Not all that Wired about it: Communication technology gets the short end at NextFest

Apparently robots and moonrovers are more important than wireless communication and media delivery technology. Or so it would seem after a visit to Wired‘s annual ooh-aah technology convention NextFest, going on this week at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

For a magazine/Web outlet designed to bring information to readers, Wired sure selected a media-light crowd of exhibitors this year. Just eight out of 162 exhibits had anything to do with communications. And really, only Yahoo’s presentation had much of interest to anyone working in online media. (The rest were cool 3D displays, cellphone activated lightshows, installation art of instant messaging, etc.)

What gives? Where were all the next-gen social media applications, the iPhonery, the streaming video delivery stuff? NextFest opted for the wow-factor of robots and lightshows and missed out on what actually changes our lives.

I had a chat with Ben Clemens, Director of the Design Innovation Team at Yahoo, who also did a stint at the online portion of the New York Times.

Ben explained that his team is working on a unique app that will visually chart Web searches in real time and map them onto a model of the globe. Playing back the data will give an insight into how searches spread and develop over geographic space and over time. I thought it would be tremendously useful for journalists following the news cycle of a story, so I asked him about the model. (Partial transcript follows the video.)

Ben Clemens: The idea is there there search burst events which are lots and lots of people looking for the same thing at the same time and we want be be able to visualize that and show what’s the geographic pattern that they are looking for.

OJR: What sort of application might this have for tracking the way people follow a news story, for example?

Right now what you’re seeing is a fairly coarse level of data, but what we’d like to get to is the point where we can actually see as a story unfolded pegging the spread of search queries in some sort of more local event. One of the data sets that we’re actually working on right now is the bridge collapse, we wanted to track on a very local basis how it was that the searches spread, because that started as a very local event and then became a national event. Right now we don’t have the fine grain of geo-coding we would need to actually do that, but that’s the next thing we are working on.

OJR: Would then news websites want to tailor their news offerings based upon real time what people are interested in specific locations?

Ben: I think probably journalists will make their own decisions, but I think it’s good information to get from actual user data. This is what people are actually doing, as opposed to what they say they are interested in.

OJR: Does this connect with Yahoo News at the moment?

Ben: This is an experiment; it is not part of any Yahoo product. We would like to take advantage of it in Yahoo products going forward but for now we’re just at the bleeding edge trying to figure out how we would use this. Just the mechanism to get the data and to individualize it are a lot of the mechanics that we are working on right now. If that gets to a good enough state, then we would talk to products.

OJR: How far down the line is that?

Ben: (Laughs.) I really can’t say.

Ben then showed me an austere white-on-white globe of the earth with slow-moving blue specks shooting out from the surface of the North American continent. He explained that each speck represents a search query instance and that the speed and thickness of the particle streams indicate the popularity of the search. The data set at hand was a Yahoo search for “Mattel,” immediately following the lead-in-toys story that drove worried parents by the thousands to the Internet to search for their child’s toy.

Interesting stuff, and sure to give us too much information about ourselves down the line.

Other than than, NextFest was a bit of a bust from a journalist’s perspective. I mean, don’t get me wrong: the Google Lunar X Prize announcement was uber-cool (journalist was third on my list of childhood aspirations, astronaut and paleontologist being numbers one and two), but really, the lack of media eyecandy was disappointing. I would have thought it would have been a perfect fit for OJR–Wired is journalism that brings you technology and OJR is journalism about technology that brings you journalism–but eh, so it goes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

The most important blog on your newspaper's website

It’s been a smoky spring here in the Los Angeles area. Last week, wildfires burned both the city’s Griffith Park (one of my favorite places on Earth, by the way) as well as the resort island of Catalina. In both incidents, I watched TV coverage, listened to radio reports and hit up news websites. But I kept finding myself coming back to the breaking news blog on

How many acres have burnt now? How much of the fire is contained? Where’s the worst threat at this hour? For those essential questions, which readers wanted immediate answers, the Times’ breaking news blog delivered. managers, take a lesson. If you do not have a breaking news blog ready to go on your website, get started on building one. Today. The blog is the ideal format to deliver information in a breaking news situation. There’s no reason to continue relying on traditional newspaper narrative formats online when editors could better serve their readers with the far more online-friendly blog format.

I discovered the power of breaking news blogging during the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999. At the time, I was the executive producer of the Rocky Mountain News’ website, in charge of its editorial operations. Despite the fact that the Rocky then sold more papers in the Denver metro area than any other publication, we were a small staff, as was typical at newspapers at the time, usually with only one or two online editorial employees on the clock at any given moment.

When the shooting happened, as with any major breaking news story, the demand for information was immediate. The Rocky was preparing a extra edition for that afternoon, but we couldn’t wait for those stories to clear the copy desk. So I blew up our hand-built, flat-file website home page and started using a bullet-point list to provide the latest facts and data we could find, in reverse chronological order.

