Note to self: Don’t fear your choices

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt:

For December I would like you all to write a letter to your younger self. You can write about anything, no rules, no apologies. You may like to share with yourself advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned, about your life, choices… or just about anything that is on your mind. Ideally these are deeply personal to you and I hope it’ll be enlightening to others in its universality to the human condition.

I know you won’t listen. No one ever listens when people tell you how it’s supposed to be, how it should work out, how you should live your life.

Do I tell you to take risks? To work harder? To be bolder? Should I remind you to cling tightly to your friends and family, to those moments that blur by so quickly?

You won’t listen. I know you. You want to figure everything out for yourself.

So let me share a simple thought: The mid-life crisis or moment or whatever you want to call it is real. It happens. It washes over you when you least expect it, and you realize at that second that the time you have left is less than what you’ve already experienced.

No, you won’t buy a silly sports car, or get a tattoo, or fly off to a gambling binge in Vegas. You won’t be filled with regret or dread. You will have a wonderful family, a respectable career, a circle of special friends. Like the T-shirts that come out when you get older say, “Life is good.”

No, that mid-life moment is when you tally the minutes left to be spent and wonder: Did I cherish the previous moments enough? And what do I want to do with those that remain?

With each choice, you are choosing not to do something else, and as you age, it becomes harder and harder to choose as you fear the unintended limitation of those choices. So I would tell you choose confidently. Don’t let caution lead to fear. Pursue the unexpected moments, and be fully in the moment, every moment.

But I know you’re already tuning me out. You have your dreams, your belief in yourself. You will find out soon enough.

So I will leave you with one last thought: When the chance comes to see Stevie Ray Vaughan, don’t say no.

#jcarn: Teach the art of curation and the importance of verification

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt: What should the student media of the future look like? And should j-schools teach students how to aggregate?

Teach the art of curation

J-schools need to teach the art of curation.

I prefer the term curation to aggregation. To me, aggregators conjure visions of content sweatshops that scrape the Web and repost whatever the hot story or trending topic is. Perhaps they’ll rewrite a sentence or two, but it’s fundamentally the post from a legitimate news organization or reflective blogger, slapped up on their site with little context.

FLowingdataBut good curators such as Maria Popova (brainpickings.org) and Nathan Yau (flowingdata.com) are creating something new in their compilations. You hear their voice in their posts and glean insight from their analyses. In Yau’s case, he weaves his own posts about data analysis and visualization into the mix. As I noted in an earlier post on curation, the curator is adding something of value to the collection process.

It’s a skill necessary for developing your own journalistic brand. You learn what your audience wants to know, and you provide value by scanning the information-overloaded landscape and teasing out the valuable tidbits. Though journalists have been doing this type of work for decades, it is more difficult today to find the uniquely insightful slices that haven’t already gone viral and provide value in the collection.

Teach the importance of verification

My university, Drury, is a small private liberal-arts college. We can morph quickly with developing trends. About eight years ago, we merged our print and broadcast journalism majors into a unified major called integrated media. A few years later, we tweaked the major further based on what we’d learned and dubbed the new iteration “multimedia production and journalism,” in part because prospective students still ask for “journalism” as a major. Our students all learn Web development, video, and multimedia writing, with the goal of becoming cross-platform content creators who embrace social media.

But as I mentioned, we are small, which is our weakness as well as our strength. We cannot offer the massive slate of courses provided by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, which sits just three hours up the road in Columbia, Mo. To compensate, we often meld several ideas and competencies into our courses. For example, we don’t have an “intro to journalism” course or a specific course dedicated to the history of the craft.

Instead, our students take Foundations of Communication to learn about communication theory beyond media effects. In our Multimedia Writing course, they’re introduced to Kovach and Rosenstiel and the principle of verification. In Web Communication, they’re exposed to design, basic analytics, and social-media planning.

Because of this content burden on our courses, I’ve found the best learning laboratory for the roots of journalism is our student media in their traditional forms.

So much of our coursework is updated regularly, focusing on new technologies and forms of storytelling. Students become immersed in WordPress as a content management system, Twitter/Storify as ways to share breaking news, and Facebook/Pinterest as ways to build community; sometimes, the old story forms get lost in the ocean of technology.

