Category Archives: journalism

Yes, it matters if senior staff at your institution use social media. Here’s why.

Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram asks whether it matters whether some editors and reporters at the New York Times tweet or not, riffing on the “Twitter graveyard” that Charlie Warzel dug up at Buzzfeed. As Warzel notes, dozens of Times staff are dormant or are “eggs,” with default accounts. My answer is simple: yes, it matters, and as I clarified to Patrick LaForge, a long-time, active Twitter user who I think uses it quite well, this isn’t about how they tweet but whether they do it at all.

Full disclosure: I gave the Times a much longer, richer answer regarding social media when their researcher interviewed me for the innovation report that leaked earlier this year. I was constructively critical then and will try to be now, as well.

It’s true that Twitter is being actively used by a smaller percentage of American adults online (19%) than other platforms, like Facebook. While I think that underbills Twitter’s influence and reach, I would be interested to see Charlie Warzel or a media reporter audit the NYTimes use & participation on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+ Hangouts with readers, Reddit, or comment sections. That would be more representative of total commitment and action on reader engagement, as opposed to a Buzzfeed post that may feel like a potshot to people internally. As someone who has watched and participated in discussion about Times content on all of those channels, I can say with some certainty that there is a gradient of demonstrated use & active listening. As long as @deanbaquet is silent, though, folks at 620 Eight Avenue should be prepared for negative comparisons to Alan Rusbridger (@arusbridger) at the Guardian and external analysts wondering whether he understands how the top editor acts sets the bar, high or low, for a media organization. Reasonable editors can differ, as Lydia Polgreen does:

I’ve consulted for a number of people on this front over the years and done internal training at past gigs. Showing you are listening with a favorite or retweeting a reply that advanced a story is valuable; it’s the first step to ‘tweeting your beat.’ For instance, for Baquet, retweeting a different reporter sharing her or his big story once every day would demonstrate that he was reading his own staff and using the audience that he has accumulated to amplify stories would be a safe approach. From where I sit, leading a media organization now includes a profoundly public component, and as the “sources have gone direct,” top editors are ceding ground by not using social media to get their perspective into discussion; posting a press release online or emailing statements is a limited and limiting approach. As for whether someone can lead a newsroom effectively or not without paying attention to Twitter, knowing what your staff or those you respect in the industry are saying about you or your leadership, or how they are responding to public critique or your journalism, is relevant to understanding what their challenges or needs are.

I don’t understand some arguments I see elsewhere online that engaging with readers, across platforms and email, doesn’t make the product better or make someone a better editors. The best reporters I know have active inboxes, busy phones and are constantly vetting stories with sources. The idea that products and services don’t get better through exposure to the customers, clients, readers, buyers or users and listening to their responses goes against the grain of everything we’ve learned about iterative, user-centric design over the last decade, in media organizations or out. I find that many comments, @replies, email or calls I get about my journalism makes it better — not all, by any stretch, but a lot, particularly by people who do research in the space, who do what I’m describing, who report on it or are affected by it. If you don’t think so, that’s fine. It’s been my impression that Margaret Sullivan (@sulliview) is a great public editor because she is an active listener online, not just in her inbox.

I understand that some people may still feel that Twitter is dumb, inane, hobbled by a character limit or not a valuable place for senior staff to spend time. In response, I would suggest looking at how another executive editor at a towering media institution in the United States that’s also working to transform from a print-centric model is handling Twitter: Marty Baron, at the Washington Post: @PostBaron. It sure seems like Marty Baron has quite similar working conditions and roles and constraints as Baquet, and yet manages to approach public communication in a different way.

Time is not the issue at the Times or elsewhere. It’s culture. It takes 10 minutes a day to log on to Twitter, read replies, search for responses to your stories (just put in URL) and send a tweet and RT another one. Anyone in government, media, academia or nonprofits who portrays doing that as a bigger time commitment is being disingenuous, perhaps because they simply don’t want to use the platform, given years of negative media reports about how people act there. It’s certainly true that building and engaging an audience takes time, training or experiential learning, but it’s also worth noting that former Timesman Brian Stelter reported his heart out daily and managed to balance building large, engaged social networks. This isn’t the false dichotomy that I keep seeing, where it’s either you report or you use social media: it’s both/and.

Creating an account on a two-way platform and then walking away, ignoring people talking to you, is like going to a cocktail party with strangers and spending your time looking at your phone and ignoring people — or occasionally saying something at dinner and ignoring what people around the table say in response. It may be better strategically, from my standpoint, not to create an account at all than to do so and then abandon it. Your mileage, as ever, may vary.

