Sunday, December 27, 2009

NASA Plays Asteroids: Leapfroging to Mars?

Asteroids, the iconic video game of the early 1980s, marked its thirtieth anniversary last month. You can honor the occasion by shooting up some space rocks in the embedded player above or by playing on the official Atari Web site.

NASA recently dropped more than 1.2 billion quarters on its own version of the game with its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The space agency launched the $320 million orbiting observatory earlier this month in part to help identify previously unknown asteroids and comets, among other astronomical objects.

And if President Obama takes the advice of an advisory commission that looked at the space program's future, an even higher-stakes version of Atari's arcade classic could be in the works -- one that would involve sending astronauts on a mission to explore one of the nearby planetoids.

Hayabusa over asteroid ItokawaA number of robotic space probes have already paid visits to asteroids and other Near Earth Objects (or NEOs) in recent years. The image here shows the shadow of Japan's Hayabusa space probe as it passed over a half-kilometer-long, potato-shaped object called Itokawa in 2005 (click to enlarge). Hayabusa's seven-year mission is scheduled to end this coming June when it returns to Earth with a small sample from the asteroid's surface.

Space scientists have been eying asteroids as potential destinations for human explorers as well -- possibly as a more challenging alternative to the Moon missions envisioned for the end of the coming decade. October's brief suborbital test flight of a rocket intended to be a key component of NASA's future lunar expeditions gave the Moon plans an equally brief burst of attention. But so far Congress and the public just have not shown sustained interest in paying for what critics have dismissed as a been-there-done-that sequel to NASA's late-1960s lunar triumphs.

As the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee noted in its final report this fall, the space agency won't be able to meet its 2020 time line for returning to the Moon with its current funding levels. The advisory panel offered the new administration several recommendations for moving forward, such as using new commercially developed spacecraft to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station after NASA retires its space shuttle fleet. That would free the agency to concentrate on human exploration instead. But exploration of what?

The main reason for going back to the Moon was to provide a stepping stone for an eventual trek to Mars. But an asteroid or some other object might be a more remote -- and more exciting -- destination, beyond the immediate gravitational neighborhood of the home planet. The technological, navigational and biological challenges of a months-long roundtrip journey would provide a better testing ground for an even lengthier Mars mission.

Others in the space community have been thinking along these lines for some time. The idea got a serious hearing during a high-level, two-day workshop on space exploration at Stanford University in February 2008. In a paper summarizing the discussion, the workshop's organizers said missions to near-Earth asteroids -- or perhaps the asteroid-like Martian moon Phobos -- would offer "valuable rewards in their own right, in addition to advancing the capability for sending astronauts on long interplanetary voyages. But their greatest value could be to supply what is missing in the current human space-exploration plan -- publicly engaging milestones on the road to Mars."

The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) made a similar case for sending human crews to NEOs in a 2004 report. One scenario that report examined: mounting a two-month expedition in 2025 to the asteroid 1999 A010 -- a journey that would require a yearlong roundtrip. A mission like that would "stretch the capabilities of human exploration just enough to greatly reduce the risk of the Mars missions to come," the IAA said, and therefore "play an important architectural role as a bridge between Earth's neighborhood and Mars."

The IAA also pointed out that asteroids could quite literally help build that bridge by providing relatively easy access to valuable minerals for future space colonists. "Importing materials from Earth to space is very expensive, so a key to establishing a permanent human presence in the solar system is to find means to utilize resources found in space," the report said. Scouting missions would help determine whether rocky space islands offer opportunities "to develop in situ resources including the production of energy, fuel and construction materials."

"Because NEO's have very low gravity, transportation of these resources to other locations can be done relatively inexpensively, and thus they could be extremely useful in the development of a long-term human presence in space. Early human explorers at NEO's could complete resource assays begun by robotic missions, select the best locations for resource processing units, and initiate their operation. It may also be determined that NEO resources have commercial potential, in which case larger-scale processing operations requiring human presence may be appropriate."

And if the idea of space mines doesn't capture the imagination, there's always the doom-and-gloom angle: Passing asteroids pose threats to life on Earth, as the popular press enjoys reminding the public every time a NEO is projected to tumble into our vicinity. A 2007 NASA study ordered up by Congress looked at a variety of techniques for changing the course of a threatening asteroid or comet. It detailed all kinds of diversion techniques -- from nuclear options to "gravity tractors." The study also outlined various manned and unmanned opportunities for learning more about what the report called "Potentially Hazardous Objects," or PHOs. (It's a NASA study -- an abbreviation is required.)

So would any of those reasons be enough to reengage the public in making big investments in human space exploration during a time of war and economic distress?

We'll see if the White House and Congress are willing to line up their quarters for a multibillion-dollar round of Asteroids -- or whether other, more terrestrial games take precedence. In the mean time, Hollywood already has ideas for its own expensive version of Asteroids. Over the summer, blockbuster film producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura ("G.I. Joe," "Transformers") secured the film rights to Atari's arcade game. Tentative release date for Asteroids, the movie: 2012.

(Japanese space agency image of the Itokawa asteroid shown above from The Planetary Society.)

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Flight Plan for California's Aerial Giant

This grainy nighttime picture of a zeppelin passing over a deco hotel in Los Angeles looks like it might have been shot in the 1930s. But it actually was taken with my iPhone on Sunset Boulevard two weekends ago.

Airship Eureka is the same Silicon Valley-based zeppelin that I traveled on over the summer, when it last ventured down the coast for a few days of L.A.-area tourist flights. I happened to be in town last week, too, and spotted the 246-foot, helium-filled craft several times while I was there -- in the air over Interstate 405 and above West Hollywood, and on the ground at the airport in Long Beach.

Long Beach also was the destination at the end of my July flight from Eureka's home at Moffett Field near San Jose. That 9-hour, 20-minute trip offered spectacular views down most of the length of the Golden State. We also made an unexpected pass over the media swarm that had gathered near Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch to cover the pop icon's death a few days earlier -- a test flight for the zeppelin's potential as a platform for TV crews.

Photo highlights from my trip are linked here and embedded in a slideshow below. But few of those shots convey how enormous Eureka is. From the ground, it might look like the kind of blimps that often circle over sporting events. But this zeppelin -- different from a blimp because of its semi-rigid framework inside -- is closer in length to a Boeing 747 or a colossal U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo jet.

Enthusiasts of lighter-than-air vehicles such as the historic zeppelins of the early 20th century have been waiting decades for an airship renaissance. They imagine a time when aerial giants are once again common sights over big cities, if not to ferry passengers than perhaps to deliver airborne cargo to hard-to-reach destinations. Economics and aerodynamics have thwarted many such ventures over the years, as I noted in a previous posting. But those past failures aren't daunting the founders of Airship Ventures, Eureka's California operator.

Company president Brian Hall is a software entrepreneur with a soft spot for technologies that "ended prematurely" or were never "fully explored." He and his wife obtained their Zeppelin NT under a long-term lease from the legendary German airship-builder. The Halls' immediate plan for their zeppelin -- one of just three such aircraft operating around the world -- was to launch a high-end "flight-seeing" business for tourists and charter passengers, supplemented by the kind of sponsorship dollars long associated with traditional blimp operations. In an in-flight interview during my flight, Hall said "healthy profits" appeared to be in reach -- probably within a year, despite the hardly buoyant economy in which the privately held enterprise lifted off in the fall of 2008. Hall also said he eventually hopes to operate an additional airship or two, including one possibly based on the U.S. East Coast.

