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Emma Knight

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Grupo Clarín, the publisher of Argentina’s most widely read daily newspaper and the largest media conglomerate in the country, once enjoyed a favourable relationship with the government. Now, the two are engaged in a public tussle in which each side claims that the other poses a threat to freedom of expression: the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner accuses Clarín of having a monopolistic stranglehold over the country’s media, and the news conglomerate charges the government with striving to stifle dissenting voices.

The conflict’s focal point is the controversial “Media Law,” also known as the Audiovisual Communication Services Act (No 26.522), passed by Argentina’s Congress in October 2009. Article 45 of this law limits the number of broadcasting licenses that any media organisation can hold, and Article 161 establishes a procedure to divest incompliant companies of their holdings. Proponents call it a move to increase media plurality; detractors consider the measure a government ploy to dismantle its most vocal critic.

The World Assocication of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) supports Clarín in the dispute. "The measure allows government interference in the press in the name of maintaining media diversity. This is an absurd argument in the digital age, when media are more diverse than ever before,” its management said in a December 2011 statement. A year before, the association had voiced concerns over the act’s constitutionality, and the risk of censorship: “The proposed Audiovisual Communication Services Act, which was denounced in a judicial review as ‘anti-constitutional,’ threatens the economic stability of independent media and raises serious issues of government censorship through its licensing requirements.”

In a challenge to the law’s acceptability under Argentina’s constitution, Clarín succeeded in winning a temporary injunction against compliance. Although Argentina’s Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of articles 45 and 161, it decided in May that the injunction would expire on 7 December 2012. The Kirchner’s administration has thus declared this constitues the green light to begin stripping the out-of-favour news group of its properties, and auctioning them off to other businesses. Clarín argues that on ‘el 7D’, as the date is called colloquially, nothing will happen; until the substantive constitutionality of the article has not been definitetly ruled upon, the legal effects of the article remain suspended.

Let’s rewind a few years. Between 2003 and 2007, during the presidency of Mrs. Kirchner’s late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, Argentina’s government looked kindly upon Clarín. This allowed the media conglomerate privileged access to government decision-related scoops and lucrative advertising deals, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In 2007, it was Mr. Kirchner who approved a merger allowing Clarín to take control of one of Latin America’s largest cable companies, thereby solidifying its dominant position as top dog in the country’s media market.

The winds began to change in the early days of the former first lady’s first term. In 2008, Clarín did not side with the government in its coverage of farmers protesting increased taxes on agricultural exports. The Kirchner administration accused Clarín and La Nación, another sizeable independent media group, of slanting their coverage due to business interests. Later, the administration issued a 400-page report claiming that the two media companies had colluded with the military dictatorship that seized the country between 1976 and 1983 to win control of a newsprint manufacturer— allegations that both groups deny.

In 2009, the government revoked Clarín’s right to broadcast major football matches, which its television network had been airing for nearly two decades, and was contractually allowed to continue airing until 2014. Two months later, the Media Law was enacted. The law’s stated purpose is to democratize access to media ownership, and break up monopolistic structures by limiting the number of cities in which cable companies can hold broadcasting licenses to 24. Clarín, which owns over 200 cable television broadcasters as well as network television channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, a cable company and an Internet service provider— stands to suffer considerably.

That the country is in need of new media legislation is a given, even for Clarín. Media watchdogs are wary, however, of the potential for abuse in the application of this legislation by a government that has shown little reticence in manipulating the environment for independent media. The Media Law will replace the Broadcasting Act, which was imposed under the dictatorship in 1980. “That law was so old that it called FM radio a new technology,” Jorge Fontevecchia, Chief Executive of Editorial Perfil, the country’s largest magazine company and publisher of the influential biweekly newspaper Perfil, told Editors Weblog in an email interview. “It is very important to give the current media landscape a coherent regulatory framework,” he emphasized; “this law applies to the tangible distribution of economic, socio-political and cultural power within the country.”

Fontevecchia also pointed out that the legislation was drafted with participation from civil society. “This law is the result of a long process that began with various proposals from NGOs and other associations,” he explained. “Thus was formed the ‘Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting,’ which came up with 21 points that a new broadcasting law should consider. The government then released an initial draft of the law, and over several months received suggestions and comments in order to create a second draft, which it sent to Congress on August 28, 2009.”

The act has high-profile supporters, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank LaRue, who called it “one of the most advanced [media laws] on the continent” and a “model” for freedom of expression. Among its lauded features is an emphasis on giving broadcast licenses to local communities, and a requirement that cinemas air more local films.

However, critics see the Media Law in its present incarnation as an attempt by the government to sabotage the handful of independent media outlets that are powerful enough to disagree with it, and consolidate its control over the smaller regional players who rely on official advertising for survival. According to the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, the Kirchner government is now estimated to have direct or indirect control over 80% of the Argentine media. Henoch Aguiar, a former Argentine Federal Communications Secretary, warns that the act signals intentions of further influence. “There are monopolies in Argentina but they’re mainly related to government media, not Clarín,” he has asserted, according to the Wall Street Journal. “The government is using all its resources to demolish an enemy and control the media a bit more. That is grave.”

