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Tuesday, 10 Jul 2007

James Surowiecki on what crowds can and cannot do

Jay Rosen’s PressThink has posted an interview with James Surowiecki. His book, “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations” (Random House, 2004) was a best seller, which has greatly popularized - and maybe oversimplified - the idea of developing tools for harnessing collective wisdom:

What’s interesting to me, though, is that even if you really buy into the idea of the wisdom of crowds, actually putting that idea into practice in an organization is not easy. There are a lot of hurdles — both institutional and psychological — that make it hard for organizations to change, particularly when it comes to moving away from a traditional command-and-control model. So even when the idea makes sense to people, you probably need something more to turn into a practical reality.
Posted on Jul 10, 2007 | 3:37 pm EST
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Wednesday, 28 Mar 2007

Boyd & Buffett: Newspapers are dead already

Stowe Boyd updates the continuing bad news and bleak outlook for the newspaper industry. Some lowlights:


We should stop wringing our hands for the moribund local newspapers. They are going under. Period. Full stop...

Journalists will, yes, have to get other jobs, or figure out how to make it online.

From From The Washington Post: Buffett Pessimistic About Newspapers


Warren Buffet wrote “fundamentals are definitely eroding in the newspaper industry” and warned that “the skid will almost certainly continue.”

Average daily newspaper circulation in the United States has declined each year since 1987. At The Post, print advertising revenue decreased 4 percent in 2006 from the year before.

And for newspapers that have pinned their revenue hopes on their Web sites, Buffett had a sobering prediction: “. . . the economic potential of a newspaper Internet site—given the many alternative sources of information and entertainment that are free and only a click away—is at best a small fraction of that existing in the past for a print newspaper facing no competition.”

via Stowe Boyd via Facebook

Update: Apparently the American Society of Newspaper Editors is feeling the pressure, too...

From Strupp’s Notebook: The End of ‘Newspapers’ for ASNE?


No more does the ASNE name rest on a red and white box, with its formal name written out, surrounding the logo with the folded corner.

The new logo does not even mention the word, “newspaper,” stating, in a slick black and white design, “ASNE – Leading America’s Newsrooms.”

ASNE president Dave Zeeck acknowledged the “identity transfer” during his address to members. He said the idea was to expand the newspaper image beyond just print and on to online and other facets of the business. “That is what moving ASNE forward looks like,” he said.

From Dave Winer: How to save newspapers

First, reform journalism school. It’s too late to be training new journalists in the classic mode. Instead, journalism should become a required course, one or two semesters for every graduate. Why? Because journalism like everything else that used to be centralized is in the process of being distributed. In the future, every educated person will be a journalist, as today we are all travel agents and stock brokers.

Posted on Mar 28, 2007 | 2:57 am EST
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Friday, 23 Mar 2007

The Investigation of William Randolph Hearst

Despite working exclusively in the web for that last decade, it’s hard to escape the love of the newspaper business.

Stepping into the newsroom on that first day, we met colorful characters face-to-face. You know what we mean. Newsrooms attract a different breed - iconoclasts all.

There are the tough, smart-talking types. The quiet insightful ones. The quiet, kinda creepy ones. The angry ones. The apathetic ones with a sprinkle of cynicism. There are the eager newbies.

We could go on but one figure continues to reign as the most colorful of all, William Randolph Hearst.

His brand of journalism was sensational to the extreme. He practically invented micro-managing and used telegrams as freely as some editors use email.

His controversial news coverage provoked anger, outrage - and a federal investigation.

According to this case file (#8000-2290) from the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI), starting around 1916 Hearst was under investigation for allegedly financing a Mexican revolt and being a German sympathizer during the first Great War.

With more than 500 pages in this case file, it will take some time to piece together everything that happened but here are some excerpts found on Footnote:

A BOI report directing agents to investigate Hearst’s ranch for matters of war neutrality in 10 October 1916.

