Matt Baume

Writer and photographer in San Francisco, specializing in media, LGBT issues, and the environment.


mrpotatohead

Meet VidCaster: The Mr. Potato Head of video platforms

Is VidCaster a platform, a publishing medium, or a type of glue? It can be hard to wrap your head around just what it is, and more importantly, what it means for news.

The company, headquartered in San Francisco, makes it easy to create a video site. Under its hood, Vidcaster handles most of the technical widgets and pipes of modern online video, from encoding to distribution to ad sales.

Currently, a handful of news organizations — none of which were ready to be identified — are cautiously exploring VidCaster. Online video journalism is a notoriously risky business, with numerous high-profile failures in recent years.

But as journalists continue to probe this new frontier, other communications companies are finding success. And as nonprofits, seminars, students, and entertainers map out the future of online video, they may blaze a trail that journalists could follow.

So, what is it?

VidCaster is to YouTube as self-hosted WordPress is to Blogger.com.

Or in other words, VidCaster lets you roll your own video site without having to rely on amateur-grade YouTube technology. YouTube’s great for citizen journalists and, as always, cats; but VidCaster promises more.

“Video sharing sites are good for discovery,” says VidCaster CEO Kieran Farr. “But discovery has good and bad aspects — as easy as it is for people to discover your content, they can always discover someone else’s content.”

YouTube gives publishers limited control over ads, offers little in the way of traffic reporting, and won’t talk to other video sites. And then there’s the commenting culture.

In addition, Farr pointed out, YouTube doesn’t permit self-promotional videos. And although plenty of unauthorized content slips under the radar, one of VidCaster’s clients was threatened with exile from YouTube for using videos to advertise their services.

That client may be better off without YouTube’s rudimentary tools.

“VidCaster’s not just a platform,” says Farr. Instead, he says, it’s like a very sticky glue that holds together different technologies. When combined, those technologies comprise something far more comprehensive than just a single platform.

Farr points to The New York Times video site, built from scratch with Brightcove. VidCaster aims to put similar tools in publishers’ hands, and to add robust customization. “Now,” he says, “anyone can have their own New York Times video site.”

Rather than providing its own proprietary tools, VidCaster hooks into a dizzying array of pre-existing services, making it a sort of chimera. When a client uploads a video to VidCaster, they’re automatically connected with ad networks, interactive layers, and traffic-analyzers, all in one place.

There’s also plenty of SEO-friendliness: an autogenerated video sitemap to facilitate searches, HTML5 compatibility, and CNAME mapping to properly direct visitors to the VidCaster-hosted site.

Improving search strength is crucial for news organizations, which continue to struggle to attract views. Last month, Poynter reported that the Miami Herald’s top-viewed video — instructions for handling frozen iguanas — garnered a paltry 26,000 views. That video has since disappeared from the site.

But for many clients,  the greatest advantage is that the finished product looks like it’s a part of their existing site. For example, travel site AirBNB used VidCaster to create TV.AirBNB.com, which looks just like the main site. Viewers don’t see embedded YouTube videos; they see videos that appear to reside directly on AirBNB.com.

AirBNB once got nearly all of its video views from YouTube, Farr reported. Now, the traffic to their VidCaster-managed video site dwarfs what they got on YouTube.

Crucially, the video site includes a “Go to AirBNB” button in the top right corner, directing users to the main site. “This is the three million dollar button,” Farr says.

Who uses VidCaster (and how)

Indiana University Student Television uses VidCaster to streamline the workflow for 200 crewmembers working on 30 different shows, including news and talk shows. Students are assigned roles within the Web interface; some are content creators, while others are publishers.

The tools to draft, publish, distribute, and analyze are all available in the VidCaster interface.

And then there are the advertising tools. Users have employed VidCaster to advertise their own brand, as with entrepreneurship seminar Startup Cause, or to sell ads within their content.

Startup Cause used VidCaster to create a dedicated video site with interviews and presentations. On YouTube, that content would drown in a competitive sea, and would offer few engagement opportunities such as buying tickets or subscribing to RSS.

“If you’re a company producing a narrow type of content, creating an experience to deliver on your brand promise is a big deal,” says VidCaster COO Ray Pawulich.

That’s an important point for news organizations. As video early-adopters have discovered, sports and breaking news are important drivers of traffic. A customizable platform like VidCaster could allow an organization to develop a strong reputation within those categories.

Women 2.0 pursued a strategy similar to Startup Cause’s, creating a video site with the same look and feel as their main site. The nonprofit produces interviews that raise awareness of their work on behalf of female entrepreneurs.

VidCaster also has hooks into LiveRail and SpotXchange, allowing clients to engage in direct sales rather than depending on the whims of YouTube’s ad service. Ads can appear as pre-rolls, overlays, and banners, with rules created in LiveRail to serve the most effective content.

Some VidCaster users are more subtle with their advertising. Pop singer Ashlyne Huff’s music videos are ad-free, except for an interactive link embedded at the end of the video that allows users to directly buy the song they just heard via iTunes.

The website won’t do all your work for you, Farr admits. Even with the pre-configured pipes into ad networks, sales and targeted advertising is an advanced science, requiring seasoned pros. “This is still complicated,” he says. “But you don’t have to write the code. This is tech that would have cost $50,000 to develop. Our goal is to make it more accessible.”

In other words, they’ve built the highway for you; now you just need to learn how to drive.

VidCaster also hooks into Branient to provide further interactive options. Clients have used Branient to place images on top of their videos, to embed polls and questionnaires, and to insert click-to-purchase incentives throughout the content.

Like all of VidCaster’s connections to third-party technology, the Branient interface can be accessed from within VidCaster, bringing the experience to as close to seamless as possible.

“It looks so easy because it just works,” says Pawulich. “The reality is, it takes a lot of hard work to get all these pieces to work together.”

VidCaster’s Competition

As VidCaster maps out the future of providing professional-grade online video, they’re hardly alone. Their competitors are numerous, and offer similar services.

Kyte, for example, is also adept at distributing video to other platforms. Like VidCaster, a single click is all it takes to re-distribute content to Vimeo, YouTube, Blip.tv, and others. The “Kyte Console” features a CMS like VidCaster’s, offers interactive features like chat alongside videos, and integrates with ad networks like DoubleClick and EyeWonder. But it has fewer hooks into external services than VidCaster.

