OJR 2006: Controlling tech before it controls you

A wide-ranging conversation about technology reflected the OJR 2006 audience’s diverse level of experience in this area. But I’m guessing everybody at the conference’s second session got a taste of something fresh, thanks to the deft guidance of moderator Janine Warner, a self-described “techie translator” and author, journalist and creator of DigitalFamily.com.

Blogging platforms: Which do you use?

Warner took a quick poll, and we found that we did indeed represent a pretty good sampling of what’s available in the blogosphere: the majority of the group uses Blogger, followed by Moveable Type and TypePad. Other choices included ExpressionEngine, WordPress, PostNuke and Drupal. Robert Niles, OJR editor and conference host, was the only self-publisher who coded his content management systems from scratch. He said he uses ColdFusion, a tag-based language which he said is easy to learn but difficult to host because of “system resource drains.”

Predictably, many held differing opinions about the various platforms. Staci Kramer, contributing editor for OJR and executive editor for paidContent.org, said that Drupal “isn’t really ready for prime time yet” but that the community is good. Dan Gillmor, author and founder of the Center for Citizen Media, warned that WordPress would be too much for beginners, but I responded that I had chosen it, even though I’m a beginner, because it has such a lively and well-established support community.

Mark Heckendorn, former intelligence specialist and new blogger, liked WordPress because of some easy-to-use features like one-click installation on his server account. He also recommended Rapid Weaver for Mac people.

Participants acknowledged that different personal needs colored their view of various blogging platforms. Some demanded a free system, others were willing to pay. Some had recently created new sites, while others needed systems that would support months of already-published archives. Some promoted open source solutions, others retorted that clients demanded proprietary software.

Gillmor urged the group, no matter what they chose, to look ahead and select only systems that support easy export of content and data into a transferable format like a MySQL database. Kramer echoed the thought, and reassured frustrated publishers, “There’s a solution to almost everything. Someone has had the problem before.”

Travis Smith, owner of Hop Studios, suggested to consider the blogging tool’s interface when making your selection. Smith offered a couple of other interesting pointers:

  1. Consider the size of your comment field because it is related to the type of comments you will get. A small field will encourage short, choppy comments, while a long field might encourage comments that go on and on; and
  2. On wikis: “a wiki depends on the power of the community to stay vibrant, to stay current.” Smith said that 10 or 15 dedicated users make a viable wiki community.

Mack Reed, creator, editor and publisher of LAVoice.org, said he is now “saddled” with PostNuke. Reed shared a story that perked up the ears of this newbie for sure: he woke one day to find instead of his homepage a white page with the words “you are owned” on it. After some investigation, he found that script kiddies in Brazil had exploited a flaw in an old version of his un-updated publishing system to rewrite the index document in each of his directories. Reed said the incident taught him the importance of keeping your platform up-to-date with the latest version — and to backup your data regularly. This suggestion prompted vigorous nods from the audience as Warner reminded people to backup data in different places, not just elsewhere on the same server.

Finally, Kramer advised to get to know people at your server’s hosting company so that you have a contact in the event of an emergency. She explained how helpful it was to have someone to go to when, with an older version of Moveable Type, someone she worked with accidentally wiped out all the subject lines in the entire blog!

Next on the scene: Vlogging

Online video producer David LaFontaine switched gears with a brief presentation about up-and-coming technologies and websites. He said that excitement about podcasting has given way to excitement about vlogging (video blogging). LaFontaine suggested looking at video hosting options like VideoEgg and YouTube and Gillmor added archive.org.

The group then discussed whether it is desirable to have the “YouTube” logo that appears in the viewing window when embedding video on your own site via YouTube. LaFontaine quipped: “Storage and bandwidth don’t come cheap.”

Looking for inspiration? Sites to watch

LaFontaine showed the group a section of Spain’s prominent newspaper, El Pais, called EP3. The service, conceived to attract younger readers, invites users to submit creative content through its community section. At first, LaFontaine said he didn’t like the interface because it’s complicated and all created in Flash. But when doing a case study of how the feature was used, he discovered that young people preferred the complexity, viewing the user interface as a challenge, like a video game. He said when the users would find things they liked, they would text message each other. Surfing the Net is “a group activity now,” LaFontaine said.

In another case study from Santiago, Chile, a newspaper called Las Últimas Noticias reinvigorated itself by having the online version of the paper dictate the print version; the newspaper is now number one in a nine-newspaper market, LaFontaine said.

“The tail is now wagging the dog.”