One of the government’s reported methods of wielding its power is through the allocation of advertising contracts. The federal government became the largest advertiser in the country in 2010, spending approximately $279 million to send messages via the mass media, compared to $10.5 million in 2003. It has been known to retaliate against its critics by withholding its ads from their airwaves, according to Andrés D’Alessandro, Executive Director of FOPEA, a local journalists group. Clarín’s television properties, for example, ran almost no federal government advertising at all between May and October 2011, according to a study by non-profit group Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power).

In March 2011, Editorial Perfil, which like Clarín and La Nación is known as a critical, independent voice, brought the government before the Supreme Court over its advertising policies, and won the case. The Court ruled that the executive branch was required to “apply reasonable balance” in the way it distributed advertising, according to CPJ. Seven months later, the government had placed all of eight ads in the pages of Perfíl’s eponymous publication, one of which stated: “The publisher of this newspaper has honoured businesses that are being investigated for human trafficking and slave labour.”

With the government’s track record in mind, Editorial Perfil’s CEO is at once optimistic about the Media Law’s potential, and circumspect about the way it might be applied. “This law can encourage and facilitate further development in the plurality of voices in the media if it is applied in a general, non-discriminatory manner, based on the logic of calling for open tenders, and equal opportunity for all,” Fontevecchia told us. “But in my particular case, that is, the case of Editorial Perfil, if I cite the allocation of government advertising as an example, I have a feeling that we will only see a proliferation of government media, protected by the state.”

“If the [Federal Authority of Communication and Audiovisual Services] implements it with a simple strategy of persecution against Clarín instead of seeking to enforce the law as a whole, we will only see one monopoly replaced by a state-controlled one— one whose future is dependent upon the government in power,” he continued. “The media law should ensure the plurality of voices, and not control content. The pressure is great, and the stakes even higher… For now, the only thing we can do is wait.”

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Committee to Protect Journalists, Guardian, International Press Institute, Perfil


Emma Knight


2012-11-21 19:03

A week from today, French radio station France Culture will launch a new web portal geared at luring the next generation of listeners to the airwaves via the Internet.

"France Culture Plus" as the new site is called, will mix content from campus radio stations with original work created by students specifically for the web platform, selects from the station’s own academically relevant programming, and audio and video recordings of university lectures and events.

The cultural radio station, which celebrates its 50th birthday next year, is not the only heritage media outlet in France to be reaching out to students this fall. Today, national television station France Télévisions announced “francetvéducation,” a free educational platform targeted at students, parents and teachers. At the end of October, daily newspaper Le Figaro also launched a website dedicated to students, www.lefigaroetudiant.fr.

All of these media organisations are well aware that, in order to guarantee survival, appealing to young listeners is imperative. “Students represent the future audience of the France Culture brand, which is looking to extend the durability of its content,” Jean-Marie Guinebert, the Director of Communication at France Culture, told digital media and communication newsletter Satellinet. Young in the millennial sense, that is— “France Culture Plus targets students between 16 and 30, and even above,” continued Guinebert.

Like its television and newspaper counterparts, France Culture is not trying to target students through its flagship ‘old’ medium, but rather meeting them on their own digital turf. France Culture Plus will be run by the same team that is in charge of its main website, www.franculture.fr, which receives 2.8 million visitors each month (up 29 percent from October 2011).

The four elements of the new portal will be:

  1. Campus Radio”: France Culture Plus will stream content from a network of 24 campus radio stations in three weekly shows, including “Starting Block” (a music programme), and “Univox” (a social programme).
  2. France Culture Factory”: Original 2-15 minute programmes produced by and for students, especially for the website. Examples include “Radio Thésards” – a collection of interviews with doctoral students in the throes of composing their theses; “The World is a Campus” (in partnership with student visa-controlling body Campus France) – portraits and journeys of international students in France; and “Audition” – literary texts read aloud by drama students.
  3. The France Culture Selection”: A curated selection of podcasts from France Culture’s programming that cover academic subjects, such as science, law, economics, history and philosophy.
  4. The France Culture Campus”: The radio network has signed agreements with forty institutions to allow academic lectures, conferences, and events to be broadcast by the public radio station— a number that is expected to rise to 120 by mid-2013.

“All of the Nobel Prize winners come to France to give a lecture or a conference at its universities,” said Olivier Poivre D’Arvor, Director of France Culture. “If we aggregate these resources, it will produce an exceptional concentration of knowledge.”

This fits in well with the cultural radio station’s ethos as a people’s university. The end-goal, though, is to win students hearts: “We hope to gain listeners, and for students to get hooked on France Culture. That’s the idea,” explained Poivre D’Arvor.

Sources: L’Express, France Culture, Satellinet

Image of La Sorbonne courtesy of Flickr user jpgarnham


Emma Knight


2012-11-19 19:32

UPDATE: This article has been updated on November 16 at 12:16 pm.

Welcome to the new age of cyberwarfare, in which armies liveblog deadly attacks, and even provide infographics. Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are among the weapons being mobilized by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in their campaign against Hamas and other militant groups, launched yesterday.

The IDF are using the verified Twitter account @IDFSpokesperson and the hashtags #IsraelUnderFire and #PillarOfDefense to communicate messages such as the “elimination” of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, the alleged number of rockets that have been fired at Israel from Gaza since the start of the strike, and claims regarding efforts to “minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.”

Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed branch of Hamas, is thought to be responding in kind from the unverified handle @AlquassamBrigade, posting descriptions of its “homemade projectile” strikes on Israel and messages about supposed victims under the hashtags #ShaleStones and #GazaUnderAttack.

As Wired’s Noah Shachtman has pointed out, this is “a very different way of waging the opinion war online.” While journalists have long served, for international observers, as the primary witnesses to and relaters of far-flung conflicts, militants are now able to cut out the middleman, and communicate directly with the global public. As such, they can frame events with the language, images and videos of their choice. In other words, their propaganda machines are equipped with more potent tools than ever with which to manipulate the media narrative.

What is the role of news organisations in this new era? The same as it has always been: to relay the facts, with as much accuracy and as little bias as possible. Only now that militaries are doing their own war reporting, it is more complicated than ever to “sort out the truth from the marketing spin,” as Mathew Ingram puts it. As such, verification and authentication have grown indispensible.

Although their task has become more difficult, news organisations also have more helping hands on deck than ever before, from organisations like Storyful to the growing army of citizen journalists who are constantly on the lookout for manipulation. "Our @StoryfulPro crew have been on the frontline of that cyber-war," tweeted Storyful Founder Mark Little on the subject, speaking of the team that specialises in delivering actionable social media content to news organisation clients.

Gareth O'Connor, Storyful's Head of News Gathering, spent the day curating the Storyful Pro news alerts feed on Twitter. By email, he gave Editors Weblog a glimpse of what that entailed: "Working off two live Twitter lists for Israel and Palestine, I was able to see developments instantly in real-time. All sides in the conflict are using social platforms," he said. "This is a conflict in real-time and this presents new challenges for journalists. This is why we constantly curate and verify sources on our Twitter lists."

Citizens, too, have been hard at work, sniffing out suspicious claims. For example, at 1:29 AM this morning @AlqassamBrigade posted an image on Twitter of a man clutching a bleeding child in a hospital. Soon afterward, various Twitter users responded with claims that the photo had been taken in Syria, including one user who appeared to support Hamas.

“I can’t believe I’m saying but this picture is from #Syria, not Gaza. Thank you @Huxley10 for point it out,” posted Twitter user @RazanSpeaks, before continuing in a second tweet: “That said, we fully support you.”

Twitter's self-cleaning oven is keeping the other side in check, too, as is demonstrated by the following succinct response by Ian Clark, a self-described “progressive librarian and passionate library advocate” to a clarification claim by the IDF:

"Clarification, No rockets were fired from #Gaza on Tel-Aviv. #Hamas propaganda is constantly spreading misinformation," said the Israeli military's spokesperson.

"So are you," replied the passionate library advocate.

Sources: Wired, GigaOM, BuzzFeed, NYT Bits Blog, AllThingsD, NYT

Image from IDF via Flickr


Emma Knight


2012-11-15 17:14

Engaging with video journalism on the web is no longer about tilting your laptop screen just so, leaning back with a bowl of crunchy, salty kernels, and perhaps sharing the odd link. Now, with Popcorn Maker 1.0, anyone can remix and add context to videos from YouTube and Vimeo by integrating elements from the web such as Tweets, Google maps and images.

Launched at Mozilla's 'Mozfest' meeting in London last weekend, Popcorn Maker 1.0 is a free, open source web app that requires neither video editing nor coding abilities to operate. By making it dead simple to mash up, augment and share digital video, it holds the potential to change the way journalists, bloggers and the people formerly known as the audience practice and perceive online video journalism, further distinguishing it from the one-directional experience that is television.

“Despite the interactive nature of the web, video on the web remains little more than glorified television in your web browser — a passive experience in the midst of the otherwise interactive online world,” wrote Scott Gilbertson in a post about Popcorn Maker on Webmonkey. “It doesn’t have to be that way. HTML5 makes video into just another HTML element — editable, hackable, remixable.”

In contrast with Flash, SilverLight or Quick Time, which Mozilla’s Developer Evangelist Christian Heilmann has said can make online video appear as a “black hole” in the webpage, HTML5 allows video to be a workable element. By building what that they call “Popcorn Media Wrappers,” the app’s developers were able to “wrap” non-HTLML5 audio and video elements in a standardized interface and set of behaviours, thus allowing them to be used exactly as if they were HTML5.

The Popcorn Media Wrapper concept is one of the new features in Popcorn Maker 1.0 that did not exist in its alpha predecessor, Popcorn.js, which was unveiled at last year’s Mozfest. Within the universe of Popcorn Maker— built entirely from HTML, CSS and Javascript— are a number of components with apt names like Cornfield (the server) and Butter (the library); all are part of the wider Mozilla Webmaker project, whose aim is to “help millions of people move from using the web to making the web.”

For journalists, making the web in this case means creating a video layered with context (maps, subtitles, images, Wikipedia entries) and social elements (Twitter feeds). For example, a political journalist could use Popcorn Maker to annotate President Obama’s victory speech with the real-time commentary on Twitter by simply dragging icons into a timeline. Although it takes some fidgeting to get the hang of it (and your first attempt may not be beautiful), Popcorn Maker is undoubtedly easier to use than Final Cut Pro. And the finished product is as malleable as its components; pressing the recycling icon in the video player’s bottom-left corner allows a viewer to immediately begin remixing it into something new.