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Memo to J. Edgar Hoover (sub req’d) outlining evidence of Hearst’s attempts to get rights to film along Germany front around 1915.

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An anonymous letter (sub req’d) calling for Hearst to be hung and his publications closed “for the benefit of our country and humanity in general”

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Posted on Mar 23, 2007 | 3:25 am EST
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Tuesday, 30 Jan 2007

One Rat Short

When the crisp winter morning here in Heber, UT is shattered by the screeching whine of Gulfstreams and Learjets, you know it must be Sundance.

I (Chris) actually love jets. And, living just outside Park City, UT, the annual film festival provides a welcome diversion.

Though I didn’t run into many stars sipping drinks at the Owl Bar this year, it will always be memorable one because by kid brother (16 years younger) had a film in the Animation Short Program: One Rat Short.

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It didn’t win an award at Sundance, but people seemed to like it, which is a relief because last summer when I visited him at the NYC studio, he was obsessed with rats.

As his first animation gig out of school, Ben was determined to mimic the exact details of the scampering creature’s movements.

To get the flick of the tail or the scurry of the hind quarters just right, he would study hours of video showing rats balancing on wires, clawing cage walls and chasing each other in the lab.

Ben would stop me abruptly whenever a rodent would appear whether we were waiting on the subway platform or walking home from a club.

“Did you see that? Did you see how he uses his front paws to pick up that, uh..., whatever that is?” He would say.

With the advent of full-length animation features like Shreck or The Incredibles, it’s easy to overlook the technical and narrative skills needed to make something people will watch or, more importantly, be moved by.

And given that an animator might only finish a few seconds of a character’s scene in a week, doing even something like a 10-minute short can take months or years.

Just before One Rat Short was completed, Ben moved out to LA to join Dreamworks where he has moved on from obsessing about rats to obsessing about pandas.

If your interested, you can buy One Rat Short and other Sundance shorts on iTunes.

Posted on Jan 30, 2007 | 3:18 am EST
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Thursday, 18 Jan 2007

Chris Anderson's vanishing point theory of news

Good metaphors are important because they can help you think about a problem in unexpected ways. The news business has been struggling to find new metaphors for what they do for years. From “computer-assisted reporting” to “civic journalism” to “p2p journalism,” the right metaphors have eluded them.

Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, offer another one: The Vanishing Point Theory of news.

“I finally came up with the right metaphor for a phenomenon we all experience: that our interest in a subject is in inverse proportion to its distance (geographic, emotional or otherwise) from us.

For instance, the news that my daughter got a scraped knee on the playground today means more to me than a car bombing in Kandahar.

Am I proud of this? No. But it’s true. ”

When we worked at newspapers it seemed like the Metro or Neighborhoods section was always the neglected stepchild. It never got the best stories because anything interesting always went to the front page.

Looking back, the papers we produced were always well-edited, sometimes clever and showed up on your doorstep every morning.

But the structure of the newspaper with its clear cut sections and editors jockeying to get their department’s story on 1A clouded the larger issue Anderson now brings up: We rarely covered anything that close to you - anything that interesting.

Posted on Jan 18, 2007 | 6:35 pm EST
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Tuesday, 16 Jan 2007

5 lessons learned from Footnote

After doing my fair share of preaching on this blog for the last five years, I (Chris) now have firsthand knowledge of at least one thing a few days after Footnote.com’s launch:

On the web you don’t control your message, but you’re welcome participate in the conversation you’ve started.

Given that you will be Dugg or Slashdotted or bubble to the top of Delicious for a few moments, how do you put your best, uh, foot forward?


1. Make sure it’ll play in Paducah

At Footnote, we travel around the country several times a year to put simple prototypes (paper or working) in front of likely customers. We borrow a lot of techniques used in rapid contextual inquiry to see whether we have an idea that people want or if we’re just enamored with ourselves.

We’ve jokingly referred to these “van trips” as the “home invasion tour.” That’s because we show up at a persons house with 6 to 8 other stake holders - designers, marketers, developers and a senior executive or two.

