Patrick Thornton


How news organizations are taking advantage of the latest iPad’s features

The newest iPad has ushered in a new high-resolution Retina Display that renders text that’s similar to the quality you see in print.

The core of most news apps is the printed word. The coarse typography of the iPad 1 and 2 and other tablets led to less than ideal news experiences because letters and words literally don’t stand out as much on low-resolution displays. But that’s changed with the latest iPad.

News outlets have been updating their apps to take advantage of the new iPad, which features a display with twice the pixel density, 264 PPI. Apple says that pixel density qualifies the 9.7-inch iPad as a Retina Display. (Individual pixels are not perceptible by the human eye).

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen said in a phone interview that the new iPad’s display will cause people to use the device more because it’s a more enjoyable user experience, particularly for reading text.

Nielsen highlighted the crispness of typography on the new iPad. He said the higher resolution display impacts both reading speed and eyestrain, two issues that plague other consumer-grade computer monitors. These two issues have also caused people to shy away from reading longer-form content on computers.

“All commercially available computer screens have all had bad typography,” he said. “For the entire history of computers we’ve always suffered under reduced reading speed and increased eyestrain compared to print.”

States of “retina” readiness

News outlets are in various stages of adjusting their apps to the latest iPad and are facing some challenges with larger file sizes and difficult technology revisions. Some news apps aren’t updated at all for the new iPad, while others are completely redone for it. The Daily, a news publication originally created for the iPad, is naturally leading the way when it comes to taking advantage of the higher resolution display on the new iPad.

The Daily iPad app has clean-looking text that uses the native text rendering engine built into iOS. The Daily has also updated photos to look great at this higher resolution.

Greg Clayman, publisher of The Daily, believes that the higher resolution Retina Display on the new iPad will foster more reading.

“It’s just so comfortable to read on the new iPad,” he said via email.

Nielsen agrees with that assessment and believes the new iPad and rival tablets on the horizon with high-pixel density displays will prompt people to read more on tablets.

“The crispness of the typography really impacts both reading speed and eyestrain and the pleasantness of reading,” Nielsen said.

The Daily was a news organization created to produce journalism on the iPad. It would be silly if it weren’t making full use of the latest iPad technology. But what about apps from established news organizations?

The Economist hasn’t been fully updated to take advantage of the new display on the latest iPad, but overall the apps looks pretty good. This is largely because The Economist app has always made use of native text within iOS, unlike a lot of other magazine apps that rendered text as images. (Those images didn’t scale well to higher resolutions.) The Economist didn’t have to do anything to get text to render properly on the new iPad, and all old issues do a good job of rendering text on the new iPad as well.

The Economist, however, has not updated its graphical assets or photos to take advantage of the new display. Photos look pixelated and not nearly as good as what The Daily offers. Oscar Grut, managing director for Economist Digital, said in an email that higher resolution images are coming to The Economist app.

Using native iOS text made the transition much easier for some apps, he said. Other apps that used Adobe’s InDesign plugin needed to be redone.

“We haven’t faced the same problems as some other magazine publishers because we use core text, so the text renders perfectly on the new iPad,” Grut said. “We have not had to update the app for this.”

Distracting and fuzzy text

Non-updated text is distracting and hard to read on the new iPad. It’s a bit like watching standard definition content on a high-definition TV. Just as standard definition TV looks worse on a high-definition TV than it does on a standard definition one, the same effect happens on the iPad. It’s not that apps need to be updated to look even better on the new iPad; it’s that if they aren’t updated, they’re very hard to look at.

I’ve found that apps that haven’t been updated are not worth using. The text is so hard to read and distracting that it ruins the reading and news consumption experience. It’s hard to imagine someone who enjoys the typography of print getting into such a pixelated reading experience.

Some magazines are more known for their visual flair than The Economist. Vanity Fair is now taking advantage of the higher resolution display to feature higher resolution photos that show off more detail. Many users and app developers had concerns, however, that the new iPad would lead to magazine issues that were too big.

Vanity Fair, Wired and others had large file sizes, sometimes 500 MB or more. The smallest iPad has about 13.5 GB of usable storage space. At 500 MBs an issue, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for many issues or other apps or movies. And that was 500 MB per issue on a device that needs to push four times less pixels than the new iPad.

Vanity Fair recently switched to a bundled PDF format from a PNG format, which has allowed the magazine to use higher resolution art assets while also reducing the file size of their issues. Its May issue weighed in at 135 MB.

Art Director Chris Mueller said in an email that Vanity Fair also rethought some of the apps’ usability. Issues now feature less scrolling content. The Table of Contents page is several individual pages instead of one big, long scroll.

“We’re adapting and working through other quirks as they come up, but overall the huge improvement to the appearance of type and images on the tablet is worth the effort,” Mueller said of the changes made to the Vanity Fair app for the new iPad.

The Washington Post is another iPad app in transition. The text looks great, but photos are low resolution. Joey Marburger, designer for mobile and new digital products at the Post, said in an email that higher resolution photos are on the way. He cautioned that a balance needs to be struck between high resolution photos and download speed. He said that offline storage is another issue that iPad news app makers need to take into account. (iPads hold a small fraction of what desktops and laptops can hold.)

Marburger said that tablets need high resolution because they are easier on the eyes and make for a more enjoyable reading experience.

“The Kindle essentially has the highest perceived resolution because it seems so natural,” he said. “That intersection is paramount.”

The issue with old issues

Publishers also have to take into account the problem of old issues not being updated, or only partially updated. The Wired app has largely been updated, and it looks good on the new iPad. Previous issues prior to the switch look terrible on the new iPad, and Wired hasn’t gone back and updated old issues to look good on the new display.

This is true of a lot of iPad news apps. One of the nice things about the iPad is the ability to store years worth of old issues of magazines on one device. However, when some of the issues feature really crisp text and photos, and other issues feature pixelated text and blurry photos, the reading experience can be jarring.

The process of creating news apps for the iPad and other tablets is still in its infancy, and best practices are still forming. The new iPad and other tablets on the horizon may finally be able to offer some of the best parts of print in a digital format. Read more

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iPad 3′s Retina display will make news apps stand out, present new challenges for news orgs

Apple announced its latest iPad today, which features a much higher resolution display that’s perfect for reading and for news apps.