Kaltura boasts a CMS with robust editing capabilities, and connects with SubPLY to manage captions. Rather than providing pre-configured connections to ad networks, Kaltura provides its own advertising tech with optional do-it-yourself integration with Video Ad Serving standards — something that’s not for the faint of heart.

Yet another competitor, Vmix, comes packaged with similar tools. But although Vmix has an API, most of its features are built-in, rather than existing as connections into other companies’ services. And ultimately, that may be VidCaster’s greatest strength. Rather than reinventing tools that already exist, they’ve simply built a series of blanks that users fill in with their favorite services.

It’s the Mr. Potato Head of video platforms.

Will it work for news?

VidCaster clients are already producing news — and content that’s news-adjacent. So far, it’s proven that it can support interviews, documentaries, educational content, and even a cooking show.

But news organizations are understandably skittish, since so many have tried and failed to launch their own video initiatives. And although several are in talks with VidCaster, the company declined to identify them as they experiment with the technology’s potential.

Farr is hopeful that within the next few months, they’ll add more journalists to their roster of clients. Founded two years ago with incubator funds provided by faberNovel, VidCaster originally produced its own news content before pivoting to focus exclusively on software development. Now, they’re ready to provide their services to former competitors.

“We’re at a really awesome — but early — stage,” Farr says. Read more

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Storify’s best uses turn news into conversations

Mid-term elections, cities crippled by snow, a homicide epidemic, and hundreds of bicycles materializing in the middle of late-night traffic — they’re not just news stories, they’re ongoing experiences.

That led Burt Herman, a former AP bureau chief and correspondent, to re-evaluate the way that news organizations research and assemble their stories. The result is Storify, a tool that allows editors and reporters to integrate social media into their stories faster and more interactively than ever before.

Rather than copying and pasting status updates, tweets, and Flickr photos, reporters can use Storify to rapidly compile dynamic social media elements that readers can retweet or reply to by clicking within an article.

It was the unfolding, increasingly citizen-reported nature of contemporary news events that inspired Herman to create the tool, along with co-founder Xavier Damman.

Rather than limit a story to a single report or punctuated series of updates, they wanted a format that accommodated the branching, interactive nature of social media.

Throughout its private alpha, Herman and Damman have kept a close eye on how reporters put Storify to use. “We want to learn and see how people are using it,” he said.

So what have they learned?

In general, Herman explained, users tend to employ it in one of three different ways: Compiling the seemingly-random chatter of reactions to an event, quoting direct sources, and highlighting one’s own social media.

Highlighting social media

A simple example of the latter use is PBS’ coverage of the midterm elections. Their Storify post was a lengthy compilation of “NewsHour” tweets throughout Election Day, with an occasional tweet from local television stations.

“This is about filtering out interesting elements from noise,” Herman said. PBS presented users with an easy-to-scan timeline of the day, helping readers cut through the Twitter chatter surrounding the election.

Event reactions

One of the other most common uses of Storify is the documentation of extreme weather.

The Seattle Times created a post to document a November storm, pulling in Twitpics and YouTube videos alongside the tweets. The uncredited Times reporter or reporters also added commentary and time-stamped updates regarding traffic jams and storm warnings.

The story starts with reports of sledding, but soon the tweets report jack-knifed buses and cars sliding on ice. An early Twitpic shows a dusting of snow, followed later by a video of a bus careening into a utility pole. The effect is a bit like watching a time-lapse of the storm’s unfolding, as told by those in the thick of it.

On the east coast, the Washington Post used Storify to compare the winter-weather responses of two neighboring mayors. Following a December blizzard, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued vague tweets about plowing, but Newark Mayor Cory Booker used Twitter to communicate with residents about their needs.

“DOT has 240 employees working on the roads today using 126 pieces of equipment,” Bloomberg wrote, while Booker wrote, “I’m patrolling with my shovel helping dig out. Let me know if any seniors or disabled need help.”

He even responded to residents: “I’m delivering the diapers now. We will get her street soon RT @tmhester: @CoryBooker Highland Ave b/w My sis can’t get out to get diapers.”

This was a perfect opportunity to use Storify, since the story took place largely within the platform of Twitter. The Post’s comparison appeared on their “Politics and Policy” blog, and followed the timeline of tweets with a play-by-play by reporter Andrea Caumont.

It’s worth noting that the Post also produced a “formal” version of the story for its Politics section. That story did not use Storify, and simply placed tweets in quotes. Because the entire story is plain text, there is no easy way to retweet anything, and usernames are not clickable. One source used a heart character in her tweet, which rendered in text as an incomprehensible string of accent marks.

Aside from the lack of interaction and the broken formatting, a single static article fails to tell the whole story, Herman says. Increasingly, news organizations will want to cover stories that occur online not as isolated events, but as an ongoing conversation.

“It’s crazy to think that this one snapshot at 7:11 p.m. is it,” he said, pointing to the Post’s print story. “What happened after that?”

Quoting direct sources

One of Storify’s strengths is its ability to depict online conversations as they unfold, rather than confining them to a single, static report.

Earlier this month, an independent news site called Homicide Watch began using Storify to document ongoing community reactions to homicides in Washington, D.C.

“Its weird how life can be so short and the new year just started. RIP Bryant Morillo,” writes one person. And for another victim: “R.I.P Bman da whole hood came out 2 show u love 2nite we miss u watch ova brah.”

Presented without comment, the memorial media paints a vivid picture of a community that can’t escape a cycle of mourning.

Documenting an experience

I wanted to take Storify for a spin, and as luck would have it, a perfect opportunity to do so presented itself. San Francisco was about to host its first Bike Party, a well-mannered and massive bike tour around the city. As the bike columnist for SF Weekly, I decided to use Storify to document the ride.

The results are pretty satisfying — see for yourself.

It certainly would not have been possible to write this story with any other tool. Storify made it easy to search tweets for terms like “bike party” and “#sfbikeparty,” and to drag-and-drop relevant results into a timeline. It took about a half-hour to scan various social media networks, compile my favorites, and then sort them chronologically to tell the story of the ride.

