Tom Ferrick Jr., a former columnist and reporter covering government and politics for The Philadelphia Inquirer, believes the continuing demise of in-depth news coverage signals the loss of a check in our national system of checks and balances.
After all, he asserts, democracy is a form of government that relies on an informed citizenry.
So what happens if our sources of investigative news coverage die out?
It’s a scenario he’d rather not live to see.
Tom recently launched a website called Metropolis, with in-depth news, analysis and commentary for the Philadelphia region.
I’m a former journalist and the concept of Metropolis piqued my interest. So I gave Tom a ring and we chatted about his new venture. Here are highlights from our conversation.
Interview with Tom Ferrick, Senior Editor for the website, Metropolis:
What’s the impetus for Metropolis?
Tom: You’re seeing the decline in traditional media. Journalism is still sound but the economic model is failing. And my argument is we’re still fine with breaking news — TV and the newspapers do a good job with breaking news. But it’s the other stuff they used to do — the analysis, the investigations — those kinds of things that are broader. The real hard work. That stuff is diminishing and we sort of end up with this news and information gap.
Locally and regionally, it’s declined, … so my argument is we’ve got to find a way to fill that void and that’s what this is designed do.
Do you have a content strategy?
Tom: The content is very much local, or regional. It’s a combination of commentary, good analysis, in-depth stories and investigations. That’s the portfolio.
Right now, if you look at the site it has four main components. There’s a main story, a commentary called Publius, which is about politics and government and commentary and analysis of that. VoxPop, which is more personal essays and reflections — people’s voices that reflect life in Philadelphia today. And then I have New and Recommended that points people to other interesting articles. I’d like to expand that over time.
And you picked those four main areas because they are personal interests?
Tom: I spent my whole life covering politics. I played on my strengths. I would not put up a sports site — let’s put it that way. It’s not where I’m at.
How are you getting contributors?
Tom: I advertised on Craig’s’ List and that was mostly for the VoxPop personal essays. I’m getting some of the political commentary that comes over the transom, and rest is people in the business I’ve known for years whom I’ve recruited to write stories. I don’t pay much… $50 for the first article, $75 for the second, and $100 for the third… For the bigger pieces, I can’t pay these people what they’d normally get. But I’ll pay them 400 to 500 bucks. My feeling is free is the new model, but I think if you’re going to ask people to do professional quality work, you can’t ask them to that that for free… If it’s a professional writer, I think you should pay them. Even if it amounts to an honorarium.
Is it self-financed?
Tom: Yes, at this stage.
You’re not soliciting for ads?
Tom: Not yet. I think I have to have an audience before I start charging people [laughs]. It’s a radical idea.
So what’s the economic model?
Tom: My hope is, because this is a non-profit that I’ve established, called the Public Media Lab, there will be a foundation or wealthy individuals who see the value of it and want to see it expand and sustained, and will step forward to provide some funds to operate it.
Well there has been talk of non-profit foundations stepping in to save traditional journalism, as we now know it. Just as an idea; not that a foundation has said they’re going to do it.
Tom: Right. And I think the other side of that is, the economic model for making these kinds of sites go forward has not yet been found. It’s all a process of discovery. I don’t think it’s a good idea in the long run for foundations to pay for news operations. But I think it’s a good idea to provide the research and development money. The seed money.
What’s the case you make? Why should they support you?
Tom: The simple case is this: Good journalism is really important to a good democracy. You need it. It serves a public purpose in that sense. And if we’re sort of headed into the dark ages through the collapse of the big news institutions, you have to ask yourself, what is going to replace it, if anything?
So what do you see as the damage being done? What’s lost?
Tom: The information that citizens need to not only monitor the politicians who are supposed to serve them but can also help the neighborhoods they live in.
One could argue that people just don’t want to read that kind of thing and that’s why you see so little of it nowadays.
Tom: My argument is there is a market. I think this kind of stuff will find a niche.
Do you think what you’re doing can serve as a potential model that may be picked up in other cities?
Tom: I think there is a core of people who see value in what I call American style journalism — which is independent of political party, fact-based, verified. As opposed to a state-run paper or infotainment. And I think the people who practice that type of journalism are going to have to look for new venues to continue to practice that.
As the old ones fall you’re really emerging into an era of experimentation as to what new venues you can find. This is what I am trying to do. There’s a lot of this stuff going on like this around the country.
