Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage

Jun 26

“Fairness over truth” – StopFake points out vulnerabilities in The View From Nowhere

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Politics & New Media, Ukraine.
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Ukrainians fighting the Kremlin’s propaganda machine release report on what they’ve learned

While I’ve been regularly sharing, reposting and ReTweeting the efforts of my friends, colleagues and students in Ukraine over the past year and a half, I must admit that there are times when I kinda lose track of what’s really happening over there.

front page of

Every day, they scour the airwaves and the web for examples of Russian propaganda. They are like the “Daily Show” of Ukraine … without quite so many jokes. Because, well, people are dying. And that’s kinda hard to make into Teh Funny.

I can’t quite express in words how proud and humbled I am by, the online effort by Yevhen Fedchenko, the Mohyla School of Journalism, and the Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism, to report the truth and counter the cynical, evil lies that are being daily concocted by the Putin regime to mislead and delude people around the world.  Their efforts these past few years have made me feel like a spoiled gringo, as so often happens when I work with journalists in countries where the government or cabals of criminal oligarchs decide to crush a free and independent press.

Which is why it’s even worse to see us doing it to ourselves.

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Jun 11

How Big Data and Online Games Help Catch Scammers

Posted: under Design, infographic.
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I did a case study on this use of analytics technology more than a year ago. The gist of it is this: online MMPORGs like World of Warcraft, EVE, Everquest, etc., are wonderful tools whereby to study human interactions.

Here’s the gist: when you map the connections between people – or stores, or institutions, or giant multinationals – there are certain geometric patterns that emerge. Analyzing the shape of those patterns reveals what kind of community is in existence, how healthy and vibrant that community is, and whether or not any of the people in that community are acting in a criminal or shady manner.

This technology is being used by Ninja Metrics (h/t to Dmitri Williams, a colleague at USC-Annenberg who runs this amazing company), to help online game environments to detect and remove the kinds of “gold-farming scammers” that ruin the gaming experience for the other players. It’s also the kind of thing that is being used to catch real-world drug cartels, money-launderers and fences for stolen goods.

Now if they can only do something about that punk griefer who keeps zapping me in “Destiny,” they’ll really be onto something…

infographic showing online analytics and scams

(Click to view full size)

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May 29

Mary Meeker’s yearly “Future of Internet” PowerPoint

Posted: under Design, Digital Migration.
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Shorter: Mobile is still undervalued. Hackers suck. China is about over; India is next. Professional content producers still doomed. But good design still matters.

Every year, Mary Meeker produces a massive presentation that quickly makes the rounds on Teh Interwebz and gets name-checked by all the digerati. This year is no different; everything has changed, is changing, will change. So what does the Oracle of KPCB tell us this year? Well, for one thing, she’s down from the “Death by PowerPoint” presentations of years past, that clocked in at 350+ slides (and a whole lotta Visine for anyone plowing through the dense bar charts & bullet points).

Anyway, check it out:

So what’s my analysis of her analysis? Glad you asked.

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May 18

Five classes. Two years. One graduation day.

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism.
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The kids are all right. Despite my best efforts…

On Friday, I had five cohorts of students graduate from Annenberg-USC. Three graduate student cohorts (broken down into two cohorts that attended USC for two years, and one in the brand-new one-year accelerated Master’s program). One group of quirky, hardworking undergrads. And a summer school class of “Specialized Journalism” grad students.

happy grads all in a tent

USC-Annenberg class of 2015, right after the ceremonies ended – and reality started to sink in (at least for a few of them). The rest were ebullient, as evidenced by student Yingzhi Yang in the foreground, grinning and waving at me.

I had to start traveling at 4 a.m. in Sonoma County, to get to the graduation before all was over; but it was worth every second of sitting on runways and grinding my teeth while crammed into a coach seat (they get tinier every year, it seems). I got to see all my students, beaming and full of excitement, enthusiasm and hope. God knows we need those three emotional energy states in journalism these days.

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Apr 08

What is “native advertising” anyway?

Posted: under advertising, Digital Migration.
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The IAB has published their view. I have my own opinion.

One of the biggest problems with “native advertising” is that it is such a new, made-up term of digital art, that it’s taken on an Alice in Wonderland-esque quality, in which the phrase means whatever the speaker thinks it means in that moment, while the listener pretty much has their own interpretation.

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

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Mar 30

Bad UX: Klout malfunction is getting on my nerves

Posted: under Uncategorized.
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Quick hit: It’s been about 2 months now, and all I see on Klout is this message:

klout broken malfunction dialog box

Well, this is helpful. Anything else we can do about this? No? K THX BYE.