Digital video has become an increasingly ubiquitous tool for transferring information across the web, with news organisation plunging head-first into the medium in hopes of attracting audience eyes and advertising dollars, YouTube continuing to invest in its own line of content channels, and services such as Wikipedia (last week) and its “for-profit cousin” Wikia (this week) integrating multimedia streaming players into their sites. In this context, Popcorn Maker represents an opportunity for journalists and bloggers to create a more multi-dimensional, interactive and web-native video news experience.

But don’t kiss your text editor goodbye just yet; streaming video still has its pitfalls, particularly when connection speeds don’t make the grade. A new study shows that people begin jumping ship on online videos when load time exceeds two seconds, and six percent more viewers bail for every additional second of delay. What ever happened to making popcorn during commercial breaks?


VIRTUE TEST: Do you have the patience to watch the first two minutes of the following interview in which Brett Gaylor, Filmmaker and Director of the Popcorn Project, talks to with visionOntv about Popcorn Maker at the MozFest closing party?

DOUBLE DARE: If you're really feeling zen, my Popcorn Maker 1.0 experiment (based on the video that you did not watch above) is viewable here (this blog only supports old embed codes).

Sources: The Next Web (1) (2), Journalism.co.uk (1) (2), SFN, Editors Weblog, GigaOM, AdAge, Mozilla Hacks, Webmonkey

Photo courtesy of bcmom via Flickr Creative Commons


Emma Knight


2012-11-13 15:59

Is it wrong for a PR firm to forego a monthly retainer, and charge its clients only when it succeeds in getting them mentioned by the media?

Does it make a difference if the PR firm is doing this to help startups shy on capital?

What about if the PR firm has put specific price tags on particular media outlets?

These are the questions that public relations professionals, their clients, tech bloggers and their readers have been grappling with in the wake of yesterday’s announcement by TechCrunch Co-Editor Alexia Tsotsis of a blog-wide ban on PR company PRserve, following her discovery that the firm had been charging clients $750 for getting them covered by an “A-level blog like TechCrunch.”

Chris Barrett, the Founder of PRserve, responded by posting a notice on the company’s website in which he claimed to be “confounded” by the situation. “The only difference between how we share stories and the way a traditional PR firm works is that we do not charge a $5,000 monthly retainer, irrespective of results. We only collect an extremely modest amount for successful stories (a flat rate of $425 - $750 per story), depending on the media outlet,” he wrote.

The man has a point. It is true that promising startups do not all have pocketbooks brimming with cash, and that “by the pound” PR is a clever way for these companies to benefit from the services of public relations experts without breaking the bank. And as The Next Web’s Martin Bryant explains, it is not uncommon for PR firms to charge their clients for mentions on blogs like TechCrunch alongside the monthly retainer. Thus, what could possibly be unethical about PRserve’s decision to rely only on the former and do without the latter?

For journalists and bloggers, however, it is easy to see how any “performance-based business model”—with or without retainer— can be compromising. Picture yourself in their moccasins: it’s a quiet Wednesday, and you’re trying to decide what to write about. Then arrives a phone call or email from your friendly neighbourhood PR representative working on behalf of a tech startup. Finding yourself piqued by the app/gadget/whathaveyou that he/she is pitching, you arrange an interview. Several hours later, you learn that your story caused $750 to change hands. Wouldn’t you want to take a shower?

Beyond banning TechCrunch journalists from hearing any more pitches from PRserve, Tsotsis has called for startups who paid the firm to get featured on TechCrunch to ask for their money back, and failing that, has offered to refund the cash from her own pocket. Next time you want to get featured on our blog, she advises, reach out to our writers directly. For both the startup and the journalist, this arrangement makes sense.

As for PR companies trying to figure out the best business plan, Bryant offers a slightly facetious word of wisdom: charge your clients however you like – “just don’t tell us writers at tech blogs how much you’re charging, so we don’t feel like [harlots]. See? Everyone’s happy.”

Sources: TechCrunch, The Next Web, PRserve

Image courtesy of ryanmshia via Flickr Creative Commons 


Emma Knight


2012-11-09 19:24

This article was updated at 10:11 am on Friday, November 9. 

In stark juxtaposition with the boisterous political process we have recently witnessed in the United States is the choreographed 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which opened in Beijing this morning. During this weeklong meeting, the single party state will undergo its once-in-a-decade political transition, with President Hu Jintao handing the Party’s reigns to Vice President Xi Jinping.

Colloquially known as the “Eighteenth Big,” or “shiba da,” this is the first Communist Party Congress to be taking place in the age of Weibo, China’s three year-old Twitter equivalent, which has around 300 million users. Chinese social media commentators, however, are up against a much more foreboding foe than that which unnerved some of their American counterparts in the lead-up to election night: instead of the prospect of a great white fail whale, they are confronted with the reality of a Great Firewall.

According to blogger Zhang Lifan, who has a Weibo following of 200,000, the social network is a “credibility enfeebler” for the Chinese government. “Until 2009, there were millions of Internet users but they couldn't comment directly on specific, individual issues. Information was spread from top to bottom and monopolised by the propaganda machine,” he said, according to Leo Lewis of The Times (UK).

That has changed since the advent of China’s very own self-cleaning oven. “The idea that the country has a unified ideology has fallen to Weibo and its ability to debunk things on the spot. Nobody can bluff any more, because it’s too easy for the collective intelligence of Weibo to find it out,” the blogger continued.

