Tag Archives: New York Times

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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On Twitter, neither a Luddite nor Biltonite be. Simply be human.

The wrangling about whether Twitter is revolutionary, useful or mindless twaddle simply will not end. Given the continued interest in the microblogging platform in the media, that is perhaps to be expected.

Last month, David Carr wrote in the Sunday edition of the The New York Times that “Twitter will endure,” exploring how he’d initially dismissed the platform and then found it useful. In late January,  The New Yorker‘s George Packer responded to  Carr, deriding Twitter as “information hell” and comparing it to an addiction to crack in “Stop the world.” That brought a flood of attention from online media outlets, including Nick Bilton, lead writer for the excellent Bits blog at the Times, who wrote that “The Twitter train has left the station,” defending Twitter from the point of view of a journalist who has found utility amidst the stream.  On Thursday, Mr. Packer offered a rebuttal, positioning himself as neither a “Luddite or a Biltonite.” Jeffrey Goldberg has now weighed in at the Atlantic, consigning Bilton and others who might share his conviction to the arena of “info freaks.”

Well and good. (At least Goldberg tweets.) Two disclaimers:

1) I am a long-time reader of George Packer’s excellent work in the New Yorker. I found “The Assassin’s Gate” to be one of the best books written about the early stages of the war in Iraq.

2) I’ve found considerable utility in Twitter since I joined in March of 2007.

I don’t expect either truth to be degraded by the spat between Bilton and Packer.

I was, however, surprised that Packer had chosen to criticize a platform that he hadn’t used. Few serious technology journalists, book reviewers, movie or restaurant critics would consider rendering judgment without personal experience. Such considerations don’t hold back millions of Twitter users, bloggers or, I believe, any number of television pundits, but since I admire Mr. Packer’s professionalism, that approach surprised me.

When he wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged” six years ago, my sense was that, despite his misgivings and evident frustration with pajama-clad pundits, he’d read some blogs, even if he doubted their utility as serious platforms for commentary or criticism. Given the maturation of blogs in the years since (including, I might note, at New Yorker.com), I wonder if revisiting that analysis might have been more useful, rather than dismissing Twitter without first dipping into the ebb and flow of news there.

In his second pass, Packer wrote that he had, in fact, “sought out a Tweeter,” without linking to or identifying that person. Well and good, but perhaps a weak strawman. As a commenter at Packer’s blog reflected, much of the content produced there is ambient noise, or digital “phatics” as Kevin Marks has rightly described them.

Twitter is profoundly social. That’s is why, despite the mindless hype surrounding the phrase, “social media” has had staying power in describing Twitter, Facebook or other platforms that allow two way conversations.

Twitter, like so many other things, is what you make of it. Some might go to a cocktail party and talk about fashion, who kissed whom, where the next hot bar is or any number of other superficial topics. Others might hone in on politics, news, technology, media, art, philosophy or any of the other subjects that the New Yorker covers. If you search and listen, it’s not hard to find others sharing news and opinion that’s relevant to your own interests.

Using intelligent filters for information, it’s quite easy to subscribe and digest them at leisure. And it’s as easy as unfollowing someone to winnow out “babble” or a steady stream of mundanity. The impression that one is forced to listen to pabulum, as if obligated to sit through a dreary dinner party or interminable plane ride next to a boring boor, is far from the reality of the actual experience of Twitter or elsewhere.

There’s also genuine utility there for the journalists who choose to experiment. When stories break, we can use it for real-time news and information. In the case of Haiti, Twitter was relevant, immediate and helpful, given that phones went down and the Internet stayed up. NPR was able to use Twitter and Skype to find sources on the ground. Disaster relief agencies were able to coordinate with one another. And in one notable instance, Doctors Without Borders was able to call attention using Twitter at @MSF_USA to the fact that its plane was getting turned away. Ann Curry heard them and helped to amplify the issue:

“@usairforce find a way to let Doctors without Borders planes land in Haiti: http://bit.ly/8hYZOK THE most effective at this. 11:52 AM Jan 17th

Packer and others are right to caution against hype and techno-worshipers. On balance, however, Packer errs in tarring much of the online community with a broad brush.

One passage in particular stands out: “There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world.” As Marc Ambinder tweeted earlier today, “I read many, many books in 2009. Including yours. And I Tweet.”

The same is true for me, and for many others. I read much of the New Yorker, the Economist and the Atlantic each month, along with numerous newspapers and technology blogs or trade publications online. (I write for one of the latter.) I also read on average 2-3 books every month, depending upon the rigor of travel, conferences or other factors. I also dip in and out Twitter throughout the week. That may not be an ideal information diet for everyone but for this tech journalist, it works. Even if I miss a story, it’s extremely rare that my network of friends and sources won’t find it and share it.

