MediaCloud: Tracking How Stories Spread

Last week, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society launched Media Cloud, an intriguing tool that could help researches and others understand how stories spread through mainstream media and blogs.

According to Nieman Lab, “Media Cloud is a massive data set of news — compiled from newspapers, other established news organizations, and blogs — and a set of tools for analyzing those data.

Here’s what Berkman’s Ethan Zuckerman had to say about Media Cloud:


Ethan Zuckerman on Media Cloud from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.

Some of the kinds of questions Media Cloud could eventually help answer:

  • How do specific stories evolve over time? What path do they take when they travel among blogs, newspapers, cable TV, or other sources?
  • What specific story topics won’t you hear about in [News Source X], at least compared to its competitors?
  • When [News Source Y] writes about Sarah Palin [or Pakistan, or school vouchers], what’s the context of their discussion? What are the words and phrases they surround that topic with?”

The obvious use of this project is to compare coverage by different types of media. But I think a deeper purpose may be served here: By tracking patterns of words used in news stories and blog posts, Media Cloud may illuminate how context and influence shape public understanding — in other words, how media and news affect people and communities.

This is important, because news and media do not exist for their own sake. It seems to me that the more we learn about how people are affected by — and affect — media, the better we’ll be able to craft effective media for the future.

(NOTE: I originally published this article in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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Public Media Collaborative, Mar. 11 meeting, Berkeley

Scott Rosenberg, Susan Mernit, and lots of other smart people chatting at the Mar. 11 Public Media Collaborative meeting, Berkeley.

Scott Rosenberg, Susan Mernit, and lots of other smart people chatting at the Mar. 11 Public Media Collaborative meeting, Berkeley.

Last night I attended a meeting of the Bay Area Public Media Collaborative. I’m impressed by how this group is pulling together significant and diverse energy and talent.

The point? To “bring together bloggers, journalists, technologists, media and environmental justice folks, community organizers and activists from around the Bay area to explore and discuss social justice and emerging technology issues in a way that links theory and practice.”

One nonprofit group represented there last night, Independent Arts and Media, is planning a Journalism Innovations Expo II. Collaborative members discussed tacking a social/online media train-the-trainers Barcamp-style event onto the beginning or end of the expo.

I live-tweeted last night’s meeting. Here’s what I posted… Continue reading

Hearst plans its own e-reader: Good idea, sort of…

Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Everett Sloan...
Times have changed since Citizen Kane. How well can Hearst Newspapers adapt? (Image via Wikipedia)

Last week, Hearst Newspapers made two big announcements: That Hearst intends to begin charging for some of its online news, and that it plans to soon launch its own e-reader device to rival Amazon’s Kindle 2.

Gawker cynically decries Hearst’s plan as The Last Stand of a Doomed Industry, but I think this is a step in the right direction — although I would encourage Hearst to think carefully whether it really wants to be in the device business.

We’ve seen how well grasping too tightly to the “paper” part of “newspaper” has worked out from a business perspective. I don’t think getting into the “e-reader” business is a better plan. When news companies get bogged down with manufacturing and owning the delivery vehicles for their content, they lose flexibility and start making backwards-focused business decisions.

It might make more sense for Hearst or other news publishers to partner with the maker of a popular, user-friendly e-reader to create a special-edition product for news. Here’s why…

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Cloud Journalism and the Fate of Beats

Jobs — including jobs in journalism — just aren’t what they used to be. Earlier this week, consultant Robert Patterson observed after reviewing trends in unemployment statistics that “the idea of a ‘job’ as a full-time object that can support a person or even a family, is disappearing.”

Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams applied that theme to the field of journalism and took it further. In GlobalPost: Journalism in the Cloud she pondered whether journalism might be moving away from the dedicated news organization model and moving toward an on-demand service model, similar to Amazon’s EC2 service for on-demand computer processing power. Williams explained:

“EC2 isn’t storage. It’s compute cycles, the raw power of a server as it does what computer programs do: serve Web pages, generate maps, whatever. You use EC2 as an insurance policy. Instead of buying powerful servers just in case you get a ton of traffic or new users one day, EC2 lets you buy compute cycles like you buy electricity: a lot when you need it, a little when you don’t. Services like these are generally called cloud computing because when you draw a diagram of your nifty new system, you’ll represent these third party services as a cloud — opaque, because you don’t care what’s in them, just that you get reliable utility from servers and storage that are ‘in the cloud.’

“I think sites like GlobalPost, Spot.us and many others I could name are the first inklings of ‘journalism in the cloud.’ Just as many tech outfits have figured out that it’s too expensive to have too many fixed assets, many news outlets are faced with the fact that they can’t support the same number of foreign correspondents or beat reporters. The fundamental experiment that these sites are running, each with their own protocol, is this: How can we make journalism happen where it’s needed, when it’s needed, and then redeploy elsewhere when things change?”

I asked Williams whether this would mean that reporters would have to move around a lot. She replied: “Not necessarily. A reporter could stay in the same location. If it worked, though, it would mean they’d report on more different subjects. I think what’s dying are beats, because beats are expensive.

I find this concept intriguing: a cadre of general assignment reporters, ready to work on whatever needed doing. This wouldn’t necessarily replace what traditional news organizations do, especially on a day-to-day local level — but it could be an interesting complement to traditional news organizations. And, in places where news organizations are dying, it would be better than no reporting at all.