However, the Chinese government strives to keep Weibo under firm control. According to Lewis, experts believe that China’s leaders monitor the country’s microblogs at 9 pm every evening to take the nation’s “cyber pulse.” As part of their effort to keep the conversation under wraps, the government censors discussion about high-ranking political leaders, and blocks terms that are deemed risky, such as the three “taboo T’s” – Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen, according to Reuters.

On the subject of the leadership transition, netizens have been “muted,” and talk on Sina Weibo—the country’s largest Weibo operator—has been “patchy,” the BBC has reported. It adds that there has been no special page for the Congress, even though there was one for the U.S. elections, and that a search for “18th Party Congress” only delivers results from state media, and none from individuals, suggesting that the term has been censored.

China’s netizens are wise to these tricks, and circumvent censors using codes. For example, “si ba da,” meaning “Sparta” in Mandarin, is used as a substitute for the Congress’s previous nickname, “shiba da,” which has been blocked, according to Reuters.

But banned words are not the only obstacle in the path of cyber commentators. "My Internet speed is becoming slower and slower, is this because of the approaching 'sparta' or is it the end of the world," Reuters quotes one Weibo user as having wondered. It adds that experts confirm that it is common for Beijing to monitor the Internet more closely before major political events, and that this can indeed cause slowness.

On Twitter, too, China-watchers have been experiencing difficulties with their accounts. "Wow, my Twitter account just got hacked. Party Congresses are such fun," posted Patrick Chovanec, a business professor at Tsinghua University, today-- and he is not alone. the Hong Kong-based China Media Project  also received a notification that others had tried to access its account. While there is no evidence linking foul play on Twitter to the government, many are suspicious. As The Next Web's Josh Ong puts it, "where there’s smoke, there’s fire."

Still, one "high-level Chinese Internet executive," whom Reuters quoted anonymously due to the sensitivity of the subject, asserts that "social media cannot be said to be 'tightly controlled,' calling it "infinitely more open than the Internet, which is infinitely more open than print media." The source then qualifies: "'Tightly controlled' may be used only if you are comparing against democratic countries."

Regardless of the level of control asserted by the government, it appears that resourceful Weibo users will find ways to post commentary on the Congress as it unfolds. Meanwhile, Obama needn’t worry; chances seem slim that Ji Hinping will attempt to challenge the most-retweeted record set by the American First Couple’s presidential embrace.

Sources: Reuters via Euro News, The Times via The Australian, BBC, IHT, China Digital Times, The Next Web

Image courtesy of Remko Tanis via Flickr Creative Commons


Emma Knight


2012-11-08 19:28

My first instinct upon waking this morning was, “Need newspaper. Now.” And then I remembered that it’s 2012, and that I’m supposed to be a "digital native" millennial-type, so I reached for my iPhone. Without the intermediary of a foot-chilling front stoop, I was then immersed in a torrent of triumphant and cantankerous tweets, a red-and-blue chequered electoral map, and a New York Times video interview with a humbly vindicated blogger.

In the wee hours of November 7, 2012, while nocturnal printers churned out front pages of a beaming Barack, and radio and television airwaves resonated with the sound of his voice, almost every media player in the country (and many beyond) was concurrently converging on another, more instantaneous playing field. News organisations large and small, legacy and start-up, greeted Wednesday with virtual front pages proclaiming Obama’s victory, and promising a clickable cornucopia of elections-related multimedia tempting enough to drive even the most disciplined worker to procrastination. And then there were the memes... 

Tonight I’ll indulge in the timeless pleasure of tinting my fingers black as I turn back historic front page after historic front page. But as far as using digital tools to enhance election coverage goes, I think President Obama would agree that 2012 was not bad. Here are our selects.

Best infographics

The New York Times

Long a pioneer in the ever-more-critical realm of data journalism, The Times once again wowed us with its ability to convey complex ideas through code. In the lead-up to last night, it gave us a quiz-like graphic that allowed users to find out where they stood compared with other readers on the election's major issues, and an animated map showing the various ways that the country could be conquered. This post-call visual shows how much of the nation shifted to the right, even as the left was declared victorious.

For the Infographics Archive's list of the election's best infographics, click here.

Most accurate pundits

Paul Bradshaw called this election a "wake-up call for data illiterate journalists." Considering the brouhaha that arose over Nate Silver's statistical "witchcraft," I (despite being a muggle) am inclined to agree. But Silver is not the only data expert to have sprinkled his model with magic...

Nate Silver - The New York Times' Fivethirtyeight blog

Many a media commentator is giving this man more attention than the President-elect today, after his much-criticized forecasting model was proven to work pretty darned well.

Josh Putnam - Frontloading HQ 

A visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College, Putnam based his Electoral Map on the weighted average of state polls. He put Obama at 332 Electoral College votes and Romney at 206. So far Obama has taken 303, there are 29 undecided, and Romney has won 206, according to The Times.

Best infographic about pundits


There's nothing like a pundit dart-board to keep track of which witches might be worth betting on in four years' time (although "we try not to make bets around here"), and which ones flunked divination.

Best animated graphic novel

The Guardian

There wasn't too much competition in this category (as far as I know), but the Guardian's mix of humour and ingenuity was spot on.