I deliberately didn’t conduct any interviews during the ride, so that I would have to rely on social media for my information. It was risky, but fortunately it worked out well, since San Francisco’s bicyclists tend to be particularly wired. Photos, comments, and videos were all immediately available to me, and I didn’t have to create any of them.

I did, however, augment the social media with my own reportage on behind-the-scenes bickering and a recap of prior coverage. Though citizen journalists are adept at generating on-the-scene dispatches, there’s still a need for reporters to provide context.

The experience also revealed room for improvement: My editor pointed out that she was unable to access my Storify story prior to publishing.

That may be among the features rolled out as Storify graduates from private alpha. Herman reported that they’re hard at work on implementing more robust scheduling features, integration with more sources, and commenting features.

For now, he’s keeping his eye on the goal — allowing reporters to reflect the new ways in which events are documented. Every phone is a potential reporter’s multimedia notebook, and the repercussions of real-life news may reverberate online for days after a story is initially reported.

Reporters, Herman says, have a duty to incorporate those online conversations, unfamiliar though they may be to traditionalists.

“It would look weird in a newspaper story if you just had one quote after another,” he said. “But it’s different online.” Read more

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Journalism emerging technology showcase focuses on right time, right place content

Could 2011 be journalism’s Year of Context? A showcase of emerging news technology in San Francisco highlighted four start-ups that specialize in placing content where it makes the most sense.

The show-and-tell was hosted by Hacks/Hackers, an informal group of journalists and coders who blur the boundaries between news and technology. Read more

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10 Ways to Attract Younger News Consumers

Won’t somebody please think of the children? Well, OK, maybe not the children — but young people, at least.

That’s just what Christopher Sopher has done with his research project, “Younger Thinking.” It’s a meta-analysis of available data about the relationship between the news industry and its up-and-coming consumers. Sopher, a senior studying public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, can relate to much of his findings as a young journalist and news consumer.

After poring though dozens of studies on people born between 1980 and 1996, Sopher compiled an extensive list of findings that, on occasion, confirm stereotypes. It’s no shock that 21-year-olds turn to Facebook for information more than 71-year-olds do, after all.

But other discoveries are more arresting: there’s a significant gap between young peoples’ interest in the news and their consumption of it, suggesting that youngsters expect news to find them, rather than the other way around. Sopher found that aggregators are key and that network news lacks compatibility with young peoples’ lifestyles. He also learned that the issue of trust presents fundamental obstacles for news organizations.

Among Sopher’s most constructive reports is his list of “10 ways to improve news media for young people.” Wanting to know more, I talked with Sopher by phone about his 10 points and explained them below.

1. Use road signs and context

Throughout my conversation with Sopher, we kept coming back to wayfinding and usability. News on the Web is often presented in a confusing hodgepodge, and streamlining the journey from one article to the next is crucial for retaining users accustomed to the easy readability of Tumblr — or, taken to an extreme — single-use sites such as Is It Christmas. This is consistent with a Media Management Center study last year that said young people feel overwhelmed by information on the Web.

Sopher said he likes the BBC’s approach to providing context: a modest sidebar that links to related articles (actually related, not possibly related). He also pointed to The Money Meltdown, a financial crisis news site created by NPR’s Matt Thompson that employs a simple design to explain complex topics.

2. Offer “wisdom journalism”

Sopher recently returned from Europe, where he asked Millenials about their attitude towards news.

“There’s this sense that you’re not getting the whole truth,” he said, “or you’re getting a varnished, polished, cold representation of what’s going on, because it feels so impersonal.” More than previous generations, Sopher found, young people seek a personal connection to their news providers.

But that doesn’t mean that consumers want biased reporting. Rather, he found, they’re seeking a more conversational, explanatory tone. Reporters should leverage their extensive knowledge of their subjects to not only report the facts of “what just happened,” Sopher said, but the context of “why it matters.”

In a paper for the Shorenstein Center, Mitchell Stephens [PDF] used the term “wisdom journalism” to describe this approach, defining it as “exclusive, investigative — with more informed, more interpretive, more explanatory, even more impressionistic or opinionated takes on current events.”

Can reporters afford to risk adopting a conversational tone in news? Doesn’t it undermine credibility?

Sopher acknowledged that adopting a more analytical approach to reporting can challenge objectivity. “You have to walk that tightrope so carefully,” he said, particularly when it comes to political reporting. As a good example, he pointed to How Stuff Work’s “Stuff You Should Know” podcast, which employs an informal tone to make complex subjects more accessible. “They’re not necessarily the most informed people on the topic,” he said, “but it’s compelling.”

3. Personalize

In addition to a more personal tone, younger readers expect personalized content. That is, content that has been selected specifically for them.

Why isn’t there a Pandora for news? “It hasn’t been done yet,” Sopher said, “and that really surprises me.”

That’s not for lack of trying. A flock of news startups have sought to create a personalized newspaper experience, but so far, none has really taken hold. More widely-used services such as iGoogle and Newsvine allow users to simply reposition content-boxes. Then there’s Circulate, a browser plugin still under development that purports to deliver news based on your browsing history.

But do users even want such a service? Yes, Sopher said, but it has to be presented under the right circumstances. Although young people are generally comfortable with aggregators, Sopher’s conversations lead him to believe that a breakout success would have to come from a major news organization, not an independent developer. This is confirmed by Pew’s recent State of the News Media report, which found that consumers tend to develop a loyalty toward major news outlets.

“I have the feeling that Facebook and Twitter and services like that — and just e-mail and friends and conversation — are the aggregators for most people,” Sopher said. “I don’t think an independent service would be as useful as having your local or your preferred news outlet offer a service like that.”

4. Rethink news site design

There’s a stereotype that Millenials thrive amidst information overflow, but in truth, young people can feel just as overwhelmed by the Web as anyone else. When researchers at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center showed typical news sites to young consumers, they were surprised by the negative responses.

“There’s so much going on in a younger person’s life already,” said a 20-year-old. “They are stressed at school and with work and those different things, and they don’t want to just sit there and have to filter through all this extra information.”