But I’m not sure that this model would spell the end of beats…

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Jon Stewart: What’s black and white and completely over?

Fun interactive visual tools: Why should journalists care?

Last week I wrote a lot about various interactive visual tools that can help people connect differently or more deeply with news and information. This was for a session I led at a Knight Digital Media Center seminar for the leaders of the News21 project.

Yeah, so what? Why should journalists and news organizations care about these tools? How can this help their communities, journalism, and (most critical right now) business opportunities? What’s in it for journos and news brands?

That’s what Meabh Ritchie, a reporter for the U.K. Press Gazette asked me to clarify. She’s writing a story on this, and I’ll link to it when it’s up in February 2009. The short answer is: This stuff is effective and (more importantly) FUN! — for journalists and news audiences.

But here’s the full version of my answer…

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Skype: Why you should at least learn to use it

Recently, like many people, I ditched my landline (which I rarely used, and the most basic service I could get still cost me about $35/month). Now my cell phone is my only telephone.

This is a better deal for me, since generally I don’t talk on the phone much — except last month. I was working on a magazine feature story that required many interviews. And also, since I got known as a source on the role of Twitter in covering the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I was called by several reporters (including ABCnews.com) to give interviews on that topic.

Last night I got my cell phone bill. It was about $70 more than I expected — because I’d exceeded my allotted minutes. Ouch.

That’s the trouble with being in the media business, and many other fields: You can’t always control how much time you’ll have to spend on the phone in a given month. Which means you can’t always control the number or timing of the minutes you’ll use. Which is why cell-only folks need other options for making and taking calls that allow you to control costs.

Enter Skype…

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What ABCnews.com got really wrong about social media and Mumbai attacks

On Nov. 28, ABCnews.com published a story by Ki Mae Huessner called Social Media a Lifeline, Also a Threat? about the role of Twitter and other social media in the coverage of, and public discourse about, last week’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Huessner interviewed me for this story because I’ve been blogging about it on Contentious.com and on E-Media Tidbits. She chose to include a few highly edited and interpreted quotes from me that I think grossly misrepresent my own views and the character of our conversation.

Yeah, being a journalist, I know that no one is ever completely happy with their quotes. I’ve been misquoted plenty in the past, and normally I just roll with it. But this particular case is an especially teachable moment for my journalist colleagues in mainstream media about understanding and covering the role of social media in today’s media landscape.

Today’s a pretty busy day for me, but I didn’t want to let this go unsaid any longer. So I made a little Seesmic video response to this story. Here I am speaking strictly for myself — not on behalf of any of my clients or colleagues. Yes, I am very emphatic here and somewhat critical. Please understand that my frustration is borne of seeing this particular problem over and over again.

Tracking a Rumor: Indian Government, Twitter, and Common Sense

This morning, as I check in on the still-unfolding news about yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, I noticed a widely repeated rumor: allegedly, the Indian government asked Twitter users to stop tweeting info about the location and activities of police and military, out of concern that this could aid the terrorists.

For example, see Inquisitr.com: Indian Government trying to block Twitter as Terrorists may be reading it.

Rumors — even fairly innocuous ones — really bug me. Mainly because they’re so easy to prevent!

I’m trying to track this particular rumor down, but haven’t been able to confirm anything yet. At this point I’m skeptical of this claim. Here’s what I’ve found so far…

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Press releases: If you use them, say so and LINK BACK!

Transparency is becoming at least as important as — or perhaps more important than — objectivity in news today. This means: If it’s possible to link to your source or provide source materials, people expect you to do so. Failing to offer source links is starting to look about as shifty or lazy as failing to name your source.

Yesterday I wrote about how the New York Times missed an obvious opportunity for transparency by failing to link to (or publish) source documents released during a court case.

But also, a recent flap in Columbia Journalism Review has got me thinking about transparency. This flap concerns the role of press releases in science journalism. Freelance journalist Christine Russell kicked it off with her Nov. 14 CJR article, Science Reporting by Press Release. There, she wrote:

“A dirty little secret of journalism has always been the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories. But recent newsroom cutbacks and increased pressure to churn out online news have given publicity operations even greater prominence in science coverage.

“‘What is distressing to me is that the number of science reporters and the variety of reporting is going down. What does come out is more and more the direct product of PR shops,’ said Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and media critic, in an interview. Petit has been running MIT’s online Knight Science Journalism Tracker since 2006. …In some cases the line between news story and press release has become so blurred that reporters are using direct quotes from press releases in their stories without acknowledging the source.

“This week, Petit criticized a Salt Lake Tribune article for doing just that. In an article about skepticism surrounding the discovery of alleged dinosaur tracks in Arizona, the reporter had lifted one scientist’s quote verbatim from a University of Utah press release as if it had come from an interview. ‘This quote is not ID’d as, but is, provided by the press release,’ Petit wrote in his critique. ‘If a reporter doesn’t hear it with his or her own ears, or is merely confirming what somebody else reported first, a better practice is to say so.’” (Note: I added the direct links to the article and release here.)

In other words, Petit is arguing for transparency. He recommends using extra words as the vehicle for transparency (i.e., adding something like “according to a university press release”). That is indeed a useful tactic. But we have more tools than words — we have links…
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