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Getting the News — Mohamed Nanabhay

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and danah boydhere.)

For this week’s interview we decided to look for a completely different perspective. It’s easy to get stuck in the New York media landscape when you’re headquartered in Manhattan, but there’s a big world out there, and some of the most important innovations in media and journalism are happening outside our city, not in it. With that in mind, we spoke to Mohamed Nanabhay, Head of Online at Al-Jazeera English, the leading news source for information on the Middle East, and a rapidly growing media empire. Mohamed’s take on journalism today was invaluable. Like other media businesses, Al-Jazeera is worried about monetizing its business model — but it’s also worried about its signal being jammed, its journalists being deported, and getting into the countries it’s trying to cover. As the Arab world has changed dramatically over the last year, so has Al-Jazeera’s coverage strategies. Mohamed and the rest of his newsroom seem to effortlessly straddle the line between traditional reporting and new media. We made a long-distance call to Doha to find out how he gets his news.

 How do you get your news throughout the day?

Normally, if there’s any significant news, something big enough to warrant actually waking me up, I should get a call in the middle of the night from the Al-Jazeera newsroom. Otherwise I usually wake up in the middle of the night at some point and I’ll quickly scan my phone to see if anything crazy is happening. Typically I check Twitter just to see what’s going on. I think I have a nice diverse bunch of people, so when stuff’s happening in the Middle East, it’s generally on my news feed and I learn that stuff pretty quickly.

When I wake up in the morning, I pick up my phone again and check my email, look through Path to see if anything interesting has happened with my friends, and then I look at Twitter just to get a sense of what’s going on, and to see if anything major has happened. Once I get to work I get on my computer and start going through our website. I move at some point from consuming news on my iPhone to consuming news on my computer.

Who do you find particularly valuable on Twitter?

Sultan Al Qassemi is great. He’s from the United Arab Emirates, but during the Arab Spring, he was live-tweeting the revolution — to the extent that we would be playing out something on air and he would tweet it before we were able to tweet it. “Al-Jazeera said this thing.” Two seconds later, our tweet, saying that thing.

The other person who’s always interesting for me is Andy Carvin from NPR. Andy as well did some really amazing work during the Arab Spring. He was this one-man curator of the revolution. I always joke that after Al-Jazeera, the best source of news coming out of the Middle East is Andy Carvin.

How does your newsroom stay on top of what’s happening?

Most of our coverage is through our correspondent network, as well as people in our newsroom monitoring what’s going on via wire services or other news organizations. So we’re keeping an eye on everything, through the region and through the world. In a way we operate like other newsrooms, but particularly in the last few years we’re relying more and more on social media for picking up signals from what’s happening out there on the Internet.

Social media became a primary source, during the Arab Spring, especially for places we couldn’t get into — Libya, and Egypt at times, though of course there we also had a whole crew of reporters on the ground, but it supplemented their coverage. Now Syria is the prime example. Syria’s difficult at the moment just because they’re not letting anyone in. You don’t have journalists who are on the ground long enough to really give you a good idea of what’s going on. So we have to rely on social media and activist networks to get information out. We’ve built up strong networks of people in the country, Syrian citizens who are in there producing media, and get news out — whether it’s on the phone, or through the Internet. But it’s a very a complex environment to be operating in.

The type of reporting that has to be done in Syria, like the more traditional networks of sources and on-the-ground reporting, is rarer in Western countries because we’re just not in that kind of in environment — Syria is basically a war zone. But it’s interesting to see that you use both those traditional and new ones, through social media. It puts Al-Jazeera in a unique position.

And it’s not an easy one, right? So one of our web reporters went missing in Syria when we went in to report. She was imprisoned by the Syrians and then deported to Iran. We didn’t know where she was for weeks before we got her back. There are definitely risks reporting in these countries, during these revolutions. These are volatile and dangerous situations, not just for citizens, but also for journalists. So you can imagine for citizen-journalists, what it’s like.

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Getting the News — Martin Nisenholtz

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and danah boydhere.)

This week we sat down with Martin Nisenholtz, former senior vice president, digital at the New York Times. The Times was one of the first print publications to really embrace what the Internet could offer journalism, and has proven itself able to both adapt to the changing web environment and grow into a very different kind of media company. Martin was with the Times from the very beginning of their digital strategy. He led the teams that created and developed the website, the Times emails, the mobile apps, the Twitter accounts, the paywall… the list goes on. He also was behind the decision to adopt Dave Winer’s RSS standard for news, which quickly made RSS the only standard for news syndication for many years. Martin saw the future of news years before the rest of us did. He was kind enough to come by our offices and tell us a little of what he knows — which includes not just an exhaustive understanding of user experience of news, but also what makes some news products work, while others fail.