I was blogging, though no one I knew had ever used that term yet. Nor did we have blogging software; I wrote our updates in HTML and FTP’ed them to our server. But I loved the format. We got updates from Rocky reporters via a helpful newsroom editor (remember back when union issues at many papers precluded reporters from producing work directly for their websites?), watched televised sheriff’s press conferences, listened to police scanners, scoured the wires, made calls to neighbors and I posted every piece of information we found, attributing it to the source where we got it and noting where it conflicted with other information that had been reported on our site or on TV.

When the paper’s extra edition stories were ready, we posted those to the site, but by then, our news blog had even more up-to-the-minute information. Without having to take the time to do a write-through whenever we had new information, we could get that information online faster. And readers did not have to wade through a write-through to find the newest facts and data.

“Using blogs to cover breaking news can be a great benefit to the reader, especially on fast-moving stories,” editor Meredith Artley wrote in an e-mail when I asked her about the Times’ recent efforts. “With the Griffith Park and Catalina fires, the developments were coming in so quickly — percentage of the fire contained, evacuation information, anecdotes from people living the experience. In an article format, some of these developments may be lost somewhere in the 3rd, 4th, 5th paragraph of the story. With a blog, it’s crystal-clear what’s fresh.”

With blogging software now so widely available, there’s no excuse for newspaper editors not to turn to blogging when major news breaks. Nor should editors have to invent a reporting process on the fly, like I did eight years ago. Here are some steps that editors should take to prepare their newsrooms to publish a top-quality breaking news blog the next time a major story breaks in their community.

1) Select a blogging tool and have it ready to go.

This step might seem obvious, but there’s more to it than one might envision. Ideally, your blogging tool should support tagging or categorization, so that you can have a unique URL for each breaking news story. What happens if you have two stories that break close enough to each other that they overlap? Or if a person Googling for information about an old breaking news story finds your URL? Tagging or categorizing each post should enable you to create an unique URL for each story, rather than sending all readers to the same URL. You might not think that you’ll need this functionality now. But if you take a little extra time to build it in now, you will thank yourself later.

Part of having your tool ready to go is to decide how the blog will be linked to from your front page, as well as the rest of the site. “A reader… seemed to misunderstand that the posts were from reporters, not readers,” Artley wrote e about the Times’ fire blogs. “And there were a couple of comments from folks who seemed unpleasantly surprised to be clicking on a headline or photo and getting a blog instead of an article. So we’re considering ways to signal that better, but I don’t want to get into overlabeling the site.”

2) Identify and train your bloggers.

It’s not enough to have one or two people assigned to blog breaking news. You need to identify and train enough bloggers so that one of them will be in the building at all times. You also need to ensure that someone else can cover the bloggers’ “normal” routines, since the bloggers will be too busy during breaking news.

You’ll also need a plan for how information will get to the bloggers. Establish a central e-mail address, phone number and/or instant message account to take bulletins from staff reporters and make sure everyone in the newsroom knows them. In a breaking news situation, off-duty reporters and even those not on the metro desk often have the first reports from the scene.

Artley suggests testing your blog reporting process in a controlled environment, such as during a trial.

“We had a test drive with the Phil Spector trial blog,” she wrote. “We knew we would have reporters with Blackberries in the courtroom. We got to set it up and plan. We also tried the breaking news blog again with the immigration march downtown, and, again, we planned how that would work — who would file, who would post, who would approve comments, and who would take care of images. Of course it doesn’t all go smoothly, but if you can plan a little bit, you’ll be much more prepared for when news breaks.”

This is also the time to make an organizational decision on what sources you will report in your blog. Will you cite what TV stations or other competitors report?

3) Have a plan to backread and edit the blog.

You should not insist on posts going through the normal newspaper editing process before hitting the blog. You won’t ever beat TV, radio or other blogs that way. But someone should be assigned the task of reading posts as they go live, to immediately correct typos, misspellings or other obvious factual errors. (I found a few lingering goofs on the Times blog last week.) Don’t assume that someone in the building, or some reader, will tip you to errors. Make sure someone specific is charged with this important duty.

4) Go for broke.

Once you have this system in place, why reserve it for infrequent occasions?

A newspaper reporter at an industry seminar last fall asked me what her organization could do to improve its front page design. I told her, “Make it a breaking news blog.”

I think one of the reasons that Kevin Roderick’s enjoyed such success with his LAObserved site is that many people prefer reading a blog-style narrative to picking their way through the mess of hyperlinks that compose the typical home page. Roderick reads dozens of stories from local Los Angeles media each weekday and selects the best of them to summarize and link on his blog. It’s a broadcast news writing model, really. But it works.

Why not assign sharp editors to be your “anchor” on each shift through the day, blogging your paper by selecting and summarizing the best stories, as they become available? (Readers who want to drill down to other information on the site may still use the site’s navigation to find specific sections’ story archives and other features.) And in a breaking news situation, the front page blog can morph into the breaking news blog.

Either way, the readers in your community will come to see your paper’s home page as the place to go for a friendly, authoritative voice that provides the very latest news about their community. And after all, isn’t that what a newaspaper website’s home page ought to be?