Monday, May 19, 2014

Rebooting the Killer Robot in Your Newsroom

"Editing is choosing."

That wise adage comes from my former boss Doug Feaver, a legendary Washington Post editor. Doug was around the paper long enough to both earn a prominent mention in the acknowledgements of All the President's Men and help found the Online News Association a quarter century later. He also played a key role in hiring a number of accomplished journalists who passed through the Post. That says a lot about the importance of editing choices -- and not just the choices that appear in the copy under well-known bylines.

As editors, our choices define our news organization -- not just the journalism, but the public's perception, the makeup and culture of our newsroom and the direction of our products.

The Goat Must Be Fed, a new report I coauthored for the Duke Reporters' Lab, is all about these kinds of choices -- in this case the leadership decisions that determine whether a journalism organization will or won't take advantage of emerging data tools that can add new dimensions to the stories we cover. But the functions of the editorial "choosing" mechanism is little discussed or understood.

Here's how it works:

Becoming a newsroom manager turns us into killer robots. Our new cybernetic functions kick in almost the moment we are promoted. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, we suddenly look across our newsrooms through a computerized readout. A countdown to deadline ticks in one corner of the screen. The day's story list scrolls beneath that. Occasional news alerts or messages from the central hive node pop up, demanding attention. Neglected project plans and personnel matters blink for attention in a bottom corner of the readout.

When our reporters and colleagues approach with questions, automated responses appear on the screen:

  • Can you move that quote up?
  • Can you make that story shorter?
  • Can you file for the web?
  • What's new here? Didn't we already do this story?

We are busy robots, so when someone approaches with something new -- an idea for an interesting way to tell a story digitally, for instance -- our defense systems activate and generate a different response protocol:

  • We don't know how.
  • We can't afford that.
  • That's going to take a lot of time.
  • That's risky.
  • Give me a break! Our publishing system won't even let us embed a YouTube video.

Most of these responses spring from three almost universal newsroom challenges: people, budget and time. But if we want our newsrooms to do innovative work, we have to short-circuit this hardwired defense protocol. And the hack is not as hard as you might think. You simply turn these automatic responses into open-ended questions.

Here are some examples from a presentation I did earlier this month for "Hacking News Leadership" --  a gathering of news managers and digital journalists in Austin hosted a by the American Society of News Editor.

Those slides were derived from the conclusion of The Goat Must Be Fed, where coauthors Bill Adair, Prashanth Kamalakanthan and I offered a longer list of alternate responses. We wrote these responses to help news leaders bypass the questions that dominate our news days and ask them in new ways.

An excerpt:
"How can we innovate more within the reality of our current constraints? What does our audience really want and expect from us? Those questions can sound pretty abstract, but reducing them to specific, practical terms can make the big challenges less daunting. 
"Personnel questions: Who on our staff understands how to tell stories digitally, regardless of where they work now? Would shifting them (temporarily, some of the time, all of the time) create professional development opportunities -- both for them and for staffers who would fill in? 
"Coverage/audience questions: How much of an audience is there for all of our routine coverage anyway? Which stories can we stop doing so we can tell high-impact stories that are data-driven, visual and interactive instead? Are there topics or beats (traffic, schools, real estate, economic development, crime) where digital tools will have the most impact on our audience and our community? What stories will we find by wading into the data? How can our audience help? 
"Tool and process questions: Which low-cost and open-source tools can we use to do this work? Can we create digital “sandboxes” that allow our news staff to work around the constraints of existing publishing systems? Who else can partner with us (other news organizations or academic journalism programs)? Where can we find free or inexpensive training? 
"Organizational questions: Can we use editorial experiments to make a case for the newsroom’s technology needs? Or even our staffing needs? How can we make sure that any new know-how is retained and shared as broadly as possible with others in the newsroom? How can we present and promote our innovations to excite our audience -- and our sponsors?"
The point of all these questions is to turn conversation-ending responses ("We can't do that.") into conversation starters ("How can we do that?").