Warner wrapped up the session with a call for URLs to website where journalists could find ongoing support and guidance on tech issues. Among those suggested were:

* * *

Related stories from OJR’s archives:

Time to get tough: Managing anonymous reader comments

[Editor’s note: The Washington Post’s decision to shut down comments on its editors’ blog — following an uproar over its ombudsman’s error in describing the Washington lobbying scandal — has reopened the debate over how websites should handle reader comments. Particularly anonymous ones.

Industry consultant Vin Crosbie posted this essay Tuesday to the Online News Association‘s e-mail discussion list. We republish an edited version here as an instructive lesson to online news publishers struggling with how to solicit and manage informative and responsible reader content.]

“Silence Dogood” has been pointed to as the mother of a rich history of anonymity in American journalism. What is true is that between April and October of 1722 New England Courant Publisher James Franklin printed 14 articles that had been slipped under his door.

The author “Silence Dogood” claimed to be the widow of a country minister, but Franklin suspected the name was a pseudonym for someone else. It was common for eighteenth century journalists, including Franklin’s, to use pseudonyms when writing articles that the authorities might have been considered to be libelous or illegal.

Historical records infer that James Franklin knew the identities of his other pseudonymous contributors, but not that of “Silence Dogood.” That failing was perhaps one of many reckless publishing decisions by Franklin, who soon served jail time for his own writings in the Courant and who the Boston authorities later banned from publishing newspapers. He was meanwhile not amused to learn that “Silence Dogood” was actually his 16-year-old brother and apprentice Benjamin Franklin.

Unlike James Franklin, American Weekly Mercury Publisher Andrew Bradford of Philadelphia knew before publication that “Caelia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” were pseudonyms for Ben Franklin, who had fled Boston and joined Bradford’s employ.

When Franklin himself later became a newspaper publisher, he occasionally published his own articles under the pseudonyms “Anthony Afterwit” and “Alice Addertongue.” Yet the “Richard Saunders” of the eponymous book “Poor Richard’s Almanac” was probably publisher Ben Franklin’s best-known, self-permitted pseudonym.

There is a rich history of pseudonymity in American opinion journalism. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote “The Federalist Papers” using the pseudonym “Publius,” but not without their publisher’s prior permission and knowledge of their true identities. A more recent example occurred in 1947 when the publisher of Foreign Affairs granted the Moscow-based American diplomat George Kennan the pseudonym “X” to write the renowned political essay proposing the geographic containment of Communism.

Though I can’t think of a current American periodical that regularly grants pseudonyms to its writers, the British publishers of the Financial Times and The Economist regularly grant them for some of their columnists.

In all the examples I’ve mentioned, the publishers not only knew the pseudonymous writers’ true identities but also vetted the writers’ submissions before publication. That’s a far cry from publishing anonymous blog postings.

Though there is a rich history of pseudonymity in American journalism, there is none of anonymity. It has long been understood that if the publisher of a reputable periodical grants a writer use of a pseudonym, then that publisher knows the writer’s true identity and takes responsibility — legal and otherwise — for that writer’s words.

Printed periodicals grant pseudonymity but never anonymity. Imagine the cacophony that would result if printed periodicals published unvetted, unreviewed, anonymous Letters to the Editor or Op-Ed essays.

Yet we’re now discussing how some of those periodicals are doing the equivalent of that online. Should there really be any surprise that many of those comments are scatological, obscene, or libelous?

Publishing anonymous, unvetted, and unreviewed commentary online is hugely divergent from the policies of those publications’ print editions. It’s a different kettle of fish, one that can stink for the publishers. Indeed, those publishers and their new-media managers are being reckless. And if you think I’ve used too strong a word, poll newspaper libel lawyers and libel insurers.

Yes, the topic of anonymity is certainly worth discussing again and again. But we do realize that, for human reasons, the topic has not evolved during the past 10 years despite the evolution of technology. This topic is substantially the same as it was when the first open bulletin boards were posted on the Web in 1996 or when the first proprietary online service user forums went online years earlier. Online news managers who don’t know its history are doomed to relive it.

Although the technologies of this medium evolve with the speed of “Moore’s Law,” the actual laws and liabilities governing the technologies evolve about as fast as the eponymous Gordon Moore can walk (he celebrated his 77th birthday this month). That is because the mechanical topic of technology and the human topic of ethics seemingly aren’t related to each other. Although we may strive to offer bulletin boards and commentary fields where people might provide thoughtful and ethical comments without scatology, obscenity, or libel, we cannot and will not achieve that through technology alone.

What I’m about to state might seem farfetched, but a decade of studying online news media leads me to fear that it is true. I fear that our industry has fallen under the spell of a techno-utopian fallacy that says we can foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity simply by implementing new-media technologies.

