Tag: News

‘Nudging’ is a Good Idea Daily Beast Should Continue to Develop and Others Adopt

One of the big problems with the way most people find and consume news today is that it too often ends up backing us into an echo chamber. We find and hear only news about subjects we are already interested in that express opinions with which we already agree. On TV, this is epitomized by Fox News and MSNBC, which take hard right and left (respectively) perspectives on the news, focus a lot on politics (particularly MSNBC, which at one point had the slogan, “THE Place for Politics”), and tend to the news style known as the screed when it comes to contrasting opinions on things about which it believes its viewers care.

echo-chamberBut the problem is even more insidious on Internet news feeds, even those which have at least a patina of objectivity. If you follow news only on Salon or Slate or Daily Beast or even Huffington Post, you will find yourself being fed a steady diet of pretty carefully screened opinions on things that assume a lot about you as a consumer. Those assumptions are probably right. But switch your news to (or supplement it with) more eclectic sources like Google News or some other relatively opinion-free aggregators, one of the major national daily newspapers’ sites,or perhaps even a collection of site with different agendas, and you still find yourself ghettoized, at least potentially.

That’s because the Internet features the ability to pre-filter news by topic and source in ways that guarantee you won’t accidentally pollute your perspective on a subject by allowing a contrasting viewpoint to enter your awareness. This personalization technology is a two-edged sword: while it allows you to ignore extremes in news (like feeds from Fox and MSNBC, e.g.), it also allows you to ignore perhaps more responsible voices of the right and left to which exposure might well be valuable to you as a citizen and voter.

The Daily Beast — a news outlet with liberal founders that seems to me to trend more to the right — has just implemented a new technology it calls “nudging.” Using this process, as Nieman Labs describes it:

Red and blue nudge boxes pop up increasingly as readers more actively use the site, offering suggestions to readers. “We may say: ‘You’ve read a lot of politics stories, maybe it’s time for an entertainment story?’ Or, “You’ve read a lot of stories by this writer, do you want to follow him?’” says Dyer. It’s the data readers generate (+1 for reading more than half of a story, -1 for “skipping”) that fuel the kind of individuated nudges readers get.

This is a baby step in an interesting direction that is sure to generate some controversy. It is a manifestation of the long-debated question of whether it is the news media’s job to give you the news it thinks you need to know and understand or should it confine itself to providing information in which you are interested? Going back to Thomas Jefferson, true leaders of our democratic society have had a fundamental belief that only a well-informed electorate could effectively hang onto and manage a real democracy. As Jefferson said, “”. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” On that basis, a strong argument can be made that the news media need to provide accurate and objective information (as opposed to analysis) about what is going on in the world around us. But in the information-wants-to-be-free model of the Internet, freedom to choose what you’ll see or read and when you’ll experience it are entirely in your control. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is as dangerous in our society as criminal conduct, perhaps moreso because it affects far more people for far longer.

The first news outlet that ventures into the field of “Here’s something you should read. You can bypass it if you like, but we’re going to remind you that you’re doing so.” is going to score some major publicity and visibility. And, undoubtedly, not a little scorn.

Internet Didn’t Invent Bubbles and Echo Chambers But News Media Capitalized On Them

One thing that’s both fascinating and confusing about the Internets is the ability of each of us to create an online world entirely built of our own interests and desires, to the exclusion of other worlds that are equally vibrant.

Thus spake Catharine P. Taylor recently on Social Media Insider.

I don’t know why Ms. Taylor finds this obvious observation either fascinating or confusing.

For many, many years prior to the emergence of the Internet, people tended to congregate and socialize with people whose viewpoints they agreed with and to shun those whose ideas were different…or at least to avoid discussing those different ideas in social settings. The old adage that, “Birds of a feather stick together,” alongside the etiquette reminder never to discuss politics or religion in polite company both attest to that. And they both go back a long way before the Internet.

No, Americans (particularly) have long — perhaps always — preferred to insulate themselves as much as possible from news, ideas, and opinions with which they disagreed except for the occasional necessity to argue them with someone with whom one’s relationship was not, perhaps, all that sanguine to begin with.

media_logosWhat has changed is that “back in the day” everyone got their news from common sources, of which there were relatively few. Those sources tended to report a wide variety of news, both out of a sense of journalistic integrity and for commercial reasons: you wanted to cover everyone’s favorite topics so as to draw the largest possible subscriber base.

