Monday, November 22, 2010

Eats, Shoots & Goes Extinct: Omit Needless Editors?

"[E]ditors are obsolescent -– they are giant pandas in a receding bamboo forest. As the supply of editors outstrips the demand for them, the cost of the service of editing declines. New York is bursting at the seams with wildly talented editors who are under-employed, or about to be."

-- Babble and Nerve Media co-founder Rufus Griscom, musing about a profession he says is going the way of the hammered dulcimer, replaced by "content producers." (From his post: "The Fate of the Purple Spotted Editor: Evolve or Die")

Griscom explains:

"Editors have historically had two jobs: finding interesting material, and making it better. Next generation editors, if we still call them editors, will do two things: identify great content creators, and help them package and distribute their content in a way that is mutually beneficial. The relative value of the brands of content creators is ascendant, and publishers need to think more like coaches who are also business partners."

Griscom is not arguing against the need for quality or accuracy. As the comments on his post suggest, many "content consumers" still have high expectations there. One finger-wagging reader flagged this sentence: "Why is demand for traditional editing skills is going away?" Griscom fixed the typo and replied: "We have just demonstrated the efficiency of crowd sourced copy editing."

In online media, "editor" and "producer" titles are frequently used interchangeably. Calling these hybrid practitioners "preditors" is one of the oldest jokes in not-so-new media. This evolving species of content chimeras will need traditional editing skills. But those skills alone will not be enough to survive.

(Panda pic above from Wikimedia Commons. Hat tip to MediaJobsDaily for calling my attention to Griscom's post.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Refreshing Public Media's Future

I encountered this sad-faced retro news robot during a recent vacation stop at Disney World's Tomorrowland. ROBO-NEWZ's downcast expression seems to say a lot about the current state of the media world. But the disheartened look on ROBO's face does no justice to the buoyant spirit at this weekend's national PublicMediaCamp at American University in Washington -- even with all the current political fuss over public media's funding, image and critics. (Disclosure: I work at NPR.)

PublicMediaCamp, or PubCamp, is the second such attendee-led gathering of staff and supporters from across the country. As the event's website explains:

"PublicMediaCamp seeks to bring together community technology activists, citizen journalists and other members of the public eager to support public media in tangible ways, bringing them together with public broadcasters in an engaging collaborative environment."

As is customary at these improvised, "BarCamp"-style "unconferences", PubCamp opened this morning with introductions. One by one, the attendees stood, offered their names, affiliation and three "tags" or keywords to describe themselves. (My tags: "content, community and contraptions.") Attendees also proposed ideas for sessions, which organizers jotted down on note cards and quickly arranged into an agenda that promises a very full two days of conversation.

As I found at previous barcamps, the combination of attendee's three-term intros seemed to quickly reveal and reflect the mood of the crowd -- in this case, succinctly expressing the cultural and technological challenges that are changing the direction of public media, as well the opportunity those challenges expose. So here is an edited sampling -- organized to reflect the beginnings of the conversations I except to hear over the course of these two days:

"online, community, engagement"
"community, civic engagement"
"engagement, innovation, secret NPR tattoo"
"journalism, community, innovation"
"telecommuting, community, geek"
"local station presence"
"global, local, experiment"
"international, experimental, cheerleading"
"e-society, social networking, transparency"
"content, web, strategy"
"style books, content, workflow"
"interesting content please"
"multimedia, stories, technology"
"hacker, social, technologist"
"Android, open-source, collaboration"
"open-source technology community"
"video, Linux, blogging"
"Drupal, content, strategy"
"linked open data"
"metadata, archives, digital asset management"
"SEO, content strategy, 'I love bacon'"
"reading, learning, keeping up"
"social, design innovation, learning"
"stations, communications, educator"
"public citizen, mom"
"public citizen, dad"
"tech-that-matters, mountain-biking, dad"
"kids, local, interactive"
"games, kids, community"
"web, gaming, tacos"
"video, engagement, Jedi"
"community, storyteller, change"
"independent, photographer, storyteller"
"reporter, environmentalist, coffee"
"radio, development, highly caffeinated"
"not morning person"
"technology, geek, hoofer"
"interactive, organic, outside"
"artist, gadget-geek, roller derby"
"interviewing, reporting, running"
"print journalism, government, running"
"improv, storytelling, yoga"
"cyclist, storyteller, unemployed"
"recent college graduate"
"I'm hiring developers"
"whew!" "oh crap," "let's get it done!"