When it was time to redesign the BBC’s Radio 1 website, research revealed that users wanted a tighter focus on live performances. That discovery propelled the new design, which stripped away more superfluous features.

Similarly, Sopher pointed out, NPR’s redesign boasts a less-dense array of headlines. The front page may not be as comprehensive as the New York Times’, but that’s OK: the role of the front page is in a state of transition. These days, the social stream is gaining in importance.

So are home pages obsolete? No, Sopher said. “The home page isn’t dead, it’s just used differently.” In olden days — meaning, as recently as a few years ago — designers tended to put as much content as possible on the front page. But increasingly, users enter a site through links on social networks, and the front page is taking on a role akin to a storefront window: an attractive, simple sampler of content, stripped to the bare necessities to lure in the occasional passerby.

5. Experiment with new formats

When news moved online, an overwhelming majority of that “remained the story-and-photo format that supported the newspaper,” Sopher said. Younger users, less accustomed to legacy formats like print, may have little tolerance for a format that seems idiosyncratic online.

“It’s maybe not the best way to present that information and tell people what they need to know,” said Sopher, citing articles about health care reform as an example. The Washington Post ran a static, non-interactive table to help users understand how the bill would affect them. It appeared once, was never updated and was then forgotten as newer articles appeared. That short life cycle might have been a necessity in the days of print; but online, it’s a missed opportunity to retain users with dynamic, continuously-updated content.

Google’s Living Stories project might be a promising glimpse into the future of news formats. The experimental technology allows news organizations to create dynamic news hubs around specific stories, and features time lines, summaries, and information arranged for optimal comprehension. The Washington Post and The New York Times participated in a Living Stories pilot a year ago, using the technology to illustrate health care reform, global warming and NFL playoffs.

Currently, the technical bar for implementing Living Stories is high, requiring extensive technical knowledge and continual maintenance. Hopefully, last year’s experiment revealed best practices and a road map for refining the technology.

6. Expand “civic journalism” and community coverage

It’s hard for news organizations to justify granular hyperlocal coverage. “There’s not a distinct enough value statement for a lot of local newspapers and television stations,” Sopher said.

But, he adds, that might be a short-sighted way of looking at local news. Young people report being drawn to civic and political coverage, so community coverage may be a valuable investment in future audiences. After all, many of the most engaged news audiences can be found at high school and college papers.

Sites like MinnPost, Texas Tribune, and voiceofsandiego.org are leading the way when it comes to robust local coverage. So far, response has been strong. And therein lies the big question: If a news site focuses more on local content, will it get more young readers? For now, Sopher said, there aren’t enough local news sources collecting and sharing data to answer that question.

7. Put young people in the news

Putting young people in positions of leadership in the newsroom can be a tricky matter. When former Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel, 28, lashed out on JournoList earlier this year, criticism of his actions were on occasion expanded to stereotype all young people.

There’s an inherent tension between welcoming Millennials’ perspectives and maintaining an experienced newsroom.

When the University of California hiked tuition, Sopher found that much of the coverage had an outsider’s perspective. For better reporting on the hike’s impacts, readers had to turn to college papers.

This phenomenon hit even closer to home for Sopher recently, when The New York Times dispatched a reporter to the University of North Carolina to cover gender imbalances. UNC students considered the resulting coverage to be wildly inaccurate.

“If you’re going to write an article about gender differences at colleges,” said Sopher, “hire a college student, or at least have one co-write the piece.”

8. Reinvent, expand news literacy programs

Nobody would dispute that news literacy is a worthy goal. But how can schools extract the most value from perpetually cash-strapped programs?

“The Internet provides an opportunity to do it at lower cost,” Sopher said, pointing to the success of the online component of The New York Times Learning Network. Other leading programs include the News Literacy Project, the News Literacy Center at Stonybrook, and The Seattle Times’ Newspapers in Education program.

Crucial to these programs’ success, said Sopher, is devoting school time to just sitting and reading. He relayed anecdotes about entire campuses falling silent during the distribution of student newspapers.

And this isn’t just an opportunity for student newspapers to engage their communities; it’s also a chance for larger, mainstream organizations to hook brand new consumers.

9. Improve sharing features and create self-supporting content

The social stream is a relatively new habitat for online news, but it’s where news seems to thrive for younger consumers. To gain attention on social networking sites, Sopher said, the news needs a form of social-stream life support: features designed specifically to keep it healthy and attractive on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

That can be something as simple as a judiciously-chosen thumbnail and appropriate Open Graph properties, or more fully-featured interactive content, such as The New York Times’ illustration of the White House’s 2011 budget proposal.

“Sharing content is the most common social interaction with news among young people,” Sopher wrote, “significantly more than commenting on stories or blogging.”

He told me that “in an environment where a lot of young people are getting news socially, it matters that your story is something that people can talk about.’

10. Explore new approaches to television news

Online video news is a nut that’s just starting to crack. Research such as Dan Tapscott’s “Grown up Digital” has shown that young people tend to view video news as time-consuming and inconvenient.

“It’s still a series of two-minute reports,” Sopher said. “There’s still an audience there, but in the long term, that format doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why wait until 6:30 p.m. to get the news when you can get it anytime?”

He suspects that magazine-format news may gain traction in the future. Rather than a series of brief summaries, such content would focus on fewer issues, but with a greater depth and quality, such as the content produced by Current TV. That format aligns closely to the type of text-based journalism that young people have responded to.

Ultimately, Sopher said, “while the news is figuring out its economic model, people continue to grow up in some news environment or another. That has so much to do with whether they continue to be news consumers.”

He paused, then added, “and that obviously has so much to do with whether news organizations continue to have any money.” Read more

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YouTube Connects San Francisco TV Station with Citizen Journalists

There’s a brand new videographer at KGO-TV in San Francisco: you.

As part of its ongoing “uReport” effort to solicit user-submitted content, the ABC station is now working directly with YouTube and taking advantage of its YouTube Direct technology, which lets news sites request, review and re-broadcast user-generated videos.

The experimental partnership, which launched in late July, is aimed at marrying the editorial acumen of a traditional newsroom with the user-generated immediacy of online video. At the heart of the experiment is a video pipeline with enormous breadth, from viewers to independent local media organizations to YouTube to KGO.

