19
Sep 13

Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapers

Arthur Sulzberger, the conscientious family boss of the New York Times, was asked the other day what was the biggest mistake that brought down newspapers. One stood out, he said: not hiring enough engineers.

It’s not so daft an answer: Sulzberger meant that newspapers hampered their entry into the digital era by distributing their material through software engineered by newly-minted companies like Google. The new publishing system for news wasn’t shaped in the interests of the people who report the news and couldn’t capture the advertising revenue to pay for that reporting. But this diagnosis of what happened is wrong – and a revealing mistake.

The very best riposte to the idea that the root of the problem lies in engineering was written by the great media scholar Anthony Smith back in 1980 in his book Goodbye Gutenberg:

“It is the imagination, ultimately, and not mathematical calculation that creates media; it is the fresh perception of how to fit a potential machine into an actual way of life that really constitutes the act of ‘invention’.”

Continue reading →

Arthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapersArthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapersArthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapersArthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapersArthur, hiring more engineers would not have saved newspapersShare This Post

05
Nov 12

Google and the difference between information and knowledge

I am a regular reader of Frederic Filloux’s weekly commentary on media, The Monday Note. I cannot recommend it too highly for its trenchant originality.

Triggered by a new wave of complaint about Google in Europe, today’s note looks at Google’s interest in legacy news media. Why, Filloux asks, has Google maintained Google News for so long when it makes no money and when news sites are so relatively insignificant as sources in Google’s gigantic search business?

He thinks that the answer lies in Google’s planned move from being a search engine to being a knowledge engine: the ability to deliver more sophisticated and useful answers than most of us can dream automated search can now deliver. At the heart of that effort is something called Knowledge Graph. And the key to that is the boring-but-important issue of the structure of data. News media connect bits of information to make it knowledge people may want and need.

As Filloux points out, pure-play web news sites are often better at this than the ones built by established mainstream media – despite the fact that the legacy media often hold richer, bigger databases. New media’s data is easier to find because what is stored is better labelled and can be made sense more easily.

Continue reading →


14
May 12

Newspapers: even if you don’t have the solution, stick with the main issue

Newspapers: even if you dont have the solution, stick with the main issueTeachers (and I’m one) have a habit, which understandably annoys many people who wrestle with practical problems, of posing questions to which they don’t have an answer. When I’m in this mood with an audience or class, I tend to put a questions about bundles.

Newspapers, many news websites, magazines, radio and television programmes are bundles of stuff. While this may be justified as making content more attractive and useful (variety, serendipitous discovery of the unexpected), bundles are really made by economic imperatives. A mixture of news and features collects together enough attractions to persuade someone to buy a newspaper; the newspaper sells the attention thus secured to advertisers who buy space alongside the content. In theory, the bundle’s total income exceeds its outgoings in a web of cross-subsidy. Magazines and commercial broadcast channels operate variants on this model.

But what happens, my irritating question goes, if an irresistible force blows the bundle apart? What happens if the readers or audience sees no logic in consuming journalism packaged in bundles? Social media, search engines and the internet don’t naturally see things in bundles. Bundles are by definition ambiguous compromises. Web search abhors ambiguity.

For a year or two, this uncomfortable thought has been pushed aside by more immediate, and slightly more palatable, issues. Can newspaper paywalls be made to work? (Has the New York Times discovered the secret sauce/holy grail/formula for eternal life?) Is the iPad the answer to struggling publishers’ prayers? But underlying fundamentals have a way of coming back to the surface.

Continue reading →


27
Sep 11

Small Google News blogpost: big development

This post on the Google News blog has not had the attention I think it deserves. It’s a small item with large implications.

At first sight the note simply sets down an announcement that a Google team made at the recent Online News Association conference. News publishers can now “tag” (or flag) journalism which they think is particularly special or “standout”. There’s limit to the number of times they can do this with their own content (seven times in a week) but no limit to the frequency with they can bestow the accolade on someone else’s content.

Google News has been wrestling for years with a dilemma which gets worse as the mountain of unsorted online information grows higher and higher. How do you find the information which is of the highest value to you? Google’s most basic algorithm, the foundation of the firm’s fortune, ranks links by the number of connections any given item has. The more links, the higher the place in the list Google returns. But that is a crude sorting mechanism which has long been open to gaming and manipulation.

Google News is plainly very keen to avoid any suggestion that they are choosing between news outlets, despite the fact that its engineers have been tinkering for years with ideas about ranking and sorting journalism for “quality”. It’s a minefield, for obvious reasons. But news is increasingly swapped in social networks. Can Google get involved (especially to help their own new Google+) while staying out of the judgement business? This commentator from TechCrunch thinks not (but note the disagreements in the comments).

Continue reading →


23
Jun 11

The filter bubble and public reason

I went today to listen to Eli Pariser, author of “The Filter Bubble: what the internet is hiding from you”. I wasn’t convinced, in several ways.

