Wednesday, November 30, 2005

An interesting vision of how blog technology can save newspapers

This piece was posted on slashdot, one of the biggest blog sites of them all, and written by a longtime writer for slashdot and its parent company. He has a lot of experience with online journalism and building online community sites, and has a big suggestion for the newspapers of the world. See, in the face of TV and Internet the typical newspaper circulation is shrinking. It seems the newspaper teams are not grokking the online world and how to best ride the tiger to their success, which is a shame because there's a natural fit between newspapers and localized online community.

A Recipe for Newspaper Survival in the Internet Age (Posted by Roblimo @ slashdot on Wednesday November 30, 2005 @11:28AM)

He says a lot of very interesting things ... which I don't want to repeat .. instead I'm going to hit on the high points.

First, newspapers have a potential role that's a natural fit for them. They could easily be a hub for a local interactive community website. They just have to marry articles with user comments in a strong way. And newspapers could easily tap on locals to do some of the writing.

Instead when newspapers allow user comments it's usually buried in a web forum elsewhere on the site, not connected with the articles, and perhaps requiring a separate login from the newspaper. This is probably a technology problem in that the newspaper content management system probably doesn't allow for comments, and so to provide a space for reader discussion they tack on a bulletin board on the side but then it might be difficult or impossible for both software packages to use the same user identity database.

It's also related to an article I posted here yesterday. Namely, in the past corporations have seen blogging as a PR nightmare waiting to happen. Newspapers probably see user comments in the same light, and in Roblimo's post he does go over several classes of users and how some of them will post problematic comments. That just means having a good moderation system to handle problematic comments.

Second, he has a strong statement about newspapers and their "local" roles. That's an interesting thought, since by their nature newspapers serve a specific area. There clearly is a need for local coverage of local matters. But what one gets from viewing most news media is that the only important activity that happens is in Washington DC, New York or Los Angeles. Well, excuse me, but what about the rest of the country?

There clearly is a need for news media that covers the national scene, just as there's a need for news media that covers the local scene.

I think one problem is that newspapers are not local any longer. Instead the management is through national chains. There might be reporters and editors hired in each local place, but the managerial tone is set from the national office. In particular the national chain might be providing the bulk of the news through their national news desks in NYC, DC and LA and the local outlets are simply supposed to reprint whatever the national chain sends them.

Third, he has a revolutionary concept of the way to produce the newspaper.

Eventually, I expect print newspapers to become "snapshots" of their Web editions taken at 1 a.m. or another arbitrary time, poured into page templates and massaged a little by layout people, then sent to the printing presses, a pattern that has potential for significant production cost reductions if handled adroitly. From that point on, their paper editions will be distributed the same way newspapers are now.

This is rather a large departure from how newspapers function today, so it's worth delving into this a little.

The paradigm he spins is that the newspaper site would be the primary repository of content. The content (articles) comes from a mix of hired reporters, user comments, and locals who provide either story leads or full articles. The latter, locals who can provide a full article that's good enough to run with little editing, might get paid on a per-article basis. I think they could be called a "stringer", right?

The web site would get continually moderated and edited throughout the day. Hence the news organization still needs editors to oversee the articles for quality. It's just that when the editor is finished editing the article, it can be directly published to the web site right away.

The last step is what he describes ... laying out a printed edition can be easily done automatically with software. As he says, the software would take a snapshot of the web site at a given time, automatically do layout and formatting, perhaps with a little human tweaking, and send it to the printers. There's even a potential advantage in that the software can select advertising based on keywords and suddenly print media could have relevant advertising just as we enjoy today with AdSense based advertising on web sites.

'Embrace blogging' says Harvard Business School

This story is in line with the ones I posted yesterday: 'Embrace blogging' Harvard tells businesses But do it properly... or not at all (By Will Sturgeon, Published: Wednesday 30 November 2005)

There's a growing realization that blogs by corporations aren't necessarily a corporate PR disaster waiting to happen. Rather that they can help a company shape the public perception of the company and shape the public conversation about a company.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The gravest threat?

It seems to me there's a spin machine whose job is to keep alive the perception that terrorists lurk around every corner and are waiting to launch another suprise attack at any moment. Here's an article with an interestingly strange premise ... the worst danger America faces is dirty bombs sneaking into the U.S. in cargo containers.

Think inside the box (Stephen E. Flynn and Lawrence M. Wein The New York Times, TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2005)

This week President George W. Bush will seek to focus attention on border security and immigration reform. But his proposals won't protect Americans from our gravest cross-border threat: the possibility that a ship, truck or train will one day import a 40-foot cargo container in which terrorists have hidden a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon.

