Megan Taylor

web developer, hack-n-slasher, freelancer, information junkie, journalist, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

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The future of journalism in your pocket

A few days ago Mindy McAdams wrote a post about how she uses her iPhone and what that could mean for journalism.

Her questions for journalism:

  • If someone has all the videos and quality radio news she could ever find time to listen to (or watch) right in her pocket, how can anything even remotely like the newspaper compete with that? The newspaper as it was, in the heyday of the 30 percent profit margins, had something for everyone. Now the Internet-enabled phone provides that.
  • Will the traditional print news organization come up with programming, instead of random and disconnected stories? I don’t mean it has to be audio and video, but it would be something with an identity, like a show or a series. The closest thing I can think of that’s not radio is David Pogue — a brand unto himself.
  • Breaking news is a commodity — you’ll never pay the bills with that. Hard news is not always breaking news, but how should it be packaged or bundled — to adapt to the phone?

I’m not sure mobile phones have quite reached the level of “world in my pocket,” (speed, coverage, screen/keyboard sizes are still issues) but that’s not the point. If we [media organizations] sat around until the right phones were created, we’d be in even deeper poo than we already are. Realize right now that everyone will soon have an Internet-enabled phone (or similar pocket device) and the technology will keep pace with the demand.

Will the traditional print news organization come up with programming…?

Do traditional print news orgs still exist? Don’t they all have Web sites now? Aren’t they all scrabbling to save themselves online?

We’re not at the beginning of the news revolution anymore. We’re in the middle, and the organizations that have made it this far are very different from what they were 10 years ago. The ones that make it through will be the ones who drop this “traditional print news organization” concept and think about what people are reading, watching, hearing, buying, doing, playing…

Hard news is not always breaking news, but how should it be packaged or bundled — to adapt to the phone?

packages

Mindy suggests that a packaged identities can be a part of this and I agree. After all, isn’t that what we’re doing by building personal brands and using social media? Isn’t that why you follow someone on Twitter or Facebook? Why you subscribe to a blogger’s RSS feed?

I hadn’t thought of this before, because I’ve been thinking more technically about how information can be packaged for multiple mediums.

But what if we break the media company identity down into a series of smaller, bite-sized packages?

Company branding is already being broken down to the individual level. Personal branding is all the rage. Will news packages be branded to the individual? Or be yet another subset of the company branding? Or will the individual brand dominate the other two?

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News Web site user interfaces

Patrick Thornton wrote about user interfaces today, and how news Web sites are so loath to move away from an interface that mimicks the print product.

The last time I visited a news Web site, I was an employee of the paper working on code changes. I’m not counting clicking through to articles, but deliberately going to the home page of a site.

So Where Do I Get News?

I get my news from a couple of sources:

  • Google Reader, where I’m subscribed to over 400 blogs and news sites (including a personalized version of Google News), in addition to recieving shared content from all my friends
  • Twitter, where I follow over 400 users, mostly journalists
  • The AP Mobile News application on my phone. Great for the long commute to work.

Why Don’t I Go To News Sites?

Because they don’t give me what I want. Because I prefer serendipity.

I’m interested in a lot of things and a lot of places and a lot of people. There isn’t one place where I can get all the information I want. And I’m busy, I don’t have time to spend all day bouncing from site to site, hoping someone wrote or produced something I care about.

The other reason is this: A lot of people complain about the Internet being an echo chamber. To some degree, this sucks. I have to scroll through a bunch of work that is the same concept iterated over and over.

But, since I don’t visit news sites, I also don’t see the hierarchy that editors and readers have placed on certain stories. The echo chamber mitigates this problem for me, because I can gurantee that if something is important (or even important only to a certain group of people…people I chose to follow because I care about what’s important to them…) I’ll see it at least 5 times in Google Reader and another 20 on Twitter.

Is a different UI (user interface) really going to change my behavior? I’ll still have to visit multiple sites. The river of news (a la Facebook or Twitter) can get really annoying when I’m looking for something specific. For me, that only works seredipitously. And those cool mapping UI are just cluttery and hard to focus on. To be honest, if I’m looking for articles on a specific topic, I’ll just do a Google search.

Thornton is right, though: news Web sites need to stop emulating print. But they need to do it in a way that actually helps the users. We’ve learned certain behaviors when looking for content online. There are rules that we expect Web sites to follow, and when those are bent too much, we get frustrated. Not good for news sites.

So the question is, without breaking basic UI rules or being gimmicky, how should news sites be designed differently?

Edit: Check out the comments for a discussion between Aron Pilhofer and myself about user interface vs. user interaction.