We implement technology that permits absolutely anonymous and spontaneous publication of people’s comments and we expect the majority of those comments will be decent, civil, and legal. We implement technology that allows readers to correspond with reporters and we expect those reporters will answer those readers’ e-mails. We implement technology that allows readers themselves to report the news and we expect that they will report a significant percentage of all stories in the future. We implement such technologies and our publishers expect that it all should be completely automated and not need extra supervisory or moderation staffing. And if a problem develops, we expect newer technology alone to solve it.

Yet we live in the real world, not a techno-utopian virtual world. Our real online environment is infested with spams, scams, phishers, filthy ranters, and libelous demagogues. The wonderful technologies we’ve implemented actually attract and facilitate them. (If technologies existed that permitted anonymous, unvetted, and unmoderated letters to be published in printed publications, then scatological, obscene, and libelous letters to the editor would appear there, too.)

Technology alone cannot foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity. What we need are policies and practices to govern how our readers utilize these online technologies.

I realize that fans of “We Media” and “We the Media” (particularly those who think that mainstream media “talks down” to readers) might flinch at my using the phrase “govern how our readers utilize.” But media cannot offer transparency to the readers unless the readers are also willing to be transparent. If “News is a Conversation,” then transparency is required among all participants in that conversation, including the readers.

Radicals might claim that the news media must be absolutely subordinate to the readers. Yet just as the government must be subordinate to its citizens, no citizen can claim rights beyond the compact of government. If the readers are to govern how media operates, them no reader who wants to interact with the media should claim rights beyond that which the readers themselves demand from the media.

Why do so many otherwise pragmatic people in our industry think that their only choice is between accepting unmoderated and anonymous comments or else accepting none at all? I think this is because absolutism is part of the dogma of the techno-utopian fallacy. The choice about publishing comments needn’t be an all-or-nothing decision. The true path is in the middle of those extremes.

If you’re going to let someone publish something in your publication, whether in print or online, know their identity and read their submission before its publication. If they truly are willing to stand behind their words, then they must be willing to withstand identification by the publisher who has legal responsibility for the publication of their words.

If they request that the publisher disguise or omit their identity in publication, let them first provide the publisher with a cogent reason. (The publisher should state somewhere on the page’s boilerplate that a writer’s name may be withheld for reasons but only after prior identification.)

Yes, I know that this will create work for the online publishing staff. Tough. If you want to offer your readers the facility to comment, then you must adequately staff that facility or else cacophony can result, as it has in many cases. Publishers are deluded by the techno-utopian fallacy if they think that just because this facility involves computers it should operate autonomously and without staff moderation and supervision. There is no free lunch online.

You may have to identify by phone or e-mail the readers who submit comments, or perhaps you can build a registration system that adequately does this. You may also be able to build a system that filters out scatological or obscene terminology, but you should still review the submissions that survive those filters. Trust your readers, but don’t do so blindly. Blindness doesn’t foster transparency.

If a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity is ever to be fostered, it must happen responsibly and without absolutism. Rights are also responsibilities. We have responsible free speech, not absolute free speech (don’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater unless there actually is a fire). You are irresponsible to your publisher, readers, transparency, and journalism if you offer absolute anonymity and spontaneous publication in your comments sections. You might get away with it for a while, but not forever.

Blogs in the MSM: Rating the roundups

Traditional news sources are telling a contradictory story about political weblogs. While blogs are presented as the engines of a rejuvenated political debate, MSM sources often link readers to posts that merely restate ideas that have been repeatedly rehearsed by politicians, activists and mainstream commentators.

Most Internet users have yet to start using blogs — about 73 percent of them, according to data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project — and it is reasonable to predict that some will try to learn about blogs through major news sources’ blog roundups. In the absence of a clear consensus on the purpose and merit of blogs, readers who are new to blogs may misjudge the roundups as measures of public opinion. To help readers access new and informed ideas in political debates, MSM sources may have to betray the democratizing potential of blogs and take the risk of judging individual bloggers on their expertise and originality.

The traditional media kept a watchful eye on political blogs during Judge Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this month. Washingtonpost.com‘s “Who’s Blogging?” feature tracked bloggers who linked to Post stories, as the site has done since fall 2005. NYtimes.com ran one of its sporadic blog roundups for the occasion. And Slate shifted the focus of its regular “Today’s Blogs” column to the confirmation hearings.