I can't promise that these questions will make your daily "people, budget, time" realities disappear. But they will activate and enlist your coworkers. Instead of being a lonely killer robot you will become the leader of a powerful and more creative army of self-actuated Robots for Good.

The choice is yours.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Gangway, Humans!"

Perhaps because I travel a fair bit, my favorite story of the day was futurist Bryan Alexander's account of "attending" an education conference from the comfort of his Vermont home using a remote-controlled "Doppelbot."

"It’s an iPad on a stick, mounted on rollers," Alexander said in the first of two blog posts describing his experience with the telepresence robot sold by Double Robotics. Yours for the low price of $2,499!

Pictures like the one in the tweet above show Alexander conversing and posing with other attendees at this week's Educause Learning Initiative meeting in New Orleans. The conference badge around his robotic neck was a nice touch.

"I stood in line for the buffet, then shouted 'gangway humans!' when rolling at top speed.  I toasted drinkers repeatedly."

In a second post, Alexander provided a more detailed review of his teletrip -- summing up the good (playfulness and interaction), the challenges (bandwidth dependencies, speaker volume) and the tradeoffs (increased speed and less "'neck' wobbling" when he lowered his iPad face vs. the "creepiness" of sneaking up at people below eye level).

A three-minute promotional video calls the Double "the ultimate tool for telecommuting." But as someone who was frequently double-booked in meetings at my previous job, I can imagine all kinds of uses. Plus the Double would make me look a lot skinnier. Something about it really takes the pounds off.

And quick hat tip here to Lawrence Biemiller, whose story for the Chronicle of Education first alerted me to Alexander's robotic travels.

Monday, February 3, 2014

For Explorers, Failure Is More Than an Option

The Columbia disaster was 11 years ago this past Saturday. I was visiting family in Florida, not far from the Kennedy Space Center, when the deadly events unfolded 40 miles over East Texas. As a newly assigned breaking news liaison between the Washington Post's print and digital newsrooms, I rushed to the space center, where NASA's very first space shuttle had been scheduled to land that morning before it was torn to pieces during reentry at 18 times the speed of sound.

The following day, after hosting an online Q&A with Post readers, I was talking with one of the beleaguered but unflappable staffers manning the space agency's press room. Many of the journalists who had been there to cover the landing were already decamping for Houston, where the investigation was centered. The press person asked me if I had ever been to Kennedy for a launch. I said I had been to the space center many times and written a lot about NASA over the years, but I had never actually attended a liftoff.

"You'll have to come back," she said -- enough sad determination in her voice to express certainty that the launchpads on the edge of the Atlantic three miles away from us would be used again.

The shuttles did indeed fly again -- 22 more missions before the program was closed down in 2011. And I kept my word to that staffer, assigning myself to cover the second to last shuttle flight when I was an editor at NPR.

"There is no risk-free activity, and to imagine that we can open up space without human casualties is a delusion that could prevent it from happening," wrote Rand Simberg on the opinion page of last Friday's USA Today. Simberg is an aerospace engineer and the author of Safe Is Not an Option. He continued:
"If we are serious about commercializing space and doing serious (and dangerous) things, such as establishing human space settlements, diverting deadly asteroids or going to Mars, it would likely seem not only acceptable but expected that some of the settlers and asteroid wranglers would die."
Can we live with those deaths?

In the software and web development industries, "fail fast" has become a bit of a buzzy mantra. Political reality makes that a difficult principle to live by, especially in large-scale, publicly funded endeavors with human consequences, such as space exploration and, say, health care enrollment systems. But the idea of embracing failure has spread from the tech world to other business sectors -- even the change-averse news and media industries.

One of the things that makes risk easier to manage is staying focused on the goal -- the destination.

So what did the seven astronauts aboard Columbia give their lives for -- as well as the other 19 astronauts and cosmonauts who have died so far, either in flight or in mission-related training accidents?