Amazingly, these and all the other intros took far less time than many people expected, especially those who never participated in such a free-form proceeding. (This was my fourth barcamp. In addition to last's year's PubCamp and a local spinoff hosted in the Raleigh-Durham area, I also attended the 1999 Government 2.0 Camp here in D.C.)

My favorite introduction this morning was offered by an attendee from Mississippi Public Broadcasting, whose three keywords referenced a recent controversy involving his organization:

"we canceled 'Fresh Air'"

His proposed session: "How to handle an online revolt."

With so many interesting and good-humored participants, this weekend's discussions about public media's future might even bring a smile to old ROBO-NEWZ's glum face. You can follow the conversations with the #PubCamp tag on Twitter.

UPDATE: NPR colleague Andy Carvin took the 45 or so introductions above and turned them into a text cloud. The forecast: Heavy "community" with a high chance of "content" and "engagement."

Friday, September 24, 2010

One Small Step to eBay?

"The Chinese are going to the moon and they'll plant their flag up there and bring ours back down and put it on eBay."

-- Ray Trapp, a longtime driver of the space shuttle's mobile launch platform, quoted in Air & Space magazine. Trapp was one of 14 people profiled in an article on the impact of the shuttle's retirement on Florida's Space Coast.
(Photo of Chinese taikonaut Zhai Zhigang's spacewalk during the 2008 Shenzhou-7 space mission.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Wink and a Nod: Showing Your Emoticons at Work

My excessive use of emoticons seemed under control -- especially after I came clean a couple of years ago about a lazy habit of using them in work e-mails. However, a quick scan of my sent mail over the past month revealed that I had punctuated at least 11 messages with a "wink": ;-)

And that's just work messages. I didn't dare try to count the number of these sentiment substitutes in my personal e-mails and Facebook messages.

Clearly I need a "Remoticon 2.0" -- the excessively empathetic cartoon robot who "emotes so you don't have to." Remoticon was created by illustrator Eric S. MacDicken for his most recent "Office Opossums" animation (sound editing by yours truly).

Here's Remoticon's user manual.

Hope this leaves you smiling.

(Remoticon image above used with the permission of Eric MacDicken, who also designed the logo for this blog.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

An Infinite Landscape: The Art of the Astronauts

"The Earth is beautiful and I just want to share the pictures. I'm not the best photographer. There are a lot of people who take a better picture."

-- Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, shown above snapping photos from a newly installed observation module on the International Space Station.

During a 23-week stay on the space station, Noguchi used a recently activated onboard Internet link to share hundreds of dazzling photos via Twitter and its photo-focused offshoot, Twitpic.

Noguchi and two crewmates returned home early today (late Tuesday, Eastern time), landing safely in Kazakhstan in a Russian-made Soyuz space capsule. Now that their 163-day mission is over, I will certainly miss the almost daily stream of pictures Noguchi shared with his 250,000 online followers.

To mark this astroartist's homecoming, I assembled a gallery for NPR's Picture Show blog with several memorable images Noguchi sent back to Earth over the past few months. One favorite (below) shows the shuttle Discovery backing away from the space station over the Caribbean at the end of a two-week visit in April:

How will art historians of the future look back on the first five decades of Earth photos taken by astronauts such as Noguchi? Will the Japanese engineer's Twitpics someday be hung in museums and studied like the work of 19th century American landscape painters? Perhaps, if those images end up changing the way we look at our world, just as paintings by artists such as Thomas Cole defined how Americans of his day looked at the vast, beautiful spaces they too were settling.

As Arthur C. Clarke once said:

"It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars."