The longer-term plans for Airship Ventures are even more ambitious. Hall explained that the company's "public-facing business" -- tourism and advertising -- was designed in part to support the development of new and improved airships while also providing a showcase for their future potential. And as those vehicles become available, Hall clearly indicated he wants to be among the first in line to capitalize on their capabilities. "I don’t think it's the best airship," Hall said of Eureka as we passed a few thousand feet over the California coast south of Santa Barbara. "I think it's the best airship you can buy."

What could a better airship do? Hall said improvements in propulsion and range will turn future zeppelins into fuel-efficient, stable and highly maneuverable platforms for lucrative government work -- such as aerial surveillance flights for military or homeland security missions that would benefit from an airship's ability to "loiter" for long periods over fixed points. Heavy-lift cargo assignments, especially in areas without significant infrastructure, were another possibility Hall mentioned. And the same long-distance, long-duration capabilities required for those assignments also could lead to grander travel possibilities, such as the trans-oceanic passenger flights that ended with the Hindenburg disaster of 1937.

One way that Airship Ventures is trying to demonstrate the potential of current and future zeppelins is by leasing out the Eureka for scientific work -- like the kind of atmospheric research done by NASA. Conveniently the aerospace agency's Ames Research Center is the landlord for Eureka's Moffett Field hanger. And a few weeks ago, researchers from NASA's Earth Science Division at Ames hired out the airship for eight hours to test its uses as an experimental observation platform.

Hall also told me he was talking to researchers from other scientific institutions about ways to take advantage of Eureka's ability to unobtrusively study whales and other marine life. A stunning overhead photograph of a blue whale recently posted on Airship Venture's Web site may help make that case.

Hall said earlier airship start-ups led by entrepreneurs with similar goals and visions foundered over the years because they tried to do too much too fast. In contrast, Hall said his company was slowly cultivating the technology, know-how and market for innovative new lighter-than-air craft. "We're building a foundation," he said.

As Hall and I finished our interview, I rejoined the handful of other passengers, taking in views of Malibu and the passing coastline out the port-side windows of Eureka's 30-foot gondola. A short time later, we soared over Santa Monica Pier and into the heart of Los Angeles. We watched jumbo jets land below us as we passed over busy LAX. And a few of us took turns snapping pictures of each other sticking our heads out one of the windows -- not something you can do on many other aircraft these days.

As we neared Long Beach, one of our two pilots -- Fritz Guenther, on loan from the airship's manufacturer -- provided some last-minute instructions to the passengers about the arrival procedures. We applauded -- perhaps prematurely. "We're not done yet," Guenther reminded us. "We have to land." But after that flight, it was hard not to be a little enthusiastic.

Reality is for the earthbound.

(Photos by the author. Click into the gallery for captions.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Putting the 'Public' in Public Media

What's the public's role in PUBLIC media's future, particularly in shaping and contributing content? That's the subject of a two-day "unconference" that began this morning on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C.

What the heck is an unconference? An increasingly popular form of informal build-your-own-agenda event, also called a "BarCamp". As veteran "camp" councilor Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs explained to the crowd of several hundred attendees at the start of the day, "Why isn't there a sign for where the bathroom is? Because you didn't put it up."

Public Media Camp was organized by NPR, PBS and A.U.'s Center for Social Media to kickoff an initiative to "strengthen the relationship that public broadcasters have with their communities through the creation of collaborative projects." The meeting attracted a diverse group from across the country -- executives and journalists, technologists and designers, fund-raisers and funders, students, professors, "citizen journalists," and many independent content creators and freelancers, both on-air and online. There's no shortage of laptops and iPhones, so the discussions are easy to follow at #pubcamp on Twitter.

Camp convened this rainy morning with about an hour of introductions. Each attendee was supposed to very briefly introduce themselves -- although few stuck to three three-word limit. As I did at Government 2.0 Camp, a similar event for public sector types that I attended in March, I tried to jot down a few three-word introductions that captured the spirit of this gathering. A dozen or so that resonated with me...

"digital immigrant party-crasher"
"oldest laptop here"
"old socialized anarchist"
"veteran, strategy, unemployed"
"geeky journalism student"
"social media skeptic"
"community, widgets, caffeinated"
"content, convergence, management"
"content, content, content"
"open development, sharing"
"more system collaboration"
"drive web traffic"
"it's cold outside"

And my favorite: "AOL, Friendster, future" -- care of Andrew Phelps from "My point," he explains " that platforms come and go but community is forever." (Andrew also may be the funniest person at Pubcamp.)

My own three words: "public media newbie," having moved to NPR just 12 weeks ago after a couple of decades working on the editorial and business sides at traditional, for-profit news organizations, mostly trying to help print journalism find its way online. Much to learn still, even after 13 years in this not-so-new media business -- especially when it comes to how we engage our audience. But one thing I know: There's no way to be interactive without interacting.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Quotes From the Future: Ted Kennedy's Political Force

"We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make."

-- Edward M. Kennedy, quoted in this morning's New York Times obituary for the Massachusetts senator. The line comes from a speech Kennedy delivered when he received an honorary degree at Harvard last December.

In nearly two decades of Washington journalism, I have never come anywhere near as close to stumping a lawmaker as I did when I was a 12-year-old volunteer on Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential bid.

My volunteer work on Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic nomination had nothing to do with politics. My sixth-grade political views were embryonic, at best. But the campaign staff conveniently located their D.C. headquarters in an abandoned Cadillac dealership on 22nd Street NW, just a couple of blocks from my mother's office. Having nothing better to do with her pesky son when school was out, she took me to work with her and then dispatched me to the Kennedy HQ down the street. And the campaign staff kept me plenty busy: I worked in the mail room; I photocopied donor checks and FEC documents; I fed audio clips to local radio stations over the phone; I couriered packages across town; I helped set up chairs for a fund-raiser on the lawn at the senator's McLean home. It was like a wonky summer camp.

As the Democratic primaries wound down in early June, Kennedy came by the office to thank the troops. This was my opportunity to get the candidate to sign one of the black-and-white photos that I had signed in his name for many supporters when I worked in the mail room.

When my turn came to shake the senator's hand, the only thing I could think to say perfectly captured my lifelong geekiness:

"May the Force be with you, Senator."

What else would a 12-year-old say in 1980? "The Empire Strikes Back" had just come out in theaters.

Kennedy was baffled. "Uh, thank you -- very much," he said in that distinctive "Kennedy accent." Then he signed his picture and moved on.

His brother John may have charted humanity's path to the Moon, but Senator Kennedy clearly was wondering how his campaign had been infiltrated by a little alien from a galaxy very far away.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Very Model of a Modern Mobile Admiral

Admiral Thad W. Allen is a Webby guy. The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard is on Facebook. He blogs, he tweets, he podcasts. And he carries around a coffee mug.

