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The trouble with news…

The trouble with the news industry is it’s been disillusioned for at least a century.

3 ASSUMPTIONS

Firstly let us say that survey data sucks. People always lie to themselves and then in turn lie to researchers.

Secondly let’s say that people lied about their level of current events knowledge. If you asked a person in the 1950s if they watched the news and read the newspaper, they wouldn’t have dared say, “You know, not really. I have the TV on in the background during dinner and I scan the headlines in the morning, but I wouldn’t say I truly absorb anything.” But that was the reality. Sure, they got the newspaper delivered to their door everyday but that was “just what you do” back then. If someone wanted to seem particularly astute, they’d subscribe to numerous print newspapers and magazines.

The order of the pages read was also a thing. My mother tells the story of my father chastising her for always reading the comics page first. It wasn’t something “intelligent” people did, apparently. I found some talk about this online in a forum. The posters were anonymously admitting they read the (print) newspaper from back to front, all giving their “reasons” for doing so: I’m a sports nut. I’m left-handed. It was as if they weren’t permitted to read the paper in any manner they pleased.

Thirdly let’s say that these conventions are gone. I don’t recall helping my kids with a “current events” assignment in school (we’d have to go BUY a newspaper if clipping one was required). I don’t hear chatter on the street or in the grocery line about the front page of the newspaper. People seem to be less aghast if someone admits to being in the dark about some news item or another. We all have so much information coming at us, it is understandable if one has missed the latest update on some world event or another. To think, they used to teach children in school how to “stay current” and “engage in informed conversation” on current events! It’s almost laughable.

So now that we have this plain fact –the news industry sees itself as far more important in everyday lives than in is – let us move on to the new role news is taking now. The picture, as I see it, is far, far better than what news has been previously and what the industry fears it is becoming.

old newspaper color ad for "post toasties" cereal

by danzil raines on Flickr

SYSTEMS THINKING

What happens – just judging by your own life – when you have too many choices? Let’s take the famous cereal aisle example. SOOOOO many brands. Say you’re new to the country, new to cereal, and your family wants to start eating it. What do you do?

There are plenty of ways to approach this problem, and most people use a combination of solutions. Here are some:

  • Ask others for recommendations
  • Systematically try one-by-one
  • Shop at stores that carry fewer brands
  • Don’t eat cereal (give up/abstain)
  • Join a “cereal-of-the-month” club so you can sample a few brands
  • Whittle down a list of acceptable ingredients, then search for cereals that comply

Nowadays, information is the cereal. Everyday we are an immigrant in the cereal aisle. Even without consciously realizing it, we form habits and practices that help us deal with the onslaught of choices. Most of us make routines. Me, I check email and Twitter first thing (that’s why you see most of my retweets in the morning hours. My stream shares news early). Later on in the day, I scan FB for headlines my friends shared. My husband checks the sports scores and articles while he eats his morning cereal (Frosted Flakes, if you’re wondering) and scans headlines at lunch. I’m sure you have your own way of finding news.

Here’s the rub: most of us are consuming WAAAAAAAAAAAY more news than we ever did (this increase in consumption also includes those types that got a daily newspaper delivered to their door). Yet, now we lie by saying we don’t spend that much time online, that we don’t partake in the news cycle. It’s become a bad thing to be obsessed with turns of events (because that means we spend too much time online, which is considered an anti-social habit).

So although we are consuming more information we are loath to admit to it.

NEWS TO DOS

The news industry would do themselves a favor if they ate a box of RealityChex. People don’t see news as a daily need, and they have shown they won’t pay much (if at all) to gather it. People are lying to themselves, of course, because news is becoming more and more part of their everyday flow. Nevertheless, they don’t believe news is a commodity they need to pay for. They may never see it as such, as there are many other avenues through which to get updates.

Like the beginnings of all product launches, perhaps a bit of user education is in order. New cereals include “how-tos” in commercials (e.g., shown with pouring milk or made with hot water). Perhaps news outlets should consider an education arm. “How to start your day well” or some crap like that. I’m sure the Positive Psychology types would kill for a chance to work with news outlets to develop a “well-being” department.

Ad dollars. Ah, the almighty ad dollars. The concept is this: News orgs had the market cornered on ad dollars. There was plenty of money in print ads. The Internet killed print. Where’d the money go? To YouTubers and bloggers? Perhaps. I don’t particularly know where it went but I do know this: Where there are eyes, there are ads. My guess is Facebook is getting the lion’s share of that chunk of cheese. News orgs should be charging Facebook for its users’ license to post links.

