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National party conventions, graphic photos, social media's bull$#!t, open data, and a world stream

Here’s a quick roundup of stories and conversations that caught our attention in the past week, the first in what will gradually become a regular series.

Convention City: For the next two weeks, we’ll be barraged with reportage from the Republican and Democratic national conventions. As MediaShift points out, a lot of attention among media observers will be paid to how a variety of digital tools are deployed, much like it was during the Summer Olympics. The media industry blog has already put together a helpful list of resources for following the conventions. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has launched a new feature it’s calling The Grid, which is an interesting way to scan through all their various social media and reporting channels and get the latest on the RNC (and next week the DNC).

Instagraphic: In case you missed it (which seems impossible), Instagram moved to the center of a century-old debate this weekend following the shootings at the Empire State Building. When user @ryanstryin posted a graphic photo showing one of the victims lying in the street, it prompted a lot of reflection from both the mainstream media and the public over whether it’s appropriate to publish or share such images. We’ve had these arguments since the advent of photography – in times of war, in times of peace – on whether to publish photos of the dead and wounded or withhold them out of respect for the victims and their families. But this was a special kind of wake-up call. The media no longer makes these decisions, now that witnesses have a publishing platform in their pocket. New media commentator and J-school prof Jeff Jarvis got a little hot under the collar defending his own decision to share the photo on his Twitter stream and offers a compelling argument on the side of keeping the news unfiltered. The point is, if you click this hyperlink showing a victim with blood streaming down the sidewalk (republished here by Slate), you’ve already been forewarned by the linked words. Since mainstream media still have the broadest reach, they will continue to find themselves at the center of this debate, but the audience is going to find it increasingly difficult to avoid such material. The decision will be not one for the “broadcaster” on whether to share, but a personal one on whether to click.

Streaming the world 60 seconds at a time. The Wall Street Journal is now asking its reporters to file microvideo reports using the social media video platform Tout. They’re calling it WorldStream. From Tampa to Syria, you can see snippets of life, the news, and everything else a reporter can capture with a mobile phone camera. A first dive leaves me with the impression that much, much work has yet to be done before WSJ’s WorldStream can be called a mature product. Rebels relaxing in a mosque in Syria might have been portrayed better with a photo, for instance. Thirty seconds watching a pan of the empty delegate center in Tampa would have been better spent reading an actual story about the convention. And I can’t help but wonder what you can expect to get out of a 60-second interview with a pol – the format seems more suited to TMZ celeb shots and gotcha journalism. It will be interesting to see how the service evolves. For now, my main impression is that we’re looking at the news equivalent of Romantic fragment poems – Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” or Keats’ “Hyperion.” They may work artistically, but are story fragments really the best approach for an industry devoted to informing and enlightening its audience?

Social media is bull$#!t. Or so says B.J. Mendelson in the title of his new book. The former social media marketer and contributor to Mashable boosts his own contrarian view after serving the industry for years. Among some of the more common precepts of online journalism Mendelson disputes: the all-importance of pageviews, that Facebook really has 800 million users, and that we’ve learned much new about Internet marketing since Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” He tells journalist Ernie Smith that the biggest BS thing about social media is “the concept that what’s happening on these very different platforms, with their comparatively small and different audiences, has resonance with what’s happening with the rest of us. This false hope we’re giving people, which not coincidentally popped up around the same time the economy cratered. People needed something to believe in, and selfish and greedy marketers were ready to give that to them in the package of the myth of social media.” Incidentally, the interview is a nice display of what you can do with Jux, yet another platform for quick blogging.

The problem with open data. Is there one? Some interesting conversations on the topic this week. One started when the White House announced the selection of its “Innovation Fellows,” members of the private and nonprofit sectors and academia whose job it will be to help develop five government programs, including one on open data. That announcement sparked some backlash from conservative commentators, including Michelle Malkin, who wondered whether this isn’t really just a waste of taxpayer money. Open government reporter Alex Howard captured some of that debate, which unfolded in the social media sphere. Meanwhile, techPresident’s David Eaves reported on how a government spending scandal uncovered in the U.K. with the help of an open data project raises as many questions about how government collects and reports its data as it does about the suspect spending. So, what do you do if the government’s databases are poorly coded or managed – how do we get the government to change? And even if you discover these remarkable stories with the aid of open data sources, does it make it any easier to act? More questions like these are sure to present themselves as data journalism flowers into a discipline in its own right.