The admiral explained how and why online communications is changing the seafaring business in a recent interview with gCaptain, a Web site for maritime professionals. While much of the discussion was technical, given the audience, Allen also made broader points about why shipping may have been a late-adopter compared to other, less tradition-bound transportation sectors.

Here's an except from gCaptain editor John Konrad's interview with Allen:

"...What I try to do is compare and contrast the aviation community with the sea-going community. The aviation industry is a product of the 20th century. Because there was such a premium placed on safety, with many passenger and cargo flight incidents early on, our air traffic control system is now one of the safest and most transparent operations that you will see anywhere. Pilots are used to being given commands to go from point A to point B and cleared for a specific altitude, then cleared for final and cleared to land. That type of control in the maritime environment is something no one has ever seen and will probably take some getting use to.

"For a thousand years we have operated on the water where anonymity was a proprietary advantage, you didn't want anyone to know where you were going based on what goods you were carrying or what the markets were doing. The fact is that modern economics is driving us in a direction, not solely because of safety and security, but as a profit motive for visibility of the supply chain. Business managers want to know, anywhere in the world, the location of a container and this information is not possible without knowing the location of the vessel carrying it.

"So I think we are being pressed this way for economics but on the safety and security side the automation of our vessels and its sensors makes it possible to be anywhere on the ship and understand the entire operation. The days of wipers, oilers and engineering officers making rounds is rapidly disappearing. For example, I've made the comment that our new national security cutter, the Bertholf, is really a computer with a ship attached.

"I am not sure it's a matter of everyone having to change. I think it's a new environment and operators have to realize this or be overtaken."

(Coast Guard photo above by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas McKenzie.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Quotes From the Future: 'No Bucks, No Buck Rogers'

"It would be like your mom saying to you when you were a teenager, 'Here's your lunch money and, by the way, I want you to buy yourself a car, so you can't borrow ours.' And you'd say, 'Well, mom, I've only got lunch money.' 'Well, I don't care. You go get a car.'"

-- Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean, on the July 17 episode of NPR's Science Friday, explaining why he thinks NASA's budget is inadequate to pay for the agency's current plans to return to the Moon by 2020.

(The NASA photograph of Alan Bean shown here was taken by Apollo 12 mission commander Charles "Pete" Conrad during their November 1969 mission to the moon's surface. If you click to enlarge that image you'll see Conrad's reflection in Bean's visor.)

Search and Sensibility: The Romance of Microsoft and Yahoo's Courtship

Microsoft and Yahoo's long trip down the aisle has been worthy of Jane Austen, beginning with months of awkward flirting and unrequited passes. But after 18 months of courting, the two families were pleased to formally announce the companies' pending marriage. All are invited.

Microsoft comes to the deal with a much-needed dowry for struggling Yahoo. But the pair's future will depend just as much on what investors and regulators think of this arrangement as it will on the technology and marketing smarts this union would combine.

I rounded up some background and instant analysis on NPR's All Tech Considered blog this afternoon (my first item for Commenters chimed in as well.

One wrote, "I heard that Google is giving them a lovely toaster"

Asked another, "Where are they registered, eBay?"

In that posting I also wrote about the "Microhoo" label and some of the other clever names that headline writers and bloggers have used to shorthand this deal. My new favorite is "Yang," which combines "Yahoo" with "Bing," the new Microsoft search engine. Only trouble is whether Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang would nix THAT merger, as he did so many others before stepping down as CEO last year.

(Image above: Thomas Sully's 1834 painting, "The Love Letter," at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

'The Moon Is Our Paris': Lindbergh and the Legacy of Apollo 11

(Above: Aviator Charles Lindbergh, left, and rocket designer Wernher von Braun in a 1969 NASA photo from the Lindbergh Picture Collection at Yale University.)

This posting is adapted from my final "Futurist" column for Congressional Quarterly, which appears in the July 20 issue of CQ Weekly.

My grandfather attended many space launches as a senior IBM contractor during NASA's moon program. But it's the parties before and after each mission that still loom large in his memory -- particularly the one on the eve of the historic circumlunar flight of Apollo 8 late in 1968, when he met Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, who was 66 by then, was chatting with Wernher von Braun, the German rocket pioneer and mastermind of NASA's towering moon ships, before my grandfather introduced himself to the famed aviator. Astronauts were in attendance, too. But in a room full of heroes, Lindy was the brightest star -- the man who inspired many people there to go into aviation and the aerospace business. Just like that evening's host, astronaut Wally Schirra, my grandfather was 4 years old when Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic, 41 years before.

Now, as the world recalls the Cold War space race, which culminated with the Apollo 11 landing 40 years ago this week, Lindbergh's legacy once again seems to put into perspective what Neil Armstrong hailed as a "giant leap for mankind."

Von Braun often cited Lindbergh's 1927 flight when answering critics, who wondered if the billions the United States spent sending astronauts to the moon was worth the investment. "I do not think that anyone believed that his sole purpose was simply to get to Paris," von Braun would say, explaining that Lindbergh's true objective was to capture the public's imagination by dramatically demonstrating the possibility of trans-oceanic flight. "In the Apollo program," von Braun sometimes said, "the moon is our Paris."

Much had indeed changed between Lindbergh's flight and the Apollo launches, two of which he attended. Just a few months before Apollo 8's first flight around the moon and a year before Apollo 11's landing, Boeing rolled out the first of its huge new 747 jumbo jets, capable of ferrying hundreds of passengers thousands of miles in nonstop luxury. Orbiting satellites were beginning to beam television signals and other communications around the globe in an instant. And the aerospace industry's needs were accelerating the development of smaller, faster computers.

And since Apollo? In some ways, technological developments in aerospace have continued along the same flight plan. Satellites, for instance, helped enable worldwide computer and telecommunications networks that simultaneously permit an airline passenger with a laptop to answer e-mail at 30,000 feet and a pilot in Nevada to fly robotic aircraft in combat missions on the other side of the planet.

NASA has continued to accumulate achievements, from the unmanned probes that have wandered the surface of Mars and the edges of the solar system to the Hubble Telescope, whose recent repair by a space shuttle crew was also a reminder that humans still have something to contribute to space exploration.

But von Braun would have been disappointed by the space program's pace, without a Paris or a moon race to galvanize the public's imagination. In the final days of Apollo, before policy makers lowered their gaze to more urgent matters on this planet, the rocket engineer detailed ambitious plans for putting astronauts on Mars in the 1980s. Under NASA's current plans, in contrast, astronauts won't return to the moon's surface before 2019 -- fully half a century since Armstrong took his first steps. In fact, the next person to walk on the moon might not have any memory of the moment when the first humans landed there; as noted in a previous posting here, six of the nine astronaut candidates NASA named last month were born after July 20, 1969.

Twenty five years ago, President Ronald Reagan challenged NASA to work with other countries to "develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade." Over budget and more than a decade late, the International Space Station really opened for business Oct. 31, 2000, when a rocket carrying its first long-term crew lifted off from a Russian spaceport. And that orbiting outpost has now served as home for a continuous succession of visitors for more than 104 consecutive months.

But does continuous mean permanent? Is that Apollo's legacy?