Today, you can pick your news outlet based not on its objectivity not only in viewpoint but also in selection of news (which I would argue is even more important than viewpoint), but also based specifically on the narrowest possible perspective that coincides with your own experiences and values. The result is that almost all of us are much less well informed than we were less than a generation ago. We of the Left like to poke fun at those people who get all their news from Fox “News” which is demonstrably nothing more than a propaganda outlet for the GOP and the Right. But we are not really any better if we get all of our news from MSNBC, which is somewhat less demonstrably an outlet for the Democrats (because they have drifted too far right) but unarguably brings a distinct Leftist view to its coverage.

It is, as Biblical wisdom has it, much easier for us to see the mote in our goofy Republican uncle’s eye than to see the beam in our own.

But try, as I have, to find a news outlet that is at least reasonably objective in its choice of stories it covers and opinions it offers, without paying for the coverage, and you run into the problem that the only such sources tend to be news aggregators. These outfits don’t do any news evaluation, so their choice of stories by subject is often bizarre, even unfathomable. They are less convenient; every story involves at least two clicks. They don’t always differentiate between free and paid sources, which results in greater inefficiency. Plus, of course, they don’t generally offer coverage of your local area, which means you must also try to fill that void.

It is difficult to expand your horizons outside your narrow circle of interests, friends, and viewpoints on today’s targeted Web and in today’s screeching 24-hour news cycle dominated by the Right but populated by the Left as well. At one time, CNN could be counted on for broad coverage and reasonable objectivity but that has long since ceased to be the case; it’s now Fox Lite.

I don’t have an answer.

My own news fare tends to come from Google News (an aggregator with all the problems I just cited plus a fairly narrow list of stories it bothers with, chosen by criteria I can’t begin to fathom), Al Jazeera (which does a surprisingly objective job of news coverage and whose opinions I mostly agree with but not always) and my local TV and weekly news outlets (the local daily, the Monterey County Herald, having gone to poop in recent years). And yet if I want to understand what’s really going on with a given story, I find myself having to use Google Search and dig into outlets whose objectivity I’m not clear about. A retired journalist friend and I frequently bemoan the demise of great reporting but we can’t come up with a model that will work financially and return us to the Good Old Days. Even what we consider the three great newspapers in America — the New York and Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post — are succumbing more and more to above-the-fold garbage that, five years ago, would not have appeared anywhere in their sacred foolscap.

And now I’m starting to sound like the Old Man I am. So I’m going back into my Grandpa Cave.


TV Show Story Lines and ‘Reality’ Show Results Are NOT Legitimate News

Every time I see a so-called “news story” about a TV drama or a “reality show” outcome, I cringe and reach for a vomit container. Since when is what happens in the world of fiction “news”?

“This just in! Barbie McFolly was voted off ‘Ugly Island’ by her peers on last night’s show!”

“‘Busting Evil’s lead character leaves his wife for a prostitute.”

“Will ‘Jeopardy’ winner’s tactics change the future of the game forever?”

This kind of crap is promotional pablum that is not now and never has been the legitimate province of the news room. Yet in an era of pandering and sophomoric anti-intellectualism, many local and national ‘news’ outlets stoop to the publication of such garbage to get people to read their products.

What happens to the real-life actors and actresses is news of a sort. What happens to the shows — ratings, cancellations, awards — is also often newsworthy, at least to some segment of a news site’s followers. But what happens in the story lines? No way. And the “journalists” reporting this slop know that. They should know better but of course editors are just following orders from publishers who are taking their orders from advertisers.

It’s shameful. Even in its heyday, Yellow Journalism never sank this low. It’s as if the entire news industry took a look at the National Inquirer and decided its business model made sense.


Why Does ‘Breaking Bad’ Get Treated Like News? And How About The Voice?

I need to be clear at the outset that I am an inveterate foe of so-called “reality TV.” Not only is there nothing real about it, but unscripted adventures and contests rob creative writers, actors, and other talent of viable jobs while allowing sponsors and networks to rake in obscene profits.

So it really galls me when, the morning after an episode of The Voice or America’s Got Talent or So You Think You Can Dance or one of a dozen knock-offs, newspapers, radio and TV news shows and Web sites all over the world “report” who was kicked off the show or who made the finals or won the idiotic competitions as if this were legitimate news. It’s not. Never has been, never will be.

The same is true in spades for faux news coverage of TV shows someone somewhere has declared to be “serious TV”. Episodes of The Office and Breaking Bad, e.g., get treated as if the events taking place on their fictional sets were somehow significant enough to push legitimate news that people really need off the front pages and even out of the media altogether. I tuned in NPR the other day and there was an interview with one of “Breaking Bad’s” lead actors discussing possible plot outcomes in the final season. Really? NPR?