When people visit KGO’s site, they’re presented with a familiar YouTube-style uploading interface. The videos that users submit are added to their own personal YouTube accounts, just as they would be if they uploaded them to YouTube.com. The difference is that the videos are also placed in a pipeline for KGO to review.

“YouTube is the platform that is providing the infrastructure,” explained Olivia Ma, YouTube’s News Manager. “And ABC 7 is serving as the editorial arbiter as the content comes in.”

Producers select videos to feature on the station’s newscasts and have several a day to choose from, said Jennifer Mitchell, KGO’s director of Web operations. Recently-featured videos include a piece of public art being assembled along the waterfront, a late-night party at a local museum, and Spanish soccer team Real Madrid leaving a San Francisco hotel.

YouTube has offered its platform to news organizations in the past, but this is the first time the company has worked in direct collaboration with a local outlet.

“We’re definitely seeing this as a starting place for YouTube to get our feet wet in the local news space,” Ma said, “and we’re hoping to learn a lot.”

Local news sites bridge journalist/citizen divide

The collaboration reaches across four types of participants. There’s KGO, the broadcaster; and YouTube, the platform. There are regular folks with video recording devices who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. And there are numerous local independent video organizations that YouTube has involved.

A crucial question, said YouTube’s Ma, was “how can we connect news organizations with the citizen reporters on YouTube who are already practicing newsgathering habits?”

So YouTube brought the Bay Area Video Coalition into the conversation. BAVC is a local media powerhouse, a nonprofit that provides training and technical facilities and recently assumed operation of the city’s public access television facilities.

Wendy Levy, BAVC’s director of creative programming, has facilitated the relationship between YouTube, KGO and citizen journalists. “What we want to do is to be able to create a vibe of community and a high level of technical expertise,” she said.

To that end, BAVC adapted its existing videography and digital media classes to fit KGO’s specifications. To create a greater sense of community, BAVC sought volunteer students from local organizations that already produce video, including The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth Media Outlook and a local Gannett blog called “The Bold Italic.” So far, more than 100 people have taken part in a class Levy described as “mobile cinematography.”

Muni Diaries, a site that focuses exclusively on the public transit system in San Francisco, is one of the citizen journalism sites that has received training from BAVC and created videos that KGO can use.

Editor Eugenia Chien, who also reports for New America Media and public radio station KALW-FM, said she has encouraged the site’s readers to take BAVC’s training program and has started assigning video stories to those who have completed it. The videos readers create then become part of the pipeline of user-generated, hyperlocal content that KGO can select from.

“Compared to larger ‘mainstream’ news organizations, local websites like Muni Diaries have an audience that is arguably much more engaged in a conversation about local news,” Chien said. “On Muni Diaries in particular, our audience already contributes content regularly.”

Creating a virtual assignment desk

Ma said that by using YouTube Direct, KGO can create its own virtual assignment desk that enables the station to request footage or reactions. The community can then respond to those requests.

In Ma’s experience, that interaction between broadcaster and community has proven crucial. “We’ve seen that with YouTube Direct, partners who invest in the community and make their audiences know that they really want to hear their ideas are going to be really successful,” she said.

KGO currently uses an “Assignment Desk” Twitter account to track down sources. So far, the station hasn’t used YouTube Direct to request footage of breaking news events, and none of the featured video has included interviews or voice-overs. The station has, however, suggested different topics for people to address in the videos they create.

Setting up an incentive for users

Incentives for each of the parties involved is crucial to the success of the experiment. KGO gets free content; YouTube gets users; partner organizations get the prestige of partnering with major companies. But what’s in it for citizens?

“A lot of people still really care about TV,” said Ma. “It’s still the easiest and fastest way to get your message out to a lot of people all at once. … The idea is that you can help decide which stories get covered, and how the media is portraying your neighborhood.”

Levy said she hopes that merging old and new media will have a democratizing effect, allowing mass media to represent a more diverse audience. “A lot of times traditional broadcast news is whitewashed, and unique perspectives are marginalized,” she said. “I just don’t think that plays anymore.”

News consumers’ habits have no doubt changed in recent years. Online, many users want to participate in the shaping of local stories. This focus on hyperlocal content is of particular interest to YouTube.

“YouTube is a global site, but we’ve found through some user behavior on the site that there’s a strong interest in local content,” said Ma. “We feel that there’s a lot of opportunity in the local space. We’re hoping to learn as much as we can to understand what types of footage people submit when they’re asked to document news and events around them, and ideally we’ll be able to take this model and see if we can get other broadcasters to want to do that same thing.”

After just a few weeks, the program has already had an impact on the content users submit.

“Before we partnered with YouTube, we were getting mostly breaking news videos and photos, which was great,” said Mitchell. “But what we’re getting now is more just a scene from your community. A day in the life of where a person lives. … We’re calling them ‘Bay Area Scenes.’ “

Although Mitchell acknowledged that it’s still too early to draw any conclusions, she said she is optimistic that the experiment will prove valuable: “At the end of it, if we come out knowing what worked, that’s a great learning experience.”
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7 Ways to Use Facebook to Merge News with the Social Web

Although many news organizations know they should incorporate Facebook into their social media strategies, so far they’ve had to rely on independent consultants to tell them what works. This week, however, Facebook outlined best practices on how news organizations can connect with the site’s enormous and highly engaged user base.

The findings are the result of a several-month long study by an internal team that examined Facebook usage at major news organizations such as CNN, The New York Times, and Univision.

Because Facebook boasts 500 million active monthly users and an average monthly time-on-site of around seven hours, integrating Facebook into your site could translate into substantial additional traffic. Tools such as Like buttons, Activity Streams and LiveStream can keep users clicking through stories on a site. And the Insights analytics tool provides valuable demographic information.

After implementing various combinations of Facebook tools on their sites, ABC News saw a 190 percent increase in referral traffic, Life magazine’s referrals increased by 130 percent, Scribd’s user registrations went up by 50 percent, and Dailymotion saw as many as 250,000 users engaged with a single video.