Our student newspaper is old school: A weekly edition with a website that fundamentally mirrors the print edition. But that publication schedule is perfect for teaching journalism as a longer process. Students watch their stories unfold over hours and days, and have more time to walk through the ethical/legal issues without the level of immediacy demanded by the Web. That level of reflection is important, especially for newer journalists who haven’t confronted those issues in real-world environments as we instructors have.

Covering a potential threat

Earlier this semester, our students received email and text alerts warning them of a person of interest being sought by the Department of Homeland Security, and the alert from our security department provided the individual’s name. It noted he had made vague threats against “universities” in our area.

At the time this alert was going out, a second, unrelated incident was unfolding on our campus. An unknown driver, apparently angered by a student on campus, drove by the student and waved a gun ominously before pulling away. The student reported the incident to police, who responded at the same time the alert went out.

In the rush of social media that followed, reports merged the two unrelated incidents into one. Our neighboring community college locked down while we did not. Missouri State University, just to the south of us, decided not to lock down either.

Because of the time our student journalists had, we could delve into the broader context and ask questions about lockdown procedures and explore the issues around the event. Instead of focusing on the breaking-news event — who doesn’t do breaking news well? — we wanted to dissect the decision-making.

In the reporting that immediately followed the incident, many local news organizations named the person listed in the Homeland Security release in their updates, tweets, and video reports. As I huddled with our editors in our traditional newspaper newsroom just before deadline, I asked if he’d been charged with a crime.

He had not. We talked about the difference between being arrested and being charged. We talked about how his name was already out there. We talked about Richard Jewell and the Olympic Park bombing. In the end, the editor and reporter decided not to name him.

The next day, the person was released without charges being filed by the U.S. attorney’s office.

I realize that these types of conversations happen in the converged newsrooms on college campuses as well. But throughout our journalism programs, we focus so much on technology and immediacy, especially in this age of the Internet, that we never slow down and take time for the long thought.

In these slower-paced traditional organizations — some would call them “relics,” I suppose — we can meaningfully teach the importance of verification, context, and reflection, away from the pressure of instant immediacy.

Embrace your statistical self: Tips from fivethirtyeight’s Nate Silver

Nate Silver scares the bejeebers out of traditional journalists.

In the 2012 election, he aggregated polling information and other data, and used statistics and forecasting methods, making FiveThirtyEight the must-read column of the election cycle. While pundits became an echo chamber positing a close election, Silver used data to show that for most of the election, it really wasn’t that close. And his forecast was not far off from the actual result.

Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias argues adopting an analytical mind-set is not that hard:

…when you look at it, with all due respect to Silver, his ability to beat the armchair analysis of the TV pundits is much more a story about the TV pundits being morons than it is a story about Silver having an amazingly innovative analytic method.

I’m not sure it’s as easy as Yglesias paints, but his sentiment is accurate. We can — and must — all embrace an analytical ethic when it comes to media creation and consumption.

To that end, I share Silver’s eight cool things journalists should know about statistics (compiled by the Poynter Institute) from his keynote at this year’s Online News Association conference.

I want to highlight the seventh point, which reinforces the importance of challenging your own assumptions and expanding your circle of sources:

Insiderism is the enemy of objectivity. Insider information may not be reliable. A journalist whose circle is too tight may forget there is more outside of it. Silver cited forecasts made on the McLaughlin Group that he called as accurate as “monkeys throwing poop at a dartboard.”

Content farming vs. curation

Sometimes, bloggers mistake content farming for curation.

Content farms snag entire articles and stories from other sites and post them as their own. At first blush, it may seem the same as curation; after all, curators collate other content from across the Web. The difference? The curator is adding something of value to the collection process.

Take the Internet Vision, a site set up by a Yahoo! account executive. This site contains articles from a variety of high-profile sites. But it’s not just links or summaries of the articles; these are the full articles with photos and graphics. He adds nothing to the original article. He is presenting it as his own.

Though he does link to the original site in the author byline, the sense as a reader — once you’ve discovered the charade — is disillusionment and anger.

BrainCompare that experience to Brain Pickings, a menagerie of Web content from blogger Maria Popova. The posts contain copious links and quotations of other material; she adds value with her interpretation and understanding of that content. She shares with us why she finds that content valuable — the sign of a true curator.