That’s why this “social news” phenomenon has become of keen interest to Google, as evidenced by the inclusion of social search into its results.

I share Packer’s concern about how the use of the Internet is changing literacy, critical thinking and creativity. Well and good, if not exactly novel. I look forward to more research on how and where those effects are found. I find hypotheses that place high consumption rates video games, television and movies is at the heart of poor information literacy instead of the wired world more convincing.

As for another comment regarding the tweets that flew about Ann Curry being stuck in the elevator, I share the amusement from the perspective of the man who sat next to that remarkable woman for ninety minutes. (So did the folks at Gawker, who wrote about the elevator incident at length.) Ann and I talked about Haiti, changes in media, religion, the utility of the iPad and yes, Twitter, all gloriously offline and in depth. I enjoy that memory; there’s a lovely montage of images up at GeoGeller.com, whose camera took the excellent shot below.

The fact that the world knew we were all stuck in that elevator was merely amusing, however, as opposed to a critical message that would best be conveyed to a 911 operator. We all found the intercom more useful than our smartphones, given the awful reception.

Sharing our experience with our networks of friends, however, was a natural extension of life in 2010. It certainly wasn’t breaking news but the act of communicating about it offered me, at least, an opportunity to interact with a broader audience of other humans around globe. That’s an unalloyed good.

I agree that “cheerleading uncritically” is not useful, nor a mentality that any writer should adopt. I do not share Packer’s conviction, however, that the news landscape can’t be occupied by more technological platforms, including reporters tapping away on BlackBerrys. One important example of that is Mark Knoller, the CBS White House correspondent whose tweets read like a they’ve been adapted from a history book already written.

If Mr. Packer would like to meet over coffee in DC to talk further about how life has changed in the age of Twitter, consider this an open invitation. Given my experience with his writing, I am certain that @GeorgePacker would be worth following.

-Alexander B. Howard
@digiphile.

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Amended Google Books Settlement: analysis & reactions

Yesterday, Brad Stone and Miguel Heft reported at the New York Times that the terms of the digital book deal with Google had been revised.

Danny Sullivan has written an excellent post on the amended Google Books settlement, where he liveblogged the press call and links to many other excellent resources, including the discussion on TechMeme.

The Amended Settlement Agreement (11/13/2009) is embedded below.

Google’s official response contained a link to a summary of the changes made here and includes a FAQ. More information is also available at th Google Books settlement page.

The Open Book Alliance has posted its own response to the Google Book Settlement.

Echoing the dismissal of the amendments by the Open Book Alliance, which called it “sleight of hand, Peter Brantley,  (as quoted in the Financial Times) said that “None of the proposed changes appear to address the fundamental flaws illuminated by the Department of Justice and other critics that impact public interest.” Brantley is director of the Internet Archive, which has been archiving digital content for years and has proposed an alternate vision for e-books, OpenLibrary.org.

I’m still reading through the settlement. The amendments would create a trustee for each one of the so-called “orphan works.” As Stone and Helft reported at the Times, “that trustee, with Congressional approval, can grant licenses to other companies who also want to sell these books, and will oversee the pool of unclaimed funds that they generate. If the money goes unclaimed for 10 years, according to the revised settlement, it will go to philanthropy and to an effort to locate rights holders. In the original settlement, unclaimed funds reverted to known rights holders after five years.”

The settlement also reduces the number of books that Google may proceed to digitize into its catalog at Google Books to books published in the United States, Britain, Australia or Canada.

“The changes will mean that 95 per cent of all foreign works will no longer be included in Google’s digital book archive,” said Richard Sarnoff, chairman of the Association of American Publishers, as quoted by Richard Waters in the Financial Times.

As Waters also pointed out, the settlement “also means that ,illions of out-of-print works that could previously only be found in a handful of university research libraries.” For researchers like Alexis Madrigal of Wired Magazine, who wished earlier for the parties involved to find a way to preserve Google Books, this settlement is one step closer to a successful resolution.

For authors or their trustees, it’s more complex. Whether amendments go far enough in providing other Internet companies with the means to successfully compete in providing an index of digitized books is not immediately clear. There’s going to be scrutiny of the settlement from the Department of Justice over the coming weeks, not to mention Congress. If Google remains as only company able to offer a comprehensive archive of all digital books to online readers, antitrust concerns may force further adjustments by the search giant.

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Twitter Lists: We are informed by those we follow. We are defined by those who follow us.

