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

Oct 19

12 Steps to Media Sobriety: the Storify is the First Step (sorta)

Posted: under journalism, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Politics & New Media.
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OK, this is going to need a bit more work to turn into something that rivals the Cluetrain Manifesto, but there is definitely something here.

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Oct 18

Venezuelan currency – are any of these bills still used?

Posted: under Digital Migration.

While rummaging around the various souvenirs and mementoes from all our travels, I ran across these: 

With the inflation rate running in the near-four-figure range (the way it did in ’88 when I was an overwhelmed editor there), I wonder if there is even a use for a 2 bolivare bill these days? 

Anecdotally, it takes a stack of hundreds just to buy coffee. 

Somewhere, I have an old solid-steel 5 bolivar coin from ’88. They were common until deflation meant that it was worth more to melt them down and sell them as scrap metal than their face value. 

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Sep 24

SoCal UX Job Fair & Meetup

Posted: under New Marketing, new media, UX/UI.
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Nerd heaven: learning about the latest in UX while meeting killer startups

On Sept. 17, I attended the latest SoCal UX group meetup in downtown Los Angeles, where 29o designers mingled with startups looking for talent, and honed their skills by learning about the latest trends in web design and marketing.

The whole UX field is still very much a tech sector that is under construction. I’ve seen UX described as everything from the process of identifying the potential users of a new site, to the graphic design of a site, to the utter stats-based refinement of online marketing.

Sometimes, working in UX feels a lot like the “Alice in Wonderland” quote from Humpty Dumpty:

“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.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

UX is a field of study and implementation that really didn’t exist even a decade ago. It’s not surprising that we’re still struggling with the nomenclature to describe what it is that we do, now that web design has evolved to become a meld between art & science. Even moreso, now that we’ve seen the rise of DIY, paint-by-numbers sites like Wix, Weebly and SquareSpace.

It used to be that to build a site required a wide range of knowledge (and to a certain extent, it still does). But the democraticization of tools designed to make to make it “forehead install easy” to publish content to the web, has meant that the differentiator in the market has moved from technique … back to content.

If just about any schmo can spin up a responsive site with integrated forms and CSS transforms, then what use all those coding skills we all burnt so many brain cells to acquire these past 15 years?

That’s a larger discussion, and one I have had many times over the past few years (and will explore in more depth in future postings).

Meanwhile, enjoy these candid photos of the attendees and speakers at the SoCal UX Job Fair.UX job fair-grid 110 UX job fair-UCLA extension and a table full of goodies UX job fair-ed-vitamin T cracking up UX job fair-ed-UX for VR UX job fair-main panel-apprehensive UX job fair-Vitamin Ts beach ball inflation UX job fair-main panel-group shot UX job fair-main panel-funny2 UX job fair-main panel-funny1


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Feb 20

Should Local News Be Marketed as “Infrastructure”?

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ken Doctor at Neiman’s “Newsonomics” points out that the “self-asphyxiation” cycle is nearing endgame

I cross-posted a response to this on Facebook, so if you’ve already seen it there from me, my apologies.

pile of newspapers on fire

Fahrenheit 451 should not have been a documentary of what the future was going to be like.

But I’ve been watching the gradual descent of local news for most of the past 20 years, and the latest round-up by Doctor basically sums up everything that I’ve been fearing. A sampling:

While national/global news companies have cut their newsrooms, they have still maintained sufficient capacity to make their news brands valuable in the digital age. It’s not just the numbers of journalists: It’s a good mix of veteran experienced journalists who know their beats deeply and younger journalists, still early in their careers but natively more digitally inclined.

At the local press, it’s a different picture. As newsrooms have halved, older, experienced journalists have been disproportionately made to feel redundant, and then made sent off. The main reason: money. Older journalists earn more of it, and their cutting makes short-term financial sense.

The result: a disaster whose death spiral seems to be accelerating. When I’ve given talks, I’ve gotten a lot of nods from people in the industry when I show one single slide: A two-liter bottle of Coke selling for $1 next to a one-liter bottle priced at $2. That’s essentially what local publishers have done in product and pricing of print over the last five years, doubled the price and halved the product, a halving that, of course, carries through to their digital offerings.

Any company that disrespects its own products, and those who produce them, probably deserves its eventual fate.


Yes, money matters, but it’s that beating heart of the business — creating news that local citizens need to run their governments and better their lives — that still has to be an antidote to the single-minded financial view of local news. (If “the market” won’t support local news, many have said to me, than maybe it isn’t needed. I ask them: If the same were true of education, the arts, or even roads, where would our struggling democracy be?) [Ed. note: emphasis mine.]

Where is the moral center of the local news industry — a moral center that long rested, if sometimes uncomfortably, alongside the demands of running a successful business?

While I agree with all the points Ken makes, there is one bit that jumped out: his equating of the news with schools, roads, bridges, etc. Yes, we all agree that we need a group societal effort to build & maintain these things, and that as a result, we all benefit from their existence. Thing is: the average citizen can SEE the roads/schools decaying, and is motivated to action. Lack of local news coverage only becomes a crisis when suddenly we wake up to lead in our water. The news industry, if it is going to transition from ad-supported to a more direct “charge the readers” model, is going to have to get on the stick and market itself better; make a case to the readers that they NEED local news coverage as a form of insurance policy.