The new iPad could finally elevate the text reading experience on a tablet to something much more akin to reading a printed newspaper, magazine or book. Most major news organizations have released iPad apps, but the blurry, pixelated text from the relatively low-resolution iPad 1 and 2 always stood out. iPad news apps may have great looking photos, videos and interactive graphics, but text — often the core of what a news organization produces — doesn’t look that good, especially in comparison to what humans have been able to enjoy for hundreds of years.

Today that changes for the tablet market. This change could be a great opportunity for aggressive news organizations to push more users to purchase and use iPad apps. The new iPad will allow news apps to look much closer to the printed text found in a glossy news magazine, but apps will need to be rewritten to look proper on this new display, and all art assets will have to be redone as well.

Taking advantage of better resolution

The iPad 1 and 2 both had a 1024 x 768 resolution 9.7-inch display with a pixel density of 132 pixels per inch (PPI).The new iPad has a 2048 x 1536 resolution 9.7-inch display with a pixel density of 264 PPI. Everything will appear the same size on the new iPad but will have double the resolution (four times as many pixels). This is big news for the printed word.

Text on computing displays doesn’t look as good as printed text. Computer text is often jaggy, pixelated and blurry and can cause eye strain and fatigue due to its lack of crispness. Many people may not know why they don’t like reading long articles of text on computers, but they know they just don’t enjoy the experience as much as reading printed text.

“A high-resolution display can significantly increase comfort and reduce eye strain,” said Shaun Kane, assistant professor of human-centered computing at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “iPad users with low vision, who often use the iPad in large-text mode, will likely notice that text quality is less blocky and easier to read. It’s also possible that an improved display would feature better contrast, which could help users with a wide range of visual ability.”

Everything on a computer is made up of tiny pixels, usually squares. The rounded edge of a G, for instance, may appear at a distance to be curved on a display, but up close it is actually a series of block pixels that are typically square. To make text easier to read, text is anti-aliased to make contours look smoother and more natural.

Whereas aliased text would abruptly go from black pixels to white pixels, anti-aliased text would go from black to gray and then to white. This stair-step approach creates smoother looking text, albeit blurrier text.

Compare a newspaper or a book to an iPad. The text of the print publication is incredibly sharp without a jaggy edge. You can even bring it right up to your nose, and it will still look great. Forget bringing an iPad 1 or 2 close to your face; the text looks pixelated from a normal viewing distance.

This isn’t an issue, however, if a computing display has a high enough pixel density. The amount of pixels per inch (PPI) greatly impacts how good text looks on computers, smartphones and TVs. The new iPad doubles the pixel density of the iPad 1 and 2, making individual pixels indiscernible from a normal operating distance. All of the sudden text pops like printed text, making reading more enjoyable and easier on the eyes.

The iPhone 4 ushered in the original Retina display that made blurry, jagged, pixelated text a thing of the past. In fact, the iPhone 4 display is so impressive that it makes looking at an iPad 1 or iPad 2 display jarring. Retina display is Apple’s term for a display that you can’t make out individual pixels on when held at normal operating distance. The pixel density required to reach a Retina display therefore varies based on how you use each device.

But apps and websites won’t automatically look better and more print-like on the new iPad. Apps will need higher resolution assets at double the resolution. Images will need to be bigger, and video will need to be higher resolution. In fact, existing apps will look worse on the new iPad because lower resolution assets will be displayed on a higher resolution device. Try watching standard definition content on your high definition TV.

All interface elements of news apps will need to scaled up 2x to make them look crisp and sharp. Images will need to be twice as big (or even bigger if a news app and website uses low resolution photos). Because of the moving nature of video pixels, videos won’t have to run at the new iPad’s native resolution, which is above 1080p, but higher resolution video will look better. Many news organizations still put tiny, highly compressed video on their websites and into their apps. Encoding video at 720p will work fine on the new device, but lower quality video will look bad, especially when shown in full-screen.

Figuring out whether text in your news app needs to be changed

Depending on how an app is designed, text may or may not need to be changed. Any app that renders text natively, and according to best practices for usability and accessibility, will be fine. Many apps, however, don’t render text natively, and instead render text as images. Apps such as Wired, and others built with Adobe InDesign and its iPad export tool, render text as images. Forgetting the accessibility issues with this method, this text will look blurry on the new iPad. In fact, it will look worse on the new iPad than it does on the old iPad.

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as making these images of text twice as big. Wired and other apps that render text as images have very large issue sizes because images take up much more space than native text. Doubling the size of the images that render text will make this already large issue even bigger, filling up limited space on people’s iPads.

Kane of the University of Maryland said one of the side effects of a higher resolution display that requires higher resolution assets is that download times will increase and more storage will be used. Even websites will need higher resolution assets to look good on the new iPad, and those will take longer to download.

There are subtler issues that may need to be addressed. Typefaces are designed for different screen sizes and pixel densities. A font that looks good on the the iPad 1 and 2’s 132 PPI screen may not look nearly as good on the new iPad’s 264 PPI screen.

Apple changed the default font for the original Retina Display iPhone 4 to Helvetica Neue from the Helvetica that the first three iPhones used. Even though the iPhone 4 came out almost two years ago, iPads still continue to ship with Helvetica. The new iPad will most likely get Helvetica Neue, a font that just looks better on high pixel density displays, but not as good on lower pixel density displays.

Some apps with forward-thinking developers already have higher resolution assets. Marco Arment has shipped higher resolution assets with Instapaper from version 4.0 on because he and others believed it was only a matter of time until Apple launched a double resolution iPad.

Websites will also need adjustments to look good on the new iPad. HTML text will automatically look great on the new iPad. That’s the beauty of using native text over images to render text. But photos that work on websites built for 1024-pixel wide screens will look blurry on the new iPad, especially when users try to pinch and zoom in on images. If publishers want their photos and graphics to look good on the new iPad, they’ll have to start using versions at double the resolution.