The Bush administration maintains that it has a smart strategy to reduce this risk. A new 24-Hour Rule requires that importers report the contents of their containers to customs inspectors one day before the boxes are loaded on ships bound for the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security's National Targeting Center then reviews the data, checking against other intelligence to determine which boxes may pose a threat. Although containers deemed high risk are inspected at cooperating foreign ports or upon entry, the rest - more than 90 percent - land without any perusal.

I wonder just who decided that this scenario was the most likely one to unfold?

Granted ... it's clear that with the vast majority of cargo containers going uninspected, that all sorts of nefarious things could be happening. But wouldn't the most likely scenario be drug runners? Drug runners have been proving themselves for years very capable and determined in getting their illicit wares into the U.S. Why wouldn't they choose such an obvious method?

Dirty bombs? Gimme a break! That's just another of the crazy schemes the administration has been foisting on us since September 11, 2001.

Transparency, blogging and corporate blogs

One of the supposed advantages to blogging is that it's supposedly transparent. By posting your thoughts openly, freely, in a personal voice, etc, that somehow makes the process transparent. Hmmm... I'm not sure.

Transparency, How Far Do We Go?

Blog transparency -- synthetic or authentic?

Corporate Blogging as Synthetic Transparency?

Using ‘Synthetic Transparency’ to set Expectations on the level Transparency Found on your Corporate Blog

The "synthetic transparency" line is a kind of false transparency that is consciously or unconsciously put into the blog. The blogging paradigm is to strive for transparency, but you can talk the talk without walking the walk.

The thing I take from the above blog postings is about the expectations you make by how the blog site is constructed. For example the typical blog software package allows the readers to make comments, so if in the installation you leave commenting enabled then the users will expect to have a conversation with you through your comments. That's pretty clear.

Alternatively if you aren't going to reply to comments, and you turn off commenting the question is will the users feel frustrated at being unable to comment? Is their default expectation to make comments? Or do they see the "comment" button and have a Pavlovian response and later have frustration when they find it's all a fa├žade?

I sure don't know the answer to those questions, but aren't they interesting?

My opinion is that a blog is a web site, and the owner of the web site can conduct that web site however they wish. If they wish to just use it for news releases, then more power to them. It's just a web site, and the functionality of blog software makes it very suitable for press releases. If they wish to just post sales gimmicks, then more power to them. It's their web site and it's up to them how they use it.

If the web site owner wants to use their blog software to conduct a typical blog, then sure of course they should consider following the usual norms of blogging. That's called living up to the expectations they set.

Clearly if the web site owner wants to use blog software to post news releases, they probably don't want people making comments on them, so of course they should turn off the comment and trackback features of their blog software. Further they should work on the site templates to remove any hints that it's a blog. Again that's about properly setting expectations, this time ensuring that people don't get triggered into a pavlovian response and expectations of being able to comment when comments are not allowed.

Blogging customer relations - handling customer comments

John Cass (?) from Backbone Media has an interesting post about handling customer relations in corporate blogs. He starts by describing the expectation in blogging, that the readers should be free to make comments and that by posting a blog it's best to expect and foster a conversation on that blog.

This works great in various blogs ... slashdot is notorious for postings that garner hundreds of comments. However it doesn't always follow that by posting a blog you're going to get comments. On this site here I don't get many comments. I do require that people "register" with the site before making comments, but that's to keep spammers away. Seeing the amount of trackback spam attempts I get, I'm justified in placing a hurdle in front of potential commentors.

Here's the post: The GM Blog: Lessons For Customer Blogging Relations (September 2, 2005, John Cass)

For his discussion he takes interviews he conducted with two GM customers who had made comments on GM's FastLane blog site. Apparently GM has a policy of not replying to blog comments, their excuse being a lack of resources to do so. The funny thing is that while he posts their names and that they had made comments on GM's blogs, he doesn't give a synopsis of their feelings about not having received replies to their comments.

Instead he goes into a long lecture in the value of following through with the expectations you set by building a blog site.

That is, he says, the populace of blog users are accustomed to having comments on a blog turn into conversations with the blog author. That's true even if it's a CEO who makes the blog posting. Hence, his argument is that the public has an expectation that if they make a comment they'll receive a reply. Enough comments and replies and pretty soon you have yourselves a conversation (of sorts).

In my day job I am a Sun employee and one of the bloggers feeding both blogs.sun.com and java.net. Funny thing is, I don't remember there being a statement in Sun's blogging policy that we should reply to all comments.