Another decade of the Internet. I leave you with a fun look back at how much the Internet has changed in the past 10 years, courtesy of this Mashable infographic. Enjoy.

Shazam! NBC may have just given us a glimpse into our transmedia future

Now that the Olympics are over, we can reflect on the performances we witnessed not only from the athletes (awful, great, and everything in between), but also from the network that brought London into our living room and onto our smartphones (ditto). NBC caught plenty of flak for tape-delaying a giant portion of the events rather than broadcasting them live. For frustrated sports enthusiasts and vitriolic Twitcrits armed with the #NBCFail hash tag, that was something of a mortal sin, not least because in this media-saturated age spoilers pervaded the atmosphere like a greenhouse gas.

There are economic factors to consider, however. NBC paid about $1.2 billion for exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics. The company had to recoup that money somehow. Rolling the marquee events, highlights, and personal stories into a single primetime package consolidated eyeballs and, by extension, boosted ad revenues. The strategy seems to have worked, as ratings for the London Olympics were reportedly the highest of any in decades. People clearly tuned in despite the time-shifted broadcasts. NBC Research President Alan Wurtzel even told Reuters reporter Liana B. Baker that people appeared even more likely to tune in when they already knew the results.

Of course, it’s tough to credit any strategy, alone or in combination, when the company had a monopoly on coverage. Television viewers didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so the only solid conclusion one can draw from NBC’s ratings success is that a lot of people wanted to watch the Olympics and did.

Whatever you think about NBC’s broadcast strategy, though, you have to give them some credit for pushing the envelope just a little further on the digital front. The company’s transmedia approach to covering the Olympics was a promise, even if not quite fulfilled, of a future in which the Internet and TV (and, really, all media) finally, harmoniously, converge into a kind of unified and, yes, very social experience.

I got to hear about some of the ingredients of that digital strategy when I was invited, along with other local journalists and members of the Online News Association, to NBC4 Studios in Burbank for a sort of digital show-and-tell.

Mekahlo Medina, the local affiliate’s tech and social media reporter, tried to capture the spirit of this drive toward digital convergence when he reminded us that “TV is social and always has been.”

Medina put up a black-and-white slide showing people gathered around an early television set and pointed out that families and friends used to make TV viewing a social event. Advance slide and we see some dude on the couch, feet on an ottoman, a laptop glowing on his lap and a smartphone in hand while he’s watching TV…alone. The implication here is that even if technology seems at first to have isolated us, social media is making TV a shared experience again as people interact with their friends remotely. Interesting theory.

That said, on the social media front, a lot of what we saw has become rather standard fare (or at least should be) for any news outlet, TV or otherwise. Among the takeaways, which should sound familiar by now:

– create a Twitter hash tag to help guide or at least aggregate the conversation
– retweet, reply and favorite your followers on Twitter
Storify events when appropriate
– encourage user-generated content using social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest
– ask questions on Facebook to get users more engaged
– create dedicated Facebook tabs for special content

But I did hear at least one useful tip I had never considered. NBC4 did a Facebook countdown by posting a new cover photo every day leading up to the opening ceremony.

For now, changing your cover photo counts as a significant activity in Facebook’s algorithm, at least according to Olsen Ebright, the producer who headed the social media charge. The result is that your Facebook page will surface on your fans’ walls every day. It’s a strategy that could be useful for other Facebook campaigns, too.

So, how did the local affiliate fare with its social media strategy? All told during the Olympics, NBC4 saw an above-average gain in Twitter followers, and its Facebook likes roughly doubled, according to stats Ebright shared with the group.

Outstanding numbers to be sure, but it’s tough to conclude that any of the aforementioned tactics had much to do with them. As it turns out, it was the tried-and-true approach of a big-giveaway contest that appeared to generate the sudden spike in Facebook likes. The prize? A check for $40,000 to help some lucky fan pay his or her mortgage for a year.

In fact, a series of contest giveaways (iPads, $400 gas cards, theme park tickets) and a campaign for charity were probably the main reasons shot to 350,000 Facebook fans from about 20,000 just last fall.