Even a standard website logo will look bad on the new iPad, especially when zoomed in. News organization still get much more traffic through websites than through apps, and if they want their websites to look good on the new display, they’ll have to redo all graphical assets at 2x resolution. Read more

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How Siri, if opened up to third-party apps, could enhance news consumption

Apple’s Siri voice technology is one of the must-have features of the iPhone 4S, and has become one of the phone’s biggest selling points.

Voice technology is not new. What makes Siri and similar technologies different is that it uses natural language processing.

With traditional voice technology, a user would have to use exact phrases to accomplish a task. With Siri, users can get answers to the same question or perform a task through a variety of phrases. You can ask Siri, “What’s the temperature today?” or “Do I need to wear a coat?” or “Is it cold out?” All of those questions will prompt Siri to look up the weather and give a report.

“The best part of natural-language recognition is that there’s a much shorter learning curve,” Marco Arment, creator of iOS app Instapaper and former lead developer of Tumblr, said in an email. “Rather than remembering strict commands, the language recognition allows us to speak the way we think without hesitation or frequent errors.”

How Siri could enhance news apps

Siri and its technology are currently only available to built-in apps on the iPhone 4S. Third-party apps are shut out, but many tech writers predict that Apple will open up Siri to third-party apps as early as this summer. Apple still maintains that Siri is in beta, and that it is improving all the time and recognizing new commands.

So what could Siri give third-party apps? What could it give news apps? How would it help people with physical impairments to better use apps?

Some news sites have tried to make their apps accessible for people with disabilities. The Economist iPad app, for instance, has built-in text-zooming and audio versions of articles, which is more than what other news apps offer.

“At the moment, our apps are the ones that do the talking, since you can listen to the whole of The Economist read to you by professional news readers,” said Oscar Grut, managing director of digital editions at The Economist. “Voice technology would give our readers the chance to talk back.”

Users, for instance, could ask Siri to read the main story in The Economist aloud. Or they could ask, “What are the latest headlines from The Economist?” and have Siri read off the latest news. Users could then ask Siri to open up a particular story that they’re interested in. Voice technology, Grut said, could also make it easier for users to leave comments on The Economist’s website while on the go.

Raluca Budiu, user experience specialist at the Nielsen Norman Group, said voice technology makes it easier to input information, which is important on mobile.

“Mobile devices are used in a variety of contexts, and it’s often easier to speak than to type,” she said via email. “Plus, typing on the small screen is tedious and error-prone.”

Shaun Kane, assistant professor of human-centered computing at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agrees. “Siri provides an alternate method for entering text that may be more efficient,” he said via email. “I know that many blind mobile phone users are excited by the potential of this technology.”

Challenges of opening up Siri to third-party apps

No doubt, there will be some challenges ahead. What happens if a user has multiple Siri-enabled news apps available and the user asks, “Read me the latest headlines?” Will Siri ask the user to specify the publication? Will it get confused? Will users have to specify a setting that delineates which news app is the preferred app?

Arment said that allowing apps to integrate with the global, system-wide Siri functionality is tricky and could cause issues with the built-in commands.

Siri currently allows users to create reminders in the built-in calendar app with the command “Create a reminder.” That command only works for the built-in calendar app right now, but it’s easy to imagine a future where third-party apps would like to allow users to create reminders via Siri for their apps.

User expectations for Siri have been high, with many people believing that Siri is Artificial Intelligence. Siri is natural language voice technology with a lot of clever heuristics thrown in, but it is not AI, and while it may seem a little HAL 9000 like at times, it’s not. A challenge for Apple and app developers will be managing expectations, Arment said.

“Even though Siri’s natural-language processing is very good, it’s not a real human, and it will never understand the full complexity of our language and communication practices,” he said. “But as some of its capabilities, marketing and displayed ‘personality’ make it appear more human, people will expect it to understand us as well as other humans, and they’ll get increasingly frustrated that it isn’t as good as they want it to be.” Read more

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iPad news apps lack accessibility and usability

Apple’s iPad and iOS come with several built-in accessibility features that make the iPad relatively easy for disabled people to use. Unfortunately, many news applications were not built to take advantage of these accessibility features, rendering the apps ultimately useless for people who are disabled.

VoiceOver is the crown jewel of the iOS accessibility features (the operating system behind the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch), and it gives the entire operating system and every application access to screen-reading technology.

Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconson-Madison, said in a phone call that iOS is the only mobile operating system to come with a built-in screen reader, and that this technology often costs hundreds of dollars or more on other computing platforms.

Testing out apps for accessibility

For this technology to work, apps must be built with accessibility in mind. I downloaded and tested several news apps with this and other accessibility features turned on and found The Daily, The Economist, The New York Times, Wired and USA Today apps to be unusable, and incapable of reading everything that their applications present with these features turned on.

VoiceOver allows users to tap the screen and a voice will let them know what they have selected. Tap a folder, and a voice reads the name of the folder. Tap an application and the same happens. Tap a button in an application or a text box, and theoretically the same should happen. Once users have found what they want, they double tap to select it. In VoiceOver mode, double tap functions as a single tap normally does.

In my testing, some of the icons and text were selectable, while others were not. I was unable to get any of the news apps to select and read the body of the text for me. The Economist does have audio versions of its articles that can be selected by tapping a button, and they work well. But they don’t follow the normal pattern of accessibility. Nonetheless, The Economist iPad app has built-in text-zooming and audio versions of articles, which is more than a lot of other news apps offer.

Oscar Grut, managing director of digital editions, said The Economist is beginning an accessibility review of its iPad and iPhone applications. As part of its review, it’s bringing in qualified consultants who can help identify accessibility issues for different types of impairment. The end goal is to make the iPad and iPhone applications more accessible to wider audiences., Grut told me.

Need for a back button, bigger text

In the course of my testing with VoiceOver on, I was completely disoriented several times and had to tap the home key to go back to the home screen and start over. And I could see what I was doing the whole time. One of the issues that causes disorientation is the lack of a back button or searchability within some of these apps (Wired’s app is the prime offender of this).