Astronomer Carl Sagan may have left an answer, shortly before his death in 1996, when he recorded a three-minute message to be played for future Mars explorers. (I came across this recoding for the first time a couple of days ago in the archives of Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog. The audio that she posted is embedded below this transcript.):

"This is a place where I often work in Ithaca, New York, near Cornell University. Maybe you can hear in the background a 200-foot waterfall right nearby, which is probably, I would guess, a rarity on Mars even in times of high technology. 
"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century, particularly with respect to Mars. The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it. And a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited and inspired to become scientists to find out more about Mars, which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science. That sequence has played a major role in our present ability to get to Mars. It certainly was an important factor in the life of Robert Goddard, the American rocketry pioneer, who I think more than anyone else paved the way for our actual ability to go to Mars. And it certainly played a role in my scientific development.  
"I don't know why you're on Mars. Maybe you're there because we've recognized we have to carefully move small asteroids around to avert the possibility of one impacting the Earth with catastrophic consequences. And while we're up in near-Earth space it's only a hop, skip and a jump to Mars. Or maybe we're on Mars because we recognize that if there are human communities on many worlds, the chances of us being rendered extinct by some catastrophe on one world is much less. Or maybe we're on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there. The gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Or maybe we're on Mars because we have to be, because there is a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process. We come after all from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9 percent of our tenure on Earth we've been wanderers and the next place to wander to is Mars. 
"But whatever the reason you're on Mars us, I'm glad you're there -- and I wish I was with you."

(The photo above of the setting Moon as seen from Earth orbit was taken by a member of the STS-107 crew aboard Columbia on Jan 26, 2003.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Partisanship: Past, Present and Future (Updated)

"Put down party spirit; stop the corruption of party elections; legislate not for the next election, but for the next century."
A call for consensus from a frustrated lawmaker on the eve of the expected government shutdown? Or from some columnist, blogger or talking head?
Nope. That was Francis Scott Key's "remedy" for the political viciousness of his era -- from a letter dated Nov. 27, 1813.
The author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" wrote this during the divisive War of 1812. The letter was addressed to Key's quirky friend John Randolph, then a former (and future) congressman from Virginia. Randolph was ousted from his seat in the House of Representatives the year before, after he bucked his party's leadership by opposing the war. Randolph's Dec. 15 reply to Key made it clear that the idea of politics without partisanship was as likely in 1813 as it has proved to be in the 200 years since.
"You will put down party spirit when you put down whisky-drinking," Randolph wrote back.
Randolph was later reelected to his House seat and briefly served in the Senate -- where, by the way, he's credited with helping invent the filibuster. He was known for his witty and scathing oratory. More than Key's plea to legislate "for the next century," Randolph's quips about the politics of their time seem to describe the workings of today's Congress. "We all know our duty better than we discharge it," he once said.
But one Randolph line seems appropriate for this blog -- especially today, with the cable news networks' on-screen clocks counting down the minutes and seconds until the fiscal year officially ends:
"Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions."

UPDATE: Oct. 1, 2 a.m. ET: Now that the government has officially been closed for two hours another appropriate John Randolph line about governing comes to mind:
"That most delicious of all privileges -- spending other people’s money."
And while we're on the subject of governing (versus politics):
Personal experience has left me with little patience for the "lazy government worker" stereotype. Intractable incompetence is hardly the public sector's exclusive domain -- tonight's events notwithstanding.
I was just looking back at some of my old clips from the government shutdowns back in 1995, when I was still covering science for the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina. What I most remembered from that time was the many non-essential government scientists at EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who ignored official furloughs and went to work anyway to tend their experiments. "I don't care if we're essential or not," one senior scientist told fellow reporter Joe Neff and me. "I like the work." I just Googled that scientist; his official page on the NIEHS website lists him as "retired/special volunteer." I guess he still likes the work.

(Nerdy notes on sources: I first saw the Key quote that starts this post in a passage from Steve Vogel's very good new book about the British innovation of 1814, Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation. Vogel is a former Washington Post colleague. The full exchange with Randolph is more thoroughly documented in the second volume of Hugh A. Gakland's The Life of John Randolph of Roanoke. Randolph's most famous quotes are best documented in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Suzy Platt, which attributes them to the second volume of William Cabell Bruce's John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773-1833. I wish all quote sites cites ["cites" -- HA!] required some form of attribution, since so many frequently cited quotes turn out to be misquotes. That makes me an old-fashioned futurist.)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

'Night Is Crept Upon Our Talk'

Talk of the Nation was one of my favorite public radio programs, even before I started working at NPR. After a 21-year run, the show's final broadcast aired last Thursday.