I know this sounds backwards: Facebook paying the Philadelphia Inquirer a license fee? WTF? Well, news, photos, writing, is all Intellectual Property, and license fees are paid for such things. Facebook relies on users’ eyes being present for ads. The sharing of news items is a BIG traffic draw for FB. (In fact, I spoke to a FB rep recently – off the record – and he said the Pew estimates of # of users and # of users who share/find news items via the social network service were astoundingly low. (Pew estimated 64% of the US population admits to using Facebook and of those 62%, 30% admit to gathering news there). LOW. News is driving Facebook participation. Participation would go down if links were blocked. The NYT saw this in action when they erected a paywall. What would FB be willing to pay in license/subscription fees to news outlets if the users weren’t permitted to share links? Also, another social network would come along soon enough that was willing to pay the fees.

Internet Service Providers could also be tasked with distribution of news. “Free Philadelphia Inquirer [online] subscription with any new Comcast account!” <- offers like this will get the news industry back into the public’s good graces. After all, newspapers were kept quite cheap back in the day, so if you hadn’t read the paper back then it was seen as completely unacceptable. Even a bum could scrape together the 3 pennies.

STEPS for the NEWS INDUSTRY TO CONSIDER:

  1. Get off your high horse.
  2. Stop panicking. The news is in its best position ever.
  3. Make news ubiquitous and cheap for users first (using B2B sub models).
  4. Set up human-filtered news packages that are customizable for the users (make “news personality” profiles and hire curators to fill the day’s paper with headlines).
  5. Commit to caring for the whole person. News isn’t cereal; It isn’t just breakfast. It is information itself. Take up the task of filling a person’s information needs, on all emotional and mental levels.

 

When it floods, people seek dry land for safety. They don’t stop drinking water. We are in a flood of information. We need filters and ways of living. The ad and subscription money is out there. The news industry just hasn’t kept up with current events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The first day's keynote - Ferguson journalists recount their experiences

The first day’s keynote – Ferguson journalists recount their experiences

Every day I fill 2 pages of a blank paper book with spots and lines of ink. I’ve been a spotty diarist since I could write words but my daily habit started several years ago as a result of buying into the “morning pages” practice outlined by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. So know that I am a user of dead trees when I say this: The sheer amount of blank paper notebooks and ink pens given as swag at the Online News Association in Chicago (#ONA14 – Sept. 25-27, 2014) is a sign of the apocalypse.

Facebook was there, handing out t-shirts and phone juice

Facebook was there, handing out t-shirts and phone juice

The vendors, many of whom were huge online content or Web measurement agencies, thought the best way to attract attendees to their tables was distribute notebooks. Only the Knight Foundation (a USB stick) and the Tribune Content Agency (portable phone charger) had any “online news” appropriate gadgets. Any tech conference worth its fee has its share of silly toys, and in a minimal show of effort there were yo-yos, frisbees and some teddy bears, but the ubiquitous swag was still the lowly pen and paper flip book.

two pictures, side by side, one depicts notebooks and pens, the other depicts a small USB stick and a phone charger battery

My tweet from the conference, showing the days’ pull. That savvy commenter is my teenage nephew.

We techies are known for our impatience when it comes to the world’s slow acceptance of reality. Ranting lends us a certain amount of catharsis. I’ll keep it short(ish): ONA14 seemed to be a refugee/re-entry camp where old school newsroomers become assimilated into a new world. I should’ve had a clue the crowd would be less-than-technically-savvy when I read the word “Online” in the group’s title. It’s the same pet peeve I have with the term “social media:” It’s news and it’s media. It’s time we said “paper news” and “private media” and use the non-designated terms of “news” and “media” to mean electronic, meant-to-be-shared communications.

"A bridge must be built from the newsroom to the server room"

Disclaimer: I know nothing (OK, very little) about newsrooms and the news industry. This is simply my impression so far.

Why rant about free stuff? The tone of any organization is in the swag given out by the vendors. In ONA14’s case, the sheer amount of blank paper notebooks and ink pens demonstrates the vendors’ expectations of the attendees: paper-loving journos and older crowd. The vendors were spot-on, it seems: My analysis of the attendees list showed less than 3% techies (“developer” or “engineer” listed as job title); Most attendees held some sort of administration or editing position. Here’s my point, though: Aren’t we trying to move the news industry closer to the current context? Wouldn’t a few more USB sticks or even the traditional, tongue-in-cheek propeller hats send a better message? We want to journalists and their bosses to “learn the language. Get comfortable with the environment. Embrace the techies as your new people.” I’m oversimplifying here but you get the idea.