How do you get your news throughout the day?

Of course, I’m obsessed with the Times website. I’m on it at least a dozen times on an average day, maybe more. That’s my central hub of news. We’ve really studied very hard how people use the Times website, and I tend to be one of these people who uses it almost as a traditional publication — in that the home page, to me, is a guide for what’s important.

Human-mediated content is important to me because it both introduces a hierarchy of importance as well as a kind of serendipity. On any given day, on the Times homepage, there will be things I expect to see there, and things I have totally no awareness of. Serendipity is really important, not because it’s necessarily signaling the most important stuff throughout the day, but because it gives you a breadth you don’t get if you’re tailoring your news to narrower and narrower categories.

A lot of people throughout the years have said to me, “Why don’t you focus more on personalization?” We do have personalization tactics — the most obvious one is our recommendation engine. But the thing about personalization is that if you take it to the extreme, it narrows your worldview in such a way as to be to me unhealthy. And so if all I was seeing was the stuff I could conceive of, I think I’d be a much narrower person.

I’m also a big fan of Twitter, so I get a lot of news from the people I follow on Twitter. And I really do like the visual impact of television, so I still watch Jim Lehrer on the PBS Newshour. Not every night, but when I’m home, and when I can, I check in on that. I feel a little bit guilty about News.me, because it was incubated at the Times. I look at it, but don’t look at it every day.

That just means we need to improve.

A lot of these young services are in that category. You need to tip it over. Like Twitter at the outset. Twitter is a network effects company — if there are no other people on the network, it’s going to be pretty useless. But the more people that join the network, the richer it gets. Maybe News.me has some of that as well.

Part of the problem is that there are just so many ways of experiencing information now. The barriers to creating services are pretty low. As a professional in this area, I use every service because I need to see every service, but that’s different from having something really turn me on. Flipboard is gorgeous. I mean, it’s one of the best and most interesting UIs that has been invented, to my eye, in the last ten years. And yet I still haven’t for whatever reason totally insinuated it into my life. And I don’t quite know why. It’s a gorgeous, accessible, wonderful service, but it just hasn’t tipped for me into a daily thing.

So what do you think it requires to make something tip?

At this point, for me, it has to be undeniably must-read. It has to be, “If I don’t have this, I’m at some serious disadvantage in my life.” Because the cacophony of sources has just become so great, you could just spend all day surfing around news websites and news apps and not get anything done. It just has to tip into something, as Steve Jobs coined the phrase, “insanely great.”

Is there something that has tipped for you recently?

Obviously, a lot of stuff outside news. Tumblr. Instagram. A bunch of other apps. But I have to be honest with you — no. Probably the last thing that flipped for me was Twitter. And that was a few years ago.

It’s hard. If you’re in the business of creating news and information, and I am, and I have been for many years — you get these kind of blinders, where you think everybody is into it. But the fact is, when you go out and you talk to people who are not in the business, they’re leading their lives and doing what they do, and for them everything is just totally optional. So it just has to be must-have in order for it to work.

Is there something in your consumption habits that you think is missing? Some tool?

No. The thing that’s so great about our business. Every time you think you’ve got it done, some new wonderful thing comes along that just tips for you. It always comes serendipitously. If I knew what that app was going to be, I’d probably try and go build it. But sometime in the next 2-5 years something will fill a need I didn’t even know I had.

Twitter is a great example of that. Who would have thought — I mean, I don’t think the guys that built Twitter thought this — that this thing that was limited to 140 characters would become such a central part of the news and information ecosystem?

What did you see as the potential for online news when you started at the Times? How does that related to what you see as the future of news now?

There were a lot of proprietary services before the web. One that people think of today as the most prominent was America Online. AOL was founded in 1983 and grew to be a very robust proprietary service. And then the web came along and disrupted it. Before the web disrupted traditional media, actually, it disrupted AOL, which is sort of ironic.

When I came to my original interview with Arthur Sulzberger, it was with a lot of bias about how information is managed online. You had these two poles, and I think they still exist. One is essentially the Internet as a pure distribution medium for news and entertainment created in a multi-platform context, including for print and television. A distribution medium, basically. A great example is watching TV through IP, or reading articles that are in the Times newspaper, except online. Think of that as one side of the spectrum. The total opposite side of the spectrum is web as platform. And that’s where all the engineers live. You don’t need many engineers to just port traditional content onto the web, but you do need engineers to build application value.The classic example is Google News. It is pretty much a pure application.

So that tension has existed in my mind from the moment we started the website. And I’ve always pushed really hard to broaden what the Times can be. Sometimes I’ve succeeded and sometimes I’ve failed, but I really think it’s important for traditional news sources to embrace the technology side of our business — and really understand what the application side can do for content. Not just publishing content from one source and porting it into a bunch of templates.