“The power of Twitter is in the people you follow.”-@nytimes

You’ll find that quote at NYTimes.com/Twitter, where the New York Times has built a page of Twitter lists curated by its editors, its writers and, presumably, the help of its considerable audience.

As this feature has rolled out, I’ve read knee jerk criticism, thoughtful analysis, wild evangelizing and observed “lists of lists” be collected as sites like Listorious and Listatlas.com spring up to rank them.

Tech pundits and, rapidly, news organizations have all created lists that offer apply new taxonomies, imposed human-defined categories onto the roiling real-time tweetstream.

Readers are defined and informed by the diversity of the information sources that they consume. In a user-created Web, we are defined by those who choose to follow us, including any lists or tags that they associate with  our names.

It’s been exciting to watch. And if you’re a reader of David Weinberger, author of “Everything is Miscellaneous,” you might recognize this emergent behavior as a familiar phenomenon. Twitter users are using lists to organize one another into understandable taxonomies. Folksonomies, to use the term coined by Thomas Vander Wal.

Users have some control over which Twitter lists they appear upon. If you block a user, for instance, you can remove yourself from that user’s lists, if for some reason you don’t want to appear on it.

What we can’t control, once we make ourselves public there or elsewhere on the Web, is how others tag or list us.

This goes back to what Weinberger (along with Doc Searls, Rick Levine and Christopher Locke) wrote about in “The Cluetrain Manifesto” ten years ago. “Markets are conversations.”

I suspect that in the weeks ahead, both companies and individuals may find themselves on lists that they perhaps would not wish to define as part of their brand identities.

“I would not join any club that would have someone like me for a member”

As I quote Groucho Marx, today, I feel fortunate, for two different reasons.

First, to date, I’ve been included on 176 lists, none of which I’m embarrassed or insulted to be on. You can see all of them at “memberships,” which is a friendly way of describing inclusion.

Thank you. I’m humbled.

Second, most of the lists are being used by an individual user to categorize others for providing particular sort of information.

Overall, I’m most closely associated with technology, journalism, security and media. That’s  a good sign, given my profession! I was glad to see that the account I maintain at work (@ITcompliance) has been added to 33 lists, primarily compliance, information security, cybersecurity and GRC.

I’m talking about the right things in the right places.

Certain lists, however, have meant that many more people reading me than would have otherwise because of the hundreds or thousands of people that have chosen to follow them, due to the influence of their creators.  I’m thinking about lists like these, some of which have gone on to become popular at Listorious.com.

@palafo/linkers

@palafo/newmedia

@kitson/thought-leaders

@jayrosen_nyu/best-mindcasters-i-know

@Scobleizer/tech-pundits

@Scobleizer/my-favstar-fm-list

Thank you, fellas.

Like any other tools, lists will no doubt be used for good and ill. An outstanding article by Megan Farber, “Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists” in the Columbia Journalism Review, shows how news organizations can leverage the feature to curate the real-time Web for the online audience.

The lists—which offer a running stream of information, updates, and commentary from the aggregated feeds—represent a vast improvement over the previous means of following breaking news in real time. In place of free-for-all Twitter hashtags—which, valuable as they are in creating an unfiltered channel for communication, are often cluttered with ephemera, re-tweets, and other noise—they give us editorial order. And in place of dubious sources—users who may or may not be who they say they are, and who may or may not be worthy of our trust—the lists instead return to one of the foundational aspects of traditional newsgathering: reliable sources. Lists locate authority in a Twitter feed’s identity—in, as it were, its brand: while authority in hashtagged coverage derives, largely but not entirely, from the twin factors of volume and noise—who tweets the most, who tweets the loudest—authority in list-ed coverage derives from a tweeter’s prior record. Making lists trustworthy in a way that hashtagged coverage simply is not.

Farber goes further in exploring what role lists may play in journalism’s future, as organizations collaborate with both their audience and one another in curating user-generated content. It’s a great piece. Pete Cashmore, of @mashable, has written more about this at CNN in “Twitter lists and real-time journalism.”

Individuals and news organizations alike can create lists as needed. For instance, as the House debates a historic health care bill here in Washington, you can follow the discussion at @Mlsif/healthdebatelive

As Cashmore points out, in the social, “people-centric Web,” we use our friends as a filter. As Paul Gillin observed,  everything that you’ve learned about SEO may be useless in a more social Web. Google’s new Social Search shows how, if we choose, our search results can be populated with content from our circle of friends.

On Twitter, we can now use the lists from trusted friends and news organizations to curate the real-time Web. That makes them useful, immediately.

And after a week full of public grief here in the U.S., that’s good news.

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