Not that I’m obsessed with my Klout score or anything (no, that would be terrible), but at some point, it would be nice in terms of UX/UI to have something a bit more useful here in an error message. Particularly if it’s something that lasts since, oh, I don’t know, JANUARY.

I’ve been doing a long rundown of social media tools that’s set to get published on our main site, and this is unfortunately something that I’m gonna hafta mention. I’ve seen increasing signs that Klout is struggling with its business model; thing is, most of the social media management tools are piggybacking on its numerical rankings in their “influencer-spotting” panels.

Kred kind of came and went. Is there some other social tool startup that purports to measure influence out there? ‘Cause I’m not seeing it at this juncture. Guess I gotta do some more research (sigh).

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Jan 19

Predictions for 2015: Ad v. Subscription Journalism Fight Gets Deadly

Posted: under Uncategorized.
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As the “New” wears off of “New Media,” investors start to expect results

Years ago, I did the first big case study for the NAA, back when newspaper revenues were in free fall, and publishers were desperately flailing around for a revenue stream – any revenue stream – that might provide a lifeline with their news organizations. At the time, paywalls were still a very dirty word with the digerati, as they seemed to reflect the very worst of Old Media Thinking.

Annenberg Media Center converged newsroom

Is the modern newsroom going to turn into something of an ad production studio? Or will there be some other way for it to survive?

Information wants to be free after all, and back then, there were some very prominent failures with trying to get people to pay for content. El Pais, which had been the market leading national newspaper of Spain, put up a paywall in the early 2000s, and then three years later, took it down after it had basically destroyed their standing in the marketplace. El Pais spent millions of dollars trying to win back the audience that had deserted them.

But then along came the crash in 2008, and the bottom fell out of the ad market (again). This time, unlike the dot-com crash of 2001, the revenues did not bottom out in 6 months, and then start climbing back again. No, this time there were insidious new technologies on the rise that have pretty much destroyed the value of the banner ad: the rise of RTB (real-time bidding) or “programmatic ad buying.”

In a nutshell, RTB allows an advertiser to reach an audience, no matter where it is on the web. Say you want to reach housewives under 35 with kids in school, who looked at washing machines in the past year. No problem. Just sign up with a programmatic bidding outlet, and you can buy banner ads across the internet that will deliver you that audience.

Great for advertisers. Disastrous for publishers.

Why? Well, because the supply of space on the web is basically infinite. That means our old friends supply and demand kick in – with a vengeance. The result has been that CPMs for ads are on a race to rock-bottom. Banner advertising is essentially going to be utterly worthless soon, which means that there is going to have to be yet another shift in how premium content publishers support themselves.

And no, we cannot just crank up subscription rates to the point where the readers pay for everything. Even at the mighty New York Times, with its much-lauded paywall, there is a recognition that doubling the subscription rates will pretty much kill the business. Not to mention the fact that putting all good & decent information behind a paywall pretty much ensures that anyone without means – that is, ordinary folks – are going to have to subsist on a diet of cheap&shoddy news. Yep. Find the flaw in that plan.

The situation gets even more dire when we consider the headlong rush to the mobile web. Banner ads are even less effective and valuable there – here, take it from the New York Times again:

The appeal of being able to buy targeted audiences at scale and the simple efficiency of automated advertising makes it a no brainer for most advertisers, and thus most publishers.

Meanwhile, the shift to mobile makes developing effective native ads even more important because, as Levien says, “we have not yet arrived at an effective interruptive format, a banner format, in mobile”.

Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter are taking the lion’s share of mobile ad revenue in part because their ads come in the same container as the rest of their content, which works better on mobile devices. The thinking is that publishers need to do the same to compete.

…and here at last we arrive at what is shaping up to be the big fight of 2015. Call it “native advertising,” call it “content marketing,” call it what you will. It’s advertising messages that are inextricably mixed into the news content on news sites. You’ve already seen it in your Facebook feed, on Twitter, on blogs, hell, for the longest time, even in the midst of radio shows.

Why is this going to be A Thing? Well, check out what John Oliver has to say about it:

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Oct 21

Catfished by the Feds? DEA Uses Unknowing Woman’s ID on Facebook to Nap Criminals

Posted: under Digital Migration.

Is it no longer identity theft when law enforcement does it?