I think the Times was the first publication in my experience that actually used the application side. What do you think was your greatest success at the times, in developing this web platform?

In a funny irony, the thing that we did right — and it’s not me, believe me, I’m very humble when it comes to the New York Times because it’s a collective, collaborative creation every day, and the people who lead the business always need to be aware of that. But I think the thing we really got right — and we got it right pretty much at the outset — was taking the Times' essence, what the Times stands for as a brand, and making it easy to use and very accessible online.

Very few people are in the digerati, right? If you engineer products purely for those people, you will always fail. You need to understand that 99 percent of the people really don’t care about what you do. They care about how what you do affects their lives. Unless you touch them, in a very meaningful way, you will fail. If you focus on the technology, or focus on what will be cool about it to a very small group of people, it’s just not going to work.

I think we created something that people see as exciting and useful and, at the same time, an expression of what the heritage of this thing had been. That’s hard to do. It’s not so much about science — you can’t measure that — as it is about the art of it. That I think is what I am most proud of in terms of what this team accomplished.

One of the ways the Times managed to seamlessly transition the brand from print publication with so much weight and dignity to an online platform with still the same dignity was design.

That’s precisely what I meant when I said what our greatest achievement was. You just said it more succinctly! But the reason I didn’t use the D-word is because design is one aspect of that. And it’s a very, very important aspect. But there’s more to it. There’s UI, user experience, architecture. Design is certainly a major component of what you’re calling dignity and gravitas, but the way you move through the content is also very important. We were, in those early days, criticized for making the interactive design too basic. But in 1995 or 1996, pretty much everyone was using narrowband at home, so there were on very slow dialup connections, often through a service like AOL. And at work, the quick connections were obviously much faster, but still very limited. You had to engineer something that would work for the user in that environment. It had to be fairly bare bones.

The other thing that people criticized was our homepage design. We obviously built the homepage as a gif. It had a lot of design elements in it, and it was hand-tailored for a couple of years in a way that a lot of people thought was kind of retro. But it had the effect of bringing along a lot of people who were familiar with and understood the Times design language. So it wasn’t just about trying to recreate something, it was about — you used the word “dignity,” and I think that is the right word. If we had not done it that way, we would have never differentiated ourselves. Because the content is really important and it’s central, but the expression and the organization of that content is also important. Maybe not quite as important, but certainly important.

(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

Getting the News — danah boyd

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

Scheduling a half hour with danah boyd, Ph.D. is not easy. She’s a professional Internet researcher for Microsoft, Harvard, NYU, the University of New South Wales, and… Lady Gaga (seriously!). danah has a particular interest in the intersection of youth culture and technology, and has published extensively on social media in academic journals, her co-authored book, and at her blog. She discusses youth culture on the Internet with perspective and insight few adults can claim. danah is currently working on a new book, The Social Lives of Networked Teens, which will probably totally blow our minds as soon as we read it. We were lucky to get a few minutes to talk with her about journalism. Unsurprisingly, danah had enormous insight not just on what she needs to stay informed, but what young people need, too.

How do you get your news throughout the day?

The beginning of the day is all about what’s coming at me. I start off the day with my phone and email. In the middle of the night I’ll get the News.me Daily Digest, so I’ll look at that. I also get a lot of “crisis news” in my email — emails from people saying, “oh my god, you should know about this.” If I went to bed before 10 p.m., I also got Google News alerts in the middle of the night. Although more often than not I get them at the end of the day because of my inability to sleep at a reasonable hour. Twitter sometimes comes up early, but sometimes it doesn’t come up until much later because I can’t deal with it.

Midday, I have some downtime, so then I actually go to sites that I visit on a semi-regular basis. The New York Times is high up there. Global Voices is another I visit regularly. Boing Boing is one of the fun ones. I use the Tweeted Times to see what I’ve missed in my Twitter world — I don’t get to participate in Twitter very actively, so it’s a way to catch up with it later.

These are all things that generally make feel good, because they’re generally aligned with what I care about. Later in the day, if I have more downtime, I’ll start to consume things that are actually different. Anything that starts during the day, where I’m like, “I need to get a different perspective on this” — my first visit is to the Fox News website. I’ll hit Fox News, MSNBC, and sometimes I’ll hit CNN, just to see how the mainstream coverage is going.

Why do you go to Fox News first?

Because it’s most likely to be as different from my personal opinion as possible. Because I’m like: “What the fuck, America?” We’re not going to agree on anything, so I want to hear what that frame is.

I go to the New York Times because I respect them, because I appreciate them, because I value them. But at the same time, I want to know what the rest of the country is hearing. The New York Times is not what the majority is hearing.

