Category Archives: journalism

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The Pundit’s Worst Fear: When Facts Don’t Support the Narrative

All week, anyone who follows the news has been carpet-bombed with punditry informing them that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat was because he supported immigration reform. Yet now, polls on both the right and left are revealing that immigration reform was far down on the list of issues that influenced the election’s outcome. Reporting on a poll conducted by Americans for a Conservative Direction, Politico says, “Only 22 percent of Virginia residents who voted for Cantor’s opponent, Dave Brat, cited immigration as the primary reason for their vote. About 77 percent cited other factors, such as the Republican leader’s focus on national politics instead of local issues.” (Tip O’Niell was, is, and will always be correct.)

I doubt, however, that such polls will change the narrative related to why Cantor lost. That the hubris and national aspirations of Cantor were the likely causes of his defeat, don’t fit nicely into a bigger narrative that works for pundits and analysts. Those are too nuanced and local…and personal, and don’t fit nicely into a national debate over one issue.

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This Interactive Chart is Great, Except for How it’s Not

I really want to love this epic interactive chart on NYTimes.com as much as I’ve loved previous ones.

It certainly succeeds in what it set out to do: present data in a visual form that comes as close as possible to demonstrating the unequal distribution of economic impact during the period in time popularly called, “the Great Recession.” I want to love it because it is so rooted in principles I appreciate as a reader: the use of devices such as “sparklines” that enable a vast array of datapoints to be displayed together, in one cohesive, easily comprehensible block.

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I think my RSS news reader is smarter than your Al Gore rhythm


(Sidenote: On SmallBusiness.com, I’ve written about the new Getty embed feature like the one I’ve posted above.)

The Verge has an interesting take on the acquisition earlier this week of the mobile app owned by CNN, Zite, by Flipboard, another app that does the same thing as Zite, but differently and with greater success (apparently).

Here’s a clip from the piece:

“The premise of apps like these is that they will find interesting articles for you that you never would have seen otherwise….And yet for all the millions spent and the machine-learning algorithms that have been built, none of them have improved on the big portals — CNN, The New York Times — or social networks like Twitter or Facebook, which bring you both the news and the conversation happening around it. Newsreading-app developers hire PhDs to do the easiest thing imaginable — find you something interesting on the internet that you haven’t already seen — and then beat you over the head with it, bludgeoning you with an endless barrage of links that never feel half as personalized as they’re made out to be.”

I especially agree with the writer on two things: (1) Twitter does a good job of finding me things I would have missed if I didn’t use Twitter (along with lots of links to cat videos, but still) and (2) I agree with the premise that PhDs don’t seem to be unlocking the secret of relevancy and context necessary to make their algorithms better than what I can hack together with other tools. It’s much like the way advertising “retargeting” algorithms consistently misinterpret why a web user might surf by a product without having any interest in purchasing it).

Where I disagree with the analysis is this: There is a technology that allows people to personalize and customize a flow of news that’s been around since the Mesozoic era of the web. It’s called RSS and is an often misinterpreted part of the infrastructure of the web that enables us to access content as a real-time flow of news, audio, video, etc. (Despite the never-ending predictions that somehow RSS will die, I’ve written before why that’s never going to happen.)

Ironically, the Verge piece not only fails to mention RSS, it fails to even mention that Flipboard is a self-proclaimed RSS newsreader.

But the thing is…

Flipboard, doesn’t look like an RSS newsreader. The vast amount of coverage it has received (and that’s a vast amount) has focused on its user interface that replicates, in skeuomorphic fashion, the conventions of a print magazine, specifically (thus, its name) the virtual flipping of pages.

I’ve always considered it a bit ironic that web-based tech and media writers would buy into the notion that the ability to turn a page is the killer feature of magazines that should be ported over to the web. I would think, rather, that great writing and graphics that work together to tell great stories would be.

Setting the stage for a real showdown

So here we are in 2014 and we’re still looking for ways that the web was supposed to do something promised to us by Al Gore when he invented the internet: Customize and personalize content and deliver it up to us with our morning coffee and toast.

For a moment, I’ll ignore that this blog has 12 years of me talking about this topic and pretend that we are starting out today and no one has ever actually thought of the hundreds of ways that exist for people to do this. In other words, let’s pretend to be like the Verge article.

Let’s make this a show down between what we will pretend are “brand new” personalized, customizable news catching filters created by people who weren’t around for endless iterations of this concept.

Here’s what we can do to test this brand new, never thought of before, “algorithm vs. human” theory.

(1) First, do whatever it is that you do now to catch up on whatever topic you turn to the web for. (Sort of like what scientists might call, “the control.”)

(2) Set up a TweetDeck account (or use the one you already have) for tracking a few hashtags (Here’s how.). If you are willing to spend five minutes learning to do it, set up some lists of Twitter users or topics you’d like to follow.

