From astroturf to sock puppets: an online news glossary

Last week I met with a graduate student who was seeking advice about her dissertation, which would examine the online news business. One of the first things I told her was to make sure that the people she interviewed meant the same thing as she did when they started talking online jargon.

“Sometime two people can seem to be disagreeing about something when they really don’t,” I told her. “The only disagreement they’re really having is over vocabulary.”

As I mentioned in my top mistakes pice last month, publishers and advertisers can mislead each other by using confusing terminology for measuring a website’s traffic. Newspaper website staff can lose newsroom managers they are trying to build a relationship with when they start dropping terms like “open source” and “sock puppetry” in their conversations. And let’s not even get back into the once-raging debate over the definition of the word “blog.”

So, in an effort to define a common vocabulary for those of us in the news business, I’m taking the advice I gave that student and starting an OJR wiki for an online news glossary.

Here’s the link:

As with all OJR wikis, any registered OJR reader may add to or edit the page. So if there’s a term I’ve missed that you’d like to see added to the glossary, please do it. And if you’ve got a better way of defining some of these terms, go ahead and make the change.

Thanks, in advance, to those who take a few moments to add to the wiki. And, to everyone else reading, I hope that you find this glossary useful in improving your communication with others in the news business.

News site Web design: What works? What doesn't?

[Editor’s note: Today OJR welcomes Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota and Laura Ruel of the University of North Carolina as contributing writers on the site. Each month, Nora and Laura will examine current research on news website user interfaces and storytelling techniques. Their articles will help news site producers and editors pick the best ways to package their information to increase their site’s traffic and influence.]

Goodbye 2006.  The tenth anniversary year of the start of many Web-based news sites was the occasion for reflection about how far (or not) we’ve come and speculation on how best to proceed forward.  Here we are in 2007 and it’s time to do a measured look at where we are right now.

For the past ten years the features on news websites have evolved and expanded.  Thanks to software developments like SoundSlides audio slideshows have proliferated on news sites, expanding experimentation with “multimedia.”  The “We Media” mantra has given rise to collaborative community reported news both within and outside mainstream news organizations. RSS feeds have changed the notion of mass product distribution to personalized news channel delivery.  The aggregation of news stories on a given topic coupled with additional information (along the lines of Seattle P-I’s Transportation page or Lawrence Journal-World’s Legislation page) is moving news websites away from “your daily newspaper on the computer screen” to a valuable aggregation of community information.

Experimentation with individual story forms continues.  The slideshow is getting a remake with the “flipbook” style of choreographed image display set to music (as with the MSNBC “Iraqi Kurdistan” video.)  The packaging of series stories with multiple media elements is getting cleaner and more elegantly designed (the Orphans & Angels piece from Florida Today is a good example.)  Flash and Google maps interfaces are being used to navigate the user through data and information (take a look at AZ Star’s Sealing Our Border interactive map and the Boston Globe campaign contributions map.)

How the success of these experimentations and evolutions are being measured is still an issue.  Page views, time spent on the page, where people enter in from and where they go after can all be measured.  But what do we know about how these news features and forms change attitude toward the news product, or how effective the form is at informing, or if a new design is a more effective way to get people to engage fully with the carefully constructed package?

Research into story design effectiveness is happening in newsrooms and universities.  In the case of newsroom research, the findings are regarded as competitive intelligence and not readily shared with the industry.  In universities, the findings are written in academese and not readily understood by the industry.

In this column, we will ferret out the research and findings about story form effectiveness and profile the people and places who are trying to understand current practices and guide more informed design decisions.  Creating stories that engage, inform, and get people to come back for more must be part of the media’s mix of offerings.  We hope, in the coming months, to engage and inform you about story design research.

(Special thanks to Interactive Narratives for consistently shining a light on story innovation.)

Easy Web publishing utilities for journalists

Great online journalism is increasingly expected to combine writing, audio, video, images and graphics, with each part of a story told in the medium best suited to the information being presented. This sounds great in theory, but if you are like most journalists, you are not a software guru or a multimedia specialist and you probably have relatively little experience creating video or graphics, let alone getting them on the internet and strategically placing them in a story.

Journalists should be excited by the Internet. On the Web, words, pictures, video and audio can be woven together in ways that tell stories more effectively than is possible with any of these mediums alone. But in order to weave exceptional, rich, carefully planned online stories, you have to become proficient at a lot of techniques, skills and technologies, many of which you probably thought you were avoiding when you chose journalism as a career.

To help you learn some of these skills and start experimenting with online journalism, we’ve assembled a list of sites and programs that will help you quickly and easily begin using multimedia and the internet to advance your reporting and your storytelling. All of these applications are low-cost. Most are free, though some ask you to pay to access advanced functionality. All are free of spyware and adware, as far as we know (though it is always good to do an Internet search on anything you download and install to be sure). And each should make the work of creating great journalism online at least a little easier.

Our list of easy online publishing tools is a wiki, so please feel free to add links to tools that you’ve used, which fit our criteria, and that are likely to be of great use to other online journalists as well.