Because meanwhile, over at the Shorenstein Center, we’ve got Walter V. Robinson talking about the “Spotlight” movie about the Catholic Church’s coverup of sex predator priests, and how the erosion of business models has particularly devastated investigative reporting. And yes, full disclosure, I started my career as an investigative journalist before going over to the digital zoo, so I have perhaps a skewed view of how important enterprise/watchdog/investigative journalism is to the health of a democracy. Still:

Unfortunately, investigative reporting is threatened in many cities, said Robinson. Although the Globe has partnered with Participant Media and other funders to offer a new investigative reporting fellowship, many local newspapers will no longer invest the time and resources required for stories that can take months of reporting, said Robinson.

“The prevailing view among editors is ‘investigative reporting is a luxury we can no longer afford’…The fact is, investigative reporting is a necessity that we cannot afford to do without.” Robinson said that in the face of declining revenue in the past decade, cutting investigative reporting was a “fundamental mistake.” Readers “almost always” rank investigative reporting highly in surveys, said Robinson.

“The amount of investigative reporting being done now in most cities is a small fraction of what it was in the year 2000,” he said. “In many communities even city hall doesn’t get covered. So the whistleblower who knows about official corruption in city hall has no one to go to…that’s a really serious problem for our democracy right now.”

So here’s my thought: what would be the best way for journalists and news organizations to start making a case for themselves? We’ve seen how well fear-mongering via news outlets works for moving the public to devote spectacular amounts of time, money and energy into heading off perceived threats. The Iraq war, Ebola, the wall at the border with Mexico, the gold standard, handgun seizures … all “crises” driven by media coverage that spurred Americans to either demand the government spend billions (trillion?) to kieep them safe, or got them to reach into their pockets, pull out their wallets, and spend a sizable percentage of their disposable income on something that would Keep Them Safe.

I don’t think we should get as crude and manipulative as many of these campaigns have been. But could there – should there – be a reminder in the middle of each news broadcast/article/infographic, making it explicit that this coverage just saved ordinary Americans from “X” and that to continue to do so, we need you the viewers/listeners/readers to support us in this manner.

And then lay out what might happen if the audience does not. Make it explicit, in the way that a collapsed bridge, or gradeschool on fire, or highway full of potholes does for the average, distracted American, who only has time to respond to direct threats to his/her existence.

Our audience is starved for time, and thousands (millions?) of new digital experiences are screaming for their attention (and money). News is too often marketed as “cod-liver oil” – it tastes like shit, but it’s good for you. I think we need to revisit that paradigm, and start figuring out better ways to make people appreciate what the news, and aggressive, honest local news coverage, does for them.

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Feb 02

Brainwashed User Confesses: “I Was a Human Bot-net for Klout”

Posted: under Digital Migration, New Marketing, Sip With Caution.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Industry-leader social management tool Hootsuite “deprecates” Klout – but who’s next?

Klout, you were mean to us and made us like it. You made us feel inadequate, and spend far too many hours indulging in unnatural behaviors to please your algorithm. And all we got were inane “Perks” like bland business cards that look like they were spat out of an old dot-matrix printer …

… or 1/2 off a crate of Sooper fREEKy POWer Drinkzzzz (aside: WhenTF are we going to collectively decide that replaces “S” with “Z” no longer denotes hip & outlaw status?) that magically combine the lovely taste of licking the sludgecrust from the bottom of a riding lawn mower with the sensation of a myocardial infarction and COPD. Yummy!

But all along, there was a sneaking suspicion that Klout scores were not all they were cracked up to be; that the “social media influence” they purported to measure&deliver was flawed, at best. Still, we went along with it, because, well, there really wasn’t much else. (Kred came and went and the less said about the brief spring of Empire Avenue, the better.)

Now comes the hardcore notice from Hootsuite that they are no longer including Klout, because “we put our customers at the forefront of every business decision.” My oh my. Whatever could that mean? Maybe that Klout does NOT do so? That they are, in fact, preying upon customers by snarfing up all our actions, interactions, posts, updates & etc. and selling them to the highest bidder? Or something worse?

BTW – do a quick Google search on “Why quit Klout?” and read through the posts. Most date back to 2011, but their objections still seem … unpleasantly valid.

Hootsuite deprecates Klout

This is what you get when you click on the Klout link. In corporate-speak, this is pretty much a bullet to the back of the head.

Embarrassing admission: I totally bought into Klout. For a time, I was even clicking like a lab rat hooked on blow on the “Share Our Content Now!” features on Klout. Yes, I was that kind of dingbat. I gave over my social media profiles to Klout and let them hijack my voice and suggest things that my friends and colleagues should read, all wrapped up nicely in a Klout-enabled URL shortener.

Mea culpa. Sorry. Won’t make that mistake again.

In my defense, when I obediently shared Klout’s suggested content, I saw my Klout score shoot up. But when I checked out all my shares, likes and interactions? Not a big change. Which obviously made me suspect that Klout was boosting its number to try to keep me incentivized into using Klout’s content and shortener.