(3) Set up a Flipboard account (it’s an iPad/iPhone, Android app) and follow the standard instructions of how you should subscribe to the topics. Some of the instructions will result in you subscribing to an RSS feed, but they (wisely, perhaps) have hidden the “how it works” and are focusing on the “what it enables.”

(4) Set up an account on Feedly.com (an RSS newsreader with an interface and instructions you’ll understand that has an app version and is also available in a browser). While there are other new-fangled RSS newsreaders that are far superior to Google’s now defunct newsreader, Feedly is what I use, so I’m most familiar with its strengths and weaknesses.

(5) (Optional) Set up a Zite account (like, Flipboard, an app) and let their algorithms do their magic. It looks like Flipboard but the test is over the algorithm vs. manually choosing news sources.

(6) (Optional) Download the new app from Facebook called Paper and see their version of recommending news stories based on the preferences of people who were your kindergarten classmates.

I know that I’ve already revealed what I think you’ll discover is best among this group for  delivering a consistent flow of the most relevant and personal content, in the most efficient way. I trust the network of smart news catchers I’ve put together manually more than those that aggregate their suggestions by algorithm.

Search Engine Land and Explanatory Journalism

Search_Engine_Land__Must_Read_News_About_Search_Marketing___Search_Engines(Yesterday, I blogged about something being called “explanatory journalism.” It provides some background for this post.)

I ran out of time dashing off that post, but wanted to mention a business-to-business media company that rose out of the blogosphere and has become what I believe is a model for a successful business-to-business news enterprise that demonstrates, even if they’ve never used the term, a great model for blending “news journalism” and “explanatory journalism.”

Search Engine Land and its editor-in-chief Danny Sullivan are the definitive source on news related to the search engine industry (which means, Google, Bing and specialized search engines). As this is a topic that can attract the worst elements of the internet (those who believe they can “out-smart” Google), I’ve always been impressed by Search Engine Land’s ability to cover a topic from a definable (and defendable) point of view that clearly advocates an ethical and gimmick-free approach to search marketing. At the same time, I’m sure there are those who follow Danny’s every word in order to reverse engineer his explanation in an effort to “beat Google.” (As I’ve always written on this blog, if your SEO guru consultant tells you he or she can beat Google, ask yourself, “Is this person actually smarter than the army of engineers at Google?)

However, a more nuanced way in which Search Engine Land has always impressed me is the ability Danny and other writers there (Matt McGee comes to mind) have to add a layer of explanation to whatever a breaking news story may be. There can be some new announcement from Google in the morning and by mid-afternoon, there is a massive point-by-point break down of what is taking place and why it is important. The ability to be in the middle of a breaking news story and write thoughtful, easy to understand, non-jargon-dependent explanations of what’s taking place is a skill few people master. That’s why so many people write in buzzwords.

Another reason I thought of Search Engine Land when the topic of “explanatory journalism” hit the radar yesterday was the way in which Danny wrote a recent post explaining “Why Search Engine Land Will & Won’t Cover Someone Being Penalized By Google.” In his post, labeled an “open letter,” Danny does a thorough job in explaining what factors go into deciding what is, and is not, a news story on Search Engine Land. In an approach that is akin to the concept Dave Winer has described as narrating your work, this post turns the same explanatory skills used to describe what’s important in the industry he covers to explaining how decisions are made in his own company.

Explanatory Journalism and Business-to-Business Media

As someone who has spent almost three decades hanging out with publishers and editors of traditional business-to-business media (meaning, they were around before the internet existed), I have often been perplexed by the editorial decisions they make. The majority of coverage seems to focus on transactions of the industries they cover: job changes, corporate transactions (company launches, fundings, acquisitions, closings, etc.), contracts gained or lost, and product announcements.

Yes, that type of flow is of interest, but it’s less valuable than the kind of explanatory journalism that provides context and instruction and a point-of-view that helps someone make better decisions related to that news. But such journalism requires reporters who know as much about the topic they’re covering as the people they cover. And that doesn’t seem to be the world in which we’re living these days.

While the same content approach (transaction-obsessed) seems to have followed business-to-business media to the web (Exhibit A: Tech websites that confuse news about the latest start up and round of funding with what’s taking place in an industry), there are other sites, like Search Engine Land, that are pioneering a new type of editorial model that blend traditional business-to-business coverage with an adaptation of something akin to “explanatory journalism,”

Simply put, Search Engine Land (and its conferences worldwide, I’m guessing) have found that sweet spot where a business-to-business media company can seamlessly blend serious breaking-news types of journalism with other forms of contextual and “how-to” helpful information that enable an audience to understand and do their jobs better.

(Note: I don’t mean to imply there aren’t some traditional media companies that have mastered the art of explanatory journalism. Many serve as the knowledge marketplace of the industries they serve.)

Celebrating the official arising of a rise in explanatory journalism

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I’m happy to hear there’s finally an official rise in the number of sites devoted to “explanatory journalism.” It’s official because Gigom’s Mathew Ingram said so yesterday.