Imagine using a news website. You click a few links. Now you want to get back to where you were before, but there’s no back button. Clicking something and being shot to a different section into the Wired app without the ability to go back can be disorienting for someone with perfect eyesight. Using the VoiceOver technology on apps without a back button or breadcrumb trail when you’re blind? Forget about it.

“The lack of a back button is pretty egregious, as is the lack of search,” Raluca Budiu, user experience specialist at the Nielsen Norman Group, said via email. “Especially since the iPad screen is so much bigger than the screens of mobile phones and there’s plenty of space for incorporating these in the interface.”

There are some users who are visually impaired, but not so much that they need everything read to them. For these users, the ability to enlarge text sizes is critical. Some applications, such as Wired’s, do not allow text to be enlarged at all, while others, such as The New York Times’, USA Today’s and The Economist’s, offer a variety of text sizes.

“That is just plain not a good idea,” Vanderheiden said about not allowing text to be enlarged. “There is a huge portion of your readership that is going to have issues with that small text.”

Budiu said one issue that many applications have is that even when they allow the article body text to be enlarged, they don’t enlarge the headline, captions or navigational pages. The New York Times and Economist apps suffer from this issue, while the USA Today app enlarges all text on a page. None of the applications, however, allowed the navigational pages to be enlarged.

All of these applications also work with iOS’s built-in zooming feature, which magnifies everything on screen up to five times. After a certain point, though, the text starts to look pixelated.

iOS also has pinch to zoom, which is a feature built not just for accessibility; it does allow users to use two fingers to zoom in on text, photos and interface items. While this works beautifully on nytimes.com, it doesn’t work at all in The Times’ iPad app and worked in The Economist app for article text only.

One of the biggest accessibility issues with The Daily — something that able-bodied people would struggle with, too — is the need to rotate the orientation of The Daily to discover new features and content. It’s not intuitive, and it requires that a user hold the iPad in order for it to work properly. (I often rest the iPad on my lap while reading). People aren’t accustomed to rotating their computer screens or newspapers to discover new features.

“Often companies think that their app needs to have some cool, unique design element in order to be successful and are ready to sacrifice usability or accessibility for that,” Budiu said. “Unfortunately, fun depletes — that fancy carousel or that unique widget is going be less fun the second time the app is used, and even annoying by the fifth time.”

Grut said the carousel used in The Economist iPhone app has proved to be an accessibility issue, and it’s being rethought.

“It doesn’t work for the visually impaired,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure it works for everyone.”

Developing best practices to make apps more accessible

Vanderheiden said content creators may be intentionally creating applications with inaccessible text because of copyright infringement fears. Some content creators hope that by making it harder to select and access text they’ll be able to cut down on piracy. But will making a product harder to use really make a company more money?

“I really think they’re doing a lot of things out of fear, and if they would just slip over to another model they could thrive,” Vanderheiden said. “I mean iTunes doesn’t copy protect its songs anymore, but it’s just so damn convenient to just buy them.”

Budiu, however, says he doesn’t think these accessibility and usability issues were a conscious oversight. Rather, he believes that many companies and developers are not aware of best practices for usability. Vanderheiden thinks this is part of the issue, too, and said print-driven companies and developers may not think about making products for the disabled.

The good news for users is that all of these organizations, with the exception of the iPad-only The Daily, have websites that work great with the iPad’s accessible, built-in browser Safari. Budiu said her ideal news app would be “an app that is not about the app but about the news.”

An app all about the news, she said, would enable as many people as possible to use it and enjoy it.

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How journalists are using metrics to track the success of tweets

When I first started on the BeatBlogging.org project almost three years ago, very few journalists and news organizations were using social media. In fact, you were considered kind of strange if you used social media. Now, it’s strange if a news organization or a journalist doesn’t use it.

The debate has moved from, “should we use social media?” to “how do we get the most out of social media sites such as Twitter?” This question is leading people and organizations to try to figure out what kind of tweets garner the most traction and why.

Services such as bit.ly, Chartbeat, Radian6, etc. allow journalists and news organizations to track how many people click on their tweets and see what’s getting retweeted, and many journalists are using them to track their tweets’ effectiveness and reach.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen uses a custom URL shorter for his links — jr.ly — to shorten his links and track how they do.

“I pay very close attention to this data,” he said via e-mail, “and it has
definitely influenced how I craft my Twitter posts and what I choose to put out.”

Among his findings about what does well: How To’s, charts, graphics, maps, fights between high-profile personalities and journalism business model tweets. Rosen pointed to a tweet he sent out of a graph showing how Egypt recently left the Internet that did very well.

He has also learned that how he crafts his tweets makes a big difference. Putting “recommended” or “this is a kick-ass essay by” has worked well, he said. People follow Rosen for a curated experience, and when he says something is recommended, it means something.

“Of course, I only do that when I have something that really is special to recommend,” he said.

Mandy Jenkins, social media producer for TBD, uses a mixture of tools such as bit.ly, Tweetreach, Omniture, TwentyFeet and others, but said much of her work is still done by feel. She said as TBD grows, she believes it will begin to develop a more formalized process for using analytics to track data.

In particular, Jenkins has been working on ways to get more click-throughs and retweets between 9 p.m. and midnight. She has found success during that time period by mixing late-breaking news and some of TBD’s fun features from earlier in the day.

“It’s a whole new crowd at night, many discovering our content for the first time that day,” she said by e-mail.

Jenkins has noticed that it really isn’t worth her time to send out tweets before 7 a.m. or between 5 and 7 p.m., because TBD doesn’t see much of a bump from those tweets. Five to 7 p.m. is classic rush hour in the Washington, D.C., region, but there are exceptions to every rule. During the recent snowstorms in the area, those kinds of rules go out the door; people are looking for traffic, weather and utility news, especially when they are trying to commute.

TBD’s Daniel Victor uses bit.ly to track the non-TBD links he sends out via Twitter (all TBD stories are wrapped in tbd.ly and tracked by Jenkins). Many people follow Victor, who was one of the original beatbloggers, to see what the next generation of journalists will do and think. (Rosen lists Victor on his “Young Smart Newsies” Twitter list).

Victor said he is always fascinated to see what works and what doesn’t. One of the things that doesn’t work is tweeting about baseball. Victor is a big baseball fan, but most people don’t follow him for that.