I was becoming a human bot-net. 

It made me uneasy months ago, and so I quit sharing Klout’s content. But I still had in the back of my mind that I should pay more attention to Klout, that the score is essential to building and maintaining “your personal brand,” etc. etc.

But then I saw the above notice when trying to use Hootsuite. I can only read between the lines as to what’s going on here, but if Hootsuite, the industry leader when it comes to managing social media profiles, removes a feature that seems so essential to what so many community managers, social marketing execs and wanna-be YouTube stars are trying to do (i.e. identify & interact with “influencers” to thereby achieve business goals), then there is definitely Something Really Heavy going on behind the scenes.

Maybe it’s all the old objections finally coming home to roost: inaccuracy, lack of transparency, encouragement of inauthentic behavior …

…or maybe there’s been some business fight going on, over who should share what money with whom in exchange for what. But the bottom line is: with Klout out of Hootsuite, we are going to have to start using something else.

Here are the suggested alternatives to Klout:

First, Right Relevance claims to ” helps you better engage your social audience by letting you search and share the most authoritative content currently trending on the social web. We achieve this by mining the social web to identify and rank topical influencers. The inherent trust of the influencers communities is applied to finding the most relevant articles.”

This app breaks out the "share relevant content" features of Klout.

This app breaks out the “share relevant content” features of Klout. As with so many other “content suggestion engines,” the danger lies in the possibility that they will recommend content that benefits THEM more than it benefits YOU. I will be poking this one with a stick very carefully. 

Next up, Riffle Twitter Insights says that they are an “easy-to-use efficiency tool that helps you build an instant rapport with anyone on Twitter. With a simple, intuitive dashboard showing users’ social patterns, networks and interests.”

What, no Perks for using? (sigh) OK, the big downside here is right in the title: it’s only for Twitter. Klout claimed to bring in Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, FourSquare, and any other bright-shiny-jingly-key-social-media-network.

Riffle Twitter Insights

They make the interface look so very cool. But I rather suspect that you don’t get these kinds of charts, graphs & sophistication with the Free level of service.

Unnoticed to most casual users of Klout: many of the high-end social media measurement and management platforms (such as UberVU, RavenTools, Radian6 and others) scraped Klout scores and put them right next to usernames in the dashboard. It was a quick shortcut to identifying “influencers” without having to built your own algo or develop that side of your business.

I’ll be interested to see if any of these alternatives gets any traction – or if Klout starts showing more signs of distress (other than the inconsistencies in their dashboards, UX, features or all the other quirks that have surfaced in the past year or so).

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Oct 10

Jiangsu Broadcasting learns about transmedia, social media and multimedia at Annenberg

Posted: under Politics & New Media, television.
Tags: , , , , , ,

So this happened: I got asked to help train a team of 25 bright, ambitious, clever & talented people from Jiangsu Broadcasting. I believe they are headquartered in Nanjing, and they were set loose in Los Angeles for 20 days (missing out on some big & important holidays in China) to learn what they could about how to adapt to the shift from traditional broadcast TV, to a more multiplatform approach.

Here’s a gallery of images from the last day, when they had to present their projects.


Yeah, I read the caption to this too – “loser … instantly … falling into a pit…” and realized that China’s gameshows are totally badass.


Here are the contestants, perched on their precarious peninsulas (see what I did there?), waiting to have questions fired at them by the stern hosts.


The students partied it up while they were in L.A., and experimented with Vine to post pictures of themselves toasting their success with California wine.


As part of their presentation, one of the teams of students built sequences into their Prezi, where they took the letters U-S-C and used them to talk about how much they enjoyed their time in L.A. They were particularly impressed by the cheerleaders at our football matches.


I think this spells out “M V” — maybe they saw the old Village People “YMCA” hand gestures, and figured they’d one-up it?


So my students think I’m “Sully” from Monsters, Inc. Large, hairy, kinda goofy, by generally friendly and harmless. I guess this represents progress of a sort – usually, my students call me Hagrid.


They were challenged to think strategically about how best to incorporate social media into their marketing and programming mix.


Contestants on the singing contest show “The Hidden King” put on masks and perform against each other. Some of the masks really get ornate.


One of the other ways that the students considered to drive traffic, awareness and interactivity with their content, is to start using the gossip sites to send out photos of Chinese celebrities making fashion faux pas. Zippers undone, bad armpit hair-shaving, etc. Somewhere, Perez Hilton nods and murmurs appreciatively.


They’ve gotten the message that to compete against the market leader – a spinoff of “The Voice” – they are going to have to use a mix of social media strategies to try to build up a more engaged audience.


Unable to built a real high-quality mask of their own, the students resorted to sticking post-it notes to the foreheads of their singer. I gave them extra points for resourcefulness and creativity. And, of course, silliness.


The promos for “The Hidden King” would not look out of place in a Thor movie. Some huge guy, dreadful, menacing music … swinging a hammer with a glowing symbol in it … if it was a movie, I definitely would go see it.

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Jun 26

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

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Politics & New Media, Ukraine.
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.
Tags: , , , , ,

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.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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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