Call it an investment. Ebright told me that four years ago Google searches were still the largest referrer to their site, with Facebook providing a smaller but still sizable share. More recently, the two have alternated in the top spot, and during the Olympics, Facebook consistently surpassed Google as the single biggest referrer of site traffic to

Not every news organization will be able to afford such big prizes, but NBC4’s success is a sobering reminder that if you want people to come inside to see your content, you first might have to offer an incentive just to open the door.

As impressive as NBC4’s execution of its social media strategy was, though, the really exciting stuff came from the mother ship. There were two standout strategies — at least for this observer — that got to the core of what transmedia can mean.

One of them was a little gem of an innovation that comes, surprisingly, from the world of music: Shazam. For those who aren’t familiar with Shazam, it’s an app for your tablet or smartphone that can “hear” music and identify whatever song you happen to be listening to. That may not sound like an obvious tool for a journalist, but Shazam has recently entered into partnerships with other media organizations, including NBC, to offer some intriguing applications for their audio recognition software.

Nabisco tapped Shazam to help market one of its trademark crackers, Wheat Thins, by linking a TV ad to Twitter and Facebook.

“Through Shazam’s technology, the audio in the television ad identifies the sound and links to a pre-written Twitter post. Those who tweet the post get a free sample of the product,” wrote Laurie Sullivan, reporting for

But NBC appears to be the real test case. Shazam put that partnership front and center on its website, encouraging users to “tune in and tag” Olympic moments at anytime while watching NBC’s coverage.

So with what were the curious, tech-savvy members of the audience rewarded? I can’t say firsthand, since I’m an on-again, off-again cord-cutter (that is, I try to save money by ditching cable and instead get my TV shows and news via the Internet). But according to the site, when you hit the Shazam button on your phone or tablet while watching any of NBC’s Olympics coverage, you were treated to any of a number of goodies, including:

– a schedule of events
– athlete bios, news and photos
– up-to-the-minute results
– the latest medal tally
– interactive viewer polls

It only takes a little imagination to extend what NBC and Nabisco have already done with the Shazam app.

A lot of people, for instance, listen to the news as audio while they drive or otherwise move about. A tech-savvy media outlet could reach out to its audience while a major story is breaking and locate potential citizen journalists near the event. The CJ’s hear the request, hit the Shazam button, and get a special link that they can use to submit photos or video straight from their phones.

TV stations could link their viewers directly to extended Web content with a touch of a button. They could direct their audience online to get charts and other data visualizations, exclusive Web videos, relevant stats, helpful background and explainers to give context. All this without making anyone get up from the couch, say, to scan one of those increasingly obsolete QR codes.

And, of course, there’s the already-proven social media application. It’s like having a share button on your TV and in your radio. Your audience sees it or hears it, Shazams it, and shares it on their favorite social media network. Now their friends and followers have a direct link to your story.

The other exciting glimpse into the future of transmedia coverage was also the most obvious — the oft touted if much trashed attempt by NBC to live stream every event via the Web and mobile devices.

I won’t go too deeply into the details, since this territory is well trod (follow any of the links at the top of this post). The short of it is that for the first time fans of the Olympics had access to the raw uninterrupted stream of events both prominent and obscure.

Using NBC’s smartphone and tablet apps or its Live Extra website, anyone tired of the main event on TV could switch over to the live stream and watch something else, like badminton or trampoline (did they really make that an Olympic event?!). They could even watch multiple events simultaneously.

Cool, right? Well, yes, though I do wonder how many people would tune in if C-SPAN did something similar. (“Split your screen and get four simultaneous committee meetings live from the capital!”)

And this is where the complaining starts. The streams were not without their hiccups. A lot of complaints centered on poor video quality and service interruptions, which, in the 100-meter dash, could well mean you missed the entire event.

The Android app, for its part, garnered a measly average of 2 stars from the user reviews in the Market. Which brings us back to those angry Twitcrits.

In defense of NBC, I might offer this: no new technology, especially when deployed so ambitiously, ever comes off flawlessly.

Louis C.K. said it best when he told Conan O’Brien in a clip that went viral on YouTube, “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

In his four-minute rant, Louis mentioned an airline passenger who, having just discovered that he had in-flight access to the Internet with his laptop, gets upset when it stops working.

“How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago!”