New online coding classes for journalists

10,000 Words posted this week about a website called For Journalism, which aims to teach journalists at any step in their career technical skills in coding and data through $20 online courses.

The project was funded by Kickstarter and is still in its initial stages, but current courses include Javascript, Responsive Design and Charting and Visualization. Experienced journalists who are experts in their skill areas will create the courses, which will include videos, e-books and code examples.

I purchased the course in Responsive Design, a skill I’ve wanted to learn for a while, to get an idea for what the materials are like. So far the page includes 17 screencasts in the style of YouTube tutorials and a message that states “this course is currently an in-progress preview.”

Of course, much more can’t be expected at this stage of beta, but I’m excited to see the rest of the course and website roll out.

For Journalism reminds of sites like Codeacademy, which provides interactive coding lessons in different web languages, and Method of Action, another beta site that will teach users the basics of design through interactive lessons. Though For Journalism doesn’t have interactivity baked in and will cost, it appears to have the potential to become an essential resource for journalists.

Not everyone agrees that journalists ought to learn coding, but For Journalism seems poised to make coding a relevant skill for reporters regardless of the connotations of digital journalism.

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Twitter announces digital storytelling tool, custom timelines

Twitter announced a new feature on Tuesday called custom timelines, which allow twitter users to compile tweets from different sources into useful lists through TweetDeck and share them online. The service is much like Storify, which has become increasingly popular among savvy news companies.

Companies like Politico and NBC have used Storify to illustrate how live events unfold and present the real time reaction of twitter users. Some may switch to Twitter’s own product, but the fact that Twitter has released its own product in the first place shows the prominence of this trend in digital storytelling.

News companies are doing more now than simply sharing content and links through Twitter, Instagram and Vine, they are generating their narrative through these sites, abandoning the authority of an individually branded website or the printed page.

While these projects are mostly experimental, the trend seems to be more one of pandering than of bold exploration of the digital space. While reactionary tweets from real people may indeed make for a valuable organic supplement to a news story, I’d hesitate to say it’s the best way to tell a story.

News companies have the resources to do truly original reporting and truly innovative storytelling online, and using Vine instead just seems like a cop out. While media companies should continue trying to engage their audience and attract new readers, they shouldn’t sacrifice their authority in the process.

Anyone can assemble tweets.

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Does public funding lead to better content?

After conservative talk shows, Morning Edition and All Thing Considered are the most popular programs on radio—both syndicated by NPR.

Public radio has some of the most informative content available anywhere, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s publicly funded.

While commercial radio relies on controversial opinions, popular music and entertainment to attract advertisers and income, public radio exists because people who listen to it are willing to pay for it. Public radio is a close to having a subscription base as a free service can get, and it shows in its programing.

NPR’s news shows are organized much like the sections of a newspaper, leading with large national stories and going in depth on topics like business and health in succeeding segments. Pundits and uninformative live reports, which have become some of the worst sins of broadcast, are absent for the most part.

In addition to its news programming, NPR also broadcasts in-depth feature shows like Radiolab, which I regularly listen to through their iPhone app.

While public funding may seem a tenuous way to support a media enterprise, public radio proves that reducing reliance on advertisers can lead to high-quality, journalistically vigorous programming that even exceeds the popularity of commercial stations.

Perhaps new media, which relies on advertising more than ever, can take a leaf from public broadcasting’s book as it expands and dominates the media scene.

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Brian Stelter and blogging

Brian Stelter is leaving the New York Times to report for CNN and host its Sunday media show, “Reliable Sources.” He made the announcement though Twitter on Tuesday.

Stelter appears prominently in the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times in which he is portrayed as the face of new media. As a journalist hired right out of college from a blog that he started, his move to CNN validates a new de facto rule for j-school grads—blog if you want a job.

Blogging and maintaining an audience shows writing ability, web savvy and deep knowledge of a subject. The dedication required in blog writing distinguishes applicants from other candidates, and blogging allows journalists to control an entire editorial process from writing to publishing.

But it is also a labor of love, and more often than not a means to an end. Blogging full time is a lot of work that pays very little.