“So those tweets might be fun for me,” he said, “but I have to recognize that I’m boring most of my followers when I do it.”

The risk of boring followers or introducing noise to someone’s feed is that they’ll unfollow you or tune you out. When you look at Rosen’s Twitter feed, you see a hyper-focused stream that is on topic, thoughtful and very carefully curated.

Victor said he wants to track how differences in tone play out over Twitter. When does snarky make sense? When does witty make sense?

“The thing is, I am insistent that my tweets be very human-sounding and a genuine representation of myself, so it might sound counterintuitive to make decisions based on data,” Victor told me. “But I don’t think there’s a conflict there, and I don’t think it makes you a robot. Looking at the data is just listening to what your followers are silently telling you.”

David Beard, digital editor at the National Journal, said the mission for the Journal isn’t merely unique visitors or page views as much as growing a sustainable community of continued interest around the Journal. The Journal, unlike the other news organizations mentioned here, has a freemium model, and growing subscribers to its site is a key goal. 

One of the things that Beard does is track readership and traffic patterns between months, seasons and years. So he can study how February 2010 and February 2009 did to see what may work in February 2011. Since the Journal’s coverage is so focused on Congress, Beard can look back at the data to see what played well the last time a new Congress came in or what works over recess.

In my work in the nonprofit space (I manage social media for Rare, an international conservation organization), I have found that tracking Twitter and social media data is ubiquitous. We are trying to monitor return on investment and how to get more out of our time on social media.

Newsrooms are trying to figure this out, too, and using analytics to track social media’s success remains a work in progress. Several journalists I spoke to said that while their news organization does have analytics for Twitter, they don’t have access to that information.

Seattle Times technology reporter Sharon Chan said that while she personally tracks retweets and mentions of her tweets, the Times does not track data on social media. Tracking social media organization-wide requires having an employee whose job it is to track this data — something that’s tough to accommodate for when you have limited resources.

As more journalists use social media as part of their daily jobs, having analytics that point to bright spots will help journalists make the most of their time. How tweets are crafted, when they are sent out, and their content all impact success. Read more

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Plain Dealer Creates New Comment Policy, Encourages Staffers to Interact

The Plain Dealer rolled out a new commenting policy this week that aims to end bigoted comments and trolling, while also encouraging staff members to engage users in meaningful discussions.

Editors and writers got tired of all the racism, fighting and mean spiritedness that dominated comments at Cleveland.com for years. The Plain Dealer was getting very little value out of the comments on Cleveland.com and many staffers thought that the comments hurt the paper’s image.

It wasn’t just users, however, that were hurting discussions on Cleveland.com. Most staffers didn’t even bother to read the comments posted after stories. John Kroll, director of training and digital development, said there were legitimate questions being asked and points raised in the comments that staffers never responded to.

“Some people said that the comments are so bad, you should drop them,” he said. “I never thought that, but if we’re never going to respond to comments, what’s the point?”

Kroll said readers would ask him if comments left on the site affected story decisions. He was embarrassed to tell them that most likely no one read their suggestions. Kroll told staffers that the most important responses they can offer are to reader questions.

“I don’t think there is any point in suggesting that there is any real interactivity on the site if readers can ask legitimate questions and not get answers most of the time,” he said. “I think readers deserve that.”

Sometimes users don’t have questions, but rather that it can be clear from the comments that many people didn’t understand a story, Kroll said. In that case, a writer or editor should comment and clarify anything confusing users.

Other times a user will add a comment that is incorrect and lead the discussion astray. Kroll said it is important to dispel those untruths and get the discussion back on track.

In a post announcing the changes, Kroll wrote:

Some critics of The Plain Dealer have said that the comments we allowed on our online stories were too often racist or otherwise hate-filled, that too many conversations got taken over by a handful of commenters who attacked each other and any outsiders who dared step onto their turf.

Those critics were right.

Now, we’re fighting back.

“It wasn’t just that crazy things were being said in the comments,” Kroll said, “but it was also that people who wanted to have a real discussions were getting attacked.”

Some editors and writers openly wondered what was the point of having comments if bile ruled the day? Why not just turn comments off? Staffers at The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com saw an opportunity, however, with comments.

The trick was to find a way to get meaningful comments. Kroll said that there are three things he and staffers are trying to accomplish: moderate comments and delete repeat offenders, be transparent about the whole process and encourage users to leave thoughtful comments. Kroll said that cleaning up comments is not enough, especially after years of neglect.

“Cleaning up the comments is great, he said, “but you can’t encourage people to come back in unless you can convince people that they are going to get something out of this with valuable conversation.”

A key part of that valuable conversation is the staff interaction with users. A group of 30 of the top people in the newsroom were assembled — online staffers and select reporters and editors — to begin this experiment. These people were given moderating capabilities and clear guidelines on what is acceptable.

The staffers are encouraged to interact with users, respond to questions raised in the comments and help spur discussions on Cleveland.com. The hope is that the 30 in this pilot program will develop best practices and eventually help sell the rest of the newsroom on the importance of user interaction.

Some staffers have concerns that it will require too much time or take staffers away from producing content. Others have not been responding to user comments like editors had hoped.

Overall, however, Kroll said the experiment is going well. It’s still in the early stages, but most staffers only need to spend a few minutes a day or so on comments. Some online staffers are spending more time on comments, but this new push hasn’t been a big time sink for the newsroom.

Overall, users have responded positively to the changes, Kroll said. Some have been ecstatic at the possibility that Cleveland.com may host civil discussions. Others are unhappy that their comments are being considered uncivil.

This latter group are seeing their comments deleted and accounts suspended. These users insist they have a right to say what they want to say. Kroll said no matter what he says to users like this, he can’t convince them of the value of the new commenting policy.

Kroll stressed that this is an experiment and that Plain Dealer, Cleveland.com and staffers at on the Advance interactivity team would be evaluating how the experiment is going and making changes.