Good curators don’t just grab content and claim it as their own. They gather, prune, and showcase it in such a way that presentation itself has meaning and depth.

‘I’m not dead yet’: How to use RSS effectively

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 8.50.10 AMWhen Google announced it was killing Reader, some pundits wondered whether the move might mean the demise of RSS as well.

Let me channel a little Monty Python so we don’t throw RSS — the original push technology that delivers content to users — on the death cart just yet.

‘I’m not dead yet’

In the days before social media became our primary filters, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) had been the primary way to manage the firehose of Internet information. Let me humbly suggest that we should keep RSS in our media mix.

Facebook filters its news feed, and we’re apt to miss important stories in the sea of updates and snapshots from friends and family. Twitter works more effectively, but content moves so quickly — especially if you follow more than 100 accounts — it can be difficult to keep up. And if you miss a day? Forget trying to catch up.

Enter RSS.

What is RSS?

An RSS feed is an .xml file that has content specifically formatted for programs that can interpret the specialized markup. Just as browsers can turn HTML into Web pages with pictures and formatted text, RSS readers can decipher the .xml and turn it into a readable summary of the latest content from sites you subscribe to.

Most sites — especially news sites like NPR and the New York Times — still have RSS feeds built into their sites, allowing users to subscribe to the site’s content. And often, the feeds are customized by topic or interest:

NYTimes RSS feeds

Once you find the page of feeds, click through to the feed itself so that you see the link to the .xml file in your address bar. This link is what you’ll need to copy into your RSS reader. If your browser is RSS-aware, it may offer to subscribe to the feed for you.

Why RSS?

At first glance, RSS seems a lot like a Twitter feed: Headlines and blurbs, with links to full articles. But RSS feeds are  updated every time new content is added to the site; that’s not always true of a site’s social-media presence.

A good RSS reader usually gives you a bit more than a social-media blurb. Some pull in pictures and provide ways for you to save stories or share them with your social networks. Often, the blurbs are longer than 140 characters, and you can consume content more completely.

After Google wrote Reader’s obituary, I latched onto Feedly, a free cross-platform reader that works well with Google Chrome and Apple’s mobile devices.

Feedly Reader

I’ve changed my morning routine to start with Feedly. The site allows you to designate certain feeds as “must-reads,” which prevents you from missing the latest posts from your favorite blog. It also makes it easy to organize feeds into categories to create your own magazine of sorts.

The site provides an effective recommendation engine as well. I’ve added more than a few feeds suggested after Feedly saw what types of content I had subscribed to.

More than subscriptions

RSS feedsBut RSS feeds are not limited to subscriptions.

For starters, you can add a WordPress widget that will post headlines from an RSS feed on your blog’s sidebar. It’s a great way to provide fresh, updated content from around the Web.

And Twitterfeed (among others) allows you to take content from RSS feeds and deliver them straight to Twitter or other social medium.

Yes, RSS may be an older technology, but old doesn’t mean useless. Before you dismiss RSS, try it with your favorite sites, and see how much more you discover and learn.

The phases of engagement and the best answer ever

Since 2009, my research partner and I have been studying the changes at the Christian Science Monitor in its efforts to morph into a Web-first newsroom.

Its success in increasing page views has been well documented. Using search-engine optimization and frequent news updates, its site regularly tops 30 million page views a month, and the organization has earned a spot among the 250 most visited U.S. sites on the Web.

But during our research visits, we’ve often heard reporters and editors struggle with how to transform the drive-by SEO audience to one that is more engaged, more invested in the Monitor itself.

Many other news organizations, marketers, and Web producers have become obsessed with this idea as well. As someone working with the next generation of content creators, I have dedicated much time developing my own model to understand how engagement happens.

A simple model

For years, I’ve been attracted to the uses-and-gratifications model of media behavior, which simply states that people use media to satisfy certain communication needs. But how does this process evolve? And how do we build regular usage and make our sites a media habit?

