Another Nail in the RSS Coffin

The default Paper.li view

The default Paper.li view (click to enlarge)

When I first saw the details on the Flipboard iPad app (via Rexblog, I believe), I figured my days of using NetNewsWire on a daily basis were numbered. By creating a newspaper out of the Twitter users you follow, Flipboard offers an incredibly convenient way of reading what they recommend. But since I’ve been holding out for gen 2 of the iPad, the death of my RSS habit was strictly theoretical.

Now that I’ve seen Paper.li, a new Web-based product similar to Flipboard, I think I can hear the nail being firmly hammered into NNW’s coffin. (Yes, I know that the underlying technology of RSS is alive and well; I’m just talking about my use of an RSS reader.)

By drawing its content from a Twitter feed, Paper.li applies a personally meaningful filter to my reading. Rather than subscribing to unmoderated streams of content from sites that only sometimes have articles that interest me, I can now directly read what the Twitter users I follow write or recommend.

The site does a reasonably good job of categorizing the Twittered recommendations into content-based buckets (technology, education, arts & entertainment, business) and types of media (video, stories). It also picks up hashtags like #prodmgmt, adding an invitation to read a paper based on that tag. Since hashtags are, for me, hit or miss, I’m not too impressed—but that could change.

The Paper.li list view

The Paper.li list view (click to enlarge)

Wisely, the site also allows you to view all your articles in a list format, which looks less interesting but offers quicker access to linked content. I have a feeling I’ll tend to favor this view over the default one.

You don’t even need a Twitter account to use Paper.li. You can enter the user name of your favorite Twitterer, like Jeff Jarvis or Mark Schaeffer, to see a newspaper based on their feeds.

The site is supported by Google display ads, which to my eye fit in fairly well with the content. In theory, the ads should be related to content, but my particular Twitterfeed seems to be too ill-defined to produce ads I might actually click on (although I wonder if it is just coincidence that the EasyCloset ad showed up a day after I visited the site).

Since this is my first look at Paper.li (I only learned of it today as I listened to Net@Night while treadmilling), it may turn out to be one of those flash-in-the-pan nice ideas that I quickly abandon. But for the moment, it looks like the real thing.

We’ve Got Algorithms. Who Needs Editors?

In an article published last weekend on Mashable, Sarah Kessler asked the question, “Can Robots Run the News?” It’s an important question not just for journalists, but for anyone who creates or curates content on the Web.

The examples Kessler cites span the range of content creation, from automatically generated sports news to the use of algorithms to identify news topics. There’s obvious value to automated content creation, and as Jeff Jarvis has declared, “Data is (are) journalism.” But we should be careful not to confuse computed content with communication.

Computed content is a set of data; communication is the expression of an attitude toward, or perspective on, those data. Without a point of view, content is just an audience speaking to itself.

Using Web analytics from a test period to automatically choose between two headlines, as we’re told the Huffington Post does for its stories, can make sense—if both versions are true to the content. If you balance crowd-sourced feedback with the content creator’s point of view, you’ll have a productive conversation. But if the crowd takes precedence, it may simply replace content’s individual vitality with the bland mean.

Take, for instance, the English title for Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It may not have been crowd sourced, but it certainly plays to a corporate idea of the crowd. Is it really better than the literally translated original title, Men Who Hate Women? (That’s a rhetorical question. The original title nails the book’s central concern; the English version just wraps it in a pulp-fiction cover.)

Even in content marketing, where knowing what people want is critical to the content provider’s success, a one-sided conversation dominated by the audience won’t fly. For a conversation to work, there must be differences between the participants. The power of new media is the way it enables the audience to challenge the creator. That doesn’t mean, though, that the creator should stop challenging the audience.

This balance seems to be what Yahoo VP of Media Jimmy Pitaro is after in the company’s news blog, The Upshot. In her interview with him last week on All Things D, Kara Swisher noted that while some see computational journalism as a “‘democratizing’ of the news, others are more concerned about relying on algorithms to determine the best coverage and the implications for a society guided by its own searches.”

But as Pitaro noted in his video interview, “data and audience insights” constitute just one component of the content. In addition, Yahoo uses the “old-school” methods of “manually identifying topics” through its team of editors and writers.

Similarly, as Kessler mentioned in Mashable and as Claire Cain Miller explored at greater length in yesterday’s New York Times, the tech-news site Techmeme uses both algorithms and editors to produce its content. Why? Because “humans do things software cannot, like grouping subtly related stories, taking into account sarcasm or skepticism, or posting important stories that just broke.”