If this experiment is successful, Advance Internet — the parent company of Cleveland.com — may begin rolling out similar initiatives at other news Web sites around the country.
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Knight Foundation to Fund Plug-and-Play Version of EveryBlock

The Knight Foundation is assembling a new team to further develop the code behind the hyperlocal, geo-coded EveryBlock project and to develop plug-and-play architecture to make it easier for news organizations to install the software.

Meanwhile, the foundation plans to create “test kitchens” to expand the implementation of other innovative projects created with Knight support.

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Gary Kebbel, director of the Knight Foundation’s journalism program, told me about these moves Monday after commenting at the Online News Association conference that the foundation is rethinking how it handles projects that, like EveryBlock, are sold to commercial firms. Kebbel told an audience Saturday that the foundation may require that such sales fund open-source software or community news.

The changes reflect how the Knight Foundation’s support for journalism innovation is evolving after its  experience with EveryBlock, which was created with a $1.1 million Knight News Challenge grant and was sold to MSNBC.com.

EveryBlock is a data-driven, hyperlocal news site for select U.S. cities that provides geo-coded information on crime, building permits, links to local news stories and more. This information is presented on a map of the city that can be zoomed down to the block level.

In keeping with the News Challenge requirements, the code behind EveryBlock was released in June. Yet Kebbel said he and his colleagues realize that most news organizations don’t have the staff and programming expertise to utilize the code.

Kebbel said the Knight Foundation doesn’t want to be in the business of developing open source projects that only a few can use. Big news organizations like The New York Times and Chicago Tribune have Django and Ruby on Rails developers who can work with the EveryBlock code. (EveryBlock was developed in the Django Web framework.) But most news organizations — especially smaller ones — do not.

“We don’t want to be doing something that just benefits big news organizations,” Kebbel said. “We want something that anyone can benefit from.”

The Knight Foundation is working with advisers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to form a team to further development of EveryBlock and make it much easier for news organizations to set up the software on their sites, Kebbel said. Knight will work with several news organizations around the country to install EveryBlock for them. Once this additional development is completed, the new code will be released.

The development will not be part of the News Challenge because the Knight Foundation wants to begin working on it this year, and News Challenge grants will not be awarded until next spring.

EveryBlock’s News Challenge grant (like all the others) required it to release its code. But some journalists, professors and Web developers have asked if merely releasing software is enough — why not create an open source community along the lines of the ones that support Drupal or Firefox?

It’s now apparent that Knight is prepared to do more than set up an open source community. “We need to do more than just insist that code be open source,” Kebbel said. The Knight Foundation wants to make it easier for that software to be utilized by people and organizations around the world.

In addition to funding further development of EveryBlock, Kebbel said Knight is rolling out something he called the “Test Kitchen” later this year or early next year to explore ways to make it easier for people and organizations to install and use the software created through its grants. “That’s an example of how the Knight Foundation’s thinking is changing,” Kebbel said.

The Test Kitchen idea is still in the planning stages, but Kebbel envisions it as a collaboration between community news organizations, universities and others who set up testing labs. The purpose would be to create a live testing environment to make these projects easier to install. Much like how Knight will be testing the new plug-and-play EveryBlock at select news organizations around the country, these labs would test easier-to-install versions of the open source software before it is released.

After MSNBC.com bought EveryBlock, Eric Newton, vice president of Knight Foundation’s journalism program, said he was pleased that the project proved so successful that a commercial company would want to buy it. Kebbel, too, characterized the sale of EveryBlock as a “validation from the marketplace.”

Kebbel told me Monday that a greater good would come from a successful project like EveryBlock being sold, with part of that sale being reinvested in future projects or further development of open-source software.

“It was win-win in the fact that it was a win for Adrian, MSNBC and the Knight News Challenge as a validation as of the challenge,” he said of the sale. “But we hope in the future to add one more win, which would be contributions to some sort of fund that helps further our interests in open source software and community news.”

In the future, people who sell their News Challenge projects for commercial use may be required to send something — a dollar amount, a percentage of the sale or even the full amount of the grant — back to Knight or another nonprofit foundation.

If Knight does seek to be repaid, Kebbel said, that money would not go to the foundation itself, but rather to the News Challenge to fund additional projects, further development of open-source software or installation of existing software.

He acknowledged that Knight must be careful not to structure the new requirements so that potential grantees seek venture capital instead of applying to the News Challenge.

The challenge for Knight, he said, is “how do we not hurt the grantees, and at the same time take advantage of what could be additional money for further charitable benefits?”

It’s too early to say what Knight will ultimately decide — Kebbel and others are discussing the issue with lawyers and experts in the field — and when it will be implemented, but there will be changes.

He characterized the development as part of the experimental nature of the News Challenge. “It’s a contest that seeks experiment, and the contest itself is an experiment,” he said. “We’re constantly thinking about how it should evolve.” Read more

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NASA’s Spacebook Offers Lessons for Newsroom Collaboration

NASA launched its own social network, Spacebook, earlier this year in an attempt to increase interaction among employees and foster more group collaboration. The network, which I describe in detail below, offers several lessons for how news organizations can embrace social media technology to develop a more open and collaborative work environment.

Spacebook, one of the projects presented at the Gov2.0 summit this month, is a secure internal social network that’s available only to NASA employees. As the name suggests, Spacebook is patterned after Facebook. The network allows NASA’s estimated 18,000 employees, regardless of where they’re stationed in the world, to interact and collaborate.

The site gives employees the ability to change their status on their profile pages, share files, friend other NASA employees, follow their friends’ activities a la the Facebook news feed, join groups that interest them and more.

Spacebook asks users to list their areas of expertise, which NASA is hoping will make it easier for employees to find colleagues when they need to collaborate or ask questions. Linda Cureton, chief information officer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told the blog Space Marauder that Spacebook is an asset to NASA in this down economy:

” ‘With the constraints we’ve had in hiring and our workforce issues, you want to know who knows what, such as experts on batteries or encryption,’ Cureton said. ‘There may be certain skills, abilities and talents that exist throughout the center, and you want to be able to tap into that knowledge to know areas of expertise of people.’ “

Using an internal network in addition to public social networks

Spacebook isn’t just about helping NASA employees collaborate on NASA projects; the service also encourages employees to share their personal interests.