The roundups delivered a heavy helping of stridently partisan blogs and threw in some nonpartisan legal blogs like SCOTUSBlog, but only a few moderate voices like Donklephant were included. The roundups make American political debate look more stagnant, confusing and hopelessly narrow than it really is. How can a first-time blog reader tell the difference between bloggers trying to evolve new ideas and those trying to vindicate their preconceptions? Should he or she rely on the in-house bloggers of publications and political groups or the freestanding, unaffiliated citizens who supposedly define the medium? If roundups answer these questions more often, they will offer a powerful vehicle for introducing readers to blogs that offer more than simplistic partisanship.

A disconnected debate

It’s true that the decisive lure of most popular political blogs is that they tell their readers what they want to hear and tend to acknowledge opposing ideas only to deride them. Pete Welsch found empirical evidence of this tendency last year during his research as a graduate student at Indiana University. Welsch first analyzed two conservative blogs, Instapundit and Outspoken, and two progressive blogs, Eschaton and Mouse Musings. He found that they rarely linked to the same sites — or to sites that advocated the opposite political ideology. As he researched a wider sample, he did find liberal blogs linking to conservative ones and vice versa, but, Welsch says, “A lot of that is going to be one side liking to the other and saying, ‘Look at this garbage.'”

Political bloggers represent themselves and their like-minded readers. Editors of online blog roundups say they don’t want to make their readers think otherwise. They just want to keep bloggers from stealing traffic and give readers access to a broader debate. But the latter can only work if MSM roundups lead readers to bloggers who think independently and draw on relevant experience and knowledge.

It is difficult to guide readers to a balanced list of blogs efficiently and maintain quality control at the same time, admits Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com. “The Post generates between 100-200 articles a day, and to have someone continually cruising the blogosphere to keep on top of things just isn’t a good use of staff time,” he said in an e-mail interview. The Post’s “Who’s Blogging?” uses Technorati, a blog search engine, to gather links to blog posts that link back to Post stories. All a blogger has to do to get linked is register with Technorati and include a link to a given Post story. This usually yields a list that mixes insightful blogs in with boring ones. Many of the latter simply quote several paragraphs from stories and add a paragraph of their own comments, which are often predictably party-line.

“Sure, sometimes the blog posts don’t add much to the story, but we’re willing to accept that reality in exchange for being open to debate,” Brady says. “We can’t be accused of picking and choosing.”

Technorati also allows browsers to sort results by “authority” — the most-linked-to blogs being the most authoritative. This at least rewards the blogs that readers (or other bloggers) consider most reliable, but it doesn’t take into account other factors that constitute authority, like education, professional experience and demonstrated expertise.

Those qualities would help, for example, when scanning comments on blogs linked to “Pushing the Limits of Wartime Powers,” a news analysis that ran in the Post on Sunday, Dec. 18. Roughly paraphrased, the liberal blog comments one stumbles across range from “President Bush thinks he is on a mission from God” to “President Bush is kind of like Big Brother” to “I hope President Bush gets impeached.” Of course, the Post linked to conservative blogs as well, but the liberal links just demonstrate the lack of originality and variety among blogs within either category. At this point, more than a month later, there are many more posts linked to the story, and much more variety, but who’s checking this late (except perhaps extremely dedicated blog readers)?

Nitpicking the blogosphere

While it is not impossible for a strictly partisan blog to provide insight, specialized blogs like SCOTUSblog consistently offer something more useful than the party line — running expert commentary that would not fit into the typical consumer newspaper story. Such blogs certainly exist to help legal experts talk with each other, but there’s no reason that the average reader can’t use them to supplement traditional media stories with technical and historical detail.

Slate‘s daily blog roundup, “Today’s Blogs,” seems most effective at guiding readers to those supplements — and it provides a model for other roundups. Writers hand-pick links on a few selected issues each day, and also provide background information, if available, about those bloggers. This guides new blog readers through a muddle of pseudonyms, anonymity and conjecture to bloggers who just might know what they’re talking about. It’s also crucial to serving a Web-only magazine’s audience, which tends to know more about blogs. “You have to kind of separate the wheat from the chaff,” says “Today’s Blogs” editor Rachael Larimore. “We want people to know that they can come to us and find out what an authoritative blogger is saying.”

Larimore says this makes Slate more friendly to readers who aren’t used to blogs. “We don’t like to assume that our readers are familiar with everyone,” she said.