The meetings last about an hour and a half.  One moderates, one transcribes and the others quietly jot notes.

On the ride to the next visit, we do an intense debrief and compile the person’s objections and justifications for using the product. We want bad news early because we can do something about itv without have to rewrite a line of code.

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2. Be a Beta hater

While it’s tempting and trendy to stamp “beta” all over your site, it’s a bad idea for at least two reasons:

1. Most people have no idea what “beta” means. We’ve asked.

2. Good sites are always improving - so why suggest that you plan to stop one day?


3. Identify the core functionality that defines your story

You don’t have to launch with every bell and whistle. If you have something that’s truly interesting, people should be able to see that immediately.

The best piece of writing advice given to me came from an editor at The Detroit News. She told me to “kill your darlings.”

Submitting your beloved web project to that is difficult, but it’s also a liberating. It forces you to spend energy on what’s important and question everything else.

And on the web, you rarely have to kill anything - just put them on spreadsheet of upcoming features. The weak ones will atrophy and die soon enough.

One word of caution: If you believe your site is not ready to launch because there’s a cool new AJAX doohickey missing, then you might want to rethink things.


4. Make sure it works

Do you have a list of scenarios and features that must work flawlessly before you can launch? If not how will you know when you’re ready?

Buy a lot of pizza and pass those key scenarios out to every employee and/or relative and test. Log every discrepancy.

At one point last week, the office felt more like in the control room at NASA, though it still smelled like an Italian restaurant:
“Commerce systems? Go!”
“Viewer? Go!”
“800-number? 800-number?”

Over time your site will grow steadily but the nature of the web is one prone to flash crowds. Have the hardware or contingency plan to deal with that. Though we received some decent spikes from Digg and Delicious, traffic maxed at only 1/10th of our capacity.


5. Don’t launch a new site within minutes of a major press release

We made changes just before we launched Footnote.com last Wednesday as the National Archives made their announcement.

While there were not any real problems, we didn’t give ourselves much room to correct them if there had.

Posted on Jan 16, 2007 | 12:00 am EST
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Wednesday, 10 Jan 2007

Proud to announce the launch of Footnote - and first content partnership with the National Archives

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Today Footnote.com has launched.

What is Footnote? It’s a place where you can explore and annotate millions of original historic documents, upload your own images or write about what you’ve found.

View an introduction screencast

Footnote began with two simple ideas:

First, what if any document, photograph or image could be the catalyst for conversations and linked to anything?

On the web, there is plenty of conjecture but often scant evidence. Footnote hopes to encourage exploration, discovery and, of course, discussions by providing the tools to access real documents. That way people can begin to engage in more interesting and productive debates.

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An example of bringing history forward: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address shown in the Footnote viewer.

Second, People = Content + Meaning.

During the customer research trips we made over the past six months, we found plenty of evidence that people are actively digitizing their lives. The problem is they have few ideas about what do after that.

And a growing number have a sense there is some greater collective experience to be had.

My epiphany came during a visit with a gentleman outside Boston. After going through an early demo of the site, he reached for a leather-bound journal, containing the sermons and diary of his great-grandfather, and opened it.

“When you first visited, I thought about what I could take from Footnote,” he said.

“But now, all I can think about is what I can give.”

I’m hoping Footnote will encourage people to freely share that kind of unique information.

Where we enable people to create relationships between documents, images, individuals, places, events - and turn that into something meaningful.

But a person shouldn’t have to contribute a life’s work to be noticed. The bar should be set a lot lower. On Footnote, people are encouraged to identify simple things like people, places, dates or short transcriptions found in images. These small acts will become invaluable by making connections easier to see and documents easier to find. For example, here’s what I’ve contributed so far:

NARA partnership - 4.5 million documents and rising

To jumpstart more conversations, we’ve formed a novel partnership with the National Archives. Today we have about 4.5 million documents, most which have never been seen on the web before. We plan on adding millions more each month.