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Mobile News: Problems, Examples, & Real World Use

(Note: I wrote this a few months ago and forgot about it. I found it while cleaning off my hard drive today. Oops!)

I got a Blackberry Pearl about a year ago, and while I have access to Google Reader and Twitter, (my main sources of news) I just haven’t gotten out of the habit of reading off the larger screen of my laptop.

Many media outlets are pursuing the possibilities of mobile news, having learned from their mistake with the Internet. As mobile phones get more advanced and more people use them, there is an opportunity to capture an audience.

Problems

One issue to address when setting out to get news on mobile phones is the variation in technologies used by different phones. Many phones can play video or view websites. All phones can receive text messages, but that can be costly to the user.

Viewing websites on a non-iPhone is a ghastly business. Tiny screens, poor rendering of CSS, graphic-heavy or Flash-based websites, they all make information harder to get at. One solution here is to create a mobile stylesheet that the phone browser will detect.

Another problem is content. Just as people don’t read off a computer screen the way they read a print product, no one wants to read a lengthy feature article on a 2-inch screen.

What kind of content might one want to see on a phone?

Weather and traffic alerts, events, and big, huge, breaking news. Seriously, the feature article can wait till I get home. But if a criminal is running around my neighborhood with a gun, I’d like to know, ASAP.

What about multimedia? I don’t see myself using my phone to go through a complex multimedia package. A video or slideshow, maybe, if I’m really interested. But phones are about “right now” communication. That should be reflected in how news companies approach them.

It may be that the only real solution for phones is better phone software. It doesn’t have to be iPhone quality, but the ability to add “news” to your basic menu would change everything. You could do any kind of feed you want then, while not having to go three steps in just to open a browser.

Examples

The Associated Press launched the Mobile News Network. The view on a phone is pretty nice, with a top news home screen, categorized story feeds (you can pick the general topics, and a “saved” category for custom searches). You can set preferences for location and the types of news you want to see. They also do video pretty well, providing various formats. They have applications for Blackberry/iPhone/iPod Touch users.

CNN’s mobile offerings include a Java application, SMS alerts, live TV (for certain providers), and downloadable videos.


The BBC actually explains
how they set up several different versions of their mobile site and let your browser choose the best one.

The New York Times offers a mobile site where you can read the NYT blogs, see most e-mailed articles, get alerts for topics or keywords, and browse real estate listings, stocks and weather forecasts. You can also choose to have news sent to your phone via text message. Customers of certain providers can also get access to crossword puzzles.

Fox News provides live video, streaming video clips, the requisite mobile site, and text alerts. Something a little different: they also offer an audio version of FNC, for a monthly fee.

Real World Use

The people most likely to have a compulsion to check the news every few hours, no matter where they are, are journalists. So I rounded up a few and asked about their mobile news habits.

Greg Linch sent me an e-mail after I asked for responses on Twitter.

I check Gmail on my smart phone (an AT&T Tilt), where I might have a New York Times, Washington Post or Miami Herald breaking news e-mail. After checking Gmail, I look at Twitter for other news and any interesting conversations. I also get Miami Herald breaking news text alerts, which include big national and local news.

If I’m away from the computer for an extended period of time — or if I’m bored somewhere — I’ll check Google Reader on my phone. If I just want a quick peek at the latest headlines, I’ll go to the mobile version of a site such as CNN, NYT or the Herald.

Kyle Mitchell is a music writer. He carries an iPod Touch. In an IM conversation, Kyle told me about his news habits.

NYT is one that keeps going down all the time. AP Mobile News is absolutely fantastic: runs fast as hell and top news never contains any bullshit like celebrity news. I check that a few times a day. Google News has a similar setup, but it’s much more clunky.

Brett Roegiers associate producer at CNN.com said

On my phone, I consume the news via Google Reader and Twitter.

Brett volunteered some advice to media outlets:

I’ll tell you what news organizations should pay attention to: location-based web apps. I click ‘restaurants’ or ‘bars’ and it shows me what’s in my area without me having to input where I am. I guess I’d say try to take advantage of the platform in some way and not just show the latest headlines.


Lyndsey Lewis
has an older Nokia, but checks the news on her iPod Touch.

I don’t use my phone, because I have a shitty Nokia phone and it’s hard to read stuff on it. But, I also own an iPod Touch, which I bring with me everywhere and use for news. I have the New York Times app on it and use that almost every day.

So what applications are you using to get the news on your phone? What do you think media outlets should be doing to get people’s attention? What can manufacturers do to make phones easier to use in this context?

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Florida journo living in NYC

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. My first reaction to being up north was “Holy crap, I can walk outside and not instantly have to take a shower!”

Two weeks after moving into our apartment, it finally feels like home. Took a while to get the couch, bookshelves, refrigerator, desk chair…we’re still waiting on the mailbox keys. These things take time.

There are a lot of new things to take in:

I’ve been doing a lot of job interviews in Lower Manhattan. We live in Kings Bridge Heights, which is almost as far north as you can get and still be in the City. So it takes me about 45 mins to get where I’m going. Then, since I’m already in the area, I spend some time getting lost, taking the wrong trains, window shopping and just taking in the local scenery. I’ve spent hours wandering around Broadway and Canal St. in the last few days.

Our first couple of days here I got really excited every time we had to walk up or down a hill. Gimme a break, we don’t have hills in Miami. (Unless you count Mt. Trashmore.) I’ve learned the truth about hills: walking uphill sucks.

There is also the delightful surprise!-this-is-a-deadend-actually-it’s-a-flight-of-stairs-in-the-middle-of-a-street phenomenon. A street will literally turn into several flights of stairs before turning back into a street. Wha?!

Straws. How come every bottle of Mountain Dew or Becks has to come with a straw? I don’t want a straw. The bottles are too tall for the straws. Since my beverage was sealed until I opened it, I’m really not THAT concerned about touching my mouth to the rim. Straws are just another thing I have to find a garbage can for, along the with the bag and the receipt.

The subway system itself is a magical world filled with the possibilities of getting lost. Really, really lost. Never mind that I’m not familiar with the city, stick me underground and the only directions I’m sure of are up and down. Emerging into the sunlit world once more, it’s only Google Maps Mobile that keeps me from spending even more time wandering aimlessly around.

New York is the dirtiest, meanest and simultaneously most wonderful place I’ve ever been.

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Twitter update

Well, my obsession with Twitter has been pretty well satisfied by now.

I’ve gotten the feed printed onto my desktop with Geektool, set up keyword tracking, followed a bunch of super cool journalism people, then meticulously tracked down every Twitter user in Gainesville and followed them as well. (Now that I’m leaving, should I un-follow them?) My tweets automagically go through to my Facebook status and I even set up my calendar and to do list on Twitter.

I use a combination of Twhirl, Google Talk and mobile updates to keep track of everything. And no, I’m not paying attention ALL the time.

I made a Twitter account for The Independent Florida Alligator and then made a page on the Web site where the “tweets” of those that follow the newspaper’s account will show up. The Alligator’s Twitter feed also includes weather conditions and updates from the University Police Department’s crime log (scraped with Dapper).

My initial obsession has been tempered by productivity problems and information overload. But I won’t stop using it. I’ll just have to be a little more judicious.

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SNDBoston: The Future is Now

with Nick Bilton and Michael Rogers from the New York Times R&D team.
R&D: Engineers look ahead (18 months to 5 years) for new technological advances. R&D is a state of mind and a commitment of resources.
“I always wear a tie because with a title like ‘futurist’ you need all the credibility you can get.”

How will content be delivered?
- Paper is hard to compete with as a display device.
- E-Ink: flexible, long battery life, no energy to display page, can hold 180 books, only black and white
- Polymer vision: about the size of a cell phone, updates wirelessly
- OLED: OLED screen is vibrant, great with color
- Google vision

The next audience: Millennials
Fears: a) no interest in news, b) no interest in paper
Were you seriously following the news at age 17? College students read campus news on paper: its still convenient.
Millennials have no habits that revolve around news. They have mobile phones!

Wireless everywhere!
- WIFI: laptops shipped with it
- 3G
- WIMAX: wifi on steroids, global standard

Devices?
Laptops will get smaller, smartphones get better, until they merge. Times Reader: Windows-only right now. Navigate, resize, edit and annotate text, send annotations to others. Lays itself out to fit size of screen.

Print to Mobile
- Reefers
- Interact with paper via text messages
- 2d barcodes for cellphones to Web site
- shifd.com: communication between phone and TV, phone and computer

Devices are becoming more aware of our location and the content we seek. More and more data comes in automagically tagged with extra info (Geotagging).
How do we create new value out of existing content without expending human effort? (Algorithms, Google Earth!)

Virtual News Delivery: SecondLife

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SNDBoston: my tentative schedule

For my 21st birthday (which was a month and a half ago now) my mother promised to buy me a Blackberry Pearl as soon as I qualified for the T-Mobile discount, which would be sometime in October. Well, October is here. This means, that despite not having a laptop, and my MacBook Pro not being delivered in time, I should be able to blog my way through SNDBoston (Society of News Design conference).