Most succinct satire

The New Yorker

“BOSTON (The Borowitz Report)—America cast its historic vote today, sending Barack and Michelle Obama back to the White House while sending Mitt and Ann Romney back to 1954. The election meant the end of the road for Mr. Romney, who had been actively seeking the Presidency for the past sixty-five years..."

Best compilation of close-ups on voters


This assortment of portraits of overcome Obama supporters (from Reuters, AP and Getty Images) is liable to give you vicarious chills, regardless of where your loyalties lie.
Image by Jason Reed / Reuters

Best photomosaic timeline

The Washington Post 

Feeling nostalgic about the campaign already? The Washington Post's interactive RUN feature lets users relive moments like the empty chair and debate bloopers in this "visual journey through all of the patriotism, pageantry and pettiness that makes an American election unlike any other."

Best performance despite blackout

ABC News

A mere six minutes before it called the election results, ABC News was in the dark, according to the Hollywood Reporter. A power failure apparently took place at the network's Times Square studios at 10:51 pm, during a commercial break. The lights didn't come back on until 11:17, and ABC called the election for Obama at 11:23.

The final two favourites do not originate from news organisations, but are still worth an honourable mention:

Best moneyshot

This tweet by @BarackObama quickly became the most retweeted message ever posted on Twitter, breaking the record previously held by Justin Bieber.

Best GIF

Wait until you see it dance...


Emma Knight


2012-11-07 17:12

Election day has arrived, and even those of us without an iota of American heritage (let alone suffrage) are slightly a-twitch in our chairs as we play with interactive graphics and wait to see whether Twitter is really going to break. Today, undecided voters— those fickle objects of the mass media’s fascination, and Bill Maher’s derision— will have to slide to one side or the other, or perch on white picket forever. And by now, those newspapers that wish to have picked a side.

This year, Barack Obama is leading Mitt Romney 41 to 35 in endorsements from the nation’s 100 highest-circulation newspapers, according to the American Presidency Project. The newspapers that are backing Obama have a circulation of over 10 million between them, while those that support Romney have a combined circulation of around 6.5 million.

These figures represent a significant decline in Obama’s number of newspaper endorsements since 2008, when he had 65 of the top 100 papers— with an aggregate circulation of 16 million— on his side, while only 25 newspapers totaling 5 million in circulation spoke out in support of his Republican rival John McCain

[*Click here or on the image itself to interact with this stubbornly unembeddable infographic that I made on Infogr.am]

Looking beyond the 100 highest-circulation newspapers, at least three papers that supported McCain in 2008 have flipped toward Obama. However, the pendulum has mostly swung the other way, with Romney recouping at least 35 of the endorsements that went to Obama in 2008, according to Poynter. Besides, Romney is leading Obama 24 to 15 in endorsements from swing state newspapers.

Of course, none of this will have much influence on whether we are hula hooping for joy or weeping tears of ash tomorrow, if you trust the results of a 2008 study on the impact of political endorsements by the Pew Research Center. Researchers found that 14 percent of respondents would be influenced positively by a local newspaper’s endorsement of a candidate, and 14 percent would be influenced negatively, leaving the influence-o-meter's dial pointing at approximately zero. This is by no means the final word on the subject, which MinnPost’s David Brauer has labelled an “age-old tail-chase,” but it is enough to make one wonder: what’s the point of endorsing a presidential candidate? What motivates a newspaper to endorse a candidate— or not— in the first place?

This is a more interesting question to ask oneself on election night than whether swing state endorsements will help Romney win, particularly given the increase this year in the number of papers who have decided to abstain from voicing a position (visible in the infographic). In 2008, eight of the country’s 100 highest-circulation newspapers declined to endorse a candidate. This year, that number has jumped to 23.

I can find at least four strong arguments for abstaining from endorsement. One pertains to business: the fear of ticking off readers and, worse, advertisers, is stronger than ever, now that every penny counts. Another comes from a desire to keep the news pure: “Simply put, we don’t want to undermine the hard work of our reporters covering the races,” explained Jim Strauss, editor of Montana’s Great Falls Tribune.

A third reason not to endorse has to do with the very nature of democracy: "When a professor of geology says, 'I'm an authority,' what he means is he has a Ph.D. and he spends all his time studying geology," said NYU’s Jay Rosen to Tim Porter of the American Journalism Review some eight years ago. "But when a journalist says that, what is it he's telling us he has obtained? …The kinds of issues and problems and judgment that are involved in choosing a candidate are not something you can monopolize the knowledge of. It's not something you are expert in. You're not an expert in picking a candidate. That's an antidemocratic idea."

Finally, in a country where the mass media has become so polarised that each of two major television networks has aired an earnest suggestion that its rival’s preferred presidential or vice-presidential candidate suffers from mental illness (MSNBC’s Martin Bashir expressed concern about Romney’s “mental well-being,” while a member of Fox News’s “Medical A Team” intimated that Joseph Biden Jr.’s “bizarre laughter” was indicative of dementia), it might seem odd for anyone at all to be in favour of more partisanship.

When it comes to not picking a candidate to throw your weight behind, the country’s two highest-circulation dailies lead the way: The Wall Street Journal generally does not endorse a candidate, preferring to prioritize principles over politicians, and USA Today’s founder Allen H. Neuharth famously combined arguments two and three when he opined thirty years ago that endorsements not only taint the reputation of a newspaper’s political coverage, but are insulting to readers.