Future history books might remember either the space station or the Apollo moon landings as the beginning of humanity's extraterrestrial colonization. Or perhaps these "small steps" will turn out to be more like L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, the location of an 11th century Norse sailing camp. That temporary settlement, rediscovered by archeologists in 1960, predated the voyages of Columbus by half a millennium, making it Europe's earliest known toehold in the New World.

But "permanent" European colonization of the North American continent would not begin until centuries later.

The timeline for the next major phase of human migration will probably be measured in similar increments -- not in 40-year or 80-year spans. But, as Lindbergh wrote in Life magazine around the time of the Apollo 11 landing, scientific accomplishment is "not an end." It's "a path leading to and disappearing in mystery."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mostly Cloudy: Reporter From 1981 TV Story Updates Media Forecast

As a certified broadcast meteorologist, Steve Newman probably knows all about the perils of predicting the weather in front of a large audience. But over the past year or so, the former TV weatherman received a lot of media attention for a different kind of forecast: a local news story he did in 1981 about how the San Francisco Examiner was experimenting with a downloadable electronic edition for home computers -- and what that might mean for the future of news. Newman posted his 18-year-old TV report on YouTube early last year, and since then this historic artifact has become a much-circulated and much-discussed hit among media types, bloggers and j-school students. (Skip on down below if you've already seen this clip....)

Newman was KRON-TV's science editor when that story aired. Not many of those left in local TV. Now Newman lives in Pilot Point, Texas, and is executive editor of Earthweek -- a Web site and syndicated column that began life as a print feature in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1988.

After hearing audio from his 1981 report used on the May 29 episode of NPR's "On the Media", Newman shared his brief reminiscence about the story -- and his updated forecast -- which co-host Bob Garfield then read on the June 12 program....

"We in print and TV all thought back then that we would eventually prosper and thrive in the new media. I felt so confident in the Internet's future nearly 20 years later in 1998 that I quit a lucrative TV career to focus on my syndicated newspaper column -- 'Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet' -- and its online component. Now the newspaper version is threatened with extinction and the Web version doesn't make enough to live on. Local TV news is no longer an option for someone who has matured with a face meant for the radio. It's a good thing I invested somewhat well."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

New Astronauts: The Next Small Steps

The next person to set foot on the Moon might not have any memory of the moment when the first astronauts landed there 40 years ago this month.

Six of the nine astronaut candidates named by NASA on June 29 were born after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their giant leap for mankind. This diverse group of future space travelers range in age from 30 to 43; the average age is 37.

As noted here last summer, when the deadline loomed for aspiring astronauts to submit their resume, more than 3,500 people raised their hands. The planned retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet at the end of next year means the new kinds of missions for whom this team was chosen will be far different from most of their predecessors' jobs. That means different kind of training, which begins next month at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston.

Here's a bit about what the previous group of 11 astronaut candidates went through after their selection in 2004.

(Image: Artist's rendering of the proposed Altair lunar lander from NASA)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Frankenpaper and the Monster Mashup

For anyone whose ever worked in the newspaper business, watching the industry's struggles to rebuild itself can feel a bit like being one of Dr. Frankenstein's horrified friends in the 1931 film version of Mary Shelley's novel.

The illustration above by my friend Eric MacDicken captures the horror I've been feeling as newspapers, reanimated somewhat online but stitched together with lifeless lines of business, try to lift themselves from the table -- perhaps to ultimately turn on and destroy their crazed makers.

The industry's desperate and circuitous debates -- about online subscriptions, PDF editions and how to reestablish mass market media dominance in a highly niched, multimedia world -- hint to me of a self-destructive Frankenstein-like madness.

But others in the media business see very different monsters.

Les Hinton, Dow Jones' chief executive and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, recently described Google as a Dracula-like figure, feeding on the blood of traditional media institutions -- by which Hinton meant freely distributed Web content.

I saw Hinton's remarks in a Crain's New York Business report on his speech at last month's PricewaterhouseCoopers Entertainment and Media Outlook event. Google may not have started out "in a cave as a digital vampire per se," the newspaper executive told the audience. "The charitable view of Google is that the news business itself fed Google's taste for this kind of blood." By giving away content, Hinton said, newspapers "gave Google's fangs a great place to bite.... We will never know what might have happened had newspapers taken a different approach."

Many in the news business share this view of Count Googlia -- but not me. Perhaps as an editor of Web sites that have long depended on search engines such as Google to help drive traffic and new users to support their ad businesses, I'm just a Renfeld-like minion....

"I am here to do your bidding, Master. I am your slave, and you will reward me, for I shall be faithful.... I await your commands, and you will not pass me by, will you, dear Master, in your distribution of good things?" (From "Dracula," by Bram Stoker, Chapter 8)

Those who feel otherwise, who agree that Google is the vile blood-sucker that Professor Van Hinton warned about, can comfort themselves by putting virtual garlic flowers and pay walls around their necks. After all, cutting off the Googlebot's ability to find and link to one's content is a technological snap.

So if Google really is villainous, why haven't more news organizations stabbed it in its algorithmic heart? Because most advertising-supported Web sites understand that the bite out of their own page views and user counts would be far more fatal than the one Dow Jones' CEO fears.

(Note on the illustrations above: Eric MacDicken, who designed the logo for this Web site, knows of what he draws at the top of this entry. He's done much work for a number of the major newspaper and other media industry groups -- including the logos and other materials used to promote the American Society of Newspaper Editor's "Sunshine Week" campaign. The Google logo is from the company's Oct. 31, 2005, homepage.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Diversion to Neverland

A full account of what I saw and learned during yesterday's amazing Zeppelin ride, which I mentioned earlier this week, is still in the works. But I did want to share a timely anecdote from the trip. The story does not say much about my beat -- the future -- but it does reveal a little about how my business, journalism, is deploying limited resources at a time of increased competition, dwindling audience and limited resources.

Brian Hall, president and co-founder of U.S. Zeppelin operator Airship Ventures, was on board serving as "flight attendant" for the five passengers, but he also had other business to attend to. For the first half of the trip, Hall and his colleague David Knight were in negotiations with TV networks about whether their airship, Eureka, could be used the next day to follow a motorcade that was expected to take Michael Jackson's body from L.A. to his former home at the Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara County. While the 246-foot-long German-made airship is huge -- longer than a Boeing 747 -- the helium-filled vehicle's ability to travel slowly and hover in place for long stretches of time makes it an ideal platform for many media assignments -- better than a helicopter in a lot of ways.

The transit flight down the coast gave the Airship Ventures team a chance to plot the route and location. But by the time we arrived over the ranch, north of Los Olivos at 3 p.m. PT, the plans for the motorcade were off, and Eureka's services in the Michael Jackson media circus were no longer needed.

We did a few quick orbits over the property and the amazingly long line of TV trucks and other media vehicles along the road in front of the ranch. Then we continued along our way. "Hopefully we scored some air time," said Hall, whose company began offering aerial tours in the Bay Area last fall.

Here's one shot I took as we passed over the property. The building in the bottom left corner is a train station with a large floral clock out front. Jackson's famed amusement park rides are long gone....

And here's the roadside press encampment. Oh, the humanity....