Integrating several threads of innovation and media research, I came up with four primary phases:

Engagement

  1. ATTENTION: It begins with an appreciation for SEO and messaging. Do we have something that will grab people’s attention from the mass of information already available to them?
  2. USAGE: Ease of use is vital for luring new users. Usability experts like Jakob Nielsen regularly remind us of the importance of clean, responsive design, and if a site/app/program is too difficult to use, users often will abandon it, especially if they are not emotionally attached or invested in the content.
  3. HABIT: Once users have overcome the trepidation of trying something new, we need to use consistent content to keep people coming back. And that consistency should come in quantity (frequency of updating) and quality (meaningful, well-produced content). It is finding the right balance between quantity and quality that so many organizations struggle with. This part of the process is more transactional and informational: Are we providing the type of content users need to satisfy what they’re looking for?
  4. COMMUNITY: After securing the intellectual commitment, we must establish that emotional investment in our site by building community. It is this phase where so many news organizations and businesses fail, and the social media succeed so dramatically. To develop this human connection, we must be willing to share our site with the audience. Allow them to contribute photos, comments, and other user-generated content. Make them feel a part of the site.

I find this simplified model — which incorporates ideas from diffusion of innovations, the theory of media attendance, the Media Choice Model, and engagement research — resonates more effectively with my students than more complex formulations (such as Philip Napoli’s definitive  conception of engagement in his book Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences).

The best answer ever

I teach this model to my students in my Web Communication class, a junior/senior level class in our Multimedia Production and Journalism program, and a question about the idea inevitably appears on my exams. As I tell my students, I am most concerned with concepts rather than terminology; I want them to articulate clearly what’s happening at each stage, rather than just regurgitating my lecture blather.

And so, this past semester, one student took me at my word.

I share this answer with her permission. (The spelling-error comment refers to an error on her own site that we discovered during her final presentation.) Enjoy.

  • First: Discovery of a site. “Well, hello there,” its viewer purrs. “What have we here? Is this worth my time? Is it going to play games with me and break my heart with a lack of updates, shoddy information, or spelling errors (that may very well be tragic mistakes and not actually errors because son is actually a word, just not the right word)? Hmm. Let’s take a look…”
  • Second: Getting to know a site. “That’s a snazzy nav bar,” its viewer giggles. “And I can’t get over how nicely this content is organized! Holy cow, those tags group things well! It seems like I can find exactly what I’m looking for before I even start looking for it.”
  • Third: Regular use of a site. “We’re in it for the long haul,” its viewer promises. “You and I are an item now. You’ve proven your worth, and I want to commit my valuable Web time to you.”
  • Fourth: Interacting with a site. “I’ve gotten up enough courage to make my presence known to you,” its viewer proclaims. “I am going to post in your comment section and like you on Facebook and re-tweet your tweets to show the world how much I’m devoted to you. I’ll shout your existence to the world.”

Interpreting polls: Motivated interviewees, motivated voters?

Prior to the first Obama-Romney debate, some critics blasted polls as Democratic-leaning.

The more accurate statement: Polls reflect the people more willing to answer pollsters at the time of the poll. And now, it seems Republicans are the more motivated interviewees.

Before the debate

Before the debate, Democratic voters were motivated. After the conventions, President Obama’s lead had been growing slowly but steadily. A September poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed Obama with a 51-43 lead over Romney.

A look at the poll’s sample shows a greater number of Democratic voters responding:

Soon after, Republican candidate Mitt Romney committed several gaffes (e.g. his reaction to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya and the “47 percent” comment), and it seemed Obama’s lead was growing. Some Republicans even came out publicly with their frustrations with Romney’s campaign.

After the debate

But then came the first debate, which, by most accounts, Romney won handily. Republicans and conservatives were energized by his feisty, focused performance.

And, it seems, they became more willing to answer pollsters’ questions.

The latest Pew poll released Oct. 8 showed Romney above Obama among likely voters, with a 49-45 advantage.

Unlike earlier polls, Pew captured marginally more Republican voters than Democrats:

Making sense of the polls

Does that mean the poll is “biased”? Pollsters say no because you are grabbing a random sample of the entire U.S. population, which gives everyone an equal shot at participating. Polls are a moving target, something that the sage Nate Silver reminds of consistently in his must-read FiveThirtyEight blog; it’s best to look at a collection of polls and make sense of the aggregated data.

One concrete conclusion we can draw: The race is extremely tight, and at this stage, it’s impossible to know how many of those who say they support Obama or Romney today actually come out to vote for those candidates on Election Day.