- Deni Kasrel
Do you think Tom is on the right track with his new venture, Metropolis? Do you think it’s a good model to help save the future of local hard-news journalism. Please share your thoughts. Comments welcome.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 8 so far )
If you’ve used Google this week, you may have noticed a “Latest results” section where content is delivered in a dynamic stream. These are real-time updates pulled from various sources, including social media and news sites.
There’s a scroll bar — you can move it up or down to see more items, and if you click the “Latest results” header link, or click “Latest” in the left-hand search options menu, you’ll get a full page of up-to-the-minute results.
The new real-time feature is in response to growing public desire for instant up-to-the minute information; and by the popularity of Twitter, in particular. There’s even a joke going around that if you haven’t heard about something on Twitter, then it hasn’t happened yet.
Google is following the trend.
Millions of changes a day
Earlier this week Google’s blog featured a post titled Relevance meets the real-time web, which explains the how and why of its entry into real-time search.
The company touts its accomplishment, which we are told, is:
“based on more than a dozen new search technologies that enable us to monitor more than a billion documents and process hundreds of millions of real-time changes each day.”
Sounds like a heck of a lot processing, but then, Google’s business is based on crunching billions of bits of information on a regular basis — as of June of this year its engine was estimated to receive 304 million searches per day.
Of course, the results returned for those searches were based on a lag-time between when a piece of information first hits the web and when it gets indexed. If you searched for a specific term on one day, and then a week later, the results were often similar.
As of December 7, with real-time search, Google tells us:
“Now, immediately after conducting a search, you can see live updates from people on popular sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, as well as headlines from news and blog posts published just seconds before. When they are relevant, we’ll rank these latest results to show the freshest information right on the search results page.”
What defines relevancy?
The algorithm for Google’s search engine is tip-top secret (sort of), not to mention constantly changing. However, it is commonly understood that if others think you are worthy — say by linking to your website, or your link in search results gets lots of clicks/traffic — this can help raise your rank in the search engine results page. And yes, there’s more to it and that I am way over-simplifying, still, the gist is that indicators of quality and/or popularity matter.
With real-time flow of information it’s challenging to ascertain what’s deemed good quality. Sure you’ve got retweets, tags, bookmarks and social news sites that can infer a degree of popularity (which is not the same as quality, to be sure). There’s also authority of domain to go by. Regardless, the concept of relevance is harder to pin down when messages are pumping out at a furious pace.
For instance, a search for “obama” on the day President Barack Obama personally received the Nobel Peace Prize, you get real-time results like this:
Whatever the result, it moves by fast. If one item offends, or is of little interest, count to three and something new comes into view.
It’s an intriguing way to measure the popular zeitgeist.
And if nothing else, Google’s real-time search results prove that what’s news can merely mean what’s new, and what’s relevant is all relative.
- Deni Kasrel
What are your thoughts on real-time search? Does it really improve the search experience? Comments welcome.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Would you attend a talk titled How and Why I Failed?
Many of us are programmed to shirk that one off without a thought.
We want to learn how to succeed.
What about a panel on failure?
A person on a panel I attended at the Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit 2009 suggested the event should sponsor a panel on failure.
He noted there is as much, if not more, to be learned in knowing why a project didn’t work out as there is in hearing why one succeeded.
It’s a great point — especially if your aim is to innovate.
Most attempts at innovation fail. If it were easy everyone could do it.
Experimentation is essential to innovation
Experimentation is fundamental to innovation. Testing to see what does or does not work is an ongoing part of the research and development process. There’s an implicit hope that an experiment may uncover heretofore-unknown knowledge that may lead to a new discovery. If not then testing continues.
We should all thank scientists for having this attitude; otherwise we’d suffer from a multitude of ailments that have been eradicated due to dogged trial and error research.
No one bats 1000
In business the fear of failure leads to paralysis and a play it safe mentality, where no one wants to stick his/her neck out and propose something new. You don’t want to be the one who came up with a faulty idea.
Unless your goal is innovate. Then you’re not afraid of failure because you know that’s part of the deal.
No person, or enterprise, bats 1000.
Failure can lead to smashing success
In the late ‘80s early ’90s Apple introduced its infamous Newton. The device was a PDA (personal digital assistant) before anyone knew what these were or what to do with them. A product ahead of its time, it was also buggy and the Newton failed in the market; big-time.
Two developers of the Newton went on to create the operating system for the first iPods.
The iPhone includes certain elements of the Newton and the rumored Apple tablet, if it is indeed coming to market, will (reputedly) incorporate concepts first introduced via the Newton.