The rich historic focus might catch some by surprise, since I’ve been writing with Shayne on this blog for the last five years about citizen journalism.

Sure, I could have created a news aggregator or a wiki service but that didn’t seem to fill the need I was seeing while sitting in people’s homes across the country.

People are learning to better inform themselves and looking for ways to better inform others. I think that’s a healthy activity for a democracy, which needs constant vigilance and renewal.

We need to support that because democracy is a brazen idea but a fragile construct.

Want the evidence? Spend a few moments sifting through the Papers of the Continental Congress, be an eyewitness to the birth of an idea - the United States.

Don’t take my word for it. Read their words: The secrets of
Benjamin Franklin (aka Da Franklin Codes), the papers of Thomas Paine or more than one thousand letters of Thomas Jefferson.

So why history? Because there’s lots of it - and we live with its consequences every day.

Update: I’ve just learned that the Footnote.com partnership with NARA is not just novel, it’s the first one!

Posted on Jan 10, 2007 | 5:33 pm EST
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Saturday, 02 Dec 2006

Blogging from the newsroom

Blogging has emerged from a distinctly different world than journalism and plays by different rules.

Yet, newspapers have become infatuated with blogs. They offer a quick and informal way to communicate with readers while opening the potential for reaching new audiences.

American Journalism Review offers a close look at the vigorous debate blogs in the newsroom have been fueling about staffing, liability and journalistic standards.

Via Micro Persuassion

Posted on Dec 02, 2006 | 2:12 am EST
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Tuesday, 14 Nov 2006

Powazek: A Tale of Three Communities

Derek Powazek writes about magazines - and most other established media’s - reluctance to partner with their audience:

The online world has created a culture of creation among ordinary people. Meanwhile, magazines are still partying like it’s 1899. Writers write, readers read, and never the twain shall meet.

Simply put, this can’t last.

His siren’s call is reminiscent of something we heard famous typographer David Berlow say at a small Poynter conference in the mid-90s.

At an earlier talk, he made a suggestion that newspapers would be extinct within 20 years. The onslaught of criticism caught him by surprise and made him seriously rethink his prediction. He then added: “Make it 15 years.”

Posted on Nov 14, 2006 | 9:46 pm EST
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Wednesday, 25 Oct 2006

Don't write, build something

Follow our progress

I remember it well.

It was last March. Shayne and I were at the Whose News? conference at Harvard.

Between one of the sessions I found myself talking with Bill Gannon, Editorial Director of Yahoo!

I was asking what he’d like to see in a new paper we were working on when he suddenly stopped me.

“Don’t write anything. Just build something. And then sell it to us.”

The clarity and simplicity of his advice was undeniable. Writing, though it opened many opportunities for us, was ultimately about trying persuade others to action. Why not take action ourselves?

As autumn approached, Gannon’s advice still echoed in my head. But with so many ideas floating around the ol’ bean, I couldn’t settle on just one.

Then the phone rang.

“Hi, Chris? I was told I need to hire you.”

At first, I thought it was a case of mistaken identity or a crank call. But the caller sounded legit. I agreed to meet for lunch.

“So, what’s the project?”

“Well, I have a bunch of money, but don’t know what to build. Thought you might.”

By March, I had left my position as creative director at Ancestry.com and was working with a small, highly-skilled team in Lindon, Utah.

Since then, it’s been non-stop brainstorming, designing and researching. The family has had to deal with seeing Dad a little less but our blog and the follow-up report, We Media 2.0, have felt the brunt of neglect.

At the same time, Shayne has seen his efforts payoff and is working with Microsoft.

The bottom-line is that while we’ve taken a much needed break after four years of writing, things are good.

And, with a little luck, there will be a reward for the five-month silence on this blog: Something will be built.

For the curious, we’ve started a blog to share some details of our work-in-progress.

Posted on Oct 25, 2006 | 11:03 pm EST
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