Archive for March, 2014

newspicHave you heard..? Did you see..? Being bang up-to-date with the latest news or gossip is a big part of social capital. It’s what makes us interesting to others and it’s one of the reasons we give up our most precious resource to get it – our time.

Constantly revising knowledge of what’s going on around us is a deeply-rooted instinct borne of fight-or-flight perils. Anticipating threats and opportunities might just give us an edge to avoid mortal danger – or alternatively help us make a killing (metaphorically speaking).

The value of any information exchange comes from the usefulness of what’s being imparted set against the time and energy expended to find out.

For news providers this creates a quandary. They want to be consistently first with the news and they also want to deliver high value information; doing both, while not incompatible, is often difficult.

For readers and viewers, the sheer volume of material that has to be ploughed through to make the exercise worthwhile can be tedious and time-consuming, especially when the signal is suppressed by noise.

It’s why coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, MH370, was described by media commentator Michael Wolff as “the new anti-journalism – all data, no real facts, endless theories”.

The Public Editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, condemned her own organization for its use of anonymous sources and comments in its reporting:

“In a news story about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, there’s this anonymous quotation, commenting on a suggestion (also anonymously sourced) that someone may have piloted the aircraft to as high as 45,000 feet, above the 43,100-foot ceiling for the Boeing 777. The passage reads:

“A current Boeing 777-200 pilot for an Asian-based airline said the move could have been intended to depressurize the cabin and render the passengers and crew unconscious, preventing them from alerting people on the ground with their cellphones. “Incapacitate them so as to carry on your plan uninterrupted,” the pilot said.

“As a reader, Danny Burstein, wrote to me: “There’s absolutely no reason to quote an anonymous source who’s making a ridiculous claim of this sort, and triply so since your reporter could have called any of a hundred other pilots who’d have gone on the record saying this was garbage.”

The lack of sourcing is in clear contravention of the Times’ reporting guidelines. It’s also a symptom of the competitive pressure news providers are under; quality is compromised for the sake of speed.

Those prepared to put in the extra time to check facts, verify details, and find robust sources, come a poor second when the rumor mill is in full spate. There is no “slow news” movement.

We, the audience, are fickle. We know the trade-off, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. A news organization that’s consistently behind the curve when a major story is unfolding suffers reputational damage. Caution gets trampled underfoot in the audience rush to those who will fill the vacuum.

In my previous post …and now the news for you, and you, and you I talked about a much more personal form of news; narrowcast not broadcast, tailored more to the individual, less to a mass audience.

News organizations are firing blind with their salvoes of information and they’ll continue to do so until they offer readers and viewers the chance to fine tune their news supply.

Push notifications, alerts and updates were once a way of staying across major news developments. Now they’re an irritation.

Andy Hickl, cofounder and CEO of the lifelogging app, Saga, recently stated that he was turning off his alerts and opting out of what he called notification overload – at least until his apps got to know him better.

He’s not alone. From my time at the BBC, I quickly learned that some users wanted fewer breaking news alerts, too many were being sent and they were intrusive and annoying. For others there were too few: why hadn’t an alert been sent on such and such? (We all gauge the importance of news through our own prism of interests. My world’s big news may not correspond to your scale of what’s important).

There were complaints, too, from viewers who wanted only fact-checked, double-sourced, fully verified alerts, while others preferred the absolute latest information and were happy to make reach their own conclusions about its worth.

The gripes haven’t gone away. There’s still no rheostat for breaking news that lets me decide how much is too much; that lets me choose to swim through the farrago of twisted facts, half-truths, rumors and theories to distil my own version of plausibility and value, or to signpost that I’ll have none of it until the dust has settled and a clear picture has emerged.

Fine-tuning to that degree is easy to talk about, much more difficult to deliver. It also begs one very big question: Would you use it if it was offered?

Optimization choices in the recent past have been a minority pursuit because of the time required of individuals to set them up. We now spend so much time batting away the irrelevant and the inconsequential that the tide may have turned.

So, is sophisticated filtering time well spent, or is it more trouble than it’s worth? Once we have the answer to that question we can either move towards a smarter, more precisely targeted supply of stories – or we can continue to scrabble for news nuggets in a growing mountain of information.

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newsroom

I’m waiting. Still waiting, that is, for a new type of news product that meets my needs.