The New York Times can be picky as well, having offered blog roundups only sporadically. Two recent roundups accompanied stories that involved criticism of The Times itself — the jailing and testimony of Times reporter Judith Miller in October and The Times’ revelation last month that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to perform wiretaps without obtaining warrants. Whoever organized the Miller-related roundup seems to have paid attention to bloggers’ qualifications, judging by the first three blogs linked to: Talking Points Memo by Washington Monthly writer Joshua Micah Marshall; First Draft by Tim Porter, whose resume includes 16 years as an editor at the San Francisco Examiner; and DavidCorn.com by David Corn, author of “The Lies of George W. Bush.” Corn and Marshall have their politics tattooed on their virtual faces, but they accompany their ideological assertions with observation and informed analysis.

The Times’ most recent roundup, as of this writing, accompanied its coverage of the Alito hearings. The linked blogs again appear to be hand-picked; many do not even link to Times coverage. This approach seemed to reveal the most variety, especially on the third night of the hearings. The Times roundup included posts on a variety of issues ranging from abortion to the small legal and procedural technicalities of the hearings. But to get the same variety on Washingtonpost.com, readers had to skim through each separate Post story on the hearings. A Post story that focused on questions about Alito’s views on abortion, for example, linked only to posts that discussed that specific story and emphasized abortion.

Sure, Slate and The Times can be accused of picking and choosing, but that doesn’t preclude variety or openness. On the contrary, a well-maintained blog roundup seems to give readers access to a wider political spectrum. And, because blogs are so easily accessible, a well-focused roundup might help publications encourage their readers’ curiosity. Few readers will put down the newspaper to look for the latest number of Harvard Law Review, but they might be willing to click away to a blog like SCOTUSblog for a few minutes of helpful elaboration.

Larimore says she and other Slate writers keep their own lists of blogs to check regularly, supplemented by Technorati searches and Google blog searches. The disadvantage of manual roundups is that they require more time and resources — and so can only be included with a few stories. In that sense, the hand-picked roundups won’t be as valuable to readers who want to explore the broadest possible range of opinions on the broadest possible range of news. Automated roundups may still be useful to readers when MSM sources are unable to offer hand-picked roundups.

Rallying the troops, ignoring the moderates

Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos and Kathryn Jean Lopez of The National Review’s The Corner blog agree on at least one thing: They represent only themselves and perhaps some of their readers.

“‘General public’ people probably aren’t watching the [Alito] hearings at all, because even some of our political-minded types have been dozing off,” Lopez said in an e-mail as she blogged on the hearings. She added: “People often tell me they come to us on National Review Online to find out ‘what conservatives are thinking.’ Sometimes, that proves more difficult — and interesting — than they thought, because even us conservatives — even those sitting around the same editorial table (real or cyber) — are not monolith on a whole host of issues.”

But Moulitsas says: “Every blog focuses on particular subject matter and hence attracts a like-minded audience. That’s all you’d ever be able to measure.”

By linking to these partisan voices (even if they are more complicated than expected, as Lopez suggests), political blog roundups tend to exaggerate the perception that American voters are firmly divided along party lines. Roundups acknowledge non-partisan and moderate blogs, but not as often as they link to stridently partisan blogs. Justin Gardner, leader of the ideologically mixed group blog Donklephant, thinks Americans are more often centrist than party-line, and he hopes blogs and blog roundups will eventually reflect that. “I like the position that we’re in,” he says of Donklephant. “We don’t have to rally the troops sometimes when we know that the poll numbers aren’t what we would want.”

CNN Internet Reporter Jacki Shechner, who primarily talks about stalwart right- and left-wing blogs during her short blog segments on “The Situation Room,” said centrist bloggers don’t get enough coverage. “I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t start including them some more,” she said.

New connections

Though they too often show new blog readers a narrow spectrum of ideas, roundups might reinforce the role of traditional news outlets while improving the debate for those already immersed in blogs.

Technorati CEO David Sifry hopes roundups will at least help bloggers and established journalists share traffic and ideas. “This is actually a synergistic relationship and not a parasitic relationship,” Sifry said.

As third-party monitors, mainstream news sources can also increase communication among bloggers who wall themselves off with RSS feeds and one-sided blogrolls. Laer Pearce of the conservative Cheat-Seeking Missiles, who was linked in a Times roundup, says he’ll pay more attention to such features in the future, if only to explore the blog world outside of his own ideological circle.

Roundups can enrich debate by encouraging both new blog readers and bloggers themselves to digest conflicting and nuanced opinions. “I’m more apt to add blogs I like to [my RSS feed] than ones that I don’t,” e-mails Pearce. “That’s a mistake, because intellectual honesty, not to mention fresh ideas, depends on exposing yourself to a broad diversity of views.” This all seems obvious, but it’s a good reminder that even a medium with the potential to open debate can give people tunnel vision.