If readers didn’t care about such things, algorithms alone might be enough. But they do care. The same audience whose searches drive the algorithms also want the human touch in their content.  Until computers can pass the Turing Test, it isn’t likely that they will replace people in content creation.

Should Journalists Learn to Code?

A thoughtful article on MediaShift today by Roland Legrand makes a compelling case for journalists learning programming.  Though he starts by reciting a long list of reasons not to code, he ends up fairly adamantly arguing the case for making it mandatory. The only exception he admits is any journalist who plans to quit the business before 2020.

Personally, I don’t need convincing. I’ve shared this view since the late 1990s, and have a shelf of Perl, PHP, and MySQL books to prove it. That’s not to say I ever developed much expertise in these languages, but that’s not the point. As Legrand says, the goal is not to “do a lot of the programming and data structuring yourself.” The benefit of learning some programming is in understanding the medium you’re working in, and in being able to converse with and, more importantly, influence the technical staff that manage it.

Journalists back in the dark ages (the 1980s and earlier) were expected to learn about spec’ing type, doing layouts and pasteup, and other technical details of the print medium. Why should we expect less of journalists who work online?

But though Legrand’s argument makes perfect sense to me, I wonder if it’s a realistic prescription for most current B2B journalists. A reading of the recent ASBPE-Medill Survey on Digital Skills and Strategies suggests some of the challenges.

It’s clear from the comments in that survey that there are still a few of  Paul Conley’s untrainable “print guys” that haven’t yet been introduced to his baseball bat. But it’s just as clear that most of the respondents recognize their need for training, but despair of getting it.

Efforts like ASBPE’s webinar tomorrow can help, but, as I’ve argued before, real progress requires disruptive change, in one of two forms.

The first requires the employer to make digital expertise mandatory. Only then will the time be made for the employees to learn the skills they need.

If that doesn’t happen, the only option is to write off your employer and seek training on your own. The sacrifice this option requires—giving up your free time or even your job—makes it unpalatable for many.

In contrast to a few years ago, I think most journalists today would agree with Legrand’s advice. The challenge now is not understanding it, but acting on it.

Apple’s iPad May Help Save Publishing, But Not This Way

iPad from Apple Inc.Of all the publishing-industry reactions to the debut of Apple’s iPad so far, the strangest may be a suggestion that the iPad and other e-readers will allow magazines to give up the Web. In a brief blog post on Folio: today, Donald Seckler proposes that as e-readers soar in popularity, they will offer an attractive alternative to the Web. Rather than give away content free on your Web site, he says, offer it only on e-readers. And of course, charge a bundle for it. Print-publishing saved, case closed.

Seckler’s post appears to arise from a traditionalist print-publisher view of the Internet as a refuge for thieves and brigands, who “easily grab and reuse your content.” So the obvious solution is to “take away the free content” on the Web and make sure that “there is only one place for people to turn for your brand’s expert content.”

Seckler doesn’t share his views without trepidation. “I know that sounds a little crazy,” he says. “OK, a lot crazy.”

No, Donald, not crazy. Just dumb. A lot dumb.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let’s quickly review a few key precepts of the new-media reality:

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Prediction: Apple’s Tablet Will Change Publishing

Ihnatko:  Apple tablet will spark digital publishing revolution

Ihnatko: Apple tablet will spark digital publishing revolution

Of all the predictions for 2010 I’ve read—or hope to read (Paul Conley, how about  B2B predictions as lullaby lyrics?)—the one that has me most excited is that Apple will come out with a tablet computer. This isn’t just because I’m a serious technophile, but also because an Apple tablet will have the potential to remake magazine publishing.Until earlier this week, I entertained only idle thoughts about Apple’s rumored tablet in development, mostly when experiencing one frustration or another with my Kindle. But after hearing tech journalist Andy Ihnatko talk about the tablet on the Macbreak Weekly podcast yesterday, I’m persuaded not only that the “iPad” is real, but also that it will be revolutionary.

Ihnatko was responding to news reports that an Oppenheimer analyst expects a March or April launch of the tablet and that it will squarely target the Kindle.

While Ihnatko doubted that Apple’s tablet would “own the e-book marketplace,” he did agree that the device would transform it.  “The amount of excitement that it’s going to generate just for e-publishing in general is already phenomenal.” As he noted in his Chicago Sun-Times article last week on a rival tablet computer, the erstwhile “CrunchPad,” computer makers are all preparing for “what happens after Apple releases the Tablet.” He compared their state of mind to that in a year before a world war: “No, it hasn’t been announced, it hasn’t been scheduled, but everybody’s anticipating that the world will be fundamentally different this time next year. They are making arrangements to make sure they are in the best position to survive and thrive in that new landscape.”

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