UPDATE: Folks who said critiquing the lack of tweets by Dean Baquet wasn’t reasonable, take note: the NYT executive editor responded to Steve Buttry, writing that “the fact that I have made so little use of Twitter is fair game for criticism.” I’d take this as tacit acknowledgement that it’s fair game to critique other folks in the media, too. (In other news, I should have asked him for comment on this post, too.)

As Steve notes, though, Baquet adds an observation that I suspect will create more concern than it tamps down:

“One of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not. If you hadn’t done cops and courts you weren’t a journalist, etc. That characterization was right on. We deserved the hit.

As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry. Don’t take that as saying I should not tweet more. I should. Just a warning that each generation of journalists seems so certain they know what it takes to be a journalist.”

As it happens, the metaphor is one I know well: Back in 2009, when I met Arianna Huffington for the first time at the FTC, she asked me to write up our conversation for her site. So, I did. Its title? “Is Journalism Going Through Its Own Reformation?

Maybe I’ve misread the criticism of Baquet that I’ve seen elsewhere, but my view is exactly the opposite: the smartest young journalists coming up and the Generation X-ers (ahem) that preceded them, along with their wise elders, understand at visceral level that social media, online video and smartphones have shifted how newsgathering works, democratizing publishing to all and enabling any connected person to report and commit acts of journalism.

The people formerly known as the audience, per NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, certainly know and experiences this during every breaking news situation, with all the confusion and misinformation it creates For much of the public, a top editor publicly choosing not to participate in the hurly burly of online conversation, even to the point of not contributing, much less demonstrating listening or acting as a hub to redistribute confirmed reports, might look like he or she is remaining aloof, choosing to preach from in front of the cathedral, not minister to a circle of friends.

Personally, I look forward to Baquet joining these conversations. I have faith they will be better for having him in it.

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4 tips for social media optimization on Facebook from Robert Scoble

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NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has been trying to trick Facebook’s algorithm by starting his updates with “You guys! Exciting personal news: I’m moving to New York!” and “Big news in my personal life. I’m engaged!” and “I have some exciting personal news. A new job!”

What Rosen is experimenting with here is social media optimization (SMO), or the art and science of getting your updates seen on Facebook and other platforms. In 2014, SMO is still something of a dark art, but in an age when people are using social media to discover news, getting seen there is now as important to media, marketers and public officials who want to find immense audiences online as search engine optimization has become over the past decade.

Without this hack, Rosen says, “Facebook won’t show my posts to nearly all my subscribers.”

When they are shown, they get good engagement. The hack puts them in front of people who never received a thing from me, despite subscribing to me.

Robert [Scoble] is convinced that’s because I used some humor and sounded like a person. But it isn’t. It’s because I used some idiot phrases (“exciting personal news”) the algorithm responds to. That gives my posts a chance to be seen. When they are seen people engage with them. When people engage with them they are seen by more people.

Robert [Scoble] and Dave [Winer] are telling me it won’t work for long and I am sure that’s true. Meanwhile, I have many people telling me they never saw my posts and now they do.

Rosen’s tactic prompted Rackspace’s startup liason officer, Robert Scoble, a power user of social media platforms, to make several suggestions for crafting Facebook updates that get seen in the newsfeed. Here’s a short, paraphrased summary of those tips, courtesy of Robert Scoble’s comments on an update in Rosen’s feed.

1) Short, one paragraph updates often get more engagement than updates with a photo.

2) One photo in an update often gets more engagement than an update with multiple photos.

3) Including a call to action with a URL like “Click here for insight on open government, technology and society: http://e-pluribusunum.com” in an update leads to 80% more clicks.

4) Sort your friends into lists and then remove friends who don’t engage from those lists. (This is different from unfriending them.)

I’m both personally and professionally interested in this advice: I have 129,000 subscribers to my public Facebook updates but am quite certain that the vast majority never see what they subscribed to when they clicked the “Like” button. While the rare Facebook update blows up, many are just never seen.

Questions for you:

1) Have you tried these techniques? If so, what came of it?

2) What other SMO tips do you use?

3) Do you use Facebook lists?

Two cautionary notes

First, just as blackhat SEO leads Google to penalize people for gimmicks, Facebook could flag pages and profiles that overuse them, leading to account issues.

Second, marketers, social journalists and community managers that find success with SMO experiments should take note of a recent Pew Research Center survey on social media and the news, the source of the graphics on this page, which found that “visitors who come to a news site through Facebook or search display have far lower engagement with that outlet than those who come to that news website directly.” That means that SMO doesn’t replace SEO for publishers, or the need to create great stories and interactive content that stands on its own.