Facebook Developer Network engineers Justin Osofsky and Matt Kelly provided an in-depth look at their findings at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this week. Journalists can learn more about the techniques and discuss how to improve upon them at facebook.com/media.

Optimize the Like button

There’s a lot of power in those little Like buttons, both on the Facebook site and off. When a user clicks Like, that gesture is broadcast to all of his friends — on average, 130 people. Depending on how a site implements the button, clicking the like button may add a link to the user’s profile page and make the liked page discoverable in Facebook’s search system.

Anything on the Web is potentially Likable: a news story, an organization, or even a reporter, Osofsky explained.

Crucially, once a user Likes a Facebook Page, the administrator of that Page gains the ability to push new content to that user’s Activity Stream. In essence, that single click is all that’s needed for users to opt-in to future messages — and if they don’t like your content, to opt back out.

Like buttons are easy to make and come in a variety of features and sizes, from tiny rectangles to full-featured iframes that include profile pictures and comment boxes. Facebook has found that “Like” buttons do best when they’re close to content that is both visually engaging and emotionally resonant, such as video.

In addition, full-featured Like buttons tend to do better than smaller ones. Adding faces of other Likers to the button and including Facebook comments increased the clickthrough rate from as low as zero up to 0.2 percent — comparable to the click-through rate of a banner ad.

Because Facebook delivers this content to publishers’ sites through an iframe, only a small amount of code is necessary to implement the “deluxe model” Like buttons.

Tailor content specifically for Facebook users

Content matters on Facebook. Touching, emotional stories earned 2 to 3 times as many Likes as other stories, as did provocative debates. Sports stories tend to perform particularly well, with 1.5 to 2 times more engagement than the average.

With that knowledge, news organizations can identify stories likely to perform well on Facebook and push those stories through social channels such as Facebook Pages and Twitter.

Publishers can even strategize around when they push this content. There’s a spike in Likes at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., so having fresh content at those times is crucial.

Deploy activity plugins on every page

Increasingly, news site home pages will be customized to users’ tastes and networks. On CNN’s home page, for example, an Activity Feed plugin shows users what their friends have Liked on the site.

Osofsky recommends that publishers set aside real estate on every page on their site for the Activity Feed and Recommendations plugins, which suggest relevant content to users. “Sites that placed the Activity Feed on both the front and content pages received 2-10x more clicks per user than sites with the plugins on the front page alone,” he wrote on the Facebook Developer Blog.

He also advises that sites use Facebook’s LiveStream plugin, a real-time chat box that gathers users in a conversation about live, breaking news. The plugin could be seen as a competitor to live-tweeting and live-blogging tools like CoverItLive.

Create separate pages for major events

For major stories that break over several days, some organizations increased engagement by creating a dedicated Facebook Page for that event. “Stories published from a World Cup-focused Page of one major media company had 5x the engagement rate per user than stories from the company’s main Page,” Osofsky wrote.

Of course, that technique isn’t without some degree of risk. Publishers might worry about fragmenting their audience and losing viewers when an event is over.

For example, after a flurry of wall posts, ESPN’s World Cup Page abruptly stopped posting on July 15. The 636,000 or so fans have continued to post to the wall, but with no response from ESPN, they are likely to lose interest.

Manage your many pages

Depending on the type of item that a user Likes (a person, a show, an article, and so forth), almost every Like button generates a new Page on Facebook. As more people click “Like,” publishers will need to organize and manage an ever-growing volume of Pages — some of which aren’t even visible to most users.

Facebook Engineer Matt Kelly described how Facebook uses what he informally called “Dark Pages” to connect publishers to users. Invisible to everyone but administrators, Dark Pages represent pages on the Web that have been Liked but do not have a publicly visible Page on Facebook — for example, a single news article.

Publishers must place the Open Graph and Facebook tags such as <og:type> and <fb:admins> on each page of their site to identify the content. Then, once a publisher has claimed its page (dark or otherwise), it can publish new content to the Activity Streams of their Likers and examine Insights to learn more about their users’ demographics.

Publishers could wind up with thousands of Pages to monitor. There’s not a perfect method to manage that onslaught of Likable content, Kelly said, but he expected that solutions would emerge from Facebook’s outreach to publishers.

Attendees at the Hacks/Hackers event expressed some dissatisfaction with Facebook’s Insights tool. Although visually similar to real-time traffic reporting tools like Google Analytics, Facebook’s Insights can lag up to four days behind. That may change in the future; Osofsky said the goal is for Insights to lag no more than a day behind.

Turn status updates into infographics with the streamlined API

Just as newspapers invested in printing presses, online news divisions must now invest in software development. Facebook recognized that developing social tools can be confusing and resource-intensive, so the company recently streamlined its API.

“It’s simple and modern,” Kelly said, demonstrating the clean, comprehensible data that developers can access from simple URLs such as http://graph.facebook.com/markzuckerberg.

Facebook’s new API is structured around objects and connections, just like the user experience on the site itself. It can be used to generate innovative visualizations like the New York Times’ visualization of soccer players’ popularity.

In addition, Facebook has developed a more robust search tool, which can be used to find content from public status updates, not just people. Journalists could use the tool to gauge community interest in a story or to find new sources.

Facebook has also streamlined its authorization process, implementing OAUTH 2.0, which offers improved scalability and ease-of-use. For users, authorizing applications is now a single-click process, rather than having to click through one dialogue after another. For publishers, that translates into smoother engagement with users.

Participate in development of Facebook products

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Social networks — particularly Facebook — are quickly becoming a key way to learn about breaking news, a phenomenon that Facebook is only too happy to embrace. The recently released research is just a foundation for what Osofsky hopes will be a long-term collaboration with media partners.

He encouraged anyone involved with news — journalists, editors, software developers — to visit facebook.com/media to learn about Facebook’s engagement with the news industry, to share ideas, and to contribute to the emerging practice of integrating social tools with journalism.

“We have plenty of work to do,” Osofsky said. “And the dialogue is very important.” Read more

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How the Semantic Web Can Connect News and Make Stories More Accessible

Tom Tague isn’t content to let an article just be an article. “How do I take a chunk of text,” he asked, “and turn it into a chunk of data?”

