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About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

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Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Print and digital: Managing the crocodile and the mammal separately

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I used to be a big booster of print-digital editorial integration, but I’ve had a change of heart for a lot of reasons, reasons which I’ll outline more broadly at some point. When I first got into online journalism in the mid-90s, to be honest, I probably was suffering from a little of resource envy. The legacy business just had a lot more money, but it also made a lot more money. However, I’ve changed my mind. Simply put, I think that print and digital are two entirely sets of products, and they often have different audiences. 

I was just summarising a Pew report on successful revenue models for local newspapers for Knowledge Bridge, the site that I edit for the Media Development Loan Fund, and I found this eloquent and excellent metaphor for managing media disruption from former Harvard business professor Clark Gilbert who is now head of Deseret Management Corporation, owner of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. He said:

In Gilbert’s theory of media evolution, the Deseret News print product is the crocodile, a prehistoric creature that survives today, albeit as a smaller animal. He believes the News, which has already shrunk significantly, is not doomed to extinction if properly managed. Deseret Digital Media is the mammal, the new life form designed to dominate the future. Armed with graphics, charts and a whiteboard that looks like it belongs in an advanced physics class, Gilbert speaks with the zeal of the cultural transition evangelist he has become. He argues that the path ahead does not involve merging the crocodile and mammal cultures, but maintaining them separately.

That makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t’ guarantee success, but it’s a sensible starting point. The next step, he admits, is the challenging part, which is to execute that strategy, which involves a lot of wrenching cultural change. However, he’s already got some success to show for his strategy. Digital revenue has grown on average 44 percent annually since 2010, and it now makes up 25 percent of the groups revenue. For those on the crocodile side of the equation, while print revenue dropped 5 percent in 2012, at least circulation numbers are headed in the right direction. Circulation is up 33 percent for the daily newspaper, and it’s up a stunning 90 percent for Sundays, due in large part to a new national edition. 

It sounds like his excellent metaphor and smart strategy also is backed with some very good execution. 

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Cars: There’s an app for that

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Suw and I are taking two weeks off. Most of the time, we’ll be here in London enjoying a holi-stay. I might engage in some deep-thought blogging after recovering from a really too busy 2009. In the meantime, I’ll just engage in a little light coolhunting.

Someone recently was picking my brain about the future of in-car technology. I think that one of the knock-on effects of the iPhone is that people will expect apps and add-on services in a wider range of consumer electronics. Cars will not just have on-board computers to manage the engine but also on-board computers to navigate, entertain and inform much as we would expect in our home.

Hobbyists have already been adding these kind of systems to their cars for years, and Prius drivers love to hack their hybrid cars. High-end cars have complex environmental and entertainment systems, but we’re starting to glimpse how these activities will filter into the mainstream.

Satellite radio services in the US have been using some of their surplus bandwidth to provide information services, and with 4G data services such as WiMax and LTE service expanding in the next few years, mobile data will provide the kind of bandwidth that we’ve previously thought of as restricted to DSL and cable. Faster wireless connections will bring new forms of entertainment, expand the use of web services and provide new opportunities for information providers.

GigaOm has a great post on a prototype system in a Prius.

As a journalist, the question is whether news organisations will let another opportunity slip by them.

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Researchers determine mainstream online journalism still mainstream

Posted by Kevin Anderson

In a shocking (possibly only to the researchers) conclusion, a study of major media online journalism newsrooms in the UK has discovered that they follow a relatively narrow mainstream agenda. I think that is a fair summary of an interview on Radio 4 with Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith University Media Research Centre in London speaking about her book New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. From the synopsis on Radio 4, “Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith’s University in London, … argues that instead of democratising information, the internet has narrowed our horizons.”

I haven’t read the book, seeing as the release date on Amazon is tomorrow. I am sure that book covers the themes in greater depth in what can be covered in a couple of minutes on radio, but I found the interview infuriating.

Dr Fenton and her researchers looked at three online newsrooms, two of which I’ve worked in: the BBC News Website, the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. I might have to pick up a copy and see if her researchers’ interviews with me are reflected in the book.

First, I would say the book was out of date a year ago based on changes here at the Guardian. We were just beginning our print-online integration. We are still going through the process, as are many newsrooms, but one thing we have done is combined web and print production as much as possible to not only reduce duplication of effort and work around re-purposing print content. This frees up journalists to do journalism and not just ‘copy and pasting’ as Dr Fenton puts it in her interview.

Secondly, I think her conclusions, as expressed in the interview, are undermined by a selection bias. As Charlie Beckett at Polis at LSE says in a blog post from a year ago when they unveiled their draft conclusions, there are problems with the methodology of the study and some of the assumptions underpinning the research. Dr Fenton comes to conclusions about online journalism based on research from three newsrooms connected to traditional news organisations. Is it really all that surprising that she finds their agendas in line with mainstream media organisations? The news environment is much more complex outside of most newsrooms these days than inside, which is one of the problems with the news industry. By condemning online journalism at traditional organisations as focusing on a narrow agenda as Dr Fenton does in the interview, isn’t this more accurately an indictment of the narrow agenda of the mainstream media seeing as the websites track closely the agenda of the legacy media be it broadcast or print?

Thirdly, online news operations connected to traditional news organisations have never had a major stand-alone newsgathering facility. The BBC News website once did have some original newsgathering capacity. I was their reporter in Washington. However, most of the newsgathering capacity rested with television and radio journalists whose work was re-purposed for the website. The situation is more complex at the Guardian now. We produce more web-only content during the week than we do print-only content.

Fourthly, Dr Fenton says that online staff are desk bound, and online newsrooms rely on “less journalists with less time to do proper investigative journalism”. Can we have some perspective on investigative journalism please? Really. Fighting to perserve investigative journalism and investigative journalism only is like trying to save the auto industry by fighting in the name of Porsche. Investigative journalism has always been the pinnacle of our craft, not its totality. It’s important, but investigative journalism was a fraction of pre-digital journalistic output. Again, if Dr Fenton has an issue with lack of investigations, then it’s an issue to take up with the organisation as a whole, not the online newsroom. Having said that, I’ll stand by the Guardian’s investigative output online and off: MPs expenses crowdsouring, Datablog, Trafigura, just to name a few Guardian investigations and innovations here in 2009.

Lastly, I think the narrow frame completely ignores the work of digital pioneers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of journalism. I think of the Guardian’s Matthew Weaver and his live digital coverage of the G20 protests this spring and his recent project to track post during the strike using GPS transmitters. I think of the Guardian’s Simon Jeffery with his recent People’s History of the Internet and the Faces of the Dead and Detained in Iran project as other examples of excellent digital journalism, journalism only possible online. I think of the work that my good friend Chris Vallance has done with BBC 5Live’s Pods and Blogs and iPM on Radio 4. I think of the many projects that I’ve been proud to work on at the BBC and the Guardian. Chris and I brought the voices of those fleeing Hurricane Katrina to the radio and also US soldiers fighting the war in Iraq radio audiences through creative use of the internet. I consider myself primarily an online journalist, but I’ve been working across multiple media for more than 10 years now. I covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for the BBC News website, BBC radio and television. I’ve done webcasts from the 29th story of a building overlooking Ground Zero three months after the 11 September 2001 attacks. I tweeted from the celebrations of Barack Obama’s victory outside the White House after a 4000 social media-driven month of coverage of the historic 2008 US presidential election. Online journalism isn’t perfect, and it reflects imperfections in traditional journalism. However, in the hands of a good journalist, digital journalism offers up radical new opportunities to tell stories and bring them to new audiences.