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Finally, it’s worth noting that social networks are full of people. Ultimately, the best way to “optimize” your interactions on Facebook or elsewhere is to be a human, not a marketer. Meaningfully communicating with other humans is going to require a different strategy than crafting headlines and URLs that highly relevant to search engines.

Hat Tip: Post by Jay Rosen.

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What responsibilities does Facebook have to share great journalism?

This past week, I wrote about Mile Hudack’s frustrated Facebook update about Vox and the general state of the media  on Facebook, along with many others, and then posted an edited version on Tumblr, which then hit Mediagazer, the Pew Research Center’s daily briefing and the Nieman Lab’s weekly digest of the week in news. It all felt a bit meta and unexpected for a short piece of quick analysis. What follows is an edited version of that initial update.

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Before reacting to Hudack’s update, I’d found and shared a great feature on the passage of The DATA Act over on Facebook, after reading Matt Yglesias’s reply to Hudack, an advertising product manager at Facebook. That’s not uncommon: I discover great posts, analysis, research and even new data on Facebook frequently in 2014, both shared by friends and family and on various lists I’ve built. I’ve found that a lot of important news will find me, but not all of it, so I intentionally use other methods to discover it, from Twitter to RSS to Google News to reading print magazines and newspapers, listening to NPR and watching the PBS Newshour. I think about social media and the news differently than the average, though, and I use Facebook and Twitter differently than other folks, too, sharing public updates across multiple platforms much more frequently than the average user. That means you should take the following with a grain of salt or two.

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Hudack took the newly launched Vox Media to task for not producing more stories like the one about The DATA Act, a historic open government bill that’s now law, as opposed to a story about jeans.

I’m sympathetic to his frustration: I’ve followed and written about the DATA Act for three years, during which time I saw negligible mainstream coverage of it, much like the current lack of coverage regarding the bipartisan FOIA Reform Act, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously this spring, despite the miserable state of Freedom of Information Act compliance in the federal government.

Vox’s jeans story, Yglesias points out, has been shared four times as much on Facebook as the one about how a bill became law in 2014, which suggests that what’s popular on the world’s biggest social network is a result of decisions its users are making, not the media site that originated them. Reasonable people may differ on this point.

I’m on the media producer side of this equation, given my work, which makes me much more sympathetic to Vox’s side of the debate, along with the situation that faces many other media outlets. To Hudack’s point: yes, there’s a lot of dreck in the vast number of media outlets publishing today, from cable to broadcast to online. There’s also fantastic work from a number of outlets that Hudack didn’t list, many of which can be found attached to Pulitzer prizes and nominated for data journalism awards:

Here’s what Atlantic Media senior editor Alexis Madrigal said about it:

“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”

Like Google, Facebook can send vast amounts of traffic and readers to content producers, which creates a natural incentive to learn how to get the attention of those readers, create incentives for them to click and share, and how to game those systems as well, from search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO). (On the latter count, the reasons people *share* stories can differ from the reasons they *read* them, and the rate at which they share may diverge as a result.)

In both cases, however, a powerful and inscrutable, closely held algorithm is showing stories to people when they visit the platforms. On Google.com, the algorithm shows you links in response to a directed search. If you’re not anonymized, Google will personalize those results.

On Facebook’s newsfeed, the default environment that users spend time browsing every day, they’re likely to now see a mix of ads, lists, updates from brands and pages you’ve liked, and updates from close friends.

Unless Facebook users take specific steps to create a list of them, they won’t find the clean line of chronological updates from friends and family *to* friends and family that they enjoyed back in 2007.

Today, even if we enjoy and benefit from interaction on the platforms, we’re very much living in Facebook’s world, on its terms.

If a director of advertising products for Facebook wants there to be better journalism online, in general, here’s a suggestion: as Facebook builds more mobile products like Paper and develops its online product more, it could also consider partnerships with news organizations on content and revenue. That might make some publishers uncomfortable or balk, but others would experiment. (It sounds like Liz Heron might already be exploring some of those possibilities.)