Technologists come with varied interests, but one thing they all have in common is a deep respect for information and the machines and programs that process it. I may be reading this whole situation poorly, but it seems a bridge must be built from the newsroom to the server room. Datavisual demos, Snapchat sessions, Vine integrations all stepped the audiences closer to the revolution, but knowing how to use the front-end of social networks to distribute content is not the same as embracing technology into the news process. That would be like saying eating a Snickers gives us enough cooking skills to survive on a desert island. Not. the. same. Systems process, architecture, flow, all of these elements and more need to come together to make the news industry work the way it should. (I’ll try to write more about this later. I attended the one “design thinking” session at ONA14. Elementary intro, but it’s a start.)

All in all, the ONA14 conference is geared toward newbies. I’m a news newbie, but I’m tech oldie. The imaginary Sims jury in my head is still out on whether or not there’s a place for me in the news world.

One bright shining light at ONA14 was a vendor with a small, plain table tucked in the back corner. They had one poster and two guys with laptops, and they were giving out shirts printed with the phrase “Open Source Means Free Speech.” SourceFabric is an open-source initiative for the sharing, production and distribution of news. “We share technology, stories and experience to help address the challenges facing media.” In this age of corporate takeovers of news channels, nothing has ever been more true. Open source and an open Internet are the keys to freedom.

Pic of SourceFabric Motto. White block type on black background: "Open Source Means Free Speech."

If you’re one of my coder readers or a news person, please go poke around the Sourcefabric site and consider contributing. You can make a real difference in the fabric of our democracies and our republics with just a little bit of shared code. Please help.

So yes, you can tell a lot about an organization by the types of toys handed out by the vendors at their annual conference. I’ve gotten much better stuff (USB power strips, data storage devices, etc) at free Podcamps and Barcamps. Hopefully the ONA can stop courting the old schoolers and bring in more of the techies. Our freedom depends on it.

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Breakdown of ONA14 Attendees

screen shot of the ONA14 page

I’ll be at the Online News Association (#ONA14) conference in Chicago, IL USA this week. My attendance is being funded by Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism. I’m looking forward to learning lots and meeting a ton of journalists, editors, and web producers. I’m also hoping to make some connections with editors who get and appreciate my focus on Psychology of Information Technology. Somehow my writing isn’t connecting; I need to figure out what I’m missing.

YAY! DATA!

A pesky thing about being a Psychology nut is one’s need to quantify human traits and behaviors. When the Online News Association emailed out a list of #ONA14 attendees, my curiosity soon had me constructing data of the gender distribution. Here were my quasi-scientific methods:

  • Sort categories: 1=female 2=male
  • Traditional names were designated according to common Western cultural standards. (e.g., “John”=2, “Mary”=1.)
  • About 100 names were not immediately identifiable, due to gender neutrality (e.g. “Chris” or “Pat”) or lack of familiarity (e.g., traditionally Asian names). Unknown names were given a “?”
  • Each ?-designated name was Internet searched. About 98% were successfully identified via pictures or third-party pronoun usage in reference to the participant. i.e., pictures depicted genders clearly and LinkedIn references with “he” or “she” referring to the subject confirmed subject’s gender.
  • About 3 names were unidentifiable via Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook searches. A Google image search on the first name was then used to identify the common gender associated with the name, and an approximation was made.
  • Error rate on this distribution is not determined, but probably lies within 1-3%, so give or take 3-5 males or females on either side.

FEMALES/MALES

My many years in IT prepared me for a very male crowd, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the distribution is pretty even (51% female, 49% male, of 1617 attendees listed in the ONA “attendees list” document):

The gender distribution for attendees at 2014's Online News Association Conference

The gender distribution for attendees at 2014’s Online News Association Conference

 

The count is pretty evenly distributed, so the error rate isn’t all that significant. Plus, we aren’t publishing here, people, we’re simply trying to get a lay of the land. I’ve attached the attendee list with my sorting results here (.csv raw data): ona14_attendees_by_gender. Here’s a more easily-read pdf: ona14-attendees-by-gender

Next I sought to categorize the self-reported data of titles and occupations. E.g., how many people had “editor” in their brief description of their work position? Producer? Or C-suite title? Was this a conference for management or would I be meeting mostly the ground troops? (This list probably does not include any of those who are manning the Midway tables. At least some big news and tech agencies will be sending at least one recruiter or manager for those display areas.)