This is a rank obscenity, particularly true when it’s pretty easy to come up with a list of 25 really important stories that are either censored or ignored by the mainstream media. (See Project Censored’s take on those stories last year here.)

I’m smart enough to know that the fact that this crap keeps getting covered means someone is paying attention to it. But who are those folks? What do they get out of reading “news” stories about lies and fictions that aren’t taking place in Congress?

If you disagree with me — if you know some good reason(s) why this stuff deserves to be treated as legitimate news — I’d really appreciate you telling me so in the comments. I really want to understand this phenomenon. Because frankly it’s got me stumped. And unhappy. And I don’t like to be either.

If LinkedIn Buys Pulse, I Could Be Very Happy

pulselogolinkedinlogoThere are unconfirmed news reports today that LinkedIn is in the final stages of acquiring news reader/aggregator Pulse for something north of $50 million.

I use both LinkedIn and Pulse every day multiple times and have found each in its own way to be a valuable source of useful and usable information. In addition, I love Pulse’s user experience; they’ve done some very deep and clear thinking about how to make a tablet app feel like it was built specifically for that platform.

So if the two combine, they could make my life more efficient. LinkedIn has recently been nudging towards a news-focused front page experience as it shifted more and more of its attention to content. If I could access my news feeds within LinkedIn and have the service merge news filtered by my LinkedIn interests while giving me the ability to filter news by what my LinkedIn colleagues are reading or recommending, that could considerably sweeten the LinkedIn experience.

I’m a little surprised at the low price tag but I am not privy to Pulse’s financial condition or expansion plans, so the surprise is mild. If it is a good deal for Pulse’s founders and stakeholders, then I’m delighted for all concerned…including avid users like me.


Iranian News Agency Cites Onion Article Seriously

This is one of those doubly funny stories that come along infrequently.

According to Emily Heil of the Washington Post, an independent news agency in Iran picked up a story from the satire site, The Onion, that lampooned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by saying, among other ridiculous things, that a poll showed 77% of rural white Americans preferred him to President Obama, and ran the story verbatim as if it were truth.

Satire and irony don’t translate well and it’s hard to blame the Iranian news editors. But that doesn’t make this story any less hysterical.

What’s Your News Diet?

I've been spending more time than usual lately, thanks largely to the U.S. Presidential Election, reading news. In fact, i've been spending way too much time on that task, so I decided to spend a little time reassessing my approach to the news and seeing if I could somehow streamline it without losing any real value.

On any given day, I tend to read my news from the following sites:

  • Yahoo or Google News (Yahoo's been edging out Google recently)
  • The WEEK Magazine
  • truthout.org
  • AP
  • PBS
  • Pulse (on my iPad, though they have a Mac version now as well)
  • My friend Tony Seton's private news feed
  • NBC
  • Salon.com

In the aggregators (Yahoo News, Google News, The WEEK, and Pulse), I get a smattering of other major outlets but I allow the folks responsible for the sites' content to pick and choose for me.

I asked my friend Tony Seton (he of the private news feed), a long-time savvy journalist, thinker and writer, for his recommendations for the slightly above-average American who is interested in keeping current on important news without spending the 2-3 hours a day I spend on it or the 3-4 hours a day Tony devotes. I wanted his help whittling down the vast reservoir from which we draw our news to a small number of outlets that most people who care at all (a distinct but not minuscule minority) would find time to read in some depth. Our focus is strictly on news, not on columnists and analysts.

Tony trusts almost nobody to edit for him, so he doesn't look at any news aggregators except a California-centric site called Rough & Tumble. His thought is that if you read the LA Times, BBC and AP, you get a pretty good idea of the important things going on in the world around you in as objective a way as you're likely to find. So Tony's abbreviated list for the busy reader:

He does, however, say that he won't give up the New York Times even though he considers it a bit pedantic for his taste. The LA Times does a great job of national and international news and the fact that it is based in the state in which he lives (and so do I), makes it that much more valuable.

I mix it up a lot. But I have found some sources that I've eliminated completely:

  • Wall Street Journal (once venerable and reliable, now FoxInPrint)
  • USA Today (brings new meaning to the word "shallow")
  • Washington Post (too insular, but some of their columnists are world-class)

What do you read or listen to?

The Right of a Free Press and the Crisis of Free News

I spent much of my career as a newspaper reporter and editor. In one of my assignments, I was the editor of a small upstate Michigan weekly. The owner/publisher was a grizzled old print shop veteran whose newspaper had never earned a profit. I took over the editorial operation and oversaw a major expansion that brought profit for the first time in more than 100 years of business.