OK, on one level, this is kinda clever, and analogous to those scams where cops send out invites to a special event to lure in crooks. Usually, it’s under the guise of having won free tickets, or a relative croaked and left a boodle of money in an inheritance – you can see an example in the intro scene in the movie “Sea of Love.”

But in this case, a woman who was a minor player in a drug ring got busted and let off with probation. But an enterprising DEA agent took her provocative photos and used them to set up a Facebook page to lure in other crooks.

This apparently attracted h@rnsw@gglers on the web to chat her up, after which they got busted. Facebook has complained, and the case is now under review because Arquiette is suing the Feds.

There is a long tradition of deceptive practices by police that are legal, they noted. For example, officers assume a false identity to go undercover. “What’s different here,” said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, is that the agent assumed the identity of a real person without her explicit consent.

Apparently, her boyfriend was using her apartment to store and dilute cocaine. He pled guilty and got 16 years. So he was a legitimate bad guy. But there are still some troubling issues here; is this really all that different from pretending to be a crook to gain the confidence of other crooks – see: Donnie Brasco? Or any number of cops over the years, showing up to a drug deal and pretending to be the guy that they just hooked up, all to catch other crooks?

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Oct 13

The Equivalent of Google Analytics in 1928: Newspaper Readers Are Liars

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, newspaper crisis.
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Readers want “candy.” Do we give it to them?

Every so often, you’ll read a long, impassioned essay about how Americans are stupid, because they aren’t paying attention to world events, how we’re distracted by the latest tawdry celebrity scandals, fantasy sports leagues, or cute pictures of kittehs.

Which, of course we are. 

mcdonald's fry cook

Is this the future of the news business? Or has it always been this way, and we’ve been deluding ourselves to think otherwise? Gallup’s analysis in 1928 basically says, “Yup. Nobody has ever read those long investigative pieces.”

But it turns out that the same damn thing has been true all along. Check out this piece in the Atlantic about George Gallup (yes, that Gallup) who in the 20s, dared to actually study what people read in newspapers – as opposed to what people SAY they read.

Back then, they had tried various methods to track what people actually pay attention to, down to gathering the used newspapers off the floors of trolley cars and seeing what page they were left open to (and aren’t you glad you don’t have that job, back when people routinely chewed tobacco and spat?). Gallup came up with the novel idea of sending his researchers into people’s houses in Iowa and watching them read the paper (call it ur-Google Analytics).

His results:

  • People are liars. “The person who believes he has read all of the front page may not have read a fourth of it,” he wrote.

  • Nobody likes serious news nearly as much as they report on questionnaires. Gallup’s interviews reported that front-page stories were actually no more popular than small features in the back of the paper.

  • The most-read thing in the newspaper wasn’t news at all: It was the front-page cartoon by J. H. Darling, read by 90 percent of men compared with just 12 percent reading the day’s local government news.

  • For women, the most-read parts of the newspaper were “style and beauty pictures.”

This is very timely, as Wednesday’s class is going to be about using SEO and analytics to track what readers actually read – and the advisability of just giving them “fast food news”.

It’s led to the rise of what we in the biz are calling “hamster wheel” journalism. I talked last week to the editor of Metropolitan magazine, who said that he gets staffers from fairly reputable outlets, like Fast Company, where the reporters have an Excel spreadsheet with 200 stories that they are REQUIRED to do each month. These story “ideas” are generated by having bots track Google Trends to see what the target audience is clicking on, and then backwards-engineering that to have stories that will then fit those audience interests.
On the one hand: it makes sense to give your customers what they want. On the other hand: aren’t we supposed to be serving a slightly higher calling than the fry cook down at Mickey D’s? What does it mean when the news isn’t what you need to know to function in an increasingly complex and demanding world — but just the lowest-common-denominator pap that can be quickly shoveled out and morticed around the ads.
Seems to me that I wrote a book about this

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Sep 25

Yes, Investigative Journalism CAN Pay. And Pay Well.

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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Mediapart in France is profitable because it gives readers what they are willing to pay for.

Imagine that. front page

The Mediapart organization makes its living by doing hard-hitting investigative journalism that its audience is willing to support. They also make a point of including lots of video on their pages.

Quick hit here for my students, who are increasingly upset about their job prospects after graduation.

I shared an article from Neiman about the upheaval in the newspaper business in France. Apparently, the same problems that plague the French economy at large are at work, writ small & exceedingly acerbic, at the major newspapers. They are tech-phobic, rely on business models that no longer fully function, and react angrily to anyone threatening the promise of a cushy work situation with guaranteed employment and 1/4 of the year spent on vacation.

Can’t imagine why that can’t cut it in a world increasingly dominated by the internet work ethic of, “If you eat lunch … you ARE lunch.” Somehow, I don’t think this will fit in with a languid afternoon at a sidewalk cafe with a nice burgundy and a baguette slathered with brie. With accordion music wafting in the background.

But about 2/3 of the way down the article, there appeared these grafs, which I am going to excerpt here, although I do urge you to go to the Neiman site & give them some traffic-love, ’cause @petergumbel did a damn good job with this write-up:

Edwy Plenel, for one, is incensed by the conflicts of interest inherent in the French press. But then that’s not entirely surprising, since outrage is Plenel’s mojo.

He has come a long way since his revolutionary youth, which he wrote about in a 2001 memoir. He made his mark as an investigative journalist at Le Monde; one of his most celebrated scoops was uncovering the role of French intelligence in the 1985 sinking in New Zealand of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior. He made the Elysée so nervous that it illegally bugged his phone during the presidency of François Mitterrand. He spent a total of 25 years at Le Monde, including a stint as editor in chief, but he left in 2005 during one of its sporadic crises, after attacks on his management style.

He launched Mediapart as a subscription site in December 2007. Three years later it was at break-even. Today, it’s racing toward 100,000 subscribers, each paying the equivalent of about $12 per month. This year he expects the site to make about $2 million net profit on just over $10 million in revenue. It has a staff of 50, 33 of whom are journalists. It now outsells Libération, which has almost six times as many staff members. [Emphasis mine – dlf]

The secret: a laser focus on exclusive news, especially revelations of high-level political and financial skullduggery. Mediapart’s subscriptions soared in 2010, the year it broke the story about a convoluted political and financial scandal involving France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt. They leaped again in 2013, after it revealed that the then-budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, whose job included fighting tax evasion, himself had an undeclared Swiss bank account and had transferred funds to Singapore. After denying the allegations for months, Cahuzac eventually resigned, acknowledging that he had lied to parliament and to President François Hollande.

Work the numbers, folks. $10 mill in revenue-$2M profil = $8M in expenses. $8M/50 employees = $160K/yr per employee. Figure about 40% of that per-employee allocation is insurance, pension, and building/maintaining the site & gathering news costs, and you still get a salary of $64K/yr on average. For a journalist, that ain’t bad. Plus you’ve got a warchest of $2M that you can throw at a big story, should one come up, and to use to build out the site & extend its reach.

So. There’s a lot going on here. I’ve written in the past about how I disagree with the authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, who called for exactly the kinds of government subsidies for newspapers that are allowing them to continue to try to deny reality, and live in a fantasy-bubble. At the time, I was reacting to what I’ve seen in Latin America, Georgia, Kazakhstan and other places where allowing the government to get its hands on the revenue stream is akin to letting criminals loop a choke-chain around your throat. They can lead you around by it, and if you start getting out of line, all they need to do is give it a quick, sharp yank, and you fall back in line, suitably docile.

I’ve seen that happen. First-hand. In Venezuela, when I was a very young editor.

Government subsidies are kinda like this. Nothing really sticks until you try to do something that the person holding the leash doesn’t like.

The solution that Mediapart has come up with here may not last. It may not work everywhere. But it’s something that makes a lot more sense to me than journalism that exists as a kind of state-supported performance art piece. Because I’ve seen that as well: journalists who are completely disconnected from the concerns of their audience, sporting paternalistic, condescending attitudes, producing self-indulgent “investigations” that nobody really reads, and that don’t really threaten the people who give them checks each month.

So when I see that Mediapart is actually making a pretty nice profit, running with a lean staff, and dedicating itself to serving the interests of its audience, it pretty much makes my day, particularly in light of the grim news out of the LA Register, NBC news, and pretty much every other traditional media outlet recently.

Look, I am not hooting and hanging on the rim here, delighting in the travails of people still stuck in jobs at tottering media empires, hanging on for dear life through ownership changes, strategy changes, and promises that melt away like morning dew.

Long-term, market forces are going to prevail. If journalists produce a product that people want, and give them a means by which to support/purchase/share it, then that audience will fight to ensure that this important part of their lives is still there. The very first case study I ever did was centered around that fact. It makes me sad to see so many journalists, who base their entire journalistic ethos on pushing people and institutions to change, to adapt to the times, to leave behind (even if painful) the habits & traditions of the past … ignoring their own best advice.

Liberation may not be a cafe. But it may also not be an outlet for journalism much longer either.




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