Starting in 2009 when I explained how Wikipedia is a great platform for the delivery of breaking news, I’ve blogged extensively about one day in the future when publishers (of all types, new media and old, consumer and b-to-b) would realize that users of their content and media have two understandings of timeliness: (1) The timeliness that is determined by an editor pressing the publish button. (2) The timeliness that is determined by when a person needs a precise nugget of knowledge.

I’ve called these two types of content several things over the years. In March, 2010, I wrote about chronological content and research content. Other times, I’ve used the term we use at Hammock: Know Content and Flow Content. After attending a panel called The Future of Context at South by Southwest, also in March 2010, that included Jay Rosen who is mentioned in Matt’s piece, I wrote a rather long post about my strong belief on the critical lack of “explanatory” content (know content) that is needed to balance our current raging rivers of news content.

In my typical “wish hard and it will happen” prediction, I wrote in 2010:

“Content that explains things, categorizes, organizes and makes it easy to access at the precise time in which it is needed will become an integral part of what will make tomorrow’s new media, new.”

I could continue this link-back parade, but I’ll continue with the narrative.

Since 2006, I have taken a personal (and professional) journey to understand, first-hand, something critical to the success or failure of explanatory journalism: how does a publisher create and manage a taxonomy of explanatory content. As there aren’t a lot of people who sit around and think about this stuff, I’ve traveled to two Wikimanias to hang out with some people who actually do.

Finally, I decided that unless I dove into the deep end of this pool myself, I’d never quite get it. (Adding entries or editing Wikipedia is great if you want to swim in the baby pool at someone else’s home–I was looking for my own pool.) My laboratory for that journey has primarily been the development of the wiki that is part of SmallBusiness.com. It is all centered on a deep belief that breaking news is not the only, nor possibly the most important, type of content the web enables. (I say that, but I tweak daily an RSS news reader in the never-ending quest of creating the “perfect” river of news.) Despite that wiki now having 27,000 entries, it only scratches the surface of what explanatory journalism with a relevant and ever-changing taxonomy and process can be and do. Creating such a wiki will make you marvel at what Wikipedia has done. (It will also make you appreciate what having hundreds of volunteer editors can do vs. a couple of people spending a few hours each week fighting spam.)

Last November on SmallBusiness.com, we began adding “flow” content to SmallBusiness.com–and are still in an early shake-down cruise on that project, but are hundreds of posts into gaining understanding of what we believe works and doesn’t on what we call the “flow side” of the site.

At that time, I wrote on the “About Page” of SmallBusiness.com:

On SmallBusiness.com, we help users gain insight with two types of content: (1) “Content That Flows” and (2) “Content that Knows.”

Flow Content

Content that flows is the type of information that flows past us all day, every day. It’s the information that heads our way whenever an editor, broadcaster, blogger or tweeter decides it’s time to hit the publish or send button. Flow content–news posts, lists and all sorts of information we discover and share from across the web–is found on the front page of SmallBusiness.com. We also feed such content through other channels like Twitter (@SmallBusiness), (RSS and via The Best of SmallBusiness.com Weekly, our email digest that we really, really want you to sign up for.

Know Content

Know content is the type of on-demand content organized and structured to be helpful at the exact time a user needs it, not when its creator decides to release it. While we have a pretty cool search box on every page (click on the magnifying glass icon), that’s not what we mean when we say “organized.”

To us, organized means the use of categories and taxonomies that add structure to information and knowledge. It may not be perfect, but the closest thing we’ve ever seen to a website that does that on a grand scale is Wikipedia. That’s why, in 2005, we started work on the SmallBusiness.com WIKI that now includes nearly 27,000 articles, how-tos, definitions and guides related to an ever-growing array of small business-related topics. While it does not follow all of the conventions and governance principles of Wikipedia, it has been created and is hosted on the MediaWiki platform, the same open source software used to build and host Wikipedia. (Other than use of the MediaWiki software, we have no relationship with Wikipedia, except as admirers.)

I’ll admit: I am (also) committed to explanatory media for a purely professional reason: I think it’s another area where the business models of traditional media will interfere with their understanding of how to create and organize such content in a way that serves the user rather than fits into some type of role like, “generate eyeballs.” (I could name names.) While I believe explanatory journalism can be the foundation of a successful media company, the notion that it’s all about “search advertising” or “native advertising” all miss the mark. Explanatory journalism is, more than any other form of journalism or writing or entertainment, focused first and foremost on helping the reader gain insight and understanding. It’s not about “this guy says this, while another guy says that.” And explanatory journalism can still be journalism no matter what’s the source or what’s the medium or what’s the business model.

Tomorrow, I will post another thought on theme — a look at a website that I believe is a great example of how business-to-business media can blend breaking news with explanatory journalism with a result that can be successful both as media that serves its audience and as a profitable business model.