As a NY Daily News article explains, “Making a living won’t come quickly. If you’ve lost your job and decide to start a blog to support yourself, good for you. But keep job-searching, especially if you don’t have a spouse to bring in revenue—because odds are, this isn’t going to work out.”

Stelter’s career path shows that blogging is a great way into the news industry. It may even replace the traditional path of starting at a local weekly and moving up the chain. But it won’t replace the endgame of working at an institution that can afford to pay its writers.

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The New York Times redesign focuses on flexibility

The New York Times is in the midst of redesigning its website. So far it’s made changes to its article format and will be working on its homepage and section pages in the coming months. I received beta access to the new design last month.

The Times website is iconic, but I’ve always wished they’d work on making information more digestible. The current homepage is a hodgepodge of different sections without much clear organization. Though it mimics the functional information density of the actual paper, the front page translation doesn’t seem to work so well online.

The most important changes to the article experience are the elimination of multiple pages for a single story, more space for multimedia, the ability to swipe between articles, responsive design for different screen sizes and a new navigation bar that lets readers easily find any section and favorite the ones they read.

It’s not perfect. The changing top bar is a bit disconcerting, the related articles bar isn’t scrollable and there’s an uncomfortable amount of whitespace where there isn’t multimedia, but the navigation changes are important steps.

A redesigned New York Times article

Despite flexibility for advertising and multimedia, there is an uncomfortable amount of white space in articles with few ads or interactive features.

The ultimate functions of the redesign are navigation that keeps the reader immersed and flexibility for multimedia and advertising. Though the new design meets those goals, there could be improvements to the execution.

I’m not aware of a timeline for the rollout, but I hope the Times continues adding to its website. One of the most important ways newspapers can stay relevant online is to tailor their reading experience to the web. Print has had years of time for refinement. Equal time is required to optimize the online experience.

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Newsmosis, a news literacy TED talk

Several weeks ago I attended TEDxSBU, an independently organized TED event at my university. I was lucky to get a ticket and was very excited to attend, especially because the dean of the school of journalism, Howard Schneider, was one of the speakers.

Not that I don’t see enough of Schneider around Stony Brook’s tight-knit j-school—I was excited because Schneider would be talking about the concept of news literacy in a TED talk, which has the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of people.

News literacy was one of the first classes I took at Stony Brook and it was incredibly important for setting the foundations of journalism and ethics that dictate my major. Schneider started the program when he first started teaching at Stony Brook and it is now one of the university’s most popular classes.

The class teaches students the basics of what makes good news and good reporting. It gives guidelines for distinguishing bias and a checklist for determining what news is trustworthy and what is questionable—all incredibly important skills in an age when virtually anyone can publish online.

I wish the program were available to everyone to help navigate the complex world of blogs and citizen reporting, but a TED video that helps spread the message is the next best thing. I’ve embedded it below.

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NPR could use the web better than print

Poynter reported yesterday that NPR will be combining its news application desk and multimedia desk into a single 14-person team—a move that will allow them to focus on finding the best way to tell stories visually and interactively online.

As a radio network, NPR may be particularly well suited to taking advantage of web as a medium given the creativity with which radio has taken advantage of its constraints. Radio shows have long used inventive techniques to extend the capabilities of audio entertainment. It will be interesting to see how NPR’s new team will innovate.

The Internet deserves innovative story telling too.  With all the interactive power computers can lend to online media, it’s a shame that many news organizations have stuck with text, photos and video—the staples of print and broadcast.

The best the web has to offer right now are what are called parallax-scrolling websites that present media in slides as the visitor scrolls down the webpage. The New York Times has done several and other companies like Apple have used the technique to advertise new products.

But this is hardly the boundary of the web. The Internet has incredible database, search and graphic technology that, for the most part, have remained untapped.

Of course, creative web stories are costly. Coding and production in addition to the costs of researching and reporting limit the scope of what is feasible for most stories, especially when the return on investment is questionable.