In the same vein, I’ll poke around on Twitter, doing different searches, looking around specifically for things that are different from my point of view. I’ll also pop out Google News so I can see coverage from the different papers.

What do you think is missing from your news consumption?

In some ways, I want the inverse of News.me or Tweeted Times. Because the hardest thing for me is figuring out: What is everyone else talking about that I have no fucking clue about? The web tends to narrow your consumption more and more. And as a news junkie, that tends to piss me the hell off.

It’s about perspective. Look at anything in the political domain. I loathe Santorum. But I find it so fascinating to see how he’s framed in conservative news. The problem with reading the New York Times is that the Times is all about tempered and metered interpretations of what’s going on. Meanwhile, TV news is all about total extremism. It’s about facial expressions, and performance over content. Watching Fox, I can understand the appeal of Santorum. It doesn’t make me like him anymore, but I can at least get it.

My network is not talking positively about Santorum in any way. It’s not even talking positively about Romney. They’re both lunatics. But I know better than to think that’s how they’re actually being discussed beyond my network. I want a tool that gives me what’s outside of my perspective on these issues — because otherwise I have to do a lot of really difficult and exhausting work to find it.

What was the last great article you read?

At lunch this afternoon, the story on Jack White in the New York Times.

Was it good?

It was totally fascinating! And then I went and Wikipedia-ed 12 different things about Meg White. That’s fun news consumption.

I know that you study social media. I know that you study youth and social media. Are there ways news organizations can adapt to better serve young people?

General news is not relevant to young people because they don’t have context. It’s a lot of abstract storytelling and arguing among adults that makes no sense. So most young people end up consuming celebrity news. To top it off, news agencies, for obvious reasons, are trying to limit access to their content by making you pay for it. Well, guess what: Young people aren’t going out of their way to try to find this news, so you put up one little wall, and poof, done. They’re not even going to bother. That dynamic ends up really affecting those who already are ill-informed. I’m passionate about news. I pay attention to it obsessively. So of course I pay for it. But if you’re not passionate about news — if you don’t care about it — you’re not going to pay a cent for it.

When I hear news agencies talk about wanting to get young people, they don’t want to figure out how to actually inform them — they want to hear how to monetize them. And that pisses me off. My interest is in making sure they’re informed, but it’s often not through monetizable options.

With young people, the thing that gets them fastest and easiest is the thing that can spread the most easily. They access news through the ether. It’s pretty crazy — it’s not active consumption. I interviewed a whole group of kids 24 hours after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I asked them — “How did you hear about the shootings?” The answers were all random. “My grandmother called me. She called me to talk about how dangerous colleges are.” “My parents saw it on the news and they asked me about it.” “‘Love and Support for Virginia Tech’ went through my Facebook because this one girl I met three years ago went to Virginia Tech.” It was very ambient.

In order for news to be more available and accessible to young people right now, it’s about making sure that its ambience is magnified. And particularly that the availability of quality material is magnified. Kony 2012, the viral video, was shared by a lot of kids.  But when I interviewed kids who’d seen it, they didn’t know it was about Uganda — Africa was kind of all one country; Joseph Kony was a bad person who was actively doing this terrible thing to kids; all of the Africans seem to accept it — when in fact he’s been on everyone’s hit list for years. Everybody in my world was talking about Kony 2012 by critiquing it, but these kids didn’t know that.

The Times is probably one of the better sources because they do such a great job of getting their links out there. Their paywall tends to cause other problems. But the fact that you can access them through social media helps. Likewise, unbelievable quantities of celebrity crap does a great job of making videos easily sharable. Quality news doesn’t tend to make video easily sharable. Colbert and Stewart, though? Phenomenal at this shit. They manage to get their stuff out there. I am enamored with both of them.

Last question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of news?

I’m definitely optimistic. I roll my eyes when journalists say, “oh my god, kids these days, they’re not into news, when I was that age, blah blah blah.” I’m like — you were a nerd! There have always been geeky youth who were always into news. But the vast majority of young people have never been into news. Maybe kids ended up getting ambient news through newspaper routes. But then again, because of how the internet is structured, maybe they’re getting ambient news in new ways.

There’s a long history of ebbs and flows on where news fits into open government and a corporate lifespan. I’m not convinced that most of the existing players will stick around in their current form. TV news should never have gone 24/7, and we’re stuck with it now — the result of which is that there’s a lot of fear-mongering and a lot of crazy, and people basically becoming celebrities so they can be plastic TV-anchor types. And advertising is a dreadful way of funding this stuff. There’s a lot of innovation that’s needed.