Among those that have followed suit are the Chicago Sun-Times (“We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before"), the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel (“Endorsements are a relic of a time when every town had more than one newspaper, of a time long before the wide river of commentary now available to anyone with a smartphone”), and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (“We have heard from readers — and we agree — that you don’t need us to tell you how to vote”).

However, 76 of the country’s 100 leading newspapers continue to endorse presidential candidates— and not because it’s a picnic. As Edward Wasserman, a Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University recently wrote in a column for the Miami Herald: “Endorsements never made marketplace sense. They always irritated some portion of the readership. They routinely drove off advertisers. They fractured staffs that were otherwise chummy and collegial. They left some readers convinced of bias in news coverage. In short, they've always been a pain in the neck.”

What incentive, then, could prompt a newspaper to pronounce that it holds a view from somewhere on this most sensitive of subjects? As cleanly as Rosen’s geology analogy may have dismissed it, I have not let go of the argument that good newspaper editorialists are well-placed to make sound political judgments, given that their jobs consist of gathering all of the facts, and listening to every side. This does not mean that they are free from bias, nor does it equip them with the power to anoint Romney or Obama as the correct candidate with anywhere near the same level of credibility as a geologist pronouncing a certain specimen igneous or metamorphic. But it does mean that in an age of off-the-rails SuperPACs and emotionally-driven animosity between parties, there is something to be said for a cool stream of measured opinion now and then— particularly one from the opposite camp.

As Tom Rosenstiel, Founder and Director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said back in 2004: “Most of us, most citizens, don't sit down and say, 'You know what, I'm trying to figure out who to vote for for judge, let me sit down and write about my thoughts in an argument to decide...we don't do that. Dentists are busy being dentists and gardeners are busy being gardeners... that's what editorial writers have the luxury of doing for the rest of us. And we can then look at those arguments and say, 'Those guys are idiots' or 'That's a pretty good argument.’”

The Economist’s room-temperature endorsement of Obama is an example of the kind of calculated vote of confidence that professional editorialists are well positioned to offer. It is clear from reading the Leader entitled “Which one?” in the November 3 issue (cover pictured above) that the London-based weekly wishes it had been able to choose the other: “Mr Obama’s shortcomings have left ample room for a pragmatic Republican, especially one who could balance the books and overhaul the government. Such a candidate briefly flickered across television screens in the first presidential debate. This newspaper would vote for that Mitt Romney, just as it would vote for the Romney who ran Democratic Massachusetts in a bipartisan way (even pioneering the blueprint for Obamacare). The problem is that there are a lot of Romneys and they have committed themselves to a lot of dangerous things.” 

Though Wasserman might disagree with this point, arguing as he does that “if you've been paying attention you know about as much as the editorialists do," he might agree that reading a sound judgment by someone on the other side of the fence could jolt an indolent reader out of bed and into the voting booth, where the decision remains hers. If newspapers continue to endorse candidates, Wasserman asserts, it is “not to please [readers] as consumers, but to [help] them act as citizens;" to awaken civic duty and motivate citizen engagement. “The endorsements don’t seek agreement,” Wasserman writes; “they demand action.”

And for those of us incapable of action (for reasons of Canadianness, for example, or because publications can’t actually vote), newspaper endorsements remain one of the many fascinating facets of the high-stakes race that holds the media captive every four Novembers, exhibiting the best and worst of journalism and democracy. Here's hoping they don’t become old news.

SourcesAmerican Presidency Project, American Journalism Review, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Pew Research Center, Poynter, MinnPost, Atlantic Wire, NYT


Emma Knight


2012-11-06 18:50

The Summly (n. “summarized version of a news article optimized for iPhone”) might look something like this: On his 17th birthday last Thursday, Nick D’Aloisio (pictured) and his dozen-strong team relaunched Summly, an iPhone app that uses natural language processing and “rocket science” to automatically summarize the news into mobile-friendly, 350-500 character bites. In essence, the app aims to help you cut through the deluge of “drivel” that inundates the newsosphere, with as much style as Arne Jacobson’s Egg Chair – the company’s logo.

“It’s a representation of the egg chair, not the exact egg chair,” specified D’Alosio in a telephone interview with Editors Weblog this afternoon. “The idea is that chairs themselves are kind of synonymous with sitting down, relaxing and reading news, so we decided to take the concept and [give it] a slight twist, with a really modernist approach and minimalist user interface,” he said, pointing out the two S’s that lurk in the symbol.

It is actually a rather large twist, given that Summly is decidedly designed for speed-readers. Backed by the likes of Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Fry, and Yoko Ono, Summly was first unveiled in December 2011, and brought out of beta on the founder's birthday. “We’ve worked very hard with this algorithm to take any news article and summarize it, and that has been really twelve months of work with SRI to get to that place,” said D’Aloisio, speaking of Summly's collaboration with the famed Stanford Research Institute. Unlike Circa and YouMag, both of which employ human journalists to summarize the news, Summly is fully automated. “We don’t have any humans doing this, it’s 100 percent algorithmic,” he continued.