I think in general that is a good policy. However there are some exceptions I see which are honed from a couple decades doing Usenet, Mailing Lists, message boards and blogging on the Internet.

What about trolls? What about spammers? What about flamers? What about the confused? They all exist, and they can easily take residence on your blog. If you have a policy of always replying to their comments you could easily be caught feeding the troll, which we all know just makes the troll bigger and nastier.

Some comments are better left unreplied.

For example, the perennial issue with Java is there's a lot of people who want Sun to open source our implementation. Sun has repeatedly said "no" and explained why we say no, and that hasn't satisfied them. Regularly on my java.sun.com or java.net blogs a commenter takes up residence subtly, or not so subtly, discussing open/free software and making it clear he's got an agenda to prove some point about why Sun is evil for not open sourcing Java. It's clear that they've already made up their mind, and I am not allowed to say anything other than the company line, so therefore it isn't useful for me to make further replies to their baiting comments. Hence, I ignore them.

The flamers are in almost the same boat. I don't understand flamers, why would they rove the network looking for places to spew? The spammers are not even worthy of making comments, they're only worthy of having their comments deleted or placing roadblocks up so they can't make their comment postings at all.

The confused? What I mean are the people who think they understand, and go off in a tangent not making sense all the way. More often than not your attempts to set them straight will only make them more confused. It's sad, and it's probably worthwhile making a couple replies to attempt to set them straight, but they can become a time sink that isn't worth pursuing.

Who should be making the replies to the comments? I say it is the poster of the blog entry who should field the conversation. To do any less undermines the transparency and authenticity of the blog.

The CIA and Open Source and Blogging, oh my

Boy, this is strange. I suppose Corporate Transparency as a meme is traversing into all corners of society, including the CIA. You think of the CIA as the poster child of secrecy and closed access. Well, actually, I'd think the NSA is even more the poster child, but then the NSA is so secretive nobody knows much about them, unlike the CIA.

Anyway, here's the deal:

CIA using its own blogs to gather, analyze information (By Susan B. Glasser, The Washington Post, November 27, 2005)

The article says the CIA has a blogging web site. It's tasked with publishing news tidbits from around the world. It is called the "Open Source Center" and began life in 1941 as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. The tasking then was the monitoring and translation of "media" from around the world.

Given the discussion in the article they've changed focus somewhat. They're continuing to monitor and translate media, but broadened the media to include the newfangled stuff on the Internet. For example the article says they have a blog on blogging, that is, studying the blogging scene on the Internet.

The site is here: https://www.fbis.gov/

Curiously on my way into the site was a dialog saying my browser couldn't verify the identity of the site. You'd think the CIA with the full power and weight of the U.S. government behind it ought to be able to have a properly registered HTTPS certificate, yes?

To see them use the phrase "Open Source Center" tweaks me as it does timboucher.com. To me, one who works in the computer industry, "Open Source" has a specific meaning. Namely, an object developed in the open, whose documentation, workings, implementation and more are available to anybody, can be copied and modified by anybody. The term originated with computer software, but the process can be applied to anything.

I suspect the CIA has a different meaning in mind. I suspect for them "Source" means their Intelligence Sources, hence an "Open Source" might be a source from the open communications in the world such as news media or blogs. Hence a "Closed Source" might require the typical cloak and dagger operations you typically associate with the CIA.

In any case the web site has a banner saying

Welcome to the website of the Open Source Center. OSC provides foreign media reporting and analysis to policymakers, government institutions and strategic partners. We deliver targeted, timely and authoritative open source intelligence for analysis, operations and policymaking.

And further goes on to insist the site has protected access, and that access to the site will be monitored etc. All that's on the front page are these warnings, a login screen, and a "Request Account" screen. And clicking on that button tells me to indicate my affiliation giving me this list of choices:

  • US Government Employee
  • US Government Contractor
  • State and Local Government Employee
  • State and Local Government Contractor
  • BBC Monitoring Employee
  • Foreign Liaison with US Government

Sigh, I'm none of those. However the "BBC Monitoring Employee" choice is curious. Do you suppose the BBC is part of Big Brother after all?

Here's what GlobalSecurity.org has to say about BBC Monitoring (http://www.monitor.bbc.co.uk/top.htm)

The proliferation of radio and television broadcasting in recent years has significantly increased the importance of media monitoring as a prime source of economic and political open source intelligence. BBC Monitoring scans radio, television and news agencies in over 140 countries, providing fast, reliable information in a variety of ways. It provