Archive for September, 2009

Two Golden Rules for Interviewers

September 30, 2009

My cohorts and I are in the thick of the expert-interview stage of our future-oriented research projects and today our professor, a former newspaper journalist, gave a slide presentation of interviewing tips. An ex-print journalist myself, I received similar advice in high school, at internships, in college and in the workplace.

Still, a refresher never hurts. Familiarity breeds complacency. On deadline, one adopts shortcuts, and some of them stick.

Research ahead of time. Have a backup plan for if technology fails. Save hardball questions for the end. Always get contact information for follow-ups. All tried and true.

Two of my favorite tips are also among the simplest:

First, leverage the power of silence. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable for the interviewer, but, trust me, it’s even more uncomfortable for the subject. I used this technique at my last reporting job to get details on the relationship between a murder victim and the suspect before police were ready to announce them.

I was canvassing the apartment complex where the homicide occurred and came across a chatty older gentleman who seemed to know more than he was letting on. Sensing he was one of those people who enjoy the sound of their own voice, I kept him talking no matter the subject. Then, I asked what I came there to ask and waited. And waited. Sure enough, he spilled what he wasn’t ready to spill before. His information matched up perfectly with what the police would later release.

This technique is helpful not only for sensitive questions but also for complex ones. If a subject doesn’t answer immediately, it’s natural for the interviewer to assume something was wrong with the question and scale it back. Give the subject time to think things through. The point of an interview is to generate original, well-thought-out answers, not trite, off-the-cuff ones.

Second, before ending an interview, always ask something to the effect of, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” Usually, the source’s response will yield something of value. It’s not always groundbreaking, but, surprisingly often, it is. The source will point out an essential resource or raise an issue that completely reshapes the story.

A ridiculously open-ended question can even produce a bombshell. It did for me one Sunday afternoon working the cops shift at my first paper. The police beat required tracking disorder of all forms across a sprawling four-county area. Keeping an ear to the scanner and asking “Anything going on?” “Anything else?” over and over was pretty much the only way to do this. I made the first of two routine calls to one of several state police barracks on my call sheet and asked the routine question. “Any accidents, arrests, anything to report?

“Oh, you’re calling about the arrest from last night,” said the trooper on the other end of the line. “What do you want to know?”

I had no idea what arrest he was referring to but it was obvious it was newsworthy. “Umm,” I thought, before responding with more boilerplate, “Name, age, residence, location of the incident, the charge.”

Whether the trooper could tell that I was clueless I’ll never know. But the name was that of the county sheriff. The charge? Drunken driving.

Yes, preparation and tact are important, but the worst question can be the one never asked.

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Saving Legacy Media From Itself

September 28, 2009

rescueWhile startups were embracing — and by virtue, defining — the world of new media, traditional news organizations were mindlessly singing “We’ve got to hold on to what we got.” No wonder they’re now livin’ on a prayer.

According to a here-and-now, keep-the-stockholders-happy mindset, their behavior made sense. Newspapers, the poster children for distressed legacy media, were making double-digit profit margins unheard of in virtually any other industry. Why innovate when the model you dominate and built your company around continues to reliably pull in cash?

(Plenty of newspapers are still making money, by the way, many still at margins a retailer would sell his soul for. They can’t keep pace with Wall Street’s expectations, however, and many of their parent companies are swimming in debt.)

It’s human nature, and, therefore, market nature, to go against one’s long-term self-interest — choosing the cheeseburger over the salad, sub-prime loans over ones borrowers can actually pay back — until a misbehavior affects short-term well-being: The cheeseburger eater’s daily routine is turned upside down as he recovers from a heart attack. The lender is knee deep in defaults and its name and assets aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Climate change is an extremely high-stakes area in which society consistently ignores its long-term self-interest. However, China, which famously had to shut down factories during the Olympics so competitors could, well, breathe, has begun to view environmental recklessness as a threat to its immediate economic health.

If China can come around, legacy media can. And it by and large has. Some companies, though, enticed by the Web’s broad reach, are stretching the push model they should be abandoning.

Though many dress as if they’re poor, journalists don’t make for the most sympathetic charity cases. They regularly rank somewhere around lawyers on lists of least liked professions. Be that as it may, democratic societies need strong, active news organizations to function. Ask Thomas Jefferson.  To that end, industry leaders, policy makers and concerned citizens can be taking action toward a sunnier journalistic future:

  • Produce and widely share information, like the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next reports, that shows why old models are failing and suggests what new models might work.
  • Publicly recognize innovative efforts. The Pulitzer Prize Board’s decision to accept entires made up entirely of Web content is one example of this.
  • Give intelligent feedback. Cancel your print subscription? Tell the paper why. Have an opinion, good or bad, about the paper’s Web site? Share it.
  • Join the dialogue about alternative models, such as U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s proposal to grant public-TV-like nonprofit status to certain newspapers.
  • Support independent organizations like Poynter that foster innovation. Publicly shame companies that pass off a disproportionate share of their profit to shareholders instead of reinvesting it in their journalism.
  • Encourage young people to become newspaper literate. Print, online, whatever — just get them reading!

Face to Face With the Future

September 25, 2009

Think of it as the nutritional shake of graduate learning. It’s dense. And it’s consumed quickly. Welcome to Face-to-Face Fridays.

To end each week in our foundational theory class, my 35 peers and I share 90-second presentations on topics not covered in our studies. The open-ended nature makes for a riveting, if somewhat disjointed, morning. Today, for example, we jumped from bionic lenses, to independent journalism, to interactive gaming, to poetry.

Futurcasting is a focal point of this course. This made me curious: In a parallel world years or decades ahead of ours, what might have our corresponding selves been talking about this morning?

Present: iPhone app FoodScanner — Train phone’s camera on UPC to call up nutrition information, track calorie consumption.
Future: Smart foods that change color or taste if they violate a consumer’s nutrition plan.

Present: Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health — Upload and organize personal medical records.
Future: A healthcare system that does this for us.

Present: Microsoft Courier tablet computer — Key features include dual screen and pen and finger multi-touch.
Future: Screenless computer that achieves the same functionality via tactile projection.

Present: Museum of Robots
Future: Museum of Humans

Present: Gowalla iPod app —Travel game rewards users for visiting ordinary and extraordinary places.
Future: Travel game rewards users for visiting ordinary and extraordinary times.

Present: Bing Visual Search
Future: Bing Telepathic Search

Present: USPS Virtual Box Simulator — Uses Web camera to help customer estimate whether an item will fit into flat-rate box.
Future: USPS Virtual Teleporter — Helps customer estimate whether item/being will fit into teleporter.

Present: Uber-customizable media player from Veeple and Big Gravity. Can embed documents.
Future: With now millions of superior presentation tools, PowerPoint, bewilderingly, remains widely used.

Present: Five rad virtual reality movies.
Future: Five rad virtual actors.

Present: Freeplaymusic.com — MP3 library free for nonprofit academic projects.
Future: LPs make an astounding comeback. Subliminal marketing campaign convinces world records really do sound better.

Present: Pentagon developing thought-controlled prosthetics.
Future: Stem-cell regenerated limbs.

Present: OnStar coordinates with police to slow down stolen vehicles.
Future: OnStar coordinates with police to slow down haywire autopiloted vehicles.

Present: Netflix awards developers $1 million for improving recommendation algorithm.
Future: Users pay Netflix several million dollars to weaken algorithm. It gets too intuitive for comfort.

The World Wide Web, a Wonderland of Words

September 23, 2009

cookiesThe Web was built for conversation. Kind of funny, then, it can be so tricky to talk about.

Its lexicon is a mish-mash of new words, repurposed words, and, well, mish-mashed words.

Year after year, Web-related terms highlight updates to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Vlog and webisode are new for 2009. In next year’s update? Who knows? I’m still rooting for specticipants.

Such a fluid vocabulary can be difficult to keep up with.

Why do those things that keep track of what’s in your online shopping cart have such a tasty name? Cookies, Wikipedia tells us, were named such because, like fortune cookies, they have hidden information inside.

How did unsolicited messages, Hormel Foods implores, get to be known as spam? Internet entrepreneur Brad Templeton traces it back to a Monty Python sketch. I’ll let him explain.

Sometimes netizens don’t even need words. This makes them : ) and maybe even LOL.

Like the government, the Web’s good at making alphabet soup. HTML, URL, CSS, P2P, MMORPG — acronyms are everywhere.

Inevitably, celebrities get involved. Or, the Web involves them. If your business conference gets Rickrolled and you don’t have a sense of humor about it, watch out for the Streisand effect.

Of course, Web vocab isn’t always so cryptic. Browse, scroll and jump, among the many words carried over from print, should be familiar to even the greenest users.

The Web breeds laziness, we often hear. It sure does. E-book, e-commute, e-commerce, e-mail, e-marketing. E-nough.

We’ll forgive Apple for iMac, iPod and iPhone, because, repetition is good for branding. Not to mention, the products themselves rock. Plus, the iPod inspired podcast. What an elegant blend of new- and old-media terms.

Words fall in and out of favor. Here are two whose days could be (should be?) numbered: Audience, I’ve mentioned before, seems too passive to describe the modern Web user, who, on his lunch break, is ranking, commenting on and retweeting content from five different sites. Lurking seems too pejorative for what is an accepted and even encouraged online behavior. To avoid being flamed for uninformed content, it can be wise to lurk.

Speaking of flamed, fire comes up a lot: Once I’m done this post, think I’ll launch Firefox, fire off a message on Hotmail and burn some downloaded music to a CD. Makes sense, I guess. Fire was man’s first great tool. And, if the doomsdayers are right, it’s only a matter of time before the robots take over and the Internet becomes man’s last great tool. How poetic.

Live Tweeting OneWebDay: Lessons Learned

September 22, 2009

Time seems to speed up when you’re live tweeting. Especially when you lose your Internet connection.

These were among the lessons I learned this morning from my first live tweeting experience, covering Elon University’s OneWebDay celebration.

For the international Earth Day-like event, designed to raise awareness about the Web — this year specifically about digital inclusion, my interactive media classmates and I surveyed attendees of our school’s weekly College Coffee gathering about their Web use and knowledge. Through this, we learned that less than 20 percent of them spend more than 15 minutes a day accessing the Web from a mobile device and they learned that Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web in 1990.

Promotion

Ideally, I would have done more advance promotion. Live tweeting is a great tool for interacting with your audience and building your brand, but, you need readers to do this. I did post tease tweets on my professional and personal accounts yesterday and, on my way out the door to go to the event, verbally told a couple of classmates still in the computer lab to follow suit. Even these minimal efforts produced a couple of retweets promoting my coverage. However, as I was live tweeting just to expose myself to the experience, whether my coverage bore any journalistic or marketing fruit was secondary.

Planning

This exercise was similar enough to covering events for delayed Web or print publication that I knew enough not to go into it blind. I typed up a text file containing pre-made shortened urls for content I thought I might want to link to and keywords for tweets I wanted to make sure I got in. This prepwork definitely paid off. I didn’t waste time or miss important details creating links, and my keywords led to descriptive tweets. These three were respectively based on the prompts “weather,” “shirts” and “food.”

It’s an overcast but pleasant first day of fall here in N.C.’s Piedmont Triad. A few occasional drizzles. #OWD09

iMedia students, clad in black #OWD09 T-shirts with the hashtag in teal on the back, are setting up. Students are starting to file in.

Crowds snaking around food spreads. Donuts, fruit, sweet tea &, of course, coffee. Unfortunately, tastes/smell uploads not poss. yet #OWD09

To get others’ voices in my coverage, I also made plans ahead of time to interview a few attendees (this would have been easier with a netbook instead of a laptop), asking them, “What’s your favorite thing about the Web?” Here is one resulting tweet:

Getting similar responses. Freshman Sunny likes the “Unlimited information. If you want to find something it’s out there.” #OWD09

Hashtags

The “#OWD09” in each post is a hashtag. Hashtags help readers find information on a specific topic. This particular hashtag is the tag OneWebDay organizers asked content creators to put on all OWD-related posts. If any of my classmates were also live tweeting today’s event, it would have made sense to add a tag specific to our school so everyone’s posts could be accessable from a common page.

Writing

Thinking of stuff to write about wasn’t an issue. Writing it quickly and maintaining a certain threshold of quality was. In hindsight, I might have put too much pressure on myself to constantly churn out content. Allowing more time to think about and edit posts might have better served readers. I did have my share of typos, which, the way I understand it at least, are tolerated in live tweeting, but only to an extent. I might have had too many.

Interactivity

As I mentioned farther up, the opportunity for interactivity is one of the strengths of live tweeting. A fellow user might write me, for example, “I thought government researchers invented the Internet, not Tim Berners-Lee,” and I could explain that the Internet and the World Wide Web are two different things. However, had anyone been asking me questions, since my coverage lasted only about an hour, I doubt I could have kept up with them and what was happening around me. Here, a co-tweeter would have likely been needed.

Technology

I’ll end where I started: Cumulatively, there was probably about 10 minutes where I lost my wireless connection. This can be a helpless feeling, and, toward the last quarter of the event, I thought I had lost it for good and began scanning for someone with a smart phone he or she could loan me. To avoid such panic, having a built-in backup would have been a good idea.

What You Should Know About SEO

September 18, 2009

Search engine optimization is an entire industry onto itself. Organizations with large online footprints that can afford to hire experts usually do. For this reason, SEO can seem intimidating. But, for casual bloggers who just want to feel a little more popular or useful by allowing more searchers to stumble upon their content, it needn’t be.

Here are five SEO tips you can start applying today that require minimal extra effort:

  1. Include four to five keywords in your home page’s title tag. Be authentic. The keywords should accurately reflect what’s on the site. The site for my hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, has well-written title tag keywords: “breaking news, sports, weather and traffic in Baltimore.”
  2. Post often. Also vary the length and frequency of your posts. This helps convince search engines your site is being written by a human and not a robot.
  3. Always, always include alt text for images and media. This creates more copy that may potentially match search terms. (It’s also an accessibility commandment.)
  4. Link to high quality content (.edu and .gov sites are especially good). Engines love connections and hate dead ends. Look for places where the copy naturally lends itself to a hyperlink but don’t link just for the sake of linking.
  5. What you shouldn’t do is as important as what you should do. Don’t try to game the system through keyword stuffing or invisible links. Search engines penalize for these and, if they get wind of them, so will readers. Protect your ranking. Protect you brand. Stick to white hat techniques.

There’s a whole SEO universe beyond this, of course, and that universe is constantly changing. Here’s a look at what the future may hold:

  • Greater attention will be paid to optimizing for clearinghouses other than search engines. Restaurants, for example, would be wise to pay attention to Urban Spoon. Airlines, Kayak. Social networking sites will also demand greater attention.
  • As mobile devices proliferate, ensuring pages come up in locational searches will become increasingly important.
  • Optimizing for multiple languages is an important aspect of SEO in Europe. As the world continues to get smaller, this will become more common in relatively linguistically homogenous regions like North America.

Scalpel, Stat! Hold On a Second.

September 16, 2009

Last year around this time, the presidential candidates were talking a lot about tools. No, this is not a Joe The Plumber reference.

Don’t remember? The candidates were speaking figuratively about reigning in spending.

Obama said his opponent’s approach amounted to “using a hatchet when you need a scalpel.” McCain countered that both tools were needed: he’d go in with a hatchet first, then pull out a scalpel.

Regardless of whether you agreed with Obama, his metaphor painted a picture. To use a hatchet for a job clearly meant for a scalpel, say brain surgery, would be silly, not to mention gruesome. To use a communications tool unfit for the task is also reckless.

Not three weeks into my fall semester studies, the mantra, “Let the story dictate the tool,” has been popping up a lot. It’s been nearly as ubiquitous as commentary on Kanye West’s VMA outburst. (Heck, even my favorite football team is weighing in on that.) OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but, in the iMedia world, this is a kind of a big deal. It’s being reinforced at every turn:

  • By my class readings: Forrester Research’s social media primer “Groundswell” preaches “Concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies.”
  • By my research: Spanish media company Novotécnica, a May 2008 article in the journal Convergence said, instructs its journalists to be platform agnostic: “Reporters are constantly generating news content and the central desk decides each time how to distribute it,” a senior editor told researchers.
  • And by guest speakers: Former BBC journalist Jonathan Halls implored me and my classmates to focus on the story. Individual tools will go out of style, he said. Sound storytelling won’t.