So, this is my tentative plan:

On Thursday, I’ll be attending the Student Sessions, which promise advice but are a little vague on structure and content.

Friday

9:30 am You can judge a book by its cover
Described by USA Today as “the closest thing to a rock star in graphic design today,” Chip Kidd revolutionized book design. Kidd shows how to tell and sell stories using conceptual thinking, visual puns, and found images.

11 am Brainstorming workshop: design
Inspiring examples and practical tips for fresh approaches to design. Robert Newman (Fortune, Real Simple, Vibe, Entertainment Weekly) and Kate Elazegui (art director, New York magazine).

And at this point I’m conflicted. At 2pm, there are two fantastic looking sessions:

Roundtable: The elections
Print and online designers, graphics artists, and picture editors discuss fresh ways to cover the upcoming elections. Panel includes Elliott Malkin (nytimes.com), Paul Nelson (Design Director, The Virginian Pilot), and Dan Wasserman, editorial cartoonist for The Boston Globe.

and

It’s the little things
Recent innovations in presenting stock tables, sports agate, and other small information. The panel includes Dennis Brack (The Washington Post) and typographer Matthew Carter.

Input anyone? Onward, then.

3:15 pm Multimedia, the next frontier
The next place for great design and photojournalism is multimedia argues Brian Storm founder of MediaStorm and former head of multimedia for MSNBC.

Oh, poppycock, more conflicts:

Brainstorming workshop: graphics
Inspiring examples and practical tips for fresh approaches to infographics Archie Tse (New York Times) and Javier Zarracina (The Boston Globe).

or

Typography roundtable
A discussion on trends from readability to revivals with typographers Matthew Carter and David Berlow.

And Friday ends with

6 pm ‘Helvetica, The Movie’
It’s the 50th anniversary of the typeface you love—or love to hate. Director Gary Hustwit’s documentary has been drawing rave reviews on the film festival circuit. The Chicago Tribune enthused that the film “sharpens your eye in general and makes connections between form and content, and between art and life.”

Saturday

9:30 am Reinventing The Guardian
Mark Porter, creative director of one the 2005 SND World’s Best-Designed newspapers on reinventing the print and online versions of one of Britain’s leading newspapers.

11 am The future is now
A look at new and emerging technologies from The New York Times R&D team. Interface designer Nick Bilton and futurist-in-residence Michael Rogers demonstrate the handheld Times Reader and discuss interactive newspaper technologies in development.

This conflicting sessions thing is really obnoxious. I need a time machine!

2 pm Reinventing page one
Long the most traditional page of the paper, panelists Jeff Hindenach (San Jose Mercury News), Gayle Grin (National Post, Canada) and Søren Nyeland (SND 2006 World’s Best-Designed Newspaper Politiken, Denmark) show how to build memorable fronts with photography, graphics, teasers and a strong design voice.

or

2pm Storytelling in print and multimedia
Jenn Crandall (washingtonpost.com’s onBeing) project and Kelli Sullivan (Los Angeles Times projects including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Altered Oceans“) show how words and images can be combined to create compelling narratives.

At 3:15 I’ll be having my portfolio reviewed. I’m really nervous about this because this Web site is in dire need of a redesign (which I’m working on) and I can’t really print out a lot of my work.

The (for me) icing on all this newsy cake is a session at 4:45 with Adrian Holovaty.

Making data webby
Adrian Holovaty of washingtonpost.com shares philosophy and strategies for making data browsable online. He’ll touch on several of his past projects, including chicagocrime.org and Faces of the Fallen.

I’m working on a couple of database projects this semester and probably will be working with Django next semester, so I’m looking forward to satisfying my fetish for the geekier side of journalism.

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Goggles Boggles: Applications of Google Maps mashup game for Journalism

Goggles lets you fly a cartoon airplane over 21 locations, drawing its imagery from Google Maps. The plane is controlled using the arrow keys, speed is controlled with A and Z, and you can even fire by hitting the space bar.

How does this apply to journalism?

What if you could simulate the flight of a plane crash? Follow the path of the planes, see the landmarks, etc? Simulate air-bombing in the Middle East (or wherever)?

Maybe that’s brushing too close to reality for some, but wouldn’t you want to see the detailed flight path of a burning plane?

Take it out of the context of planes. How about trains and automobiles? People?

Kim’s wilderness wanderings could be followed as if we were right there. Tagged wildlife could be viewed anywhere without leaving the comfy chair at your desk.