JOB TITLES

Titles are hard to categorize as they tend to be very workplace-specific. An “editor” at a small start-up ezine doesn’t wield the same power as an “editor” at a Gannett property (if there are any left, after all the layoffs, natch). But for this exercise, words alone were categorized in their groups. My judgment determined what sounded like an executive position (“c-suite”). I had to make some guesses, maybe 20 or so out of all 1617 attendees. Some examples of job titles are listed below under each category.

Total N (# of attendees)=1617

  • a=academic (professor, lecturer, assistant professor, dean, chair, fellow etc) N=122
  • c=executive (director, including assistant and associate directors, founders, presidents, heads) N=481
  • d=developer (engineers, app developer, technologist) N=51
  • e=editor (including assistant and associate editors, etc.) N=394
  • j=journalist (reporter, photographer, freelancer, writer, script writer, guest, N/A) N=129
  • m=manager (engagement editor, account manager, outreach, sales, project coordinator, social media) N=241
  • p=producer (content manager, art director, curator, artist, performer) N=99
  • s=student (graduate students, interns, PhD candidate) N=93

Here’s the distribution:

The distribution of professions, self-reported, of N=1617 ONA14 attendees

The distribution of professions, self-reported, of N=1617 ONA14 attendees

One would expect more journalists to be in attendance, but this conference is an expensive endeavor. I would guess a good amount of those journos are somehow local or funded, like me, to attend. There were more students and academics than I expected. Many of the academics belong to a Journalism department.

There are technically-savvy types spread throughout the pie. I placed most “social media” titles under the “Manager” category, “digital editors” under the “Editor” title, and all “developers” or “engineers” in the “Developer” group. Many of the c-suite “directors” had some sort of reference to digital news or data in their title. We’ll have a generally technically sharp population at the conference. Next year, though, I think the ONA should court more app developers, perhaps making a track just for them. We need to make nice-nice between the journos and the data wranglers if we are to be useful. 51 coder types is a start.

DIY!

I could comb this data all day, but this is it for now. You can download the .csv document and give it a go yourself. A profession breakdown by gender would be interesting to see. I noticed a lot of the c-suites were males, but that could just be a sexism bias on my part.

Going to #ONA14? Give me a shout on Twitter @PurpleCar or say hey in the comments.

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street art of Rosey the Robot Maid

Big Village. Rosey the Robot Maid from The Jetsons in the stairwell of Hibernian House in Sydney.

Back in denim-clad, braided summers when we Generation Xers were left to raise ourselves, way before travel curling teams and 3-D coding camps, we goonies, banished from our homes until dinnertime, would gather in a lazy haze on a stoop or in the tall grass and fall into deep discussions on matters of national importance. Swedish Fish vs. Any Other Candy, for instance, or if it was an especially close group, Proper Bubble Blowing Technique.

But the most heated arguments by far, peppered with judgments and insults of epic proportions, centered on The Jetsons. In reruns in the GenX’s formative years, the 1962 animated series of a tech-filled 2062 hurled our imaginations into a near future where all conveniences would be computerized. Which invention would we want first? The food replicator or vacuum tube transport? The TV phone or flat screens stored in the ceiling? The flying car or the jet pack?

For the kids in my town, a poor backwater hidden on the top of a mountain, the reigning tech of choice was the jet pack. Being one of the youngest in the group, I always agreed. I understood the desire; My young eyes and my little ears were big enough to catch our neighborhood’s scenes of domestic violence and alcohol abuse. The jet pack’s personal propulsion provided immediate and forever escape. picture of lone man in airfield hovering about 20 feet above the ground using a two cylinder jet back pack

Secretly, though, I wanted Rosey. That robot maid was not simply the Jetson’s family’s housekeeper, she was its moral center and fierce protector. I wanted a robot made of rivets and casters and a computer brain full of practical logic. Rosey was caring, clean, and a perfect protector and companion. I didn’t want escape; I wanted a solution.

Fast forward to now, a future with awe-inducing robotic advances like the Roomba, Siri, Asimo, Kismet, Jibo, and drones. The newest addition is Botlr, a rolling computer that makes deliveries in service of a Silicon Valley hotel. But my jet pack GenXers don’t seem impressed. In a recent Slate article, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction, wrote about Botlr that human butlers need not fear for their jobs yet. Judging by Botlr’s design and features, Pang writes, engineers should “pay attention to what butlers actually do.” 