Cureton said on her official NASA blog that chief information officers are required to improve their company’s competitive advantage through collaborative technologies such as Facebook and MySpace:

“One of the most amazing things about these Web 2.0 technologies and the greatest value to NASA is the ability to help us create a culture of engagement and collaboration that makes each individual employee much more effective. Engaging the public, harnessing the power of crowds, and open and transparent government … as my friend Efrain and fav acquisition professional would say … it’s ALL good Poopsie.”

NASA has an external presence on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, and uses these sites to connect with the public and reach a younger audience. In particular, NASA had a lot of success with its MarsPhoenix account on Twitter, which employees used to tweet from the Rover’s point of view.

Facebook and Twitter, however, have been used for both the spread of malware (such as trojans and viruses) and phishing scams. By creating a custom, secure social network, NASA was able to more easily get around such security concerns. NASA will continue to use those external social networks to interact with the public, Cureton explained on her blog, while building out Spacebook as an employee tool.

Fostering communication, collaboration among colleagues

While social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have proven to increase interaction among journalists and the public, they may not be the best options to increase interactions among employees. Creating an internal, employee-only social network could help news organizations take better advantage of in-house expertise and create more openness about what people in the newsroom are working on. 

Since news organizations don’t have to worry much about letting state secrets slip, a service like Ning might be sufficient for a media outlet to launch a custom social network. Also, most news organizations don’t have the technical capacity to create a social network in-house anyway. Ning allows people and corporations to create custom social networks, with little technical expertise needed.

News organizations could benefit from the ability to collaborate easily across different staffs. An in-house social network might make it easier for members of, say, the investigative team, the news team and a Web research and development team to work together on a project. News organizations could also use internal social networks to foster collaboration and communication among bureaus.

An in-house social network could also serve as an in-depth directory, listing information about each employee that might include bureau, beat and such skills as writing, editing, blogging, HTML, CSS, Django, video editing, Flash, etc. This could prove especially helpful for special projects that have multiple people from multiple teams working on them.

For instance, I could be working on a special feature about troops coming home from Iraq, and I may need help with CSS programming and audio editing. I could update my status, and other employees at my news organizations who have those skills could contact me to let me know they can help out.

Many news organizations already have Intranets set up to handle payroll and to disseminate HR and other administrative documents. Some news orgs have also deployed wikis to foster increased collaboration, help keep track of stories and more.

A full-fledged social network similar to Spacebook, however, could help news organizations, particularly larger ones, collaborate even more.  Read more

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Washington Post Develops Visual, Web-like Commenting System

Washingtonpost.com has developed a new commenting interface dubbed “WebCom” that arranges comments in a web based on which ones are most-liked by readers and spur the most discussion.

It’s the latest effort to solve a problem that has persisted since news sites first enabled users to comment on stories: how to foster better conversations and help users find them.

Some commenting systems allow users to vote comments up or down. Some let users respond directly to each other and display the threads of discussions. But on most sites, comments are presented in the same basic way: chronological or reverse-chronological lists. Those lists don’t do much to help users find the best comments, especially when hundreds of people have responded to a single post.

WebCom is washingtonpost.com’s visual solution to the problem of knowing which comments create the best conversation, said Steven King, the site’s editor of innovations and product development.
 

Note: If you’re receiving this via e-mail newsletter and have trouble viewing the video, please use the video player on the Poynter Online article.

WebCom displays comments in a dynamic web instead of a traditional list. As new comments come in, the web gets bigger. The web, however, is not organized by chronology. King and his team believe that the most valuable comments are those that are rated highly by peers and those that spur responses. WebCom uses those criteria to organize the web.

The web changes as users post new comments, as discussions develop and as users vote on the quality of comments. Comments that spur responses gravitate to the center of the web. Those rated highest by fellow users appear larger, while those with low ratings appear very small. And comments that are well-liked and garner a lot of responses are both larger and closer to the center. Comments are color-coded to help returning users see what’s new.

This visual metaphor should make it easier for people to jump into developed comment threads, and King hopes that it will lead to more and better discussions.

It’s a radical departure from most commenting systems, but King said he has gotten few complaints. Editors, on the other hand, were a harder sell. At their request, King and his team developed a traditional threaded list view as a second display option.

The new commenting was introduced in May on Flash-based video features such as onBeing and Scene In. King said the site will start using WebCom on other videos later this year. There are no plans to use it for articles and other text content.

“We have seen that, just like every other news site, that we don’t get a lot of comments on video in comparison to articles,” King said, but he hopes WebCom will change that.

The commenting system was built in two weeks by two developers at washingtonpost.com. A front-end developer worked on the user interface, while a back-end developer created the database and commenting framework in Django. Because the user interface was built in one language — Flash’s ActionScript 3 — and the back-end in another, the Post can take this technology and put it on different parts of washingtonpost.com with different user interfaces.

While WebCom’s technology and presentation are impressive, King acknowledged that there is a downside. For instance, it doesn’t work on mobile browsers. “Once all the mobile devices have the ability to use the new Flash 10,” he said, “I think that will totally change development for mobile devices.”

And users with older and low-powered computers may struggle to view WebCom. King said his team aims to deliver a full experience to 85 percent of users, with the other 15 percent getting a usable, but somewhat degraded, experience.

“If we’re pushing innovation, we can’t make it work for 100 percent of users,” he said.

What do you think of this commenting system? Would you like to see WebCom used for other types of content? Read more

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Twitter Yields Uneven ROI for News Organizations Using Automation, Curation, Interaction

Journalists and news organizations are all atwitter these days, but they are seeing different returns on investment from their uses of Twitter.

Conventional wisdom says that to be good at using social media sites like Twitter, one must be social. For high-energy New York Times tech columnist David Pogue this strategy has worked. He has about 850,000 followers on Twitter, in no small part because he is entertaining and personal, while also interacting with fans.

But most journalists aren’t rock stars like Pogue, and most news organizations don’t have someone like him. What works for The New York Times may not work for other journalists and news organizations.

For every Pogue with hundreds of thousands of followers, there are plenty of journalists with few followers. The success of Twitter for individual journalists, however, isn’t just about followers and sending traffic back to news organizations’ Web sites. Journalists can find success on Twitter by crowdsourcing story ideas and stories, connecting with sources, doing research and more.