The Times, for example, is doing a tremendous job experimenting. Do I like all of their experiments? No. But I give them massive credit for trying, rather than demanding that everyone go back to the old way. Like using data to try to explain stories in more detail? That’s great. More multimedia? Phenomenal.

The public has access to information in unprecedented ways. Unfortunately, it has access to good information and access to shitty information. For me, the challenge is: How do you create media literacy? How do you get people to critically engage the news that’s available? These are issues we need to address, but the availability of information is still amazing. And I think that’s part of what’s so terrifying to people, that there’s so much information out there.

More information does not make a more informed population. We need to think about what it actually means to create a more informed society. We’re a long way away from that. But I don’t have some nostalgic lust for the past, because I don’t think we’ve ever been truly informed.

Find danah at her personal website, on Twitter, and at her blog.

(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

Getting the News — Jake Dobkin

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

This week we sat down with Jake Dobkin, publisher of Gothamist, native New Yorker, and to date the only person to come in for an interview with typed up discussion notes. Gothamist is one of New York City’s go-to websites for city news, information, and generally speaking, what’s cool. But is it hyper-local? “I’m doing hyper-space-local news,” Jake explained to me. “Is it hyper local? I don’t know. But we’re hyper-excited about it!” Metro reporters are an old film noir standby — their dramatic stories and hectic schedules always makes for excellent cinema. Jake is the 21st century’s response to metro reporting.

Gothamist started in New York, but has since spread to a dozen other cities, rapidly populating the digital urban news space in a way that’s somehow cool, approachable, and newsworthy. Covering New York City is not an easy task. There are a thousand things happening at every moment in America’s biggest city. Gothamist has to be a nimble news force — finding news quickly, responding efficiently, and giving everything that razor’s edge of taste that makes it worth coming back to. But reading the news when you’re covering New York is its own adventure. Jake brings not just a rigorous work ethic to his news consumption, but also a philosophy refreshing to see in media. In spare time (which cannot be a lot), Jake takes landscape photographs at BlueJake.com and documents the graffiti scene at Streetsy.com and GrafRank.com. Oh yeah. Jake is a graffiti enthusiast. We told you he was a new kind of metro reporter.

What is Gothamist trying to do?

We’re trying to be the best independent source for news, arts, events, and food in each of our cities. Our parents had independent alt-weeklies, and a lot of those companies have gone out of business because they went out of print. I see ourselves the next generation to that kind of independent media. We want to be a trusted tell-it-like-it-is voice in each city. We don’t need to be comprehensive. My goal is not to be the New York Times Metro Section. It’s to tell you like what’s really interesting, most interesting, in each of these cities, each day. We are both meme-spotters and original news producers. On a good day, we’re do both of those functions really well. We are the best meta source for New York, because we probably read 2,000 sources for the city — no normal person would have that interest — and from that we’re pulling the best stories.

I really believe that aggregation, when done right, is a real skill. Pulling out the most important facts from the story, knitting them together, adding some original reportage on top — we do that. And then like any newspaper or magazine, we source our own stories. Our interest is probably a little different than most magazines. More interested in youth-friendly stories, things younger people are interested in. Some of the issues we cover — like a biker gets hit by a car — the New York Times would never cover that. But that’s a story for us — especially if they got hit in Williamsburg, or something.

So what’s your morning news routine?

I work half the day on the editorial side, and half on the publishing side, in business and management. But the mornings are editorial. So I wake up early, around 6:30am or 7am, and for about two hours, I work pretty consistently, trying to spot where the most interesting stories are in New York. My guiding principles are two things: First, like everyone, I want a high signal-to-noise ratio. I already have to sort this enormous sea of stories each morning to find the interesting stuff. I don’t want noisy sources that make that job even harder.

The second thing is a little more spiritual. The Buddhists have this expression: Don’t eat poison. As it applies to media, there are certain kinds of media that are bad for you, spiritually. Things that promote materialism, celebrity, the pain and suffering of others. Gothamist sites have a pretty positive voice. “Yay! We’re excited about being here. We want you to be excited about being here.” We’re not trying to revel in negativity, because I think that’s corrosive, spiritually. And I’ve done this now for eight or nine years, so I want to be a happy person. It would really hard to spend that much time doing something that covered celebrity stupidity or “buy this, buy that,” because those are not values that lead to happiness. I try to find sources that are both high-quality in terms of signal-to-noise but also high-quality in terms of promoting values that I believe in. So a lot of the sources I read are more heavily fact-based, or high-quality, longer-form journalism. I really try to avoid stuff that focuses on Hollywood.

