Archive for the 'cjr' Category

Questions for Open Calais?

So I’m interviewing the folks over Thomson Reuters on Thursday for a piece that should be published at CJR. We’ll being talking about a relatively new service they’re providing freely. That service is called Open Calais, and it does some fancy stuff to plain text.

What fancy stuff? If you send it a news article, Open Calais will give you back the deets—and, way more importantly, it will make them obvious to your computer as well. That’s my description inspired by the Idiot’s guide, anyhow. (Yes, “deets” means “details” to cool kids, so get on board.)

<digression>Basically, the whole point of the semantic web is to make what’s obvious to you also obvious to your computer. For people who have always anthropomorphized their every laptop and piece of software—loved them when they just work, coaxed them when they slow to a crawl, and yelled at them when they grind to a halt—this can be a serious head-scratcher and a boring one at that. I blame Clippy the Microsoft Office Assistant. I also blame super-futuristic sci-fi movies that give us sugar-plum images of computers as pals—bright, sophisticated, and in possession of a knowledge like we epistemologically gifted humans have. Screw Threepio. Finally, I blame that jerk Alan Turing, who fed us the unintuitive half-truth that a computer could be conscious.

So it feels really silly so to say, again, but computers are ones and zeroes, NAND gates and NOR gates. They called computers because they do computation. They don’t do meaning as such. (Oh boy do I hope I get flamed in the comments by someone who knows his way around BsIV way better than I do.)</digression>

Open Calais will pick out people, companies, and places—these are called “named entities.” It will also identify facts and events in articles. Because Thomson Reuters is finance-focused information provider, many of the facts and events it can recognize are about business relationships like subsidiaries and events like bankruptcies, acquisitions, and IPOs. The list goes on and on. Finally, Open Calais will identify very broad categories like politics, business, sports, or entertainment.

Open Calais will also associate these deets with more further information on teh interwebs. So just for instance, if the web service identifies a person in your article, it will give you and your finicky, picky, and ultimately dumb computer a nice pointer to this computer-friendly version of wikipedia called dbpedia. Or if Calais identifies a movie, it will offer a pointer to linked data, as far as I can tell, is still a pretty vague notion. It promises to deliver more than it has to date, and that’s not a derogation.

But why freely—or essentially so in most cases? If you keep within liberal limits, you owe Thomson Reuters no money in exchange. Correct me if I’m wrong, but all they want, more or less, is that you offer them attribution and use their linked-data pointers (they call them URIs). Ken Ellis, chief scientist at Daylife, which may be best known to journalists through its association with Jeff Jarvis, took a stab at answering the “why free?” question:

Thomson Reuters has a large collection of subscription data services. They eventually want to link to these services. Widespread use of Calais increases the ease with which customers can access these subscription data services, ultimately increasing their ability to extract revenue from them.

That sounds to me like Thomson Reuters is interested in making its standards the standards. And that bargain really does sound reasonable. I guess.

But journalists are a wildly skeptical bunch. They’re skeptical—aloof even, way too cool for school and ideology. Journalists have a pretty acute and chronic deficiency in a little thing called trust. Maybe it’s justified, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s mostly justified, or maybe it’s mostly unjustified.

Either way, my gut’s telling me that journalists are going to need a fuller narrative from Thomson Reuters about why they should rely on another news and information company. When I talk to Tom and Krista, that’s what I’ll be largely interested in.

And you? What do you want to know about Open Calais. Leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll be sure to ask them.

Freemium News

I came across two great examples of freemium news. One was a reminder, and the other felt familiar but was a bolt from the blue.

First, the one. Blodget really does an admirable job digging into the fundamental economics of why the WSJ’s porous paywall. (Cf. this naive version at CJR.)

Second, the other. Mitch Ratcliffe drills deep into the economics of news on both the supply and demand sides of the equation. The supply side—what reporters need to report—is interesting. It asks, “How much money do journalists need to give scarce journalistic value to readers?”

But for my money, I like thinking about the demand side of the equation. Here the relevant (and symmetrical) question is, “How much scarce journalistic value do readers need to give money to journalists?”

What Ratcliffe and Blodget’s answers have in common is, essentially, price discrimination and luxury. In other words, make it easier or make it better (as in more value-added).

The WSJ’s habit of forcing me to jump through hoops to read its full articles is price discrimination at its heart. I have to pay with my time (instead of money) by copying the paywalled article’s headline and pasting it into a google search (generally adding “google news” as well) and then clicking back to wsj.com. Then I’m behind the paywall, and not a drop of google juice is spilt.

Ratcliffe proposes “added convenience or increased interaction” in the form of twitter access to the reporter, more timely alerts, or a “social page of your own” for giving feedback to the journalist. “It doesn’t need any new tech — all the pieces are there,” he tweeted (@godsdog). “Yes, integration is hard, but it’s good not to have to invent.”

These are great good thoughts—focused sharply on the economics of news, not BS about who’s a reporter and who’s not or what’s legitimately Web 2.0 and what’s not.

This is the future of news. This is networked news. Above all, this is the power of the interwebs: connecting unique buyers and sellers of information as individuals with diverse interests. Expect more soon.

Whoops! CJR lost (ignored?) my comment on “Music Lessons”

So I’ll post it here, pointing to the piece by Alissa Quart, who asks, “Could one ailing media industry—music—teach another ailing media industry—journalism—a thing or two about survival?” Check it out.

My comment?

Readers now care deeply about the biographies of the people who produce their news, writing or talking or what-have-you. But why? And how to convice journalists who want so badly to get it?

I think the answer lies in trust. I think trust is the general concept and can explain why the “Unbiased Media ideal” worked in the departing era and why the “premodern storytelling mode” will work the arriving one.

It is largely the story of Too Much Information, which is itself a chapter of the digital democratization of the printing press and a chapter of essentially free access to the internet. It is now orders of magnitude easier to produce and to consume the news, in other words. Interaction is cheap, even nearly free, between perfect strangers continents apart, and fast. More and more, trust just happens differently.

This explanation is nothing new. Prominent writers have been talking about these inside-out, upside-down profound shifts in media since many students at the j-school were in the fifth grade.

So what does “cheap interaction” promise? Instead of rewriting what others have already said (because links are free and clicks are convenient), let me point the way to Umair Haque on the erosion of brands.

Extra credit to the brave journalist who groks the flipping of attention from relatively abundant to relatively scarce (see the ppt).

This isn’t a tweak to the old system. This doesn’t call for a Friday meeting to develop a new strategy. This isn’t a call for a pretty new website or flashy widget. This simply a new business, a new industry, a new world; this is a return to first principles of old.

So what is the news? It’s producers, who write or share the news, and consumers, who read the news. They are be largely the same people; they must trust one another. The news requires sources. The news is stories about people and organizations, about topics or beats, and about events. The news is opinion, and the news is fact. The news is new—sometimes so new nowadays that it can happen in real- or near-real time and can thus morph into a conversation.

So, yes, write about journalists ripping a page from musicians’ script, if you like. But mightn’t it be more worthwhile to write our own, pieced together from basic facts and laws like these?

I bet it would be fun.

Open Salon on CJR

After none too few rounds of editing—which is decidedly not to say they weren’t thoroughly helpful—my piece about Salon.com’s newest adventure in blogging is up for your leisurely weekend enjoyment at the Columbia Journalism Review. Hot dog!

Thanks go to my friend and editor. He’s the kind of guy who works really hard, gets tired because of all that work, loves to sleep because of how tired he is, but is called indefatigable anyhow. Justin Peters, everyone! You may know him from such happy locales as diaperville, USA.


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