of blogs written by other members of the Whitman community.

I know there’s other students, professors, etc. that have blogs but I have no idea what the urls are; consequently I have no easy way to find out what they’re writing about. What I’m envisioning is creating a Pioneer blog network where we do two main things:

  1. Aggregate the content from personal blogs – This could be anything from someone’s Tumblr to a WordPress or Blogger site. They would just go about posting content in the normal way and we would aggregate it on our site and provide links and some information so that The Pioneer’s readers would be able to get a better sense of what “regular” Whitman students are thinking.
  2. Provide a framework for additional blogs – Not all students are tech-savvy enough to have their own personal domain, or motivated enough to start their own blog on WordPress.com or Blogger. What I would propose here is that The Pioneer provides a blog for any student interested. These could be hosted on our domain and run custom installs of WordPress. I would put together a collection of themes (both self-designed and from the WordPress community) and they would be able to install any of those (or anything else they find) and all the plugins the want. Their blog could then be hosted at a sub-domain of The Pioneer’s site (something like http://blogs.whitmanpioneer.com/joeblogger).

What I see this as accomplishing is twofold.

For one, students (both prospective and enrolled) would have a place to turn to find the recent views of their classmates. We currently feature columns from students studying abroad but there are far more that keep blogs during their time in various countries. How cool would it be to have a place that aggregates all of this information about the Whitman experience?

Second, I see this as providing a forum through which both parents and the community in general can become more involved in the views expressed and discussed. There’s always a lot of talk about how Whitman students go to school in a bubble and I think this could help to combat that perception. It would provide a well-trafficked site through which they could express their opinions on issues spanning sports, politics, community service, crime, etc. It would also give a direct line for community members to interact with students. They would have a place to turn to find what Whitman students are saying and consequently would be able to easily add comments and their own perspectives.

Anyway, those are just my quick and very much rough draft thoughts on the matter. I’m sure the idea will grow the more I think about it in the coming days. I’ll also be working on posting a wireframe for the page in the coming weeks and we’ll see how feasible that is. What I’m wondering is what you think: Sound like a good idea? Think it’s awful and a waste of time? Do you know of any schools or news organizations that are attempting something similar?

Bookmarks for May 30th through June 5th

In order to share what I’ve found to be useful/interesting/etc. while browsing around below are my links for May 30th through June 5th. You can find my full set of bookmarks at my Delicious account.

It’s about more than just linking – you must add something

Last evening I was looking around for things to read after burning through my RSS items and decided that I’d skim through the most recent items at the Publish2 newswire. I’ve really enjoyed the last few months of using Publish2 and I think that the power that it holds for collaborative journalism is tremendous. Here’s the thing though: it’s only going to succeed and have a role in the future of journalism if we, the users, make the effort to actually add something to our links.

While perusing the list of recent articles linked by the hundreds (thousands?) of journalists using Publish2 I found that page after page was dominated by links similar to this:

The dominant style of links I found on Publish2
The dominant style of links I found on Publish2

Not to pick on the above user (he’s just an unfortunate example that I happened to find) but that link does nothing. It gives me a 2 word title, no summary, no tags, and nothing relevant to give me an idea of what the article may be about. To me this is useless; even the headline does nothing for me. “Social exercise” could refer to anything from activity on Twitter to a club of suburban walker-moms that use exercise as a means for socializing.

It was rare to find examples like the one below that listed not only the source name, but also included a comment, and various tags. This kind of example benefits everyone. At a glance I’m able to read the title, and if it were to be vague then the comment and tags would make up for it. It’s the difference between throwing a link up there and hoping people click on it and carefully crafting a link and the metadata to go along with it so that people will click on it.

A more useful link on Publish2
A more useful link on Publish2

With all this talk about how beneficial social activity on the web can be I think that the quality sometimes gets lost in all of the discussion. Sure, it’s great for a journalist or a news organization as a whole to draw attention to links to outside sources that it finds valuable or interesting to its community. This is all for nought though if that linking doesn’t add something of value to the piece.

Plain text links are useless on a news site why would they be any better for sharing information?
Plain text links are useless on a news site why would they be any better for sharing information?

If readers wanted just a simple title then they would be eating up current newspaper sites like the one pictured at right. This is not the case though and I think that tech-savvy journalists, which I presume to be a large percentage of Publish2’s user base, need to lead by example.

The language of improving online activity is one thing, but these words are not enough what is needed is action. The folks at Publish2 have provided a great tool that could be put to tremendous use by both small and large news organizations; however, it’s on us to not waste this.

If you think that online activity ought to be measured by the volume of links that you push out or the amount of time that you spend on Twitter think again.

Publish2, Twitter, Google Reader, Facebook: all these things are useless unless we take the time to invest energy and thought into creating relationships among people and among data. It’s time to take the issue of news quality to heart and to use linking tools like Publish2 to create what could actually benefit news organizations: a more worthwhile and rich experience for the reader.

Time for news organizations to learn from their inferiority

I’m in the process of reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. It’s a fascinating book and there’s one particular anecdote that caught my attention. In March of 2000 Hessler was commissioned to write what was essentially public relations material for Dorr-Oliver, a Dutch company that made centrifuges for corn milling. He visited one of China’s larger factories and while there was told by a Dorr-Oliver employee that a competing company’s machines were better.

Later, Hessler was questioned by Mr. Wang, the plant’s manager, as to what this employee had said; after trying to play ignorant Hessler admitted that the employee said the other company’s product was better. Expecting a bad reaction from the manager it’s understandable that he was a little shocked when Mr. Wang said:

You know what? He’s right! Our machines aren’t designed as well as the Westfalia centrifuges. Those machines are better. That’s important for us to know. How can we possibly do business if we don’t know that our product is inferior?

The more I thought about this the more I realized how relevant it seems to be to the current state of news organizations; the difference is that they are refusing to acknowledge their inferiority.

The general sense that I get (and this is largely a gut feeling) from reading statements from news executives is that they believe that their product is superior and the problem simply lies in getting the broader public to recognize that. Instead, they ought to approach the problem through an honest recognition that their product is currently far, far inferior; that is, they ought to approach the situation from reality.

It seems ludicrous to me to on the one hand say that the experience that a news organization offers is superior, trustworthy, etc. while also recognizing the importance of attempting drastic measures to change that experience. If the New York Times offered a truly stunning experience that was far superior to other news outlets both in print and online then that’d be one thing, but if that were the case then they wouldn’t be bemoaning their debt and lack of revenue, nor would they be considering shuttering the Boston Globe, nor would they be needing to undertake such experiments as the Times Reader.

Ultimately, it’s time for news organizations to stop preaching about how trustworthy they are and how they have a stellar history of reporting; that’s not what matters right now. Right now they need to be acknowledging, both internally and publicly, that they’ve fallen behind the times and that they no longer provide an experience nor the content that is superior.

Once that’s done they can start the process of progress. They can put aside their centuries of tradition and start to think like a company that has everything to prove. It’s time for news organizations to start showing how they are progressing and how their experiences are improving instead of just hoping that we as consumers will come to recognize what news executives believe to be self-evident: their superiority in delivering a news experience.

Update: Later today I came across this article from the Columbia Journalism Review that would have been an appropriate link in the above article. The basic premise is that for too long journalists and news organizations have taken the focus off of the experience of the consumer and placed it upon the accolades of the individual journalist and the news organization.