I start with email. I get a lot of email, because I’m copied on the tips@gothamist.com emails in New York. People just emailing us telling us what’s going on. I’ll also have a ton of PR pitches that I ignore, and I get alerts from two wire monitoring services here in New York. They monitor police, fire, and government radio frequencies, and they send us alerts when anything’s going on, so it goes to my inbox overnight. We also get emails from the FBI, from most of the government agencies, and stuff. we just started getting emails from the police department last week. It took us eight years to finally fight them to put us on their PR list. We had to get press passes, which I now carry with me, just in case I walk into a story.

In a good day, I can get through email in about 20-30 minutes. By then, any really viral stories I might already be on to, because someone sent it to tips. But then I go through my “Core Sources” — that’s actually what I call that folder — which is Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, and a service called Stellar, which Jason Kottke started. It tracks people’s favorites. In each of those services, I have a signal-to-noise rule. I generally don’t follow more than 75-100 people at any one time. I’m always deleting people. I’ve deleted the Dalai Lama. I’ve deleted my best friend. As soon as somebody gets noisy, or starts talking a lot about what they’re eating, it’s like dude, I just unfollowed you. And then I’ll IM them, and I’ll be like, “Dude, I just unfollowed you!” And they’ll be like “Dude, that’s so hurtful, man!” and I’m like, “Dude, live with it. Tell me when you’re ready to stop polluting my channel.”

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Getting the News — Hilary Mason

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

This week we sat down with Hilary Mason, chief scientist at our sister company bitly. Most people know bitly as a link-shortening service, but behind the scenes, bitly has a huge amount of data to work with. Hilary’s job is to play with that data — and we’re always astounded with what she comes up with. A few months ago, when we were writing our post "Watching News Break," we sent a quick email poll to everyone in the betaworks offices: How did you find out Moammar Qaddafi had been killed? We got back a variety of responses, ranging from the Today Show to “this email,” but Hilary’s quick response was the most surprising. “I actually found out because ‘killed’ and ‘Gaddafi’ were trending through bitly data in our new trends API.” We might work in the same offices, but we did not know what they were up to next door — so we cornered Hilary for a few minutes to talk more about how she gets her news. It’s a different perspective from almost anyone else we’ve talked to — a highly technical and personalized way of sifting through news data. What else did we expect from a data scientist? In addition to working with huge amounts of data, Hilary is a co-founder of HackNY, one of Fortune's 40 under 40, and a cookie enthusiast.

How do you get your news in the morning?

I have a group of friends who often email around links, and so that’s where I look first. Those links tend to be either breaking news or mostly silly but interesting nerdy stuff on the Internet. After that I’ll usually go to Twitter and page back through to see what’s going on. I have some tools I’ve written on my GitHub page for going through Twitter. Really simple things, like, “Show me any link that’s been tweeted by more than two people I follow in the last 24 hours.” It’s configurable, so I can tag things by category. I’m able to go through all the tweets really quickly, filter out the sports tweets, because I don’t care about that, filter out the celebrity gossip, and then elevate the things that matter most.

How does your hack categorize the tweets?

There’s a trained classifier based on label data that I’ve given it over time. Some of it are pretty standard categories like “sports” or “technology.” I also have a “narcissism” category. It finds things like people saying the words “I,” “my,” or “mine” in the same tweet for people constantly promoting their own blog posts.

That’s brilliant, actually.

It’s more of a hack for dealing with the noise and the full stream of data. And then I do get a couple of emails, like the News.me email, that I really like for finding big things I might have missed.

I also have a script that reads the feed of birthdays off my Facebook feed and automatically writes the birthday emails for me, which is just a hack. I feel like leaving the “happy birthday” comment leaves you partial credit, but when you write the email, you get full credit. But I can still automate it off the same data source.

Your group of friends’ system is really intriguing. We know people mostly share news via email, but sharing breaking news is an interesting phenomenon. What does that typically look like?

It’s usually a link with a “Wow, have you seen this?” or “Are you following this story that happened?” One of the things we look at through bitly is how an idea can jump from a comment, to a blog post, to a blog, to a mainstream news source. It’s fun to see when people gather the pieces together on their own. It might be — “Did you see that this GitHub project has had a new push that allows you to do….” whatever. And then someone else will say, “Oh yeah, there’s an article about it over here.”

What were you looking at on the day of the Qaddafi assassination? 

It’s not currently demo-able, which is a shame, but one of the systems we’re working on is something designed to tell us what the world is paying attention to at any given moment — and not at the link level, but at the idea level, where we consider ideas to be collections of phrases. We’re measuring the click-rate on any given phrase, so we can tell you that “Jennifer Lopez,” for example, gets a typical 0.01 clicks/second click-rate, but when there was a potential dress malfunction at the Oscars, that went up to over 20 clicks/second. By watching this you’re able to see whenever something happens that gets enough attention from people that they’re actually clicking links about it. With Qaddafi, what I saw was what we call a “burst” in attention to that phrase.