He was speaking Thursday night at a panel discussion hosted by Hacks/Hackers, a San Francisco-based group that bridges the worlds of journalism and engineering. Coinciding with the 2010 Semantic Technology Conference, Thursday’s presentation dealt with the Web’s evolution from a tangle of text to a database capable of understanding its own content.

Tague, vice president for platform strategy with Thompson Reuters, was joined by New York Times Semantic Technologist Evan Sandhaus, allVoices CEO Amra Tareen, and Read It Later creator Nate Weiner. The semantic Web is already here, they explained; and it’s getting smarter.

Make news worth more

Simply put, the semantic Web is a strategy for enabling communication between independent databases on the Web.

For example, Sandhaus said, there’s a wealth of priceless data in databases at Amazon, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Census Bureau, Twitter and Wikipedia. “But they don’t know anything about one another,” he said, so there’s no way to answer questions like, “What is the impact of pollution on population?” or “What do people tweet about on smoggy days?” (Sandhaus said he did not do his presentation as a representative of the Times.)

This is a particular problem for news publishers, said Tague. Publishers need to monetize content, engage with users and launch new products; since news articles lie in a “sweet spot” between fleeting tweets and durable scientific journals, they have the most potential to grab and retain readers.

In other words, it’s possible for publishers to improve the value and shelf life of news. All that’s required is rich metadata.

Metadata, Tague said, improves reader engagement by linking together related media. For readers, that means more context on each story and a more personalized experience. And for advertisers, it means better demographic data than ever before.

But there’s a problem: Currently, the economics of online news doesn’t support the manual creation of metadata.

Let algorithms curate

Tague’s solution to the Internet’s overwhelming volume of news is OpenCalais, a Thomson Reuters tool that can examine any news article, understand what it’s about, and connect it to related media.

This is more than a simple keyword search. OpenCalais extracts “named entities,” analyzing sentence structure to determine the topic of the article. It is able to understand facts and events. For example, when fed a short article about a hurricane forming near Mexico, an OpenCalais demo tool recognized locations like Acapulco, facilities like The National Hurricane Center and an even occupations like “hurricane specialist.” It also understood facts, synthesizing a subject-verb-object phrase to express that a hurricane center had predicted a hurricane.

OpenCalais has already been put to work at a wide range of news organizations, including The Nation, The New Republic, Slate, and Aljazeera. Each site’s implementation is unique; for example, DailyMe uses semantic data to monitor each user’s reading habits, presenting the user with personalized reading suggestions.

Both The Nation and The New Republic saw immediate benefits to the use of OpenCalais, Tague said; the tool coincided with significant gains in time-on-site, and it automatically generates pages dedicated to a single topic, which had been a labor-intensive process for editors.

Overcome overwhelming content

As OpenCalais frees editors from the minutiae of searching for complementary stories, Nate Weiner’s software facilitates the gathering of reading material. Read It Later integrates with browsers and RSS readers; when users see something that they want to read later, they simply flag the page and the application gathers it for later consumption.

Unfortunately, users can sometimes wind up with an overwhelming, disorganized collection of articles. So Weiner decided to teach the application how to group similar items, making them easier to skim and select.

Initial experiments with manual tagging didn’t work out, since users weren’t interested in taking the time to add tags to every article they collected. So Weiner turned to semantic applications that could automatically analyze each article and organize related topics. His tool of choice: OpenCalais, which turned Read It Later’s “Digest” view from an unwieldy list into a magazine-like layout.

Organize the organizing

Sandhaus described the alchemy of the semantic Web as “graphs of triples,” which drew furrowed brows from his audience. But it turned out not to be as complicated as it sounds; the “triples” are just simple subject-verb-object sentences, chained together. For example, if a tool detects “Barack Obama” in an article, it will scan nearby words to create a relationship like “Barack Obama is the President.” Then it can build on its knowledge of “the President” to branch further out: “The President lives in the White House,” “The White House was burned in 1814,” and so on.

These relationships are derived from massive databases that grow larger and larger by the day. For example, DBpedia has turned Wikipedia into a database of 2.6 million entities; Freebase is a database of databases with 11 million topics; GeoNames tracks 8 million place names, and MusicBrainz can recognize 9 million songs.

But the real magic happens when the databases come together, such as when the BBC wanted to create a comprehensive resource for information about bands. By merging its own information with entries from Wikipedia and MusicBrainz, the BBC created a website that seems to know everything about music.

Trust algorithms, but trust humans more

As smart as the semantic Web can be, it’s still not as smart as a human editor. “Our algorithms can never be perfect,” said allVoices CEO Amra Tareen. Her company provides citizen journalists with their own news platform, incentivizing high-quality reporting with payments based on page views.

Since its launch in 2008, allVoices has scanned articles to generate what Tareen called a “bag of words” that connects each story to complementary reporting. Depending on a reporter’s algorithmically calculated reputation and users’ engagement with the story, the story can work its way up from a local section to national or even global focus on the site.

Tareen estimates that the curating of news on the site is about 20 percent human and 80 percent algorithmic.

Expect to see more semantic Web tools

Expect to see more semantic Web technology — lots more, and soon. “There’s growing momentum in this space,” said Sandhaus, gesturing to a slide showing exponential growth of connected databases. “The more that you put yourself out there and people point back to you, the easier you are to find.”

Fortunately for journalists, the semantic Web will work for humans, not the other way around. “We don’t want to get in the way of the journalistic process,” said OpenCalais’ Tague. That’s welcome news to any reporter who has been frustrated by a clunky content management system, a labyrinthine tagging and categorization system or manual photo management.

Semantic Web developers’ goal, Tague said, is to free journalists to report, rather than sentencing them to generate endless metadata for the sake of SEO. “I hate the idea of journalists writing for searchability,” he said. “That’s a problem we should solve on the tech side.”

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Weiner of Read It Later agreed. Speaking on behalf of developers, he advised journalists, “Keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll try to adapt.” Read more

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Code Sprint Yields Important Lessons for iPad News Apps

At a conference last weekend for developers of iPad news apps, organizer Burt Herman posed an unexpected question: “How can we make news more like finger-painting?” he asked.