(The NASA photo of Noguchi above was taken Feb. 18 by one of his space station crewmates. Noguchi's quote about his photography comes from an item posted Tuesday by CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Huxley's Anti-Social Media

"But people never are alone now.... We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it's almost impossible for them ever to have it."

-- "His Fordship" Mustapha Mond, Resident World Controller for Western Europe in the frighteningly harmonious 26th Century World State of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"

(Image of the original 1932 cover of Huxley's novel from an online edition hosted by the Lambertville Free Public Library. See Chapter 17 for the quote above.)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chinese Rail Links Growing Fast to Going Fast

Work and family travel have kept me on the road for much of the past few weeks, including a couple of trips on Amtrak's decade-old high-speed Acela line. I actually began composing this posting aboard an Acela, zipping from Philadelphia to Washington earlier today, but the trip was too quick for me to finish.

The truth is Acela's "high speed" status is marginal in most cases. Sure, it saved me a critical half hour getting from a meeting in downtown Boston to an event in downtown New York the week before last. But while Acela can achieve speeds of 150 miles per hour, it only averages about half that on the busy tracks of the northeast corridor. In most cases, that means Acela's time savings over Amtrak's traditional train service do not exceed the significant cost difference.

But would a really speedy Acela change that equation?

A new rail line operated by the Guangzhou Railway Group in China suggests what a difference even higher-speed trains could make for travelers in the United States someday.

The "Harmony express" began operating between the cities of Wuhan in and Guangzhou late last year, turning what was an 11-hour journey on older trains into a three-hour trip between the two provincial capitals. (The image above -- from Xinhua, China's state-run news agency -- shows a train operator's view accelerating out of Wuhan.)

China's Harmony trains race along at 210 miles per hour. That's about 30 miles per hour faster than Japan's Shinkansens and France's TGV.

A Harmony-fast train could cover the distance from Boston to New York in less than an hour -- compared to the three-and-a-half it took me on Acela.

China's investment in that kind of convenience and rail speed is significant: $17 billion on the Wuhan-Guangzhou line alone. That's more than twice the $8 billion in stimulus money that Congress approved in 2009 as a initial five-year investment in faster train service for the entire United States.

And as NPR's Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn pointed out in a Weekend Edition Sunday story back in January, the Wuhan-Guangzhou route is far from the end of the line: "China plans to spend $300 billion in the next decade to build the world's most extensive and advanced high-speed rail network."

Anthony's report made me seriously jealous. A sometimes frustrating thing about being an editor is spending most of your time at your desk and in meetings while your coworkers go out and do things like ride high-speed trains across China. The closest I could get was e-mailing him about the experience afterward.

Anthony told me the new rail service was comparable to other high-speed trains he's traveled on in Europe and Asia:

"I've been on France's TGV and Japan's 'bullet trains,' and the new Chinese train compared very favorably. In fact so much so that I was almost nostalgic for the old-style 'hard sleeper berths,' the somewhat claustrophobic, lumbering trains that I took many a ride on here in the '80s or '90s. It's a great way to meet folks and learn about China -- provided that you're not in a hurry."

Whether Chinese passengers will be willing to pay higher fares for the convenience of the new rail service was very much an open question, Anthony told me:

"The meat of this debate is whether China's huge investment will pay off. Beijing's attitude is 'build it and they will come.' With rail, I think that is basically a good bet, but. . . it will take time for incomes to rise to the point where large numbers of people are willing to spend money to save time. China's middle class is robust in absolute numbers (200 million?) but anemic in proportion to the whole country."

A contrast to U.S. plans for high-speed rail that Anthony noted was the speed with which the Chinese line was built:

"One thing that I didn't get to mention in the piece is that the new line goes through some very mountainous territory on the border between Hunan and Guangdong provinces, and so a lot of the line runs over bridges and through tunnels. It's quite something that they managed to complete the whole thing in just four years. During China's first experiment with railroads at the end of the last imperial dynasty, they tried to build a railway along the same route and it took them about 40 years."

One traveler advisory for anyone planning to book a trip: The stations for China's new trains are not especially convenient -- about an hour's drive from the downtowns on either end of the Harmony's route, as a Financial Times report noted.

Anthony's experience certainly echoed the FT on that detail:

"I almost didn't get to my train in time. The Wuhan station was way out in the suburbs, and the traffic snarled so bad on the way there that I had to hop out of my cab and leg it for about a mile to get past the jam and get in another cab. I thought urban rail was supposed to take people form one city center to another. One passenger pointed out to me, though, that the urban sprawl would soon consume that suburb, and it would soon just be another urban district."

In China, it seems, developing high-speed rail is seen as a fast-track for other kinds of development.

Here's Anthony's radio report about his trip from January:

Monday, April 12, 2010

Yuri Gagarin and the Face of God

If you think science, religion and politics are a volatile mix in the United States, imagine what that combination must have been like in a state that was as steadfastly secular as the Soviet Union. Consider this story Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov once recounted about his friend Yuri Gagarin, whose Vostok 1 mission made him the first human to fly into space and orbit the Earth -- 49 years ago today:

"Shortly after Yuri Gagarin returned from his first spaceflight a reception was held in his honor, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexis I, was present. 'When you were in space,' he asked Yuri, 'did you see God?' Yuri said he had not. 'Please, my son,' Alexis replied, 'keep that to yourself.' A little later Nikita Khrushchev posed the same question. Out of respect for Alexis I, this time Yuri said he had. 'Dear Yuri,' Khrushchev entreated, 'please don't say a word about that to anyone.'"

(From "Two Sides of the Moon" -- a 2004 Moon race memoir Leonov wrote jointly with U.S. Astronaut David Scott. Photo from the Russian Institute of Radionavigation via Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Digesting the News

The food for thought was piled high and served on large platters throughout a seminar I attended last week about leading newsrooms of the future. I was a visiting faculty member during the six-day session at the Poynter Institute, a training center for media types in St. Petersburg, Fla. And by the time we finished, my brain was very full, stuffed with ideas and information about how to better serve a fast-changing news audience

Afterward, I drove across the state to visit family in Vero Beach. That's where I went to an art show and discovered the two whimsical images above by artist Kenneth Dames. (They are reproduced here with Dr. Dames' permission.) With all the conversations of the previous few days, the poses in both of Dames' images reminded me of the way technology has changed how U.S. consumers interact with the news. See how the newspaper reader on the left is relaxed, legs crossed, settled in for a leisurely read. The person on the right is multitasking, leaning forward into the laptop screen while juggling a mobile phone.

The multitasker is a perfect stand-in for the busy, workday user that has dominated most American news sites' Web traffic for a decade and a half. The familiar track of hourly online page views curves up steeply with the start of the East Coast workday, levels off by mid-morning on its way to a lunch-break peak, before sloping off at quitting time. The end-of-the-day slope has been steep for sites based in the east, and more gradual for those with many West Coast users. Weekends were as dependably flat as a drive across central Florida.

Now, after years of predictability, those patterns are shifting slightly. The rise of home broadband access and social media seem to be manifesting in increasing evening and weekend traffic for some news sites. And the mobile Web's long-awaited appearance in the United States is creating different online audiences during the commuting hours and on weekend days as well.

The question of the moment is whether the latest e-readers -- iPads, Nooks, Kindles and the like -- will create yet another kind of user, one who is more like the newspaper reader pictured on the left. These gizmos are quite different from smart phones, netbooks and other portable tools, all of which have workday if not at-work uses. You can steal glances at an iPhone during a meeting and no one would know if you were checking e-mails from the boss or toying with a favorite site or app. Haul out a 10-by-8-inch, pound-and-a-half iPad and you might as well just start flipping through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or Southern Living at the board room table.