One day he and I had a blowup over a news story I wanted to print that made a local city councilman look pretty bad.  The guy had showed up drunk at a council meeting and made a complete ass of himself. The publisher killed the story. I threatened to quit. He laughed. When I raised the right of a free press, he said, "Son, the first right of a free press is the right to remain solvent." See, that councilman also owned the grocery store that was our biggest single advertiser by far.

I left that job shortly after the incident. But I never forgot his caution. And while I don't like it and it chafes at me to think it, that doesn't make it less true.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that one of the big problems we have with journalism today, online, broadcast and print alike, is that there's way too much garbage out there because nobody cares about keeping the outlets solvent. We demand free information, free news, free access even to considered opinion. But of course we also don't want to see ads or be emailed offers or to have text messages disrupting our smartphones. All of that is bad enough in terms of trying to figure out how to keep decent news reporting around. But the bigger problem is that it drives the free content to the foreground, resulting in garbage passing for news. This in turn leads to a misinformed electorate which then makes uninformed decisions which in turn leads to the political chaos and confrontation we have today.

If there's no money for reporting, if there's no money for editing, if there's no money or time for fact-checking, any idiot with an Internet connection can masquerade as a journalist. The ideals of journalism — fair reporting that refuses to pander to stupidity among its news sources, a concern with factual accuracy, and intelligent selection of what's news and therefore important — are being washed away in a sea of "he said, she said and even though he's an idiot I have to present his view so I seem fair and balanced," and "of course it's newsworthy who was kicked off the island on a 'reality' TV show whose outcome means not a thing to anyone in the real world".

We get what we refuse to pay for. Ultimately, this will be the death knell of democracy.

Big Day For Net News Junkies

As a confirmed Internet news junkie, I found today's news about Internet news interesting. In the process of digging into it, I made a discovery worth commenting on (IMNSHO).

NBC finally put to bed a deal to revamp MSNBC.com and to get its own online news presence in the process. The "old" msnbc.com is now NBCNews.com. The redirects are already in place. Until today, NBC News did not have its own Web presence. That was part of the deal between Microsoft and NBC made years ago when the two teamed up to create MSNBC.com. At the time the deal was struck, it made eminent sense. It hasn't for some time but it took NBC and its newer partner Comcast a while to negotiate Microsoft out of the relationship. The price of divorce was reportedly $30M. Apparently, the MSNBC TV operation remains separate and there are no reported plans to change its lineup. The offspring news service will reportedly get its own dedicated .com next year.

Microsoft said in departing from the deal that it wants to create its own news presence but I doubt that's in the offing. They aren't in the content business and are partnered with too many companies that are.

So there's that.

And then I read a piece in one of the many newsletters I read every day that indicated that the highest-traffic news site on the Internet has become the Yahoo-ABC combo. So I dropped over to check it out and, man was I impressed. My main online news base at the moment is Google News but Yahoo/ABC has them beat hands-down. Better organization, better layout and design, far better user experience. I'd switch in a nanosecond but for one failing on the part of Yahoo: no ability to add custom news topics to your news page.

Maybe the brand-new  Yahoo CEO can fix that. Because also today Yahoo announced it had filled its CEO position by hiring the second woman ever to take the helm at the once-giant tech company. Marissa Mayer, one of the top execs at Google, is credited with being one of their best product innovators. And if Yahoo needs anything right now, it's innovation. Having completely blown their initial role as a major search player, Yahoo's best new play — evidenced by the way it has executed with ABC — is as a serious content provider. I'm guessing Mayer will quickly start focusing on content innovation. She could well lead a real resurgence of Yahoo.

HuffPost’s Problem With the iPad: Aggregator Beware!

I love-love-love the Huffington Post. It has become my second favorite source of online news (behind one of the best-kept secrets in America, The Week). When they upgraded their iPad app recently, I downloaded it to give it a try. Earlier versions of the app had been…sort of ok but not exciting.

The new version is much better. I like it a lot. But it continues to suffer from one problem HuffPost can't help because by its very nature as a content aggregator, it is stuck with stupid decisions made by its sources. This means that very often a video re-published by HuffPost ends up a blank spot on my iPad. A quick random sample this morning suggests that less than 20% of the videos they share are usable on iOS. Which makes me wonder about whether their sources are ignoring HTML5 or using some proprietary player-required format in a misguided effort to protect their IP.

Whichever it is, the whole thing makes HuffPost much less enjoyable on the iPad. Which in turn dramatically limits the number of hours I spend on the site each week.