Being interactive on social media requires a lot of time and resources, though, which will directly impact return on investment.

Automation and headlines

Many people have decried news organizations’ use of automated RSS feeds into Twitter. These Twitter accounts grab headlines from an RSS feed and usually offer no human input. They are anything but social and are a poor-man’s version of an RSS feed.

So why offer them? Steve Buttry, C3 innovation coach of Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said in a phone interview that while he personally prefers accounts that feature interactivity, he acknowledges that some users enjoy having headlines pop up in their Twitter feeds. KCRG, a TV station owned by Gazette Communications, uses Twitterfeed to automate its Twitter account. Buttry said it’s hard to argue with the 2,300+ followers of the KCRG account.

“I frankly don’t use it much because I like the interaction,” Buttry said of the KCRG Twitter account, “but people have different tastes.”

The New York Times‘ main Twitter account, @NyTimes, features mostly headlines and no interaction. It’s not a model for being social, but it is the 18th most popular account on Twitter with more than 1.6 million followers.

“There is a market for interactive and non-interactive accounts,” Times Social Media Editor Jennifer Preston said. “Like most media organizations, we recognize that Twitter is about conversations, not broadcasting. That said, some people do like their headlines.”

The @NyTimes account has been making strides, however, into a more Twitter-friendly stream. The account went from an automated account to a curated account earlier this summer and will have more interactive changes coming later this year.

“These are baby steps, though,” Preston said. “And we will not make any major changes without listening closely to what our users have to say.”

Gazette, which has print, online and TV news outlets, has a multi-faceted strategy. Some accounts are RSS feeds, while others feature a very interactive, human touch. Other accounts are a mix of headlines and interaction.

There are people who just use Twitter as an RSS reader. Buttry said his wife has two accounts, one for interacting and one she uses as a news feed. Some people find a bunch of Twitter feeds that they want to follow and they read through the news and links from them. Others, like Buttry, have combined their Twitter and RSS reading habits into one. Buttry said he no longer uses Google Reader, and instead views headlines and news while he is using Twitter.

There are problems, however, with taking an RSS feed and feeding it into Twitter. Not everything fit for RSS reader consumption makes sense on Twitter. Headlines that are too long are truncated on Twitter, and other headlines that rely on accompanying summaries make little sense by themselves. Both leave users with a poor experience and may offer little value for a news organization.

The Washington Post runs ads in its RSS feeds, and due to a mix-up, ads from its Post Politics RSS feed have been showing up on its Post Politics Twitter account. The ads, however, are visual and don’t work on a text-based medium like Twitter. Instead of displaying a rich banner ad, the ads simply say “Featured Advertiser” with a link to the advertiser’s Web site.

The Post, which doesn’t currently have plans to advertise on Twitter, says the mistake will be fixed promptly. The Post usually uses RSS feeds without ads when it links up with Twitter. News organizations have to grab the right feed or make sure they have a feed without ads if they want to provide users with a consistent quality experience. The problem isn’t the ads, but rather that since some RSS ads won’t display properly on Twitter, it gives users a confusing and uneven experience.

Washington Post Interactivity Editor Hal Straus said he prefers Post Twitter accounts not be completely feed driven or just composed of headlines. He said there is nothing wrong with putting an automated feed into Twitter, but that it would be better to mix that with interaction.

“We don’t think that’s the way to go,” he said about just using RSS feeds in Twitter. “We don’t think that’s what the audience ultimately wants.”

Straus pointed to Chris Cillizza’s The Fix as a good way to use Twitter; it includes headlines, but also includes other content that suits Twitter particularly well. The Fix, which is also a popular political blog for washingtonpost.com, features on Twitter a mix of Post headlines, links to other interesting content from around the Web, little tidbits of information and interactivity with users. Cillizza also shows his personal side on his Twitter account and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Curation

Colonel Tribune, the Chicago Tribune character run by staffers, was one of the first to show news organizations the value of curation. The Colonel’s Twitter account links to interesting Tribune content, content from around the Web and spurs discussions. The Colonel doesn’t just grab headlines, but rather finds interesting parts of stories and points them out to users.

The Tribune has found a lot of success with the Colonel (more than 400,000 Twitter followers). The Colonel curates interesting content focused on the Chicago area, while also mixing in a healthy amount of interaction with users. The Colonel has paid off for the Tribune, despite the work it requires, because the Colonel has a lot of followers and sends a lot of traffic to chicagotribune.com.


The Tribune‘s main Twitter account, @ChicagoTribune, is automated with Twitterfeed and has less than 18,000 followers. The Colonel has more than 22 times that many followers. The curation strategy has paid off with @ColonelTribune, but a similar curation strategy may not pay off for another news organization. And it’s worth pointing out that some people prefer the straight headline approach of the Tribune‘s main feed over what @ColonelTribune has to offer.

The Post‘s main Twitter account used to be an automated RSS feed. Straus said the Post switched over to a curated approach about two months ago and has found better success with this approach. The Post has gained followers with its curated mix of hard news and feature stories.

One of the main advantages of curation over automation is that headlines designed for a news Web site (or even originally print) may not make sense on Twitter, may be cut off mid-headline or may be too dull to stand out in a sea of tweets. Curation allows journalists and news organizations the ability to re-write headlines to make them more Twitter friendly.

“I prefer thinking [about] what works best for Twitter and not just a headline,” Buttry said.

He said he often highlights interesting quotes or statistics in a story instead of just the headline. Buttry believes this approach helps tweets stand out more.

The big downside of curation is the time it takes. Curation often leads to a better product than automation, but it requires considerably more time, and that has a significant impact on return on investment. If a curated approach like @ColonelTribune was not yielding better results than an automated approach, an automated approach might make more sense for certain news organizations.

Buttry said that news organizations and journalists ultimately have to be flexible and serve users needs.

“We need to be flexible for the multiple ways that people are consuming media,” he said. “If we think today that we have it figured out, we’re going to have to be changing tomorrow because the world is changing tomorrow.” Read more

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