I should note that I was a paying passenger on this trip, which I took on my own time and dime. I also just heard on TV that my erstwhile co-author, CNN's Larry King, is doing a special program on the Neverland Ranch tonight -- in case you want to see more of the place. Personally I think a lot of viewers have seen enough.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Airships: Real and Imagined

This summer's Disney/Pixar film "Up" prominently features a classic airship, the "Spirit of Adventure" (shown above). A mock news reel shown at the beginning of the movie says the giant 1930s-era dirigible was as long as "22 Prohibition paddywagons" and served as the world-traveling home of historic adventurer Charles Muntz.

Those images captivate young Carl, the movie's protagonist -- much as images of the real-world dirigibles that inspired "Spirit of Adventure" first captured my imagination when I was eight-years-old. The idea of a flying ocean liner activated both my obsessive grade-schooler's focus on anything aeronautical and my matching interest in skyscrapers and other massive feats of human engineering.

Like Carl in "Up," the decades since then have done little to dim my fascination -- which perhaps explains why I am in Northern California tonight, too excited to sleep on the eve a 400-mile flight down the Pacific coast on a real German Zeppelin.

The airship Eureka, which I'm scheduled to ride tomorrow from Silicon Valley to Long Beach, is one of four such Zeppelin NTs built over the past dozen years. They were made by the corporate offspring of a company founded more than a century ago by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, an aviation pioneer whose name is now synonymous with these kinds of aircraft. But these new Zeppelins use helium for lift -- not the hydrogen used on the ill-fated Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg disaster ended the era luxurious, intercontinental airship travel more than 70 years ago. And yet classic airships continue to be a nostalgic fixture of science fiction and fantasy books and films -- from the floating electronic billboards of "Blade Runner" to the fleets of Zeppelins featured in the movie "Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow", Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" novels and Kenneth Oppel's "Airborn" series. Second Life users whose avatars are aspiring aeronauts can even buy and operate their own virtual airships, some of which take their names and designs from historical zeppelins and airfields -- or from even earlier ideas for sky boats.

Some in the aviation industry appear to share these romantic visions of large-scale, lighter-than-air travel -- as I noted last summer in a posting here about some real-world airship projects. These visions tend to focus on rigid or semi-rigid airships, rather than non-rigid blimps (the boneless chicken of airships), in part because their frames would allow for better engine placement for steering and greater capacity for carrying cargo or people. But grand dreams of environmentally friendly dirigibles efficiently hauling cargo or passengers across remote areas or around the globe always seem to encounter some kind of engineering, economic or institutional turbulence.

ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH & Co KG, the company that built the airship I'm scheduled to ride a few hours now, is an exception. Its Zeppelin NTs are currently in service in Germany, Japan and now the United States, ferrying tourists on short trips and providing a high-profile billboard for creative advertisers. But the company also is exploring ways to use the Zeppelin NT as a platform for scientific and surveillance missions.

Tomorrow's scheduled journey is the California-based Eureka's second extended sight-seeing trip from its new home near Sunnyvale. The ship's first flight to the L.A. area and back straddled the Memorial Day weekend -- when, as it happens, Disney/Pixar was using the Eureka to help promote "Up."

I'll write more in a follow-up posting about my trip -- and about Airship Ventures, the Bay Area start-up that partnered with the Zeppelin's builder to offer these unconventional "flight-seeing" trips and advertising opportunities late last year.

(Image above of the "Spirit of Adventure" is from the Pixar blog)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rebooting at 30,000 Feet

Accident expert Charles B. Perrow writes in Sunday's Washington Post about what may turn out to be the common element in the recent Air France Flight 44 and D.C. Metro crashes: computer system/sensor failures....

"The ultimate question in these tragedies is: Can we really trust computers as much as we trust ourselves? For some things, perhaps not. But if we want to travel faster and in more comfort, we have to let ever more computerization into our lives. And that means that we have to focus more on the humans who interact with the computers."

Reporters Andy Pasztor and Daniel Michaels look at how that human-computer interdependence plays out in the cockpits of modern airliners in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:

"Unlike jetliners built in previous decades -- which required pilots to frequently manipulate controls and often manually fly the planes for long stretches -- newer computer-centric aircraft such as the A330 and Boeing's 777 are designed to operate almost entirely on automated systems. From choosing engine settings and routes to smoothing out the ride during turbulence and landing in low visibility, pilots essentially monitor instruments and seldom interfere with computerized commands. So when those electronic brains begin to act weirdly at 35,000 feet, the latest crop of aviators may be less comfortable stepping in and grabbing control of the airplane.

"Airlines typically use simulators to train cockpit crews for such events, but a pilot may only hone skills to deal with major computer problems every few years. Pilots hardly ever experience multiple computer failures in real-world conditions."

And when it comes to the systems that send data to the instruments on which pilots depend, "never has 'garbage in-garbage out' carried such dire consequences," as InformationWeek senior editor Paul McDougall observed shortly after the Air France crash:

"The issue is particularly keen now as the aviation industry's true stick-and-rudder men--fliers, like US Airways' Sully Sullenberger, who cut their teeth in the pre-digital era and who can sometimes still bring a wounded plane down safely through a combination of testicular fortitude and instinct--are hitting retirement age in increasing numbers.

"Many of today's younger jet jockeys haven never flown a plane without help from a computer.

"It's one thing if Gmail goes down for a couple of hours. It's something wholly different if the software and chips designed to keep a 200 ton tin can straight-and-level as it hurtles along at 500 MPH can't be trusted."

(Image from iStockPhoto: A Fabio Pignata photograph of an Airbus A330 cockpit during a night landing.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Futurist's Future

"[W]e must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge -- not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can rise. Think of the lives that this would change.... A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday's strangest dreams are today's headlines and change is getting swifter every moment."

-- President Lydon B. Johnson, signing the Public Broadcasting Act on Nov. 7, 1967.

NPRThis "Futurist" is a little behind the times in reporting some news about my own future: Next month I am leaving GOVERNING and CQ Inc. to join what I already consider to be the "great network for knowledge" that LBJ promised this country would build 42 years ago. As NPR's new managing editor for digital news, I will help lead the online efforts of what Fast Company has rightly called "the country's brainiest, brawniest news-gathering giant" and the "most successful hybrid of old and new media."

Why public radio? One of my new bosses, Executive Editor Dick Meyer, summed it up for me in that same Fast Company article:

"Part of our desire to bring more NPR to more people is that, with the evisceration of commercial journalism, there's a dire need for it. Major mainstream stories are increasingly going uncovered. And I think it might be the nonprofit journalism world that meets that huge market need, which is also a basic need of a democratic society and an information-based economy."

NPR also is a great organization, filled with friends, former co-workers and colleagues and many of the best journalists in the business.

Chief Executive Vivian Schiller spoke at the National Press Club a few months ago about the "disruptive challenges" affecting all media. She also explained NPR's need to preserve its standards and personality ("the quality we call internally our NPR-ness") while continuing to "branch out into other platforms" -- making sure public radio is serving its best work to a growing audience "however they choose to consume it, not the way we want them to consume it." Among the related priorities the former New York Times executive outlined: increasing collaboration across the public media system, including radio, TV, local stations and new online start-ups; stepping up the system's investigative output, nationally and locally; and engaging and interacting with the audience.