My colleague at the Tow Center, Andy Carvin, commenting on my initial Facebook post, suggested that Hudack’s career and perspective shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of Facebook:

Andy Carvin: Mike isn’t director of product at fb. He actually works on ad products for fb. And I know where his frustration is coming from – he founded blip.tv, which became just another content site after he sold it, but prior to that was one of the Net’s first bastions of citizen journalism. He’s also been posting for months about the sorry state of online reporting about Ukraine and other international crises. So I totally get where he’s coming from. Even if fb is driving a lot of content providers to lowest common denominator content, it seems unfair to put this on his shoulders. And ultimately, it’s still the content providers who choose to publish stuff they think will get the most eyeballs, whether via fb or any other vector.

That’s a fair point, and I’m glad he added that context. There’s research from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for those who want to dig more.

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That said, if Facebook and its leaders wanted to do more to support investigative journalism that isn’t driven by advertising considerations and shareability on social media, the company and/or newly wealthy senior staff might consider investing a portion of the billions in revenue that Facebook is making annually in improving the supply of it.

Specifically, they might support whatever comes after the newspapers that have traditionally housed the investigative journalists that create it. For instance, they could donate revenue to the foundations that have already been investing in news startups, platforms and education (The Knight Foundation News Challenge comes to mind, but there are others, from Sloan to Ford to Gates to Bloomberg to CIMA, which has published a global strategy to support investigative journalism) or establish Facebook scholarships and build out charitable arm focused on the media, akin to Google.org. The total doesn’t have to be much, relative to the annual revenues, but even tens of millions of dollars annually would make a difference to a lot of outlets and startups.

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When speech becomes text, what happens to writing?

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I successfully put down the baby for her late morning nap half an a hour ago. After running quietly around in sock feet trying to do things while she was out cold, I sat down to answer email and messages. As I entered this post into WordPress, she awoke again.)

It’s not easy to respond quickly and at volume using one hand or thumb, though I’ve gotten much better at both over the past five months with a baby daughter.

Over that time, I’ve been struck by how good the voice recognition in iOS on my iPhone has become. I’ve been able to successfully dictate a rough draft of a long article into the email interface and respond to any number of inbound inquiries that way.

That said, neither the soft keyboard nor voice-to-text on the device are a substitute yet for the 15″ keyboard in my MacBook Pro when I want to write at length.

It’s mostly a matter of numbers: I can still type away at more than eighty words per minute on the full-size keyboard, far faster than I can produce accurate text through any method on my smartphone.

Capturing and sharing anything other than text on the powerful device, however, has become trivially easy, from images to video to audio recordings.

The process of “writing” has long since escaped the boundaries of tabulas, slate and papyrus, moving from pens and paper to explode onto typewriters, personal computers and tablets.

Today, I’m thinking about how the bards of today will  be able to reclaim the oldest form of storytelling — the spoken word — and apply it in a new context.

As we enter the next decade of rapidly improving gestural and tactile interfaces for connected mobile devices, I wonder how long until the generations that preceded me will be able to leave decades of experience with keyboards behind and simply speak naturally to connected devices to share what they thinking or seeing with family, friends and coworkers.

Economist Paul Krugman seemed to be thinking about something similar this morning, in a blog post on “techno-optimism”, when he commented on the differences between economic and technological stagnation:

…I know it doesn’t show in the productivity numbers yet, but anyone who tracks technology has a strong sense that something big has been happening the past few years, that seemingly intractable problems — like speech recognition, adequate translation, self-driving cars, etc. — are suddenly becoming tractable. Basically, smart machines are getting much better at interacting with the natural environment in all its complexity. And that suggests that Skynet will soon kill us all a real transformative leap is somewhere over the horizon, maybe not this decade, but this generation.

Still, what do I know? But Brynjolfsson and McAfee have a new book — not yet out, but I have a manuscript — making this point with many examples and a lot of analysis.

There remain big questions about how the benefits of this technological surge, if it’s coming, will be distributed. But I think this kind of thing has to be taken into account when we try to imagine the future; I’m a great Gordon admirer, but his techniques necessarily involve extrapolating from the past, and aren’t well suited to picking up what could be a major inflection point.

That future feels much closer this morning.

[Image Credit: Navneet Alang, “Sci-Fi Fantasies, Real-Life Disappointments]

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Apple releases first transparency report on government requests for user data

Apple, one of the least transparent companies in the world, has released a transparency report on government requests for user data.(PDF). Requests from the United States of America dwarf the rest of the world — and that’s without including the ones that Apple cannot tell us about, due to gag orders and National Security Letters.