It’ll be one that makes the best use of my time, which signposts important material, riddles out the irrelevant and delivers the unexpected.

I’d like some contrarian content in the mix, something that challenges my world view, jolts me from my perch of certainty and make me re-evaluate my position.

By necessity I’m going to have to give up a lot of information about myself and my interests to get what I want. And I’m willing to do that if it delivers the relevance I crave.

I’m happy to enter into a relationship where what I share creates a better experience for me and a better business proposition for my news provider.

I want them to come to know me better, to change and develop their offering as our engagement deepens.

I’m unique, of course, just like you. And what you want and what I want isn’t going to be the same.

The successful news provider of the future is going to have to pander to each and every one of us, to manage millions of nuanced relationships and to cope with requirements in a continual state of flux. Pushing the same stuff at everyone simply isn’t going to cut it.

We’ve transitioned away from a world of time-specific TV news broadcasts and individuals’ favored newspapers and magazines. The virtual doorstep is piled high with content and no matter how much you wade through there’s always more to take its place.

It’s all very well for author Clay Shirky to dismiss the idea of information overload as “filter failure” – even though he’s correct in his observation. Without effective filters consuming news is a Sisyphean task.

So where are the tools that let me, the person who knows me best, define what I want or, perhaps more usefully, what I know I don’t want?

Up to now, Zite has come closest to resolving the filtering problem and its recent acquisition by Flipboard’s Mike McCue makes for a doubly exciting prospect.

As well as delivering stories from a wider range of sources than I would have reached by my own efforts, Zite does a pretty good job of aggregating content by topic headings.

I say pretty good, because the oh-so-clever algorithm regularly comes unstuck and delivers items about garden gates into my Bill Gates aggregation pot.

Marking stories with indications of approval or disapproval is a good step too, especially if the feedback assists in the selection or rejection of future pieces.

That said, the thumbs up, thumbs down, notifications can seem insensitive. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to give a thumbs-up to an article about Auschwitz or a disaster or an atrocity. And what does it signify anyway – that you enjoyed reading it, that it was insightful, or that you agreed with its conclusions?

At least Zite is soliciting feedback, even if it’s pretty basic. Offering consumers a chance to give reactions is laudable and much as I’d like to have something more sophisticated I concede that it’s likely to be a minority sport for the foreseeable future.

I like, too, that Zite allows me to indicate that my news preferences skew towards certain publications and individual journalists – more from these, less from others. It lets me hone the organizations and people I want my content to come from.

The danger with this kind of filtering is that it ends up reinforcing existing prejudices, you only hear what you want to hear and that’s when the serendipity engine needs to kick in. Whether it’s based on the zeitgeist of most read, most watched, most shared material or a counter-culture of contrarian opinion there needs to be some wild card content in the mix.

Another of my requirements has taken root in Cir.ca – the ability to track a story by flagging an interest in it.

Cir.ca stories come with a “follow” button and they have identified this as one of their key metrics. When a reader follows a storyline it tells them the person has more than a passing interest; if there’s something new to learn, they want to know.

Capturing “follows” lets Cir.ca target notifications to those who actively want to keep abreast of developments while avoiding those with only a passing interest.

As it states in its blog, push notifications are nearing saturation and these types of update have become both a blessing and a curse.

“Our solution is to put the choice in your hands and allow you to decide what’s important enough to push. You could say we have two main goals: to inform and to respect your time while doing it.”

I’d like Cir.ca to take this process further, to allow me to fine tune my “follows” to take account of the waxing and waning of my interest.

There are times when news is breaking that I want every detail to be passed on as soon as it emerges. There are others when I want only the most significant developments to be pushed through – a development that would require the story’s intro to be recast. And there times when I want a longer term notification, an update on a story that was big news but has since gone off the boil: Haiti’s earthquake four years on, for instance.

No single news provider is going to be able to accommodate all these needs. Businesses are going to have to figure out how to work with rivals to synthesize content and share the proceeds.

It’s why the coming together of Flipboard and Zite is one of the best and most exciting developments of recent times.

More than two million magazines have been created since Flipboard’s inception in January 2010. It offers both abundance and niche, a pro-am aggregation mix, and packaging that attractively reformats itself as new content rolls in.

With Zite it gets expertise in personalization and recommendations, meaning better and easier content discovery.

Facebook hasn’t been standing still while this unfolds. It recently launched a mobile app called Paper in the US, which takes a leaf from Flipboard’s book and recrafts users’ news feeds into something more elegant and magazine-like.

The winner will be the one that can build the deepest relationship with its readers and viewers while meeting the needs of the individual as well as the masses.

rosegeorge

You buy Fairtrade where possible, you ethically source your purchases, you factor air miles into your grocery choices. You’re doing your bit and yet, unknowingly, you are also propping up a world of work practices and business dealing that should have been consigned to Davy Jones’ locker around the same time that flogging and keelhauling were outlawed. That is to say, ages ago.

Rose George’s book isn’t about making readers feel guilty; God knows there’s enough proselytizing in daily life without heaping misery upon misery. But it does lift the lid on an industry for which we all depend and about which we know very little.

What’s clear is that a life on the ocean wave is a far remove from the upbeat poem and jaunty tune that made it the regimental quick march of the Corps of the Royal Marines.

A home on the rolling sea is as bleak as an Atlantic winter. It’s dangerous, it’s exhausting, it’s monotonous and it’s grim. It’s also a world away for most of us; out of sight out of mind. It’s a place where what happens at sea stays at sea.

Shipping is what the book’s subtitle calls: “The invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car and food on your plate.” Its operators inhabit an environment where costs have to be cut to the bone for them to remain competitive and to stay afloat. A vessel that isn’t working quickly becomes a massive liability.

In the crazy world of shipping finances it’s cheaper for Scottish fish to be filleted in China than to do so domestically. It’s a world where a sweater can travel 3,000 miles for 2.5 cents and a can of beer for 1 cent. Mile for mile, the trucking part of a journey is more costly than the voyage.

It’s why unscrupulous parts of the industry have cannibalized their own best practices and retreated behind flags of convenience and shady shell companies. Recruiting agencies act as a buffer between employers and employees, industrial complaints get submerged in jurisdictional red tape and the mariner complainers find themselves blacklisted and unable to find a berth.

There are rules and laws aplenty to regulate the seas and oceans of the world but “the sea dissolves paper,” is how George puts it. “Who do you complain to when you are employed by a Manila manning agency on a ship owned by an American, flagged by Panama, managed by a Cypriot, in international waters?”

Seafarer fatalities are 10 times those of land-based occupations. Until 2012, international standards allowed seafarers to work a 98-hour week although that has now been reduced to 72. Fatigue, isolation and loneliness come with the job.

You might think part of the attraction of a seafarer’s life is the chance to see the world, though the reality is that you’re unlikely to get far beyond the dock gates when you reach terra firma. Shore leave is often denied (in contravention of maritime law) and the turnaround time of vessels is so short there’s little time to indulge in sightseeing and the imagined sailor past-times from a bygone age.

George’s prose steers a brisk course through the ebb and flow of maritime life – there are chapters on modern-day piracy, the role of seafaring chaplains, and even the effect on whale, dolphin and porpoise communications from the acoustic signature of vessels.

The book leaves in its wake a series of questions about the changes needed to regulate and enforce rules around the mare liberum. And it also engenders a healthy respect for merchantmen everywhere who live and work in peril on the sea.

gatsbyCareless People – Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby

This scholarly book makes intriguing new connections between the people and personalities from Fitzgerald’s booze-fuelled milieu and the cast of characters who inhabit his work.

From a time of loose morals and abundant excess there are episodes that, even today, would create scandal. Fitz’s wife Zelda strips off in public at the drop of a hat, dances naked on nightclub tables, chases the teenage brother of a party host upstairs for sex – it’s outrageous and it’s a tabloid dream.

There’s so much material from this hedonistic era that the merger between fact and fiction makes a richly entertaining guessing game: Who’s really who in The Great Gatsby?

The list to choose from is delicious. There are the super rich, there are industrialists, studio moguls, celebrities, gangsters, hucksters, bootleggers, wannabee stars, critics writers and all manner of hangers-on.

Never mind that we’ll never know the full truth, the fun is in the inquiry and author Sarah Churchwell brings meticulous research to bear to help us find out.

Where the book falls down is in its structure and a narrative arc that chops and changes between racy revelation, history lesson and professorial critique. If you haven’t studied the book or the period you might struggle – like many of the guests at Fitz’s parties – to make it all the way through to the end.