But the web offers the opportunity to do things that have never been possible in legacy formats. It’s worth experimenting, because any innovation could well change how we experience news.

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Getting news from Twitter in a conversation paradigm

According to a new Pew Research Center study, eight percent of adults in the United States get news through Twitter compared to 30 percent who get news through Facebook.

The numbers are interesting, but perhaps more interesting is that neutral tweets tend to lead news events, eschewing some of the social aspects of news consumption that dominate Facebook.

To me, this would make Twitter a better social source of news than other platforms, not to mention its timeliness and the prevalence of news organization on the site. Yet Facebook remains the more popular news source of the two.

In a way, the two social websites serve as a representation of the impulses of U.S. adults. Twitter serves omnivorous news consumers who want to be informed on current events, and Facebook serves as an incidental source of news for readers who want to inform their conversations with friends.

That the later is more popular is important. I think one of the primary reasons people read news is to talk about it with other people.

When newspapers were the primary source of news, the front page defined the conversations people were having. When TV became popular, the evening broadcast dominated discussions. Now, when we hear about our news through our friends instead of a news service, ordinary people are leading the public discourse.

Facebook is simply part of a trend that drives news consumption—having conversations. The question is if traditional news sources will be able to adapt their platform to this new way of reading news. In the mean time, Twitter sits along the curve.

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The question AM radio begs of print

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed changes to AM radio regulations to help boost a technology that has suffered from interference from consumer electronics.

Some of the proposed changes include requiring equipment that does not interfere with other stations and allowing AM stations to broadcast with more power in the evening.

AM is perhaps the most antiquated news source available today. According to a July 2013 Gallup poll, only six percent of Americans get their news from radio. Only 15 percent of radio listeners use AM.

But proponents maintain that the technology hosts some of the most diverse content available through broadcast and that it is worth keeping competitive.

These changes make me wonder if print will ever be in the same situation, requiring legislation to remain viable. Granted, AM’s problem is more technical and is already regulated by a federal agency. But as an increasingly marginalized media technology, will the public ever need or desire to step in if the print industry cannot sustain itself?

The same Gallup pole that put radio as the primary source of news for six percent of Americans put newspapers as the primary news for nine percent of Americans.

Newspapers support some of the most expensive and important reporting in the news industry. In many respects, it is questionable if Internet and TV journalism can maintain the high standard of newsgathering set by print. But whether or not Americans or legislators see that value is also questionable.

In an end-of-days scenario, I can imagine some sort of stimulus or grant support for journalism in the public interest. Perhaps more specific non-profits or university centers will take on some of the more important roles of print reporting.

Regardless of how speculative the thought experiment is, we need to start thinking about a world in which journalism can be sustained through means other than capitalism.

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The New York Times strategy won’t save smaller papers

The New York Times Company reported a $24 million loss this quarter after selling the New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, for $70 million.

The deal was not great by any standards compared to the $1.1 billion The Times spent to purchase the group in 1993, but it was done in the name of slimming down the holdings of The Times to focus on The New York Times brand, which is the real profit engine of the company.

In an interview with CNBC’s Street Signs yesterday, Times CEO Mark Thompson said, “The New York Times brand and the quality of the Times as journalism means that there’s a real market. People want to commit to the Times and to pay the subscriptions to the Times.”

This is how The Times is surviving in the digital era—using its hugely successful pay wall. But few newspapers have the reputation or market of The Times. Is the model transferable?

From its sale of The Globe, The Times’ answer seems to be no.

While some smaller papers have had success with adding pay walls, there is no evidence yet to show if digital subscriptions are making up for a continuing decline in print subscriptions and the resulting lost ad revenue.

Additionally, print subscriptions still tend to dominate over online subscriptions, raising the question of how many new subscribers small papers are getting online versus old print subscribers who want the convenience of digital access.

The fact is that large national papers are very different from local papers. Their global audience matches the global audience of the web. But for news sites restricted by their zip code, the market is small and users are probably committed to much more popular sites.

Many large, well-branded papers have been successful in transitioning to digital, but smaller papers will have to work much harder to make their voices heard.

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