Unfortunately, pressure to churn out fresh content and establish a presence in new mediums often leads news organizations to violate the story-first credo.

Last year, the now defunct Rocky Mountain News live tweeted a 3-year-old’s funeral. It had his family’s permission, but, a tool favored for posting (often mundane) status updates, sharing shortened urls and firing off witty one liners hardly seems capable of capturing the depth of emotion associated with a young child’s death. “Rabbi recites 23rd psalm,” “family member remembers marten,” “earth being placed on coffin” were a few of the posts.

More routinely, news sites will do a video story simply because they haven’t done a video story in a while or merely tweak traditional content to fit a new tool instead of developing material from scratch that leverages its functionality.

My former paper, which has recently begun to explore Facebook as a news delivery and marketing tool, this summer had an ah-ha moment with Twitter. After weeks of using the microblogging service as an RSS feed in different clothes, it saw an opportunity to do something more: give users intimate access to a major sporting event happening in its backyard. All four days of Tiger Woods’ AT&T National golf tournament, a reporter was assigned to file frequent dispatches. It took a while for reporters to get comfortable with the format, but once they did, they really ran with it. Here are some choice tweets:

  • Spotting some of these guys is a Where’s Waldo experience. Steuart Appleby breaks the mold wearing an apple green shirt.
  • ‘Sure you can interview me, but don’t use my name. I’m playing hooky from work.’ Dave, from Burke, Virginia
  • Basically the only clouds over the course are from the cigar smoke

What’s more, they found that tweeting, by forcing them to look for rich detail and pithy quotes, enhanced their reporting.

So, how can journalists be confident they’re using the right tool? Considering the following factors should get them on their way:

  • Look, listen, and think: Use photos and videos when there are compelling, action-oriented visuals. Use audio when there is rich natural sound. Use infographics or interactive presentations to simplify the voluminous or complex.
  • Audience: Is the format appropriate for the probable audience? A podcast, for example, probably isn’t the best format for a story about the new senior center. It would be an ideal format, however, for a story about a transit line targeting young commuters.
  • Turnaround time: Some mediums have longer production processes than others. Before committing to a format, make sure the deadline allows enough time to create a quality product.
  • What’s gained? What’s lost?: Tools giveth, tools taketh away. Yes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, but what about the “words” that are out of frame? Weigh what’s gained against what’s lost. If a video’s going to end up being all talking heads, you might be better off sticking with text.
  • Does it get along with other content?: If producing sidebar content, does it complement the mainbar? Or does it repeat it or distract from it?
  • Staff expertise: Does your staff have enough technological and strategic familiarity with a tool to use it effectively? If not, wait until they do before playing with it.
  • Is it searchable?: If a lot of people are likely to be searching for the content, know the limitations of video and Flash and how to work around them.
  • Is it shareable?: If a lot of people are likely to want to share the content with others, does the format make it easy for them to do so?

Don’t Blame the Media. Blame Yourself.

September 14, 2009

pointWhen the you know what hits the fan, somehow it’s always the media who threw it there.

School violence? Blame the media. Disputed election? Blame the media. Economic collapse? Blame the media. Natural disasters? Blame the media. OK, the last one’s from a 1999 Onion classic, but, you get the point. The media are the world’s go-to scapegoats.

Well, world, start looking for a new scapegoat. I don’t know, El Niño maybe?

Audiences’ power to choose and shape content is growing by the day. It’s reached the point where academics have begun looking for a new word to describe media consumers. “Audience” just seems way too passive. A few of my classmates offered “specticipants” as an alternative. There. It’s published now. We’ll see whether it catches on.

With great power, comic book fans, comes great responsibility. Interactive media give audiences a say in whether content promotes violence, treats candidates fairly or unmasks financial misbehavior. And to the extent they don’t, they enable audiences to call out publishers when content isn’t up to their standards.

The hyperlinked Web was built for media criticism. Sites like FactCheck.org correct the record when media distort information or regurgitate the misinformation of others and have inspired news organizations to fold similar models into their own coverage.

To media critics of the armchair variety: you can’t have it both ways. Newspaper readers routinely flame a publication for running allegedly sensaltionst stories while clicking on them in droves. Taking a stand? Vote with your clicks, not just your comments. Click on content that upholds your ideals. Don’t click on content that doesn’t. Hop on Digg and thumbs up content you like. Thumbs down content you don’t.

Self-policing communities like Wikipedia and Second Life, although not perfect, embody the right spirit. There, if users don’t like what’s going on, they don’t assign blame, they fix it. So, all those complainers out there, get a fixin’.

Finding Real Meaning in Virtual Memorials

September 11, 2009

The terrorist attacks eight years ago today were an assault on “civilization and modernity itself,” diplomat Dennis Ross told the 9/11 Commission. What then would the attackers and their sympathizers think of virtual anniversary commemorations in the online role playing game Second Life?

Mirroring real life ceremonies, users in the popular multi-player environment honored the attacks’ 2,976 victims through prayer, candlelightings and memorials. Their activities even drew media coverage, from citizen journalists on CNN’s iReport.com.

I attempted to light a virtual candle. Being a n00b, I’m not sure whether I was successful. If you come across the message “Samuel Auggers has dedicated this candle to the victims of 9/11”, that was me. In a real life tie-in, candlelighters were given the opportunity to donate to Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit that assists the families of those killed in the attacks. As hard as I tried to get into it, I found the experience about as emotional as online shopping. For an injured firefighter too weak to join his peers at their real life ceremony, however, it could be extraordinarily powerful.

9/11 candle lighting in Second Life

That firefighter is probably the type of user organizers had in mind when they created the Second Life 9/11 Memorial Event. The event, complete with a 21-gun salute and bagpipers, is based on real life police and fire traditions. Only real life first responders or avatars with stellar reputations are allowed to be in the honor guard or assume other ceremonial positions.

Elsewhere, Second Life users have constructed an immaculate granite memorial, including photographs of many of the victims, where users can leave flowers.

911sl1

Again, offering an outlet for those unable to attend real life events is the most obvious utility for these virtual commemorations. It’s easy to see other applications, however. While legal wrangling has delayed real life memorials in New York and Shanksville, Pa., their Second Life counterparts could already be receiving guests. Also, with virtual memorials, the potential for them to be targeted for a subsuquent attack — I’ll leave Second Life terrorism for another blog post — is less of a concern.

OneWebDay: Briefing on Broadband Mapping

September 10, 2009

This essay and accompanying video are part of Elon University’s participation in the fourth annual OneWebDay on Sept. 22. Digital inclusion is this year’s theme.

Before you can solve a problem, you have to define it. So, before you can bring broadband to unconnected homes, you have to find out where those homes are. Sounds simple. But it isn’t. And how we go about identifying these homes has great bearing on whether a key aspect of closing the digital divide is successful.

Since the U.S. government pledged $350 million for broadband mapping as part of last February’s economic recovery package, the methodology, objectivity and transparency of the nation’s largest broadband mapping organization, nonprofit Connected Nation, have come under fire from public interest groups.

Critics make the following arguments:

  • That Connected Nation’s reliance on sampling in lieu of a door-to-door census tends to overstate the degree of connectivity.
  • That the funding the nonprofit receives from large telecom companies and the strong ties between these companies and its board of directors present a conflict of interest.
  • That non-disclosure agreements with telecoms prevent stakeholders from evaluating the accuracy of its surveys and from making full use of them to expand access.

In media interviews, Connected Nation representatives have countered:

  • That it reconciles its surveys against engineers’ on-the-ground observations and with public feedback and continously
    updates its maps to reflect this new information.
  • That its board includes members of leading consumer groups and its business model depends on serving the interests of small and large telecommunications companies alike.
  • That disclosing the location of sensitive infrastructure compromises security. All other information, they say, is made public.

What this conflict reveals as much as anything is a shortage of guidance from the federal government. To its credit, the government has identified broadband connectivity as a priority and put up serious money to help accomplish it. What it hasn’t done, however, is establish standards strict enough to ensure broadband mapping is done in a consistent and reliable manner.

Furthermore, since this work in being done under the auspices of economic recovery, the primary goal is spending the money quickly, potentially to the detriment of quality. It’s great broadband mapping is being done. But, if we’re to be successful in narrowing the digital divide, it’s important that it be done right.