Famous people’s thoughts on failure
Woody Allen, a man whose broken cinematic conventions (and social ones too, but we won’t get into that) said:
“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
“I have not failed, not once. I’ve discovered 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
And for good measure I’ll include a quote by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. It’s from a commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford University where he spoke about his ability to learn and move on from failure:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
The secret to success is to learn from failure
I soaked up a lot of information at the Creative Economy Summit, from people who talked about how to succeed through business strategies, social media and new technologies.
But I think that comment about needing to acknowledge and learn from failure may be the most useful insight of all.
– Deni Kasrel
Do YOU think failure is a critical factor to achieve innovation? Is it a secret to success? Comments welcome.
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Last week I posted a piece about trends that are getting lots of attention. Which, in case you missed it, are real-time web, crowdsourcing and latent semantic indexing.
Another trend I thought about including is augmented reality.
A greater reality
If you break it down linguistically, there’s “augmented,” which according to the American Heritage Dictionary means “to make (something already developed or well under way) greater, as in size, extent, or quantity.” And there’s “reality,” defined as “the quality or state of being actual or true.”
Basically you’re making something that’s actual and true even greater.
007 would love it
One consumer-friendly version of this futuristic innovation applies to next-generation electronics, where if you point a device that’s augmented reality-equipped, it instantly processes what’s being viewed and sends graphics and text specific to that scene. Point the gizmo while standing outside a restaurant (for some reason restaurants are a common example to illustrate this advancement) and you get the skinny on the eatery; a view of the interior, menu, reviews and hours of business.
In another iteration, when you walk though a historic site, as you amble around, the apparatus continuously provides a video-version of what happened way back when, superimposed over the real environment.
The military is hot for augmented reality and there’s talk of serious applications for science.
A tracking device, too?
It’s a ways off till all this hits the market. And while clearly an intriguing concept, which I’m admittedly over-simplifying, augmented reality represents yet another means of digitally tracking our movements: One more instance where we’re giving up privacy for the sake of cool technology.
GPS systems are great, however details that get collected and analyzed in order to give us the information we want are also a record of our travels.
We acknowledge that there’s ultimately no privacy on the web. We can clean our cache and crumble our cookies, but the data remains on a server somewhere.
Give to get
Search engines accept our queries and then display ads based on our input. Our seemingly private emails are processed. I was both humored and surprised a few weeks ago after sending a message to a pal whose nickname is Beanie, when beside her reply, my gmail client dished up ads for bean bags and beanie hats.
One common defense for the latter intrusions is that search and gmail are free services. The quid pro quo is that they get to turn us into chunks of data to mine for advertising and other purposes. It’s out in the open. I get it. It still creeps me out.
Keep it real
The promise of augmented reality is exciting. The privacy trade-off gives me the willies. Makes me wonder, what’s wrong with being real?
- Deni Kasrel
Are you concerned about how new technology affects privacy? Your comments welcome.
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Today I did something that I’ve not done in a while. I composed a letter, signed it with a pen and put it in a mailbox.
As is the norm anymore my main mode of correspondence is the digital kind. It’s easier to dash off an email and hit send.
I wrote the letter because a friend of mine isn’t really into email. He offered to pass my resume on to an acquaintance who may be able to assist in my job search. So there you go: Paper letter and resume it is.
The process of creating this hard copy dispatch—along with penning a real signature, folding the paper, addressing and sealing the envelope—felt different than the expediency of internet communication. There will be no email trail or online back and forth. Any response will be via real conversation.
This got me thinking about what goes missing when we lose the art of letter writing.
There are libraries with books, boxes and files of letters written by famous people: Mozart, Galileo, Vincent Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickenson and plenty more. Reading the letters of these luminaries sheds light on the person and the times they lived in. A book of email messages can’t have anywhere near the same insight or impact.
And wherefore goes the love letter? A piece of paper to be read, reread, saved and cherished. A love email? Not even close.
A letter on stationary or a note card is something that we touch. It’s personal because we hold it in our hand. That’s a different experience than reading a computer or smart phone screen.
A letter holds more gravitas than email. We’ve all heard the request, “put it in writing.”
The act of writing a letter often leads to more complete and thoughtful correspondence. With email we like to get to the point quick. With texting, even quicker.
It’s funny to think that if you want to stand out from the pack these days sending a paper letter might do the trick. Everyone else is online.
What do YOU think of the lost art of letter writing? Comments welcome.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 6 so far )
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