“Butlers turn out to do lots of hard, hidden work in order to create an atmosphere that is ‘unhurried, untroubled, and not informal, but full of ease,’ as one put it,” Pang reports. The argument here is age-old: nothing can replace humans. Rosey the Robot won’t ever read a furrowed brow. Siri will never sense sarcasm. 

Here we are, GenX grown up, left to raise ourselves in this digital age, and we’re opting for the jet pack of stories. Fill up those fuel cells of human fitness. Rev up the rockets of righteousness. Instead of the soaring imaginativeness of our youth, we have the same will-they-replace-us anxieties of every other generation before us.

Something about this idea – that we are unique and our value as humans lies in that irreplaceability – makes us feel better. But I anticipate a lot of angst coming our way if we stick to that story. The robots are here, more are coming, and the kids you spent your summers with will be the cyborgs down the street. The Industrial Revolution is now over 250 years old. It’s time to stop asking the same old panicked question. The answer is yes, the robots will replace us. They already have replaced humans in a myriad of ways (especially if you include computers). Let’s stop trying to escape that already-here future and let’s start working on what we want our coming future to look like. 

Will drone deliveries be OK or annoying? What will the US Postal Service look like? Is the Internet a public utility, like gas and electricity, or is it to be a private enterprise with slow lanes and fast lanes that go to the highest bidder?

These are the water cooler dust-ups we should be having. Our GenX imagination is unlike any generations’ before us, for it was formed in a world of moon landings and laser beams. It can’t be fettered with all the old fears. It’s up to us to forge forward, to not seek escape but instead form solutions. It’s up to us to shape the future we want. 

As for me, I still want my Rosey. But she’ll need to be able to fly the car and call the kids in for dinner. 

Rosey Pic: JAM Project on Flickr

Jetpack pic: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr

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Love in the time of SHiYA

silhouette of a cat against an ocean sunset with the overwritten title: "things I don't do:" and checkmarks next to "Share" and "agree"SHARE IF YOU AGREE!

You’ve seen them; At least one friend that loves to post them: Overwrought, emotional value statements, probably written in Papyrus and overlaid on a pic of a cat thoughtfully gazing at a Malibu sunset. Facebook is full of them. Pinterest is packed with them. The aughts was the decade of the motivational poster. The teens is the time of the SHiYA (SHare if You Agree) poster.

Some common elements of the SHiYA:

  1. Background is usually a photo or artwork, but occasionally a solid color or blank
  2. Words are commonly written over artwork but above/under photos (like a title/caption)
  3. Content conveys some emotional state, personality trait, political leaning, or common experience
  4. A call-to-action, implied or explicit, to comment, upvote, and/or share the post

The SHiYA serves many ego-validating purposes. Some are:

  1. political beliefs
  2. moral value
  3. current feeling/emotion
  4. world view

SHiYA is a new passive-aggressive weapon in a post-political world. In a timeline where a clear political discussion wouldn’t fly, the SHiYA flags down fellow believers. In a world where straight emotional statements are suppressed, the SHiYA slyly expresses our joys and despairs. It’s sibling, the LiYA – Like if You Agree, is a scammer’s heaven. Post a puppy pic, amass likes, sell the file & all the “like” data to the highest bidder. It’s called “like farming“. (You can pronounce it like “Liar” – because that it what the scam amounts to.)

What are these posts doing for us and are they effective?

We are what we share

We share these blanket value statements in hopes to strengthen our bond with compadres, but we assume everyone who sees our (default: public) posts are in our camp. As social stream use becomes the norm, we run the risk of getting on the last nerve of our bosses, colleagues, neighbors and friends. Our belief system may be a rich source of pride and identity; we make take some pleasure in miffing those of opposite views. Over time, though, discourse gets shut down and friendly connections fade.

We should take the extra time to selectively share our SHiYAs with a group or a custom list. We could hunt out a like-minded forum. We could send it in a personal message to a friend instead of plastering our public feeds. If you want to truly connect with other people, do it in a more direct way by posting to a smaller venue or take the time to write a comment or a message. A micro connection will always trump a macro distribution.

‘Fess up

Do you share value statement/identity validation media? Why? If not – on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high) – how would you rate your annoyance levels when you see these ShiYAs and LiYAs in your stream?

_________________________

“Sunset Cat” by Kate on Flickr, edited by me, Christine Cavalier

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