Vivian also alluded to President Johnson's prescient 1967 statement about the need to build a multi-platform "network for knowledge." "It's almost like they were anticipating the Internet," she said.

Four decades later, the most pressing question I see for all of us in media is how to navigate the challenges and swift changes of the moment while also anticipating and preparing for the "strangest dreams" of the decades ahead. The future -- hmmm... What a great assignment.

Tune In Tomorrow: Digital TV Frees Spectrum for Public Safety -- Someday

Adapted from "Calling All Cars," my "Futurist" column in the June 22 issue of CQ Weekly.

My mother-in-law's kitchen television (shown here with its owner) is as indestructible as a cockroach. Having assumed that the nationwide move to digital TV would mark the end of the ancient black-and-white's long life, my wife's mom was delighted to turn on the set after the June 12 switchover date and find that one analog channel was still on the air. A Tuscaloosa station, owned and operated by the University of Alabama, was among the low-power local broadcasters that Congress exempted from the conversion, so the dependable little relic would avoid the landfill for a little longer.

By the time most analog transmissions went off the air the week before last, most people who owned TVs as old as my mother-in-law's had either purchased new digital converter boxes for their sets or signed up for cable, fiber or satellite service, which were unaffected by the digital transition. Sets of more recent vintage typically came equipped to turn digital signals into high-resolution images of dancing celebrities and all the gory evidence that makes "CSI Wherever" so popular.

As it happens, the needs of real-world police investigators were among the selling points for this switch. Yes, moving to digital "will free up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for public safety communications (such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads)" -- as a frequently-asked-questions page on, the federal government's homepage for the transition, prominently (and some might even say deceptively) notes. But many of those "important benefits" of the recent switch are at least several years away -- held up in part by a failed effort to find a private-sector partner to develop this valuable new communications system.

Most of the airwaves the digital transition freed up were actually auctioned for commercial use last year, generating nearly $20 billion for the Treasury. The Federal Communications Commission separately put up for bid a sliver of the broadcast spectrum in the 700 megahertz band for public safety uses. The plan was to create a public-private partnership to combine this 10 megahertz -- from a segment of the spectrum called the D Block -- with a nearby 10 megahertz that was previously put aside to help create a super-fast, interoperable national network for emergency communications.

This shared wireless broadband network would do more than address longstanding problems with reducing interference and making sure disparate systems could be linked in a crisis. Firefighters and police officers could be wired up like the early astronauts, sending real-time feeds on their vital signs and locations to their supervisors. These first-responders could quickly gain access to the blueprints of a building on fire, say, or the police intelligence reports on a hostage-taker. An emergency room doctor could begin monitoring an inbound patient's vital signs before the ambulance even arrived. And images captured by digital cameras mounted in police cars or fire trucks could be beamed instantly to dispatchers, rather than stored for retrieval on hard drives — or even, as the chief technologist for a major Midwestern municipality sheepishly told me, on a VHS recorder in the trunk. (And that municipality's police are hardly alone in using such outdated and inefficient media for storing and accessing video.)

While ideas for using faster networks are plentiful, safety officials know better than most that high-speed chases are unpredictable. In this case, their plans for a national network took an unexpected turn early last year, when questions about price, penalties and unclear requirements appeared to scare off any qualifying bids for the D Block.

While the FCC has been rethinking its plans for how to license the D Block, public safety groups representing police chiefs, fire chiefs and sheriffs, among others, have been discussing other ways to move forward. One proposal would let interested regional partnerships begin building their own broadband networks using the available frequencies. The District of Columbia has already done so as a pilot project. New Jersey, New York City, Boston and a San Francisco Bay area consortium are formally asking to follow suit, and New York state and the Seattle area are making plans to join them.

Under this model, these states and communities would move forward using mutually accepted standards that would eventually allow them to connect with whatever national network emerges -- in effect, creating a network of networks. At the same time, those networks would provide testing grounds for government and business applications hoping to take advantage of all that connectivity.

The Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation, a nonprofit organization formed two years ago to hold the license for the original 10 megahertz set aside for emergency communication, generally backs the idea. But there are obstacles. First, FCC waivers would be needed for any cities, regions or states that wanted to use the D Block frequencies or the nearby spectrum currently licensed to the nonprofit corporation.

More significantly, the standards for a shared national network are still a work in progress. So, for instance, a community that decided now to build its network using an emerging wireless service called Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, might have to reboot and rebuild if a rival next-generation standard called WiMax ultimately won the day. Major players in the mobile industry have placed big bets on each and will fight to keep from being bumped out of the game early.

These complications aside, Congress is likely to want more action and less static when it comes to getting broadband services up and running for the nation's emergency responders. On that technological issue, even my mother-in-law is getting the picture, especially now that she has given up all but one channel to help solve the problem.

(Image and Sources: The photo of my mother-in-law and her kitchen TV was taken by R.C. Sneed. In addition to the links above, background on these issues can be found in the video and prepared testimony from a Sept. 16, 2008, House homeland security subcommittee hearing -- "Interoperability in the Next Administration: Assessing the Derailed 700 MHz D Block Public Safety Spectrum Auction." This column also depended heavily on the wisdom of Bill Schrier, Seattle's chief technology officer -- also known by readers of his blog as the Chief Seattle Geek. However, any conclusions presented here are mine alone.)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The First Space Colonists: A Permanent Home Away From Home?

The International Space Station's long-duration crew doubled to six Friday, when a Soyuz TMA transport arrived with three new inhabitants. And life will get even more crowded onboard the orbital outpost next month, when shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to deliver six temporary visitors, plus a replacement crew member for the station.

Expanding the full-time crew was an important and long-delayed milestone for the space station program that should allow the astronauts and cosmonauts to devote more time to science and less to assembly work and housekeeping. But the crew count is not as interesting to me as another overlooked detail: Humans have now lived and worked in Earth orbit continuously for eight years and seven months -- 3,134 days and counting as of Sunday.

This extended occupation began on Oct. 31, 2000 -- perhaps a date that will matter in future history books. That's when a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off in Kazakhstan to open the space station for business. One of the three crew members, Sergei Krikalev, is pictured above during that mission, watching shuttle Atlantis approach for an early 2001 visit. In a career that included six different space missions, Krikalev spent 803 days circling the Earth -- more than anyone else to date. The record for a single space flight is held by fellow cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent 438 days on board the Soviet/Russian space station Mir in 1994 and 1995.

If not for a 14-month gap (from August 1999 to October 2000), the beginning of ongoing human settlement of space could be dated more than a decade earlier -- to Sept. 5, 1989, when the Soviet Union commenced what would turn out to be 10 years of continuous operations on Mir.

But does continuous mean permanent?

Perhaps the long-term missions to the International Space Station and to Mir before that will be remembered as the beginning of humanity's extraterrestrial colonization. Or perhaps they will turn out to be more like L'Anse aux Meadows, the location of an 11th Century Norse sailing camp that was rediscovered by archeologists in 1960. This admittedly Eurocentric example offers a useful distinction: The temporary Norse settlement in what is now known as northern Newfoundland predated the voyages of Christopher Columbus by half a millennia, making it Europe's earliest known toehold in the New World; but permanent European colonization of the North American continent would not begin until centuries later.