E-readers are for living rooms, coffee shops and park benches. They are for people who have time to read and listen and browse and savor. If they take hold with large numbers of people, news sites might once again begin see changing user patterns -- with longer time-on-site numbers, growing page-per-visit counts, and increased traffic at traditionally off hours. And those patterns will in turn change the way online news managers program, present and perhaps even schedule their content. Rather than echoing story selections aimed at serving the grazing habits of workplace news skimmers, media sites may find that their e-reader users are in the mood for a more contemplative, transportive or analytical experience.

As it happens, NPR (my employer) announced plans for launching an iPad-friendly version of our Web site and a related app earlier this week.

"Audience is strategy," a panelist told our group of media managers at last week's Poynter seminar.

And platforms create audiences.

But no matter which audience you belong to, please wash your hands before returning to your work computer.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Predictions Take Flight: The Future As Seen in 1910

New Year's invites predictions. New Year's at the start of a decade seems to beg for them. Looking back at past predictions is a helpful way to keep all the current prognosticating in perspective.

One cautionary example: a forecast for the coming decade in aviation published 100 years ago.

It appeared in the January 2, 1909, edition of the New York Times -- in the "Automobile" section -- under the headline, "Limit of Flight Not Yet Reached." The author was Cortlandt Field Bishop, an early aviator and president of the Aero Club of America. Bishop wrote about the "astonishing development of aeronautics" in the half-dozen years since the Wright Brothers historic flight in North Carolina. "That the advancement of human flight has exceeded the most sanguine expectations of the boldest and most enthusiastic follower of the sport must be admitted, and it would seem the wildest prediction as to the future may not be classed as impossible," he said.

But the writer's personal predictions were fairly reserved. Wing design, engine power, control issues and safety considerations meant "the practicability of the heavier-than-air machine is still far in the future," Bishop said:

"From an experimental standpoint aviation has graduated into actuality. It is a lasting tribute to the inventive genius and ingenuity of man, but the question of adaptability to commercial purposes and practical uses is yet far removed. The practical heavier-than-air machine is not here, and it is doubtful whether this decade will ever see it."

Early aviators had pulled off headline-grabbing feats in the final months of 1909. Wilbur Wright himself had soared over New York City and even circled the Statue of Liberty during a series of demonstrations that fall. Two weeks later, Count Charles de Lambert made an unannounced half-hour flight high above Paris, circling the Eiffel Tower in yet another Wright-made aircraft.

But the capabilities, range and safety of those early airplanes were still extremely limited. Focusing on those realities, Bishop cautioned that the new flying machines would be of "doubtful value in warfare," except perhaps for certain surveillance missions. Any "suggestion of equipping heavier-than-air machines with small guns" was simply impractical, he wrote, and "the use of aeroplanes at night for warfare purposes is entirely out of the question."

The Aero Club president also reminded readers that using aircraft to transport "cargo of any weight" was "impossible" at that point -- "but progress is being made rapidly and a revolution of the science may accomplish wonders."

Overall, Bishop hoped the aeroplane would quickly evolve from being a vehicle primarily used for stunts and experimentation to one that could become a dependable personal transport -- a flying motorcycle with longish range:

"For some considerable time the practicability of the heavier-than-air machine will be confined to record-breaking flights and gradual improvements in construction, and it will be a pleasant recreation for the owner of an aeroplane to jump into his machine and make a short call on a friend at a distance of from ten to 100 miles and return, but while many changes in mechanical flights will be accomplished in the next decade, the social life will not be disturbed and conditions will exist similar to those of the present day."

So how did our prognosticator do? Well, by 1911, a year after Bishop's article appeared in the Times, the first air mail routes were sprouting in various places around the world. Within a few years aircraft were conducting military reconnaissance and bombing missions over Europe. Aerial combat quickly followed -- changing warfare forever.

The aeroplane's far-off future arrived ahead of schedule. But Bishop had no reason to be ashamed of his forecast. After all, no less an aviation authority than Wilbur Wright had once famously told his brother "that man would not fly for fifty years." That was 1901 -- just two years before their breakthrough at Kitty Hawk.

"Ever since," Wright said, "I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions."

(Image above from Wikimedia Commons: A Wright Military Flyer arrives at Ft. Myer in Northern Virginia in 1908.)