Pariser’s argument is that the world wide web isn’t what he thought it was. The search engines and social networks manipulate what you see in ways they don’t tell you about and which make them money. Algorithms which sift for “relevance” create a personal information world for you: a filter “bubble” screens you off from wider, richer possibilities. The new giants which dominate the information networks, such as Google and Facebook, should be regulated so that they can do better for society.

Pariser is right to draw attention to the major, barely-announced shift in the way that Google adjusts search results to suit an individual (although there’s dispute about the extent to which it happens). But his worry is the latest chapter in a long debate over the “echo chamber” effects of the internet. Does the availability of so much information deliver the paradox of people less well-informed because they can choose only to consume material which supports their existing beliefs and opinions? There is at least one piece of recent research which casts doubt on this widely-held belief.

My own sense, unsupported by scientific inquiry, is that “echo chamber” tendencies are probably more than offset by the internet’s ability to allow instant, rich, serendipitous exploration of the world’s digital library. When was the last time you sat down at the screen to check closing time at Waitrose and, before you knew where you were and after several sideways jumps, found yourself browsing, via a signpost in Arts & Letters Daily, a piece in Lapham’s Quarterly on diets which include earth, chalk and hair?

Continue reading →


03
Jun 11

“Grabbing discursive power” – a new argument in China

The commentary in the western press on the hacking of Google email accounts has started a hardly surprising backlash in China itself. The China Media Project (at the University of Hong Kong) has spotted a remarkable editorial in the Global Times (an English-language offshoot of the Peoples’ Daily) adapted from a blogpost by the editor-in-chief Hu Xijin.

The editorial is striking for two things: firstly the emphasis on how a proud and powerful country like China can no longer stand aside from the struggle to grab “discursive power” in the world’s networked conversation. Note the pungently aggressive nationalism throughout.

Continue reading →


04
Jul 10

Weekend miscellany: Eric Schmidt, exabytes, cognitive surplus and shallows, Ferguson vs Daily Mail

A handful of bits and pieces that I didn’t get round to posting last week. No point in pretending that they’re connected.

  • It’s 16 minutes long but this video of Google boss Eric Scmidt speaking to a London conference is well worth a look for a tour of the man’s thinking. His themes are mobiles, the cloud and networks. For my money, the stuff about the computing cloud is the best. Other highlights: Google has a highly advanced face recognition application which they did not launch in Europe because it would be illegal. Google translation software works without a dictionary but with a “statistical machine translation” programme.
  • One last Schmidt stat: from the beginning of history to 2003, humankind produced 5 exabytes of information. That quantity is now generated in two days. Yes, Google love this kind of fact because it describes a problem they will make money by solving. But even so.
  • NiemanLabs is running a series of pieces (why so long please?) on Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Interesting pairing. Evgeny Morozov has been writing about Carr’s book in Prospect (but I can’t see the web version).
  • In 2004, the playwright Joe Penhall wrote a brilliant, uncomfortable play called Dumb Show for the Royal Court which examined the love-hate relationship between minor celebs and red-top journalists. It is a black comedy but with biting moral: get too close to reporters with blowtorches and you will get burned.The play jumped into my mind when I read this sad, angry paragraph from an interview with the historian and prolific commentator Niall Ferguson. Ferguson has recently left his wife for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born campaigner on Islam and former Dutch MP. He is asked about the Daily Mail and this is his reply in full.
  • “I wrote for the Mail when I was a struggling undergraduate. For money. But having been on the receiving end of that combination of intrusion and defamation and misrepresentation, I have revised my opinion and want nothing more to do with those people. I despise them from the bottom of my heart, because they are just hypocrites. While they posture as opponents of radical Islam they have twice put her in danger by revealing her whereabouts. And that is the thing I will never forgive.”
  • That long quotation comes from The Times, whose online content is now of course no longer free so if I link to it and you click, it’ll ask you to pay. I think that makes linking not worth it, which is why I haven’t provided one here. If you’d like links to sites with registration, charging or paywalls, let me know.

24
May 10

Unplugged offcuts

I posted two days ago from the Al-Jazeera Forum Unplugged new media day but confined that one to the new initiative AJ is launching in this area. Here are a few bits and pieces from the other speakers which caught my ear.

Josh Benton of NiemanLabs. Demand Media (which matches freelance writers with commissions and/or payment) is now handling 5000 pieces of news a day; lifestyle journalism is very cheap to produce. Anyone thinking about paywalls has to reckon that there will always be free quality alternatives. The BBC, NPR, PBS & Co aren’t going away.

News is moving from being a manufacturing activity to becoming a service industry. The average US newspaper spends 15% of its budget on journalists. Young people in America spend an average of seven or eight minutes a month on the websites of newspapers; in the same period they spend seven hours on Facebook.

Benton, incidentally, turns out to be the reason why the NiemanLab blogs are so useful and well-written. He edits the material. Shocking, I know.

Joi Ito of Creative Commons. The key element of internet architecture, the heart and soul of the matter, is that the system allows people to connect without permission. Charging model that seems to work best is part-free, part-paid but with larger sums coming from fewer people. But he admitted that his best examples were not journalism: the rock group Nine-Inch Nails and Japanese anime companies.

Continue reading →