The app is smooth to the touch, with no intrusive navigation menus and much hot corner-like swiping (good descriptions of its user interface can be found here and here), but the language processing is not always as natural as one might hope. For example, the headline on a summarized Mashable article reads, “Apple Added 12,” sawing off the crucial “-400 Full-Time Employees in the Past Year.” The condensed version of the article is grammatically correct, but not written in Egg Chair-caliber English. Wired Gadget Lab’s Christina Bonnington gives the summaries a C grade overall. However, she acknowledges that the “idea of being able to digest brief, accurate summaries sounds extraordinarily convenient.”

Many of the characters that have recently been spilled on Summly have focused on that of D’Aloisio. Labeled “The Internet’s newest boy genius” by GigaOM’s Om Malik, D’Aloisio taught himself to code at age 12, and raised his first round of venture capital at age 15. The majority of his team is based in London, where he is working toward his International Baccalaureate at Kings College School. But for D’Aloisio, his age is only relevant insofar as it places him squarely in the digital native demographic; he designed the app with his fellow millennials (the generation born after 1982) in mind. "I designed Summly because I felt that my generation wasn't consuming traditional news anymore,” he has claimed.

So what kind of news does his generation consume, we inquired. “I think people really want to consume the news in an efficient and concise manner,” he explained. “People my age, they’re kind of a bit impatient. They want news fast and instantaneously.” Asked about his own daily news habits, the first two sources he listed were Facebook and Twitter. “I see Facebook as my personal news source for what’s happened in my social group, and I follow a lot of news sources on Twitter,” he said, listing off news organisations such as Time, Fortune, Forbes, AP, Reuters, TechCruch and Mashable. “It kind of varies,” he continued. “I’ll get my news on Summly on a mobile device, but when I’m on a desktop I’ll read the BBC homepage, or Twitter, or the Daily Mail site.”

This all fits well with The New York Times' recent research on the young, mobile youth. But doesn’t he ever lean back in an egg chair with long form on the weekends, we wondered? His answer began with a musical umm– the sole lapse into millenial speech patterns during a highly efficient and concise interview. “I only click onto longform when I feel it’s appropriate; if I want to read the full story,” he answered. "I don’t necessarily want to read– I can consume so much quicker with Summly and Twitter... and then if I’m really interested I’ll click through. Otherwise you just don’t have the time to click and read every full story. Even when it comes to the weekends, I’ve traditionally always read online stuff,” he concluded.

The digital native generation as a whole is frequently accused of having a Tweet-length attention span, and of lacking in-depth knowledge, but D’Aloisio expressed no fear that his app might contribute to such shortcomings. “I think it will increase the knowledge base because it will increase the discoverability of content that people would otherwise never have clicked on,” he said. Nor did he fear negative reactions from journalists or publishers, who might not all take a shine to Summly’s ability to reduce their work to easily digestible bites. “The summaries themselves are not a substitution for full-length content," he emphasised. "Because in order to produce a summary we have to summarize a full article. So there needs to be that source of journalistic content,” he went on. “I think it’s actually increasing the exposure of that content… If anything we’re helping publishers because we’re making their content look beautiful, and reformatting on mobile for free.”

Indeed, Summly has already signed a licensing deal with News Corporation, which allows it to offer summaries of paywalled content. “If you want to get further than the summaries, then that’s where the paywall mechanism kicks in,” D’Aloisio said, adding that a pay-per-article deal is “in the works” with News Corporation and other publishers, but declining to provide specifics. Monetisation, for now, is not a top priority, but the founder appeared to be optimistic about Summly’s future prospects, citing options such as a subscription model, a pay-per-install model, or even seeking revenue through targeted ads (which he admits would be "pretty hard to nail.")

The so-called “boy genius” does not come from a family of computer programmers; his father works in commodities, and his mother is a lawyer. Moreover, he is too modest to accept the nickname that the Internet has bestowed upon him. “It’s way to early to say things like that,” he cautioned. “There are a lot of people behind Summly. There is no way I could have got here without the help of everyone else.”

Still curious? Watch Summly's promotional video:

Sources: Wired (1) (2), TechCrunch, Guardian, BBC, Summly, Huffington Post, GigaOM


Emma Knight


2012-11-05 19:34

Question of the day: What is the relationship between the so-called "Frankenstorm" and anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change? Hint: This is not a question that can be answered in 140 characters.

Attributing a single extreme weather event such as a sub-tropical cyclone called Sandy to the human-driven shift in global climate (or, what Andrew Revkin calls "the overall experiment we're conducting on the planet's atmosphere") is, for now, impossible.

But to report on this storm in isolation, without regard for the climatic context in which it is situated, would be to paint an incomplete picture of a reality that affects us all.

Here are six articles by journalists and scientists who have successfully risen to the significant challenge of situating Sandy in its Frankencontext.

  1. Frankenstorm: Has Climate Change Created a Monster?” by Adam Frank, for NPR’s Cosmos and Culture
  2. The #Frankenstorm in Climate Context” by Andrew Revkin for The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog
  3. Can We Link Hurricane Sandy to Climate Change?” by Joseph Stromberg for Smithsonian Magazine’s Surprising Science Blog
  4. Superstorm Sandy’s Climate Change Connection,” by Susie Cagle for Grist
  5. Yes, Hurricane Sandy Is a Good Reason to Worry About Climate Change,” by Brad Plumer for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog
  6. Watching Sandy, Ignoring Climate Change,” by Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker’s News Desk


Emma Knight


2012-10-30 19:14

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