He was responding to a point made by Jennifer Bove of Kicker Studio, a product-design firm. She had just pointed out how satisfying it is to manipulate media on the iPad, comparing it to painting. “It’s as close as we can get to a tangible experience in a digital world,” she said.

Herman is the founder of Hacks/Hackers, which began last November as an informal means to connect journalists (hacks) with engineers (hackers). A veteran journalist and John S. Knight fellow at Stanford, he sought to foster innovation by connecting the two worlds.

This weekend’s conference, Hacks/Hackers Unite, was attended by nearly 100 reporters, editors, designers, programmers, and future-of-journalism enthusiasts. Half programming boot camp and half journalism immersion, the event was intense and ambitious, and by the end of the second day, a dozen teams had each developed a new app to push the boundaries of news and media on the iPad.

Here’s what the group learned over those two days:

User research is vital and in short supply.

Appealing primarily to reporters and engineers, Hacks/Hackers Unite saw no shortage of news nerds. But there was one group that was missing: end users. (Herman envisions that Hacks/Hackers will focus more intently on users’ needs in the future. Subsequent events, he said, might begin with on-the-street surveys of news consumers.)

Familiarity with users proved invaluable, as the weekend’s most successful applications were developed by teams that came with knowledge of specific user groups. The breakout hit of the event was Citizen Kid News, a news app for kids 7 to 11. Users are presented with articles curated daily and receive rewards for answering news quizzes and investigating supplemental materials.

Led by Valerie Mih, most of the team hailed from See Here Studios, a company that creates 3-D e-books for children. Prior to Hacks/Hackers Unite, See Here had gathered research on journalism curricula at elementary schools. They planned to visit a school later to demonstrate their application.

Another app designed for a specific user group: Quizshot. The team included journalism teachers who had observed that many of their students don’t follow the news. Quizshot allows users to create and share their own news quizzes, which its creators hope will motivate students to develop more regular news-reading habits.

Make the most of physical interfaces.

“It’s instantly more intimate when you can touch it,” said Quizshot’s Staci Baird. Citizen Kid News’ Mih made a similar observation: “Touch interaction makes it a lot more engaging.”

Bove offered several iPad-specific pointers to ensure a comfortable user experience:

  • Design for one-handed use.
  • Don’t neglect lefties.
  • Don’t make buttons any smaller than a 10-millimeter fingertip.
  • Make the content the means of navigation rather than relying on more abstract controls.

Bove also said that the top three problems with iPad apps are discoverability, memorability, and accidental activation. Because the field is still young, many iPad apps are plagued by unfamiliar controls that are hard to find and understand.

But that doesn’t mean that developers should be timid about pushing the boundaries of interfaces. Standards will only emerge though experimentation.

One of the most creative interfaces was developed by Joey Baker, Chris Peters, Jonathan Wong, Stefan Gorzkiewicz, Cody Brown and Kate Ray. Their Smartbook app (now called Open Margins) was designed to detect news-reading habits and use that data to improve the reading experience for other users. They called it “crowd-reading.”

For example, when a user finds content difficult to understand, he is encouraged to shake the iPad in frustration. As a pattern of frustration emerges, other readers are warned when approaching a difficult passage. In future versions, users might pet the screen to indicate enjoyment.

Another innovation from the Smartbook team: Pinching a page (as though zooming out) would condense a passage down to a summary; spreading fingers like you would to zoom in would offer more detailed content. Although they didn’t have time to build that functionality during the weekend event, it’s an example of the kind of gestural innovation that might one day become second nature to iPad users.

Changing technology requires nimble teams.

By design, most teams were small and worked fast. That offers a lot of promise, according to Stanford journalism grad student Drake Martinet, who advocates for a “skunk works” approach — small, fast-moving development teams. “You need to build a culture of adjustable thinking,” he said.

Martinet led development on an application called Lensio that tapped into The New York Times’ A Moment in Time project, which gathered photos taken simultaneously by readers all around the world and arranged them in a clever spinning interface. In just a few hours’ time, Martinet’s team created a slick Moment in Time browser for the iPad. “Survival in the future is going to depend on adaptability to massive technology changes,” he said.

This was a promising response to a question posed earlier by Tony Deifell, a Hacks/Hackers Unite organizer and the author of “The Big Thaw,” a book about adapting to changes in media. Media organizations need to ask themselves how they can “create value” with their structure, he told the assembled crowd, and predicted that successful structures — possibly skunk works — will be discovered by newcomers who are not burdened by legacy systems.

Expect more multimedia and location-aware apps.

Lensio was just one of many popular multimedia apps developed over the weekend.

Sherbeam Wright showed off a prototype for IndieMobi, a website that independent videographers could use to create their own applications. As designed, the site would allow users to upload video, which would automatically be turned into an application and submitted to the iTunes store.

Ross Harmes, Lauren Ladoceour and Scott Schiller created an application that allows to switch on the fly between audio and text versions of a story. “Same story, two or three different ways to tell it,” Ladoceour explained.

With a headcount of fifteen (including me), another team opted for a media-rich experience. We designed a platform that news organizations could easily populate with their own media, creating a custom-branded multimedia news browser. To test the software, we sent reporters down the street to gather original reporting (including interviews, video, and maps) from San Francisco’s inaugural Harvey Milk Day.

Mapping and location were a key component of several projects, including the popular Whosreppin.me. An iPad-formatted website, Whosreppin.me detects the user’s location, displays articles about that state’s congressional representatives, and provides links to either praise or criticize the user’s representative via Twitter. Another app called “Ephemera” sought to gather historical items like menus, matchboxes, fliers and old photos and place them on a map that surrounds the user’s present location.

New tech presents a playground for journalists and developers.

“In 36 hours we’re not going to save journalism,” Herman told the assembled hacks and hackers as the weekend wound to a close, “but hopefully we’ve seen some hints here of what’s possible.”

The point of the event, Herman said, was to facilitate a dialogue between two groups in whose hands the future of journalism rests. He said he hoped events like these would help bridge the gap between the creators of content and the creators of tools for distributing that content.

As he spoke, a table of sandwiches was prepared nearby. “Should I tell people lunch is ready?” asked an organizer. Herman nodded, and she pulled out her phone. “I’ll tweet it,” she said. Read more

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