The timeline for the next major phase of human migration will likely be measured in similar increments.

(Photo above from NASA)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Quotes From the Future: The End of the World

"I promise there'll be a tomorrow, sir.... In fact, it's already tomorrow in Australia."

-- Marcie, trying to alleviate Peppermint Patty's doomsday worries, in a 1980 "Peanuts" strip. (The tireless truth-seekers at Snopes suggest that a similar quote that's frequently attributed to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz appears to be a paraphrase of this 29-year-old cartoon.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

'Idol' Buzz: Prize Money Spurs Technology and Discovery

Adapted from "Reality Show Innovation," my "Futurist" column in the May 18 issue of CQ Weekly.

The small, two-seat silver "autogiro" in a far corner of the National Air and Space Museum's annex near Dulles Airport is an unusual contraption. Part wingless airplane, part helicopter, the AC-35 (pictured above) also was designed to fit in a garage and has three wheels for street driving at speeds as fast as 25 mph.

Aviation pioneer Harold Pitcairn's Autogiro Company of America built this prototype for a Depression-era competition sponsored by the Commerce Department. The goal was to make air travel as affordable and routine as a long car drive, but no competitor was able to come up with a machine that could be produced for even close to Commerce's targeted price tag of $700, or less than a modern Ford Focus after adjusting for 73 years of inflation.

Still, the legacy of this competition -- and similarly ambitious scientific and engineering contests over many decades -- is alive and well. A fast-growing number of philanthropic and government-sponsored prizes intended to harness entrepreneurial ingenuity seems to be signaling an "American Idol" approach to solving technological problems.

A March study of more than 200 large dollar awards conducted by McKinsey & Co. found that there was $253 million in prize money up for grabs in 2007 in technical and scientific categories ranging from aviation and space to engineering and the environment. That was a sevenfold increase from a decade before, when sponsors were offering $36 million in those categories. Prize money for the arts grew a modest 11 percent in that period. (See the full McKinsey & Co. report.)

Proof that prizes can spur innovation is in the Smithsonian's original Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington. That's the retirement home of SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded machine to carry a pilot outside the atmosphere. Back-to-back flights in 2004 earned its designers the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a philanthropic award intended to reduce the cost of human space travel. The prize was inspired in part by the $25,000 award Charles Lindbergh claimed -- 82 years ago this week -- for making the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. And now SpaceShipOne hangs in the Smithsonian right beside Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

With help from Google, Progressive Insurance and other sponsors, the X Prize Foundation has moved on to an array of daunting new contests. More than 100 teams are vying for multimillion- dollar awards for building new kinds of fuel-efficient cars. Another X Prize challenges scientists to develop faster ways to sequence genomes. And to encourage commercial development of the moon, a $30 million prize awaits the first privately funded team that can successfully land and operate a robotic lunar rover.

Governments are getting into the act, too. One NASA contest earned $200,000 for an engineer from Maine who designed a glove that makes spacewalking astronauts more dexterous. Ongoing space agency "Centennial Challenges" are pushing inventors and scientists to develop technology that would transmit electricity without wires and generate oxygen from elements found in simulated lunar soil.

Federal agencies, corporations and philanthropies are not the only ones offering prizes. Teams of programmers submitted dozens of Web pages, Facebook tools and iPhone applications during a 30-day "Apps for Democracy" contest sponsored by the District of Columbia government last year. Vivek Kundra, the city's chief technology officer at the time, told GOVERNING magazine that Washington got about $2.6 million worth of computer development out of the contest in exchange for a $50,000 expense, nearly half of it for prizes. Now that Kundra is a senior technology official in the Obama administration, even more contests seem likely at the federal level.

Contests can motivate innovation, capture the public imagination and even change opinions and create new markets. But a big cash prize does not guarantee success, short-term or long-term. Not long before SpaceShipOne made its maiden voyage beyond the atmosphere, designer Burt Rutan predicted that suborbital space flights would be as affordable as luxury cruises by 2016 or so. His company has begun to test a new aircraft that would serve as an aerial ferry for SpaceShipTwo, designed primarily for wealthy astrotourists. Ultimately good technology and good economics will determine whether Rutan's bold plans will fly or whether they will be a historic footnote -- like that quirky AC-35 autogiro.

Back in October 1936, hundreds gathered outside Commerce's headquarters near the Mall to see the odd-looking prototype land. "Here on our doorstep was a bit of the future," wrote Washington Post reporter Eugene Warner, who fashioned his coverage into a poem for the next day's paper. Noting the manufacturer's ultimately optimistic price estimates, he wrote:

"It may sell for more, maybe for less
Its future price is only a guess.
But it's easy to picture a plague in the sky
As clouds of gyros glide lazily by."

Seven decades later, commuting remains landlocked. That won't stop prize sponsors and entrepreneurial competitors from looking up, nor should it -- as long as someone is watching the bottom line.

(Photo of the AC-35 prototype by Mark Stencel)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Quotes From the Future: The Art of Science

"Science is whatever we want it to be."

-- Dr. Leo Spaceman, in a 2007 episode of "30 Rock." The celebrity doctor -- listed under fertility, meth addiction and child psychiatry in the Writers Guild Health Manual -- is a recurring character played by actor Chris Parnell.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Journalism's Online Future: What Made the 'Truth-O-Meter' Click

One of the best parts of sharing office space with the St. Petersburg Times' Washington team has been talking with bureau chief Bill Adair about -- the news site that he conceived and created at the start of last year's presidential campaign cycle, and that he is now nurturing into the first year of the new administration. Now that the Florida newspaper has become the first to collect a Pulitizer Prize for national reporting that appeared primarily on the Web, journalists should be carefully mapping Bill's DNA to try to figure out what his creation suggests about journalism's future.

Laboratory research will quickly reveal several genetic markers -- the evolutionary mutations Bill introduced that helped distinguish PolitiFact from a gazillion other political news sites, old and new. Among them:

  • An accessible, if not gimmicky interface;
  • A well-defined niche;
  • An important journalistic purpose and heritage;
  • And carefully documented reporting

Bill would be the first person to give credit to PolitiFact's many other contributors, particularly his newspaper's talented techies and designers, and a long list of reporters and researchers from the St. Pete newsroom and the Congressional Quarterly staff, all of whom can take pride in this week's award. Bill and the PolitiFact team also had enthusiastic support from the brass in St. Pete. (Disclosure: The Times is the corporate parent of my employers, GOVERNING and CQ Inc. As ever, the opinions here are mine alone.)

But this was Bill's vision. I remember when PolitiFact was just an idea that he crudely illustrated on the kind of three-panel cardboard backdrop commonly used to display middle school science experiments. The plan was ambitious -- perhaps even unsustainable, as I warned Bill two years ago, especially during a demanding and fast-moving election year.