Then what, do you Google the phrase?

Then I can go back and see through bitly which URLs are leading to that burst. The difference is that bitly is what people are paying attention to, and Google is the whole Internet. If you Google a restaurant’s name in New York, you’d find that restaurant’s homepage. If that restaurant happens to be on fire, with Google you’d still see that restaurant’s homepage, but through our data you’d see all the people saying “Oh god, this place is on fire!” 

Who on Twitter do you find particularly valuable or interesting?

I follow a lot of people in the data and machine-learning community, which is something I’m pretty involved and interested in. I want to know all the interesting things that happen in that community, whether it’s a new code release or somebody getting a new job. I follow that very deeply, and then I follow people who tend to retweet things that show up on PandoDaily, Mashable, or ReadWriteWeb — but I don’t really care to know everything in that sphere, I just want to know when big things happen.

I also follow NewYorkology, which is a great account if you live in New York. The woman who runs it is always tweeting beautiful photos of New York City, events that are happening, museum exhibits that are opening, subway service changes. I also follow museums that I like, like the American Museum of Natural History (@amnh). And I follow @WNYC for local news.

Do you ever watch local television news?

Well, I don’t have a TV. I do have an xBox… but that doesn’t count.

What platforms do you use to get your news content?

Mostly my iPhone and my laptop. I have a Kindle, but I use that for reading books. 

I still use Google Reader a lot. But it depends on whether I’m waking up and catching up on the news, or whether I’ve been programming for an hour and I need to take a break. The RSS reader tends to come into the latter piece, where I’m sitting at a computer and I don’t want to look at code or email for a while. I just want my brain to be distracted. So there I follow the same mix of academic data blogs and tech blogs as well as random things that are entertaining or interesting, like Boing Boing.

There are no news sites that I feel like I have to check in on their homepage. I tend to use CNN as my default domain when I’m trying to get on free WiFi — because it’s short to type, and it’s not an https domain, so it’ll get me through the authentication process quickly. Every so often I’ll find something interesting there, but that’s mostly an accident.

What was the last great article you read?

Last night I read a fascinating story on NPR’s site. It was about this near-extinct species of insect. I don’t have to tell you the whole story. Okay, I’ll tell you the whole story. They call them tree lobsters, and they’re huge, and they have hideous legs. They used to live on this tiny island off of Australia that houses maybe a couple hundred people. A hundred years a boat shipwrecked on the island and a bunch of rats came off the boat and ate all these insects. So they were thought to be extinct. But researchers just discovered some living on a huge rock about a mile away, under one bush. The 24 remaining tree lobsters in the world.

They managed to take a few away from that and breed them in a zoo, and now there are hundreds of these things, so they’re contemplating — do they keep them all in captivity, or do they go to this little island, kill off all the rats, and try reintroduce these bugs? They’re doing a public service campaign to convince people these bugs are more desirable than rats. So they made a video of one of them hatching out of an egg that is supposed to be cute but is horrible. It’s not the kind of thing you want to read right before you go to sleep. Which is probably why it made quite an impression on me.

It’s not breaking news, really, but I really like this type of story because it teaches you something remarkable about the world.

You’ve built your own tools to manage your news consumption. Are there any other tools you wish you had?

There are two reasons to read the news. One is so you’re not missing out on something you need to know to be successful in the society in which you interact. And there’s another one, which finds these delightful, intriguing stories about the world. For the former, applications like News.me are great examples of things that are sort of inching towards that superpower of ambient awareness of what’s happening in the world, without having to invest too much energy in searching it out every day. But I don’t think the problem’s solved yet.

If  we take a step back, there’s this universe of data that’s happening around us, and some of it is really relevant to the things we need to know to do our jobs or the things we’re really interested in. The problem is then — out of that whole universe of data, how do you find the things you need to know at the time you need to know them in a way that is least intrusive into your life?

How are we doing?

(laughs) We’re getting there.

Find Hilary at her website, on Twitter, at GitHub, and at Dataist.

(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

Watching News Break

Here at News.me we’ve been looking at the best ways to get news to our users. One problem that we’ve been thinking about a lot is breaking news. What is breaking news in a world with 24-hour access to information? What kind of information should a breaking news update convey?
 
Yesterday morning, needless to say, gave us an amazing view into the mechanics of breaking news. We all woke up to the news that Moammar Qadaffi had been finally overthrown in his last stronghold in Sirte, Libya — and later discovered that he had been killed.
 
Several news organizations were covering the news as it happened. We were following the news on The New York Times’ Lede blog, The Guardian’s Middle East Live blog, Al-Jazeera, the AP, and of course, Twitter — specifically @BreakingNews, and @antderosa, social media editor for Reuters. 
 