My experiences and my career aren’t representative of the industry. I have been doing original journalism online for more than a decade. That is rare, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I lost a lot of colleagues in the dot.com crash when newspapers and broadcasters slashed online budgets. After an interview with the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in 2002 on the one year anniversary of 11 September attacks, he took us on a tour of their much slimmed online newsroom. He spoke with pride about the work of the online staff, but he said, “The Mouse (Disney, ABC’s parent company)” didn’t see it that way and continued to make deep cuts.

In 2009, the picture is much different. Print and broadcast journalists are doing more original work online. We have more online-focused journalists than even when Dr Fenton was doing her research. Journalists cast off by ailing journalism institutions are re-launching their careers on the web.

I chose the internet to be my primarily journalistic platform in 1996. I chose it because I saw unique opportunities for journalism. When I did, it was a lonely choice. I faced a lot of prejudice from print journalists who based their views on lack of knowledge and fear. A passion for the medium kept me going despite some of that prejudice. Everyday I get up and help push a unique medium just a further journalistically. (To their credit, my colleagues at the BBC in radio and television told me almost on a daily basis with respect and admiration how I was the future of journalism.)

These prejudices against online journalism are parroted by Dr Fenton in her interview, which I guess is one of the reasons that it made my blood boil. I hope the book paints the reality in a bit more complexity than was possible in a few minutes on air. I hope that she includes some broader examples of how online journalists do original journalism that can’t be done in any other media. However, if the interview on Radio 4 is representative of the book, it’s a reality I don’t recognise. Bad journalism begins with a thesis which never adapts to new information. It’s the same with bad research.

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

QsOTD: Journalists shouldn’t confuse important with simply urgent

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I’m keeping an eye on the UK Association of Online Publishers conference from afar today by following the #aop3c tag on Twitter. David Gilbertson, CEO of B2B publisher EMAP*, looks to be giving an incredibly insightful presentation, and journalists using Twitter show once again why the service is so useful. Joanna Geary of TimesOnline posted this very cogent comment from Gilbertson:

While news is urgent it may not be important and people pay for important.

Hard copy news businesses (print) will have to adapt to this, Gilbertson added, and he goes on to further refine the distinction he’s highlighting and its implications to the business of journalism. Matt Ball, MSN UK editor-in-chief, quotes Gilbertson as saying:

Intelligence prompts a decision, information doesn’t. You can charge for the former.

Geary fleshes the quote out a bit more: “David Gilbertson: B2B must deliver inteligence to help people do job, not info that people don’t know what to do with”.

UPDATE: David Worsfold clarified that he wasn ‘t quoting Gilbertson in the comments. It’s not clear whether Gilbertson said this or rather if it’s a bit of analysis from David Worsfold with Incisive Media, but I think it’s a makes a point worth highlighting. Worsfold either says or quotes Gilbertson on Twitter that these distinction between importance and urgency, between intelligence and information have “implications for news obssessed editorial teams”.

“Pure news” is not enough but remains critical, Gilbertson says. Pure news must be supplemented with data and analysis. He does draw a distinction between B2B and B2C publishing saying that intelligence is a critical driver in the B2B sector while consumption in the B2C sector is driven by many things that might include intelligence and perspective. However, when Gilbertson says that we can’t provide information that people don’t know what to do with, that is equally relevant to B2C as it is in pure business publishing.

Speaking as a news consumer rather than a journalist, I value information-rich news and context-rich analysis over incremental updates and uninformed commentary. I honestly believe, and my work bears this out, that consumers appreciate when you connect the dots and put information in a larger, more meaningful context. I’m not, and I doubt many average news consumers, are suffering from a lack of information, but I do know that many suffer from a lack of context.

The question for news organisations is how they develop products that deliver value and intelligence that consumers can act upon. These products can be essential new revenue streams for news organisations. As I wrote yesterday, news organisations need to put effort into developing these value-added products in tandem with conversations about charging for them. And yes, this will have implications for editorial teams. We must switch from merely chasing incremental developments to mining stories for meaning. In these tight times, we need to ask questions of how we can turn information that we’re already gathering into intelligence for our readers, and we need to develop unique, compelling products based on that intelligence that our audiences find valuable enough to pay for.

*Disclosure: The Guardian Media Group, parent company of the Guardian and my employer, owns a stake in EMAP.

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Freemium strategies and journalism product development

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Anyone with a passing interest in the paid content debate of 2009 has been watching the Brill-Crovitz Journalism Online LLC plan with interest. The Nieman Lab at Harvard has done some excellent blogging adding much needed detail to the plan, and now Dorian Benkoil at Poynter delivers some of the last bits of detail that were needed to give the project an honest assessment. It’s not just a pay wall strategy, which is very good to hear. Dorian writes:

It’s the classic “freemium” model: Give your material to 95 percent of your users, and get the most avid few to pay for a premium or unlimited level.

And he gives a qualified endorsement of the plans that he has heard so far. “Done right, with constant adjustment, I think the model can work, at least for publications that have enough unique content.” The model can work, but that is not a guarantee that it will work, he says.

It’s not clear that smaller, non-business publications, or larger ones that have eviscerated their newsrooms, will have enough of value to get a significant number to pay for enough of what they produce, especially when so much is available for free.

Develop products to sell

One of the biggest problems with this discussion is that there is still too much focus on charging and little focus on deciding what to charge for and more importantly what people will pay for. As I’ve said before, journalists have tended to focus on what they believe readers should pay instead of being realistic about what readers will pay for. Alan Mutter breaks this down in a useful checklist. I’ll just highlight his first point, and leave you to read the rest on his blog:

1. You cannot charge for such commoditized content as world, national, business, sports and entertainment news.

Alan makes another point, which I think Dorian implies in his post. News organisations might have to develop new information products or services to sell. As Alan says of his checklist:

Astute readers will note that much of the information publishers would like to sell does not fall into any of the above categories. This suggests that newspapers and broadcasters who are keen on peddling content need to focus on creating saleable product before they begin trying to charge for it.

We return again to value as determined by our audiences. Social value is important to health of a communities and societies, but to pay for our social mission, we need to create economic value as well. If the content is valuable enough to readers, they will pay for it and advertisers will want to be associated with it. Dumb pay walls and generic content are going to speed the demise of some foolish news organisations, but if we create value for our readers, we’ll survive this horrible recession and be prepared to thrive when it’s over.

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

New York Times: More innovation in commenting

Posted by Kevin Anderson

As I wrote recently, news organisations have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of innovative interfaces that could encourage readers to explore the rich content on their sites and also increase and improve reader interaction. When I wrote that post, the Washington Post had debuted a Django-based commenting system called WebCom that reminded me of ThinkMap’s Visual Thesaurs. WebCom reflects comment popularity, which can become a self-reinforcing cycle. I will be interested to see if they might add another layer to the interface that allows people to explore the conversation based on themes or topics. This could be easily achieved by using Thomson-Reuter’s Calais semantic analysis system to expose themes in the comments.

Now the New York Times has debuted a new visual commenting tool. It’s debut is being used to help people discuss and explore some of the issues regarding the healthcare (some might argue the health insurance) debate in the US. The boxes all relate to an issue in the debate, and a drop-down menu allows you to jump to that topic and see a brief overview of the issue. The relative size of the boxes reflect the number of comments, and hovering over the people icons at the bottom of the boxes allow you to quickly see a bit of the comment. You can also also easily jump to replies to comments that you have left. It appears that the topics aren’t generated organically by the discussion but are created by the New York Times editorial staff. In some ways, it’s a slightly advanced, and somewhat stilted form of threading. It’s almost more of a discussion system than it is strictly a commenting system. nytimesdebate.gif

At the time of writing this post, there are few comments so it’s difficult to see how it will work both conversationally and technically as the volume of comments increases. That will be the real test of the system because one of the reasons why news sites need interface innovation in commenting systems is because of the volume of comments on media sites.

Here on Strange Attractor, the comments tend to be more off-site, posts written in response to what Suw and I write. Very rarely do we have a high volume of comments on the blog, which makes it easy for us to manage and for our readers to engage with. We don’t write about politics or hot button social issues. Rather, we write about a very specialist, niche topic. The conversations tend to be pretty high level, and we love our readers because of the level of intelligence that they bring.

On news sites, the volume of comments on the posts is much, much higher, and it quickly becomes difficult for journalists and readers to follow the discussion and have any meaningful interaction. The comments tend not to respond to each other but rather are usually a string of unrelated statements. Most of the current solutions all have their drawbacks. Threading has its issues because it tends to fragment the discussion, which is what I fear this New York Times interface will do. Voting up, or down, Digg-style helps in some ways but suffers from the same issues of the self-reinforcing popularity that WebCom faces. Again, a few criticisms don’t mean I think these experiments aren’t worthwhile. Far from that, I think it’s great to finally see some interface exploration in terms of commenting and not just content presentation by news websites. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. It’s long past time that news organisations realise that the volume of comments they receive requires something more than flat, linear comment threads below blog posts or articles. Done right, it will help increase participation, user experience, interaction and maybe even the quality of the conversation.

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Innovative journalists and valuing “inquisitiveness”

Posted by Kevin Anderson

The Harvard Business Review Editor’s Blog has a post titled How Do Innovators Think?. I was just going to add it to my daily list of links in Delicious, but it’s worth more than a quick link.

Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of Insead “conducted a six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives and conducting an additional 500 individual interviews”. They found five skills distinguished these creative executives from less innovative heads of companies.

Dyer described the first skill they identified:

The first skill is what we call “associating.” It’s a cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.

They call it associating; I call it lateral thinking. I see it in innovative journalists who find tools or technologies created for another purpose but who immediately see the editorial possibilities. They are journalists constantly striving to wrench out efficiencies in how they work and perfect the process. They are constantly looking for new tools and services that can either solve existing problems they have or allow them to do things they hadn’t thought of before. They experiment, and if something doesn’t work, they move on. It’s not something they were trained to do, it’s something they instinctively do.

However, I don’t mean to say that innovative journalists are time-and-motion obsessed  bean counters simply intent on perfecting a process. They are motivated by many of the same things that motivate traditional journalists such as the goal of telling compelling stories. Long before people started questioning the text story as the atomic unit of journalism, they were exploring new storytelling methods. They unpack stories and examine how video, audio and data can be used to tell those stories in more compelling ways. They realise that in 2009 multimedia story telling is more than simply telling stories with multiple media but rather considering what elements of a story are best told with audio, video, images and now data.

Back to the post in the Harvard Business Review.

Gregersen: You might summarize all of the skills we’ve noted in one word: “inquisitiveness.” I spent 20 years studying great global leaders, and that was the big common denominator. It’s the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children. … If you look at 4 year olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they’re grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google.

Again, if there was something that sets apart the most innovative journalists I know it is their curiosity, their inquisitiveness. One might say that journalists should be, by vocation, curious but innovative journalists have a special curiosity about their craft and its processes.

How do news organisations unlock the potential of the innovators in their midst? Mostly, all you have to do is give them space and a little support. Recognise that their needs might be slightly different than the rest of the staff. Help them measure the relative success of their experiments and share their success stories. If there was one mistake that I’ve seen news organisations make over and over again (because it’s based on the 20th Century recipe for creating media stars) it is that they try to make their big name reporters or writers into innovators. That is often a fruitless detour. Most people doing this innovative work weren’t trained to do it but instead pursued it on their own. Fortunately, in the age of social media, innovative journalists aren’t all that difficult to find. They stand out if you’re looking.

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Andrew Turner: Beyond Google Maps

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Andrew Turner: Beyond Google Maps presentation

Some people might say that I’m geo-obsessed. Since I started geo-tagging my Flickr photos, now about half of my entire Flickr stream is geo-tagged. I use Google’s Latitude, and I’ve written about the opportunities that I see for geo-location and news.

Last week, I met someone even more enthusiastic about geo-data and maps than I am, Andrew Turner. In this more than 200 slide presentation, Andrew presents a treasure trove of mapping concepts and resources. At slide 37, he talks about the near future for mapping and data. Andrew talks even faster than I do after I’ve drunk three cups of coffee, which is saying something so I’m thankful that several of his presentations are on SlideShare. This post is just to highlight a valuable resource.

One of the things I’m thinking about in light of his presentation and my own experience is how to make gathering data - geo-data and other data - easier for journalists. With more demands on our time, the workflow has to be extremely efficient or it won’t get done. I’m also thinking about the stories that benefit from location. One of things implicit in Andrew’s talk is how maps can tell stories, but not every story is best told with a map. The first mash-ups were map-based, and it’s led to an over-reliance on location for data-driven projects. Digital mapping is a powerful tool, but like all tools, digital maps are not appropriate for all tasks. However, the next time I need a map, Andrew’s presentation will definitely point me in the direction of the tools that I need to do the job.

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Paid content: Real scarcity versus artificial scarcity

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Mathew Ingram at the Nieman Journalism Lab has an excellent post looking at the issues of paid content in general and micro-payments in particular. It’s a really useful post because he rounds up quite a number of posts and points of view on the subject. One thing really leapt out at me. Mathew writes:

Does that mean newspapers can’t make any money? Not at all. I think Mike Masnick has done a great job of pointing out how a media business can make money even if it gives content away for free — his company Techdirt does it, plenty of musicians and artists do it. And they do it by using the free content to promote the aspects of their business that have *real* scarcity rather than artificial scarcity.

After the Great Recession, news organisations are all seeking news sources of revenue and a more diversified revenue base so that we’re not as dependent on one highly recession-sensitive revenue stream, advertising.

As we look for new revenue streams, journalists need to get real about what adds value and need to be brutally honest about real scarcity. Currently, too much of the paid content discussion is obsessing over the societal value of journalism and not about rebuilding a revenue bundle that supports the socially valuable work that we do. Non-niche news has always been subsidised by other content and revenue streams. It is not dirty and it doesn’t devalue the social mission of journalism to think in terms of what other services and products we will need to develop to support that social mission. I’m more than happy for lifestyle news and food blogs to pay for investigations and bread-and-butter daily journalism. In many ways, it’s the simple recognition that our audiences are interested in many things, not just hard news.

Last week, speaking at the Norwegian Online News Association annual meeting, one of the points made by my fellow panelists was that news organisations have created a lot of innovative editorial projects but not many innovative commercial products. There are a lot of opportunities for news organisations to develop niche news and information products, but we best move quickly. Niche sites and services have already set up a dominant presence in many key content verticals. We also best move quickly on developing mobile apps, desktop apps and other tools to distribute our content and allow for easy recommendation. Steve Outing, for one, sees a lot of possibilities in mobile news and information services. What possibilities do you see to help pay for the social mission of journalism?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Visualisation for news and community discovery

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I think that visualisations and interface innovation hold great untapped potential for journalism, not only helping journalists and audiences to see trends and understand complex sets of data but also as a tool that will dramatically improve news site usability. The last few years have seen a lot of innovation in visualising data with the advent of mash-ups and easier visualisation tools from Google, Many Eyes from IBM, etc., but there has been too little interface innovation for news websites.

By and large, news websites still reflect their print heritage. They make the classic mistake of rigidly reflecting their own structure while ignoring the semantic connections that cross desks and departments. Most news web site interfaces obscure the vast amounts of information we produce as journalists. Good interfaces go beyond design and search to issues of information architecture, user experience and discovery.

I believe that interface innovation can unlock the power of technologies, helping them break out of a small group of technically adept early adopters to a much wider audience. The Windows-Icon-Mouse-Pointer interface helped open up computers to a much wider audience than when command line interfaces were dominant. The graphical web browser helped unleash the power of the world wide web. In 1990, when I first used the internet, I had to learn arcane Unix commands to even read my e-mail. In August 1993, I used the seminal web browser Mosaic for the first time in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois, where I was studying journalism and where that groundbreaking browser was created. I instantly realised that the web browser would become a point-and-click window to a world of information, communications and connection.

I’ve been interested in interface innovation since the late 1990s when I first saw the Visual Thesaurus from a company then called Plumb Design, now called Thinkmap which showed the connections between related words. The company did even more impressive work for Sony Music and EMPLive, an online exhibition for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. In many ways, the work was way ahead of its time and sometimes ahead of the capability of the internet. The projects used advanced interface concepts more often found in CD-ROM projects of the day than the internet. One of the things that impressed me about especially the EMPLive project was that it allowed virtual visitors to the navigate the music collection a number of ways, whether they were interested in time, genre or a particular artist. The presentation also showed relationships between elements in the collection. I like Robin Good’s description on the Master New Media blog of Plumb Design’s work:

The original goal at Plumb Design was to create dynamic interfaces to information systems that reveal interrelationships often obscured by conventional methods of navigation and information display.

In many ways, Plumb Design showed what was possible with data, semantic analysis and rich interfaces more than a decade ago.

While interface innovation has not been an area of focus for most news sites, thankfully we’re seeing some tentative steps forward after a post-dot.com crash period of stagnation. Slate has launched a service called News Dots. Chris Wilson describes it like this:

Like Kevin Bacon’s co-stars, topics in the news are all connected by degrees of separation. To examine how every story fits together, News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network. Subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another if they appear together in at least two stories, and the size of the dot is proportional to the total number of times the subject is mentioned.

Like EMPLive and the Visual Thesaurus, News Dots helps show the interconnection between stories. The feature uses Calais, “a service from Thompson Reuters that automatically “tags” content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth”. Slate has built its own visualisation tool using the open-source ActionScript library called Flare.
Slate's News Dot project
It’s a good first stab, but Slate admits that it is a work in progress. I like that the visualisation clearly links to articles and sourcing information. I like that the dots are colour-coded to show whether the dot represents a person, place, group, company or ‘other’. I think there might be a possibility to better show the correlation between the tags, but as I said, this is a good launch with a lot of possibility for improvement and experimentation.

Another project that I think shows the potential of improved interfaces is the Washington Post’s visual commenting system called WebCom. As Patrick Thornton explains, it is a visual representation of comments n the site. As new comments are posted the web expands. Those comments rated highly by other commenters or those that spur the most responses appear larger in the web. The web not only allows for navigation and discovery, but users can comment directly from within the visual web interface.

Thornton says:

The commenting system was built in two weeks by two developers at washingtonpost.com. A front-end developer worked on the user interface, while a back-end developer created the database and commenting framework in Django. Because the user interface was built in one language — Flash’s ActionScript 3 — and the back-end in another, the Post can take this technology and put it on different parts of washingtonpost.com with different user interfaces.

Wow, that’s impressive in terms of turnaround time. Django is quickly becoming an essential tool for the rapid development of journalism projects.

Thornton points out that it doesn’t work on mobile browsers or older computers. I might quibble with the focus on most popular comments or comments that spur the most response; comments that draw the most responses can often be the most inflammatory or intemperate. Likewise, popularity often becomes self-reinforcing, especially when it drives discoverability as it does in an interface like this. I would suggest that a slider that weights other factors might be useful. A simple search or tagging system might help commenters to find threads in the discussion that interest them. Again, this is a good first attempt and, with the development time only taking a few weeks, it shows how rapidly innovations like this can built and tested in the real world.

It’s exciting to see these kinds of developments. News organisations are struggling during the Great Recession, but often these times of crisis spur us to try things that we might otherwise think too risky. Whatever the motivation, it’s good to see this kind of innovation. If this can happen during the worst downturn in memory, just think what we can do when the recession eases.