For Neal Conan, June 27 also was the last day of a 36-year career at NPR, more than 11 of which he spent hosting Talk of the Nation. He signed off with this call to action for public radio:

"[I]n a minute or so, I will go back to where I started in public radio. I will be one of you again, a listener. Yes, a listener-sponsor, but a listener-critic, too. I will cry and laugh and yell at the radio. And we listeners have a vital function. It is our job to hold member stations and NPR accountable. 
"So right here, I form my own private compact with NPR and my member stations. I will listen and, yes, I will open my checkbook, but I need some services in return. Go and tell me the stories behind everything that happened in the world today. Explain why it happened, and how it affects our lives. Do it every day. Tell me what's important, and don't waste my time with stupid stuff."

Here's Neal's full farewell:

NPR's Kainaz Amaria took the photo of Neal hosting Talk of the Nation's final show that appears atop this post. I'm using it here with her permission. And the headline for this post comes from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare:

The deep of night is crept upon our talk, 
And nature must obey necessity; 
Which we will niggard with a little rest.
There is no more to say?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

'It's the Coffee, Not the Cup'

That "cup half-full" take on digital publishing in the headline above comes from Tim Ditlow, tapped recently by Amazon to head the company's expansion into children's and young adult books, including a new ebook imprint specifically aimed at teen readers.

I found that line in a post by writer/blogger Roz Foster, who heard Ditlow's talk in August at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. Ditlow urged authors at last summer's Los Angeles gathering to focus on their stories, not the means by which they find their readers -- in print, in digital form, or through audio books, the business he was in before coming to Amazon.

Summing up what she heard from Ditlow and other speakers, Foster described an "industry-severing split between the print and digital sides of the business" -- a split that will sound familiar to people working in most corners of the media biz:

"Print publishing veterans at this conference appeared too established and mature in their careers to be forced to look very seriously for a new digital path. These distinguished agents, editors and publishers remain diehard champions of great, important literature and high-quality print editions.... 
"On the other side of the divide, future-looking folks, or those with a little more time ahead of them in their careers, appeared to recognize that they must face the digital facts.  They’re trying to balance high literary standards with the breakneck speed of the digital marketplace. They’re trying to surmount a steep technological learning curve while software, e-marketing techniques and industry business models innovate by the nanosecond. If this new generation of publishing professionals can stay calm and open-minded enough to spot the pattern of what’s working well in the chaos, they’ll become the heroic vanguard for a new, respected publishing model just now being forged."

Image above by Hocus Focus Studio via iStockphoto.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Selling Dead Trees

"One of the problems of publishing a newspaper is that you have to sell something that is dead.  
"It was once alive, standing high in leafy splendor in the woods, swaying, breathing and sighing. But it has not only been cut down; it is floated down rivers, soaked in water, ground up, treated with chemicals, made into pulp, and put through rollers until it comes out as paper, shipped to SanFrancisco, trucked to Monterey and then run through a press. 
Not even the smallest bug on the bark, nor the smallest termite inside the tree, can stay alive through all this ordeal. 
"We can sell these pieces of dead trees only by creating the illusion that they are alive. This we attempt to do, with varying success, by headlines that grip the eye and written material that clutches the heart and soul of man." 
-- from a November 1963 editorial by Ed Kennedy, editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald (renamed the Monterey County Herald in 27 years later).
Manuel Roig-Franzia, my former colleague at the Washington Post, quoted that editorial in part in a recent profile of Kennedy, whose experiences as a correspondent  during World War II are the subject of a posthumous autobiography, Ed Kennedy's War: V-E Day, Censorship, and the Associated Press. Sounds like quite a yarn -- in dead-tree form or digitally.

Printing press photo above by WenRoo via iStockphoto.