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Notably, Apple has indicated that it will join other tech companies in seeking the ability to disclose such requests:

“We believe that dialogue and advocacy are the most productive way to bring about a change in these policies, rather than filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Concurrent with the release of this report, we have filed an Amicus brief at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) in support of a group of cases requesting greater transparency. Later this year, we will file a second Amicus brief at the Ninth Circuit in support of a case seeking greater transparency with respect to National Security Letters. We feel strongly that the government should lift the gag order and permit companies to disclose complete and accurate numbers regarding FISA requests and National Security Letters. We will continue to aggressively pursue our ability to be more transparent.”

Apple did break new ground with the report, as FT reporter Tim Bradshaw observed: it was the first to disclose requests for device data.

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The U.S. government leads the rest of the world in device data requests by law enforcement as well, though not by as wide a margin: Australia, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Germany have all made more than 1000 requests, according to the disclosure.

Be careful about what you put in that iCloud, folks.

Apple’s transparency report ends with an interesting footnote: “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”

For those unfamiliar with that part of the law, it has been the subject of intense criticism for years from privacy and civil liberties advocates, particularly since the disclosures of mass surveillance of U.S. telecomm data by the NSA entered the public sphere this past summer.

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What went wrong at Healthcare.gov?

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Folks, I’m going to be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on Monday and need your help.

1) What are the best explanations of what went wrong at Healthcare.gov? This digest by Charles Ornstein is a start but I’d love more.

2) What are the best papers you’ve read about federal contracting? Where would you point people to understand how contracting works, why there are so many rules about how technology can be acquired and how this system needs to change/is changing?

Who do you think has best answered the question of “what went wrong at Healthcare .gov” amongst the national media and expert technologists?

In addition to the links above , I’d add:

What else should people read?

12/1/2013 Update: After two months of intense scrutiny, the tensions and troubles behind Healthcare.gov have been well-documented by investigative journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica and NPR News.

No single issue led to the Healthcare.gov’s failure at relaunch on October 1. Rather, a combination of procurement problems, poor work by a key contractor, bad management skills, insularity and political sensitivity led to a bug-laden website with a broken backend.

How well is Healthcare.gov working today? Better, at least on the front-end, as detailed in an operational progress report released on December 1st. Lost in that update on the administration’s “big fix, however, was a detail released in a December 2nd post on improved window shopping at Healthcare.gov, published on the Department of Health and Human Services blog (emphasis is mine):

Over the last several weeks, we’ve made a number of changes to improve the accuracy of the “834” messages to issuers. The team, working with issuers, determined that more than 80 percent of 834 production errors were due to a bug that prevented a Social Security number from being included in the application, which in turn caused the system not to generate an 834. That bug has been fixed. Other issues related to the remaining 834 production issues have either been fixed or are in testing so that the fixes can be deployed soon.

In other words, when the Healthcare.gov marketplace launched, a single programming error meant that enrollment data being sent to insurers was invalid. That’s not just a bug: it’s a fundamental shortfall in meeting the requirements for a functional software application of this sort.

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Al Jazeera America bets on an American audience for serious journalism

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I’m watching the launch of Al Jazeera America here in DC, on Channel 107*. (No HD in this media market, from what I can tell.) It’s the biggest launch in broadcast media since Fox News, in 1996, and in media since Politico, in 2007.

Goodbye Current TV, hello Al Jazeera America.

It remains to be seen whether Americans will tune into to a 24-hour news channel that is, like Brian Stelter notes in his piece on Al Jazeera America’s approach to the news, something akin to a journalism professor’s dream, with 14 hours of news daily, documentaries and an aspiration to cover all of the U.S.A. Andrew Beaujon wrote a good primer on the Al Jazeera America launch over at Poynter, from its hiring to its talent to the big question about whether people want straight news.

At launch, I’m optimistic about Al Jazeera America’s programming, at least based upon my experience appearing on Al Jazeera English this winter. From data mining the U.S. election to covering the debates online, I met bright, professional journalists who demonstrated humor, integrity, a commitment to high standards, both technically and editorially, and a willingness to experiment with the incredible new tools that now exist for newsgathering and publishing.

I’ve long since accepted, however, that I may be an outlier in some ways. There are no shortage of Americans who watch and criticize media in 2013. Given 8 hours/day of television and the ease of a tweet or a Facebook update about what we’re watching, we’re all amateur media critics now. The fraction of that viewership who will shift their habits and tune into another channel for this kind of serious journalism isn’t something we know yet.

The modern information diet includes a huge amount of infotainment, advertorial, sports, reality TV and partisan opinion shows. When the ratings come in for Al Jazeera America, six months from now, we’ll have more of a sense of whether there is an audience for this kind of approach and programming, and what that says about us as a people.

I’ll be watching.

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