In an effort to learn how news organizations reacted to the chaotic storm of information in the first several hours after the attack on Sirte, I broke down the stream of content coming from liveblogs and Twitter. You can see the moments during which crucial decisions on coverage had to be made by reporters and editors as events unfolded. 
 
First Reports…
 
The first news was that Sirte had fallen; AP, Reuters, CNN, and Al-Jazeera cited sources on the ground in Libya with firsthand knowledge of the takeover. At 5:05am EDT, the AP broke the news:

The Guardian cited the AP as their first source, then immediately sourced Reuters to confirm the AP’s report.


Al-Jazeera had their own witnesses on the ground:


When it was relatively clear that Sirte had fallen, which most news sources could independently confirm through their own reporters or through other news sites, reporters quickly moved on to the next big question: Where was Moammar Gaddafi?
 
How many different ways can you say “we don’t know?”
 
As far as I can tell Reuters was the first to publish knowledge of Gaddafi’s body, though they believed him to be wounded, not dead. (He may have been merely wounded at the time.)



With this early coverage, Reuters quickly established credibility in the ongoing story. Presumably they had a good source, because Reuters was covering the news of the body first — reporting a wounded Gaddafi and then reporting his death minutes later.
 
This Guardian snapshot of a ten minute window when unconfirmed reports were flying provides a good example of how much news organizations knew and yet how little they felt comfortable confirming. There are at least three different ways of saying “we don’t know” below.


The Race to Confirm
 
What kind of confirmation does a news organization need? Well, confirmation by an independent organization would have been a good start. Libya’s NTC was not a great source — after all, they stood to gain by Gaddafi’s death. So the next best source would be a third-party organization on the ground in Libya. There happened to be two: NATO and, of course, the United States.
 
As Reuters had news of the body first, they were the first to call NATO to ask about the body. NATO would not confirm.



Neither would the U.S. State Department.

Of course, there is one other way to confirm hard news — visual evidence. Reporters from Reuters and Al-Jazeera may have been calling government organizations, but they were also on the ground.
 
At 8:24am EDT The Guardian published a photo via Agente France Presse (a French-language newswire) allegedly taken from a cell phone showing a wounded Gaddafi. The photos are gruesome, so click through with caution.
 
AFP not only got the cell-phone photos, they also got the first photos of the location where Gaddafi was killed. It should be pointed out that these photos were out and circulating before NATO had even confirmed with the media that they had attacked Sirte Thursday morning — let alone that they had any information about Gaddafi’s death.
 
At this point, we start to see the story emerge on the New York Times homepage, with yet no mention of Gaddafi’s alleged death. With continuing coverage happening on their blog The Lede, the New York Times reserved the homepage for a different degree of accuracy.

 
 

Finally, at 10:20am EDT, five hours after their first report, AP confirmed Gaddafi’s death with Libyan and American officials.
 
After official confirmation, the New York Times finally updated their homepage to reflect what by then had become a fully vetted piece of information.


 

Conclusions
 
It’s not uncommon to hear about the threat that real-time distribution poses to ‘quality’ journalism. This isn’t anything new — speed has always been at odds with accuracy. When the telegraph emerged in the 19th century, journalists and readers struggled to locate that new equilibrium.
 
A new pattern of breaking news distribution and verification is emerging. Today we watched as an important piece of information transformed from Tweet, to live blog, to front page headline, ultimately culminating in a physical, permanent version set to arrive on newsstands the following morning. This transformation was accompanied by an ever increasing level of confirmation and fact-checking, and it represents the evolution of a trade-off between speed and accuracy that users and journalists alike are beginning to wrap their heads around.
 
So, what does it all mean? Different media lend themselves to different user expectations and different journalistic standards. With a more durable medium like a newspaper, information tends to have a lifetime of 24 hours. If a piece of information is published and can’t be taken back or amended for 24 hours, you better be sure that that information is correct. On the other hand, a more ephemeral medium like Twitter or a live blog is subject to a lower threshold for accuracy since errors can be remedied instantaneously. The New York Times homepage is probably somewhere in the middle - its visibility lends itself to a degree of permanence less than that of a newspaper but certainly greater than that of a live blog.
 
As we rethink what ‘breaking news’ means in a media landscape where reader demand for the distribution of important information tend towards now, we ought to pay close attention to the evolving norms around journalistic standards. Readers expect a certain level of accuracy on the homepage that is different than the level of accuracy on a live blog, which is again different from the level of accuracy expected from a staff member sitting in front of Tweetdeck. All three sources may stand behind a single, trusted brand, but each medium lends itself to meaningfully different reader expectations and journalistic standards - as they should.