But Bill was all but genetically engineered for this job. He had been writing about Washington for more than a decade, having already collected a prestigious Everett Dirksen Award for distinguished coverage of Congress. He also covered transportation issues for the Times and had written a book on airline accident ("The Mystery of Flight 427: Inside a Crash Investigation"). Writing that book involved organizing a voluminous amounts of fragmentary and often technical information. Bill kept the notes for his book in spreadsheets, using Excel's "sort" functions to sift and organize details and track sources as he needed them. That way of breaking down and reassembling information turns out to be a fundamental element of good non-linear journalism, in which the order or progression of information depends as much on reader choices than writer choices. ("More on this?" Click. "This or that?" Click.)

Did Bill metamorphose into a Webslinger by organizing large projects this way, or were his neurons and synapses just wired that way from the larval stage? Either way, he began building PolitiFact with the right editorial mindset. He did not start with an assumption that he needed to post scrolling pages of long-form text or beautifully shot and edited video or audio just to take what he was doing seriously. He set out to build a Web site.

This mindset was reflected in the underlying structure of PolitiFact. The site's core from the start was its Truth-O-Meter, which allowed users to sort its collected fact-checking by subject, speaker or ruling (true, mostly true, half-true, barely true, false and the dreaded "Pants on Fire!"). PolitiFact later added a "Flip-O-Meter" (with scores ranging from "no flip" to "full flop"). And the three-month-old "Obameter" was added just before January's inauguration to track roughly 500 specific campaign promises that Barack Obama made during his campaign. The promises are organized by subject and by status (from promises kept to promises broken, with other steps in between, including no action at all). And throughout the site, the PolitiFact team has meticulously listed and, whenever possible, linked to the sources on which they were basing their conclusions.

In short, PolitiFact provided dozens (I stopped counting at 192) of easy-to-understand and relatively easy-to-navigate ways for visitors to sort through the site's accumulated and carefully attributed findings -- along with an almost daily stream of more traditional articles that primarily serve as a way to connect dots or signal new findings in a small box atop the homepage. Without relying on user profiles, animated controls or other fancy forms of personalization, the site enabled its visitors to customize their experience, based on their interests and questions. ("Who's lying?" "How's my candidate doing?" "What about the others?" "And what's this debate really all about anyway?")

Plenty of other good sites take this approach to organizing content, particularly online services that provide news and information on finance, sports, weather, traffic, entertainment -- topics that perhaps more obviously lend themselves to the approach. But few apply this multilayer, user-directed model to other bread-and-butter journalism beats, such as local news, national news, foreign affairs and politics.

The data-driven political blog FiveThirtyEight was -- and is -- a good example of a more dashboard-like approach to organizing daily news. CQ Politics, PolitFact election-year sister's site, also did this to some degree with its continuously updated race ratings for the electoral college and all the 2008 congressional and gubernatorial contests -- a feature that was prominently displayed throughout the site, but that was still second to the day's this-just-in, headline-driven coverage.

The navigational approach/mindset I'm describing is much more common in project-based journalism. One of the most impressive examples is "13 Second in August," a Minneapolis Star Tribune special report presented with a scrolling aerial shot of the 35W bridge after its 2007 collapse. Clickable numbers on each smashed and abandoned vehicle take visitors to the stories of the occupants, using a combination of text and multimedia.

Could this approach work to covering breaking news -- say, for instance, day-of coverage of a disaster on this scale? Absolutely, as public radio station KPBS did using frequently updated interactive maps during the 2007 wild fires in San Diego. But pulling off such coverage means that, from the very start, editors and top producers need to think about how their reporting and information is organized -- not just how to get it or the order in which it was received.

I learned that at overseeing our overnight coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates in 1996, 2000 and 2004, when we embedded a small, sometimes animated "Debate Referee" to serve as our fact-checker throughout each transcript. Clicking on the referee opened a window that had a short bit of text on the veracity of a candidate's claim and links to other articles and off-site resources that provided more information and explanation.

I warned Bill about the challenges we faced cranking out our quadrennial Debate Referee boxes, many of which benefited significantly from the traditional, long-form fact-checking articles produced each debate night by teams of reporters in the Post's print edition newsroom. Turning that kind of work into a day-in, day-out operation for the 18 months leading up to election day did not sound sustainable to me when Bill first started explaining his idea for PolitiFact. But he was undaunted and his enthusiasm was infectious. With his Science Project cardboard chart in tow, he convinced his editors in St. Pete to devote considerable resources to an editorial experiment they believed in.

The Truth Squad Tradition and Missing Links
One of the most shrewd decisions Bill and his editors made was to choose their niche. While driven in part by competitive reality, the choice to focus their online election coverage almost entirely on vetting the statements of the 2008 presidential candidates distinguished the site's content from the more ephemeral enterprise of chasing campaign polls, ground movements and other tactics. That focus also linked their site to a number of noble but generally under-appreciated editorial progenitors.

The tradition of "truth squading" took on greater urgency among political journalists two decades ago, after the fact-twisting TV ads of the 1988 White House race. That's when columnist David S. Border (my first boss at the Washington Post) began urging his colleagues in political journalism to "become more like consumer reporters," systematically scrutinizing the content of campaign commercials -- the dominant form of political communication at the time. As David put it in a 1991 speech, these "ad-watch" stories would help voters "decide what was true and what was false in the advertising, what was real and what was distorted."

The Post and many other news organizations, national and local, print and broadcast, joined in David's cause. One such notable journalist was Brooks Jackson, a longtime Washington reporter for the AP and Wall Street Journal, who created the template for on-air "ad-watch" and "fact-check" segments on CNN in 1992. Brooks later continued that work online on, an ongoing project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Bill has often tipped his hat to Brooks and his FactCheck'ers -- even as he was building upon and revolutionizing how this kind of journalism was organized and presented.

Bill also did not turn up his nose at the hard work of generating reader interest. He built up buzz and traffic for PolitiFact, tirelessly plugging its work in segments on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR and elsewhere. He often appeared with a geiger-counter-like "Truth-O-Meter" prop (pictured here) sitting in front of him. Bill also carefully monitored the Web site's traffic reports to make sure he understood how his visitors were finding and using the site. And he has worked closely with the Time's in-house search-engine-optimization guru in recent months to make sure his journalism is reaching users via the sites they use most. (How many news organizations have their own SEO expert on staff? That's a question Recovering Journalist Mark Potts has often mused about.)

PolitiFact certainly missed opportunities, too. The site provided prominent feedback links, but few ways for users to publicly engage the editors and each other -- a conscious and debatable decision, intended at least in part to help differentiate the site from becoming just another place for partisan name-calling and bickering. But being interactive means being available to interact.

The site also needs a business model -- something Bill and his editors are keenly aware of. I was very happy to see an ad on the site just a moment ago that was paid for by one of the major "advocacy" advertisers that help underwrite other politically oriented Web sites and publications. That's a start.

Can serious online journalism like this sustain itself financially? I believe it can. But for the business of providing journalism to evolve, its editors must as well. Journalists can no longer just do the equivalent of reading news copy into an open microphone. Depth and expertise have to become as important as immediacy. And we have to present our work in ways that make sense to the medium in which we're working -- not the media from which many of us came. Bill Adair and PolitiFact point us in the right direction. Now just click....