Posts Tagged ‘future’

American War – Omar El Akkad

 A civil war, crippled infrastructure, rampant corruption, random drone strikes, factional in-fighting and suicide bombers groomed from the ranks of despairing youth.

Such a scenario would normally pass for a despotic regime in the Middle East, but Egyptian-born author Akkad flips it to American soil to show how divisive ideologies and misguided policies create the perfect seedbed for terrorism to grow. 

The catalyst for war is fossil fuel use in a country where rising sea levels have forced mass migrations from both coasts.

A bill to ban their use throughout the US is championed by the president and leads to his assassination in 2073 by a secessionist suicide bomber.

The country splits between North and South, Blue and Red, with new reasons for animosity layered onto historic hatreds.

Akkad ups the ante still further, stripping away veneers of civilization to imagine state-sponsored biological genocide, the release of a virus and the murder of 100m people.

If you think that’s unlikely, the world’s emerging superpower is the Bouazizi Empire, a conglomeration of former Arab countries who have thrown off their oppressors and joined forces. 

They sustain the conflict in America, working both sides of the divide in what one of the regime’s fixers declares to be purely “a matter of self-interest, no more”.

It’s a cynical denouement, showing the US what it’s like to be on the end of its own foreign policies and the cruel consequences of such interventions.

Akkad’s dystopian vision invites the country to bridge its venomous political divide and return to some kind of consensus politics – or face an horrendous future.

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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.

AP puts new focus on mobile news

Posted: October 22, 2010 in Journalism, Mobile, News
Tags: , , ,

AP logoAP chief executive Tom Curley has signalled a change in the agency’s mobile strategy to meet the challenge of “a new golden age for the development of new products”.

There would be more touch screens than front pages by 2012, he told the Southern Newspapers Publishers Association in Austin, Texas, as he anticipated a period of explosive growth, .

“That shift to mobile and easy-to-use touch screen devices will transform the market we’ve been operating in.

“A one-dimensional, Web-based marketplace will be supplanted by a multi-dimensional, multi-platform opportunity. We’ll be moving well beyond websites, search results pages and RSS feeds.”

Curley said AP’s mobile strategy would morph away from simple repurposing of traditional wire feeds toward the creation of new experiences, handcrafted by the expert journalists.

“By early next year, we expect to launch new applications in the mobile and tablet markets that will offer consumers fresh perspectives on the day’s top stories and take them behind the scenes with our experts.”

The full text of Curley’s speech is here

Stacked shelvesNever mind What Google Would Do?  If Tesco decided to go into the news business What Would Tesco Do?

Right now, somewhere in southern Spain a farmer is growing to order rows of lettuce to be harvested on a specific day and delivered to the shelf of a Tesco store which, typically, is within a few miles of your front door.

The logistics behind a modern supermarket are nothing short of miraculous – thousands of lines of produce brought in from all corners of the world to provide greater choice and greater variety than any generation has experienced before.

The internet has opened the door to similar abundance for news audiences and given easy access to newsmakers and thought-leaders across the globe.

Tesco tracks the shopping habits of more than 16m families through its loyalty card scheme. Each product sold is classified by data – a luxury item or a loss-leader, ethnic, exotic, own brand etc.

The data is filtered by a Tesco-owned search engine and the results help them decide what to sell and when. Tesco also has a nice, not-so-little, earner selling the data to other companies.

So if Tesco decided to go into the news business what would it do and what could it teach established players in the sector?

For sure big data would be a key part. Tesco’s data-miners would be drilling into consumption habits to try to build up a picture of an individual’s news needs.

Over weeks and months patterns of behaviour emerge.  What stories are they reading and when? In which parts of the world do their interests lie? How do the items break down by genre, or business, or team, or personality? Is there a skew towards politics and social issues or a deeper interest in health care? Is sport a priority or a turn-off? What topics find no favour – and why?

Just as Tesco knows from your shopping list whether you have a baby, or young children, or a dog or a cat, even if you’re a novice in the kitchen or an experienced cook, news consumption habits can reveal a lot about an individual.

They’d also be looking long and hard at the products being placed in front of the customer by both themselves and their rivals.

The not-for-profit Media Standards Trust is already in the data extraction business, producing Twitter factoids along the lines of:

Tristan McConnell (Times) has written more articles this month about the Rwandan election than anyone else

Andrew Anthony in the Observer wrote the longest article this week

– Lindsay Lohan has been written about 39% more than the European Parliament in the last week. Reasonable?

These snippets are mildly interesting, but the real value lies in the Trust’s wider aggregation and linkage of material.

Its site, Journalisted, aims to make it easier for people to find out more about journalists and the topics they tackle.

“Read all about them!” it declaims.

It makes it easy for the public to search for a journalist they want to contact, and to sign up for article alerts from their favourites. Journalists can also edit their own profiles within the site.

This kind of aggregation further cements the position of journalists as individual brands within a brand. Top columnists have always been that, of course, it’s now just a lot easier to see each person’s profile and the billboards for their bodies of work.

Whose stuff is flying off the shelves? What’s not moving?  Is expensive investigative journalism a required loss-leader to attract a different kind of clientele? Who’s providing the staples of everyday coverage on a particular reporting beat? And whose work ends up in the equivalent of the end-of-the-aisle bin?

It’s easy to see how this might lead to performance-related rewards, though the complexity of how to gauge influence and value against high-click popularity makes for odious comparisons.

We’re already seeing the emergence of low-pay article farms that generate content based on search term popularity; these are the snack-food purveyors of the business – consumed by millions but ultimately not very satisfying.

Influence metrics are where we will find the news equivalents of Jamie Oliver and  Gordon Ramsay – the star communicators who appeal to different demographics and sub-groups.

Might sites like Klout – which measure an individual’s online influence – have a bearing at future job interviews?

Tesco shelf space is a valuable commodity and brands which want to occupy part of a shelf, or get prime positioning, have to show they can earn their keep.

At the BBC, correspondents and specialists already have elevated status – though their branding and packaging may be ripe for a makeover.

You like Matt Frei’s work? Well here’s a shrine to the man. His complete works – his past and present columns, his broadcasts, his packages, his speaking engagements, his upcoming interviews, a photogallery, his biography, his book-reading list. His professional life, fully exposed to your gaze.

As consumers we have unprecedented levels of choice and, increasingly, future news grazing is going to be a pick-and-mix selection of the best, most trusted sources – and they’ll be different for everyone.

We value brands but we are also promiscuous with our favours. We want to flit between the best offers without having to do too much running around.

So what’s the future for news? Well, if media’s big brands are the equivalent of supermarkets then the BBC and New York Times become convenience stores where you can get most of what you need, in one place, in the least amount of time.

But the social media Ocado man, who delivers direct to your door and takes the chore out of shopping is a big new challenger.

Aggregators, specialist publications and bloggers are the farmers’ markets, delicatessens and quirky shops.

Even the slow food movement has its journalism equivalent in people like Nicholas Carr who want to ratchet down the flow of information in favour of a less frenetic, more considered view.

The competition in this mixed news economy will be fierce, and data will be a key factor.

The more scraps of understanding that can be gleaned about an individual the more tailored and appropriate their news service will be.

A case of Every Little Helps, perhaps.

Which is the more important news story – a train derailment at London Paddington causing massive disruption or a mini-tornado ripping through a row of terraced houses in Oxford?

You could make a pretty good case for either depending on the detail and the circumstances. A big part of the answer would have to include consideration of the audience it was aimed at.

For news producers, these kinds of judgment are made every day as part of the process of building running orders and populating web pages.

We sift the significant from the insignificant and in doing so we weigh all kinds of factors: How unusual is the event? What are the consequences? Are there lessons to be learned? Was it avoidable? Does it have wider significance?

We also consider the content we can muster: How good is the audio? Do we have arresting pictures, or great quotes, or an insightful interview?

Serving material from one-to-many – broadcasting – has stood the BBC in good stead since 1922 but the news industry is in an unprecedented period of flux and broadcast is a blunt instrument for news delivery.

Even the BBC’s narrower-focused regional splits owe more to the accident of transmitter locations than real, on-the-ground, geographic boundaries.

Smartphone technology is now providing us with more refined tools to reach people in real-time as they go about their daily lives.

The trouble is we’re still using the tech in broadcasting mode. And seen from the perspective of news consumers, the judgment calls we make on stories can seem perverse.

The fact that thousands of commuters had delays to their journey is as nothing if your house has been battered by freak weather.

Equally, commuters might empathize with someone whose home has been damaged but mainly just want to know when the service will be restored or how they’re going to get home.

This isn’t just a case of one story leading a bulletin and the other one being pushed down, or something getting front-page billing with the other relegated to a few paragraphs.

It goes to the heart of future news delivery and to a world where successful news providers will be able to cater for the differing requirements of a diverse audience by offering tools for them to adjust the mix of their news flow.

Those requirements now include place, timeliness and context as part of the relevance equation.

We all filter for relevance, whether consciously or subconsciously. Why is this important? What does it add? How does this affect me? Why should I care?

There’s now such a deluge of information that it can be overwhelming and time-consuming to sample, sift and sort.

Wikipedia says information overload is characterised by:

– rapidly increasing amounts of new information
– the ease of duplication and transmission of data
– an increase in the available channels
– large amounts of historical information
– contradictions and inaccuracies in the material.

That sounds very much like the rapidly-changing news eco-system.

Consultant Clay Shirky says the problem isn’t so much about information overload as filter failure.

The problem we have to solve is how to serve relevant content to individuals without pushing out so much that they become swamped, or disinterested.

How is it possible to know what millions of individuals want and what’s relevant to them?

In short, we can’t. Only the individuals know – and that’s the point. We have to develop more sophisticated filters to allow people to make those decisions for themselves.

News organisations need to know their consumers in the way that Tesco knows its customers. Such an organisation would know that I favour technology news over entertainment, that I want more business-focused material than health, and that I might want to reverse these choices at any given time depending on where I am and what I am doing.

The compact implicit here is that individuals will have to surrender some information in order to get better information and that means thoroughly exploring and explaining privacy issues.

Location and context have to play a big part in our future thinking. For someone wanting more information on the Paddington story the onus is on them to do the legwork and go and look.

Typically, that might mean visiting a trusted source to find information before going elsewhere to see if anyone else has additional detail or more recent material.

It might also involve a visit to Twitter. Twitter’s rise as a news platform shows the hunger for rapid-fire, quick-to-consume snippets. If you’re caught up in an unfolding event or something that piques your interest you want to know more, right away.

But the repetition, contradictions and inaccuracies that typify overload are there in abundance and the precious commodity of time isn’t always well spent.

The ideal solution would allow an individual to register an interest in the story and to track significant developments which would be pushed to them, snap by snap, line by line.

Recognising that interest, the news organisation would offer a UGC backchannel through which witness information, or pictures or video could be passed – and rewarded in some way, if used.

It might also open up the possibility of involvement in live, or time-delayed, broadcasts by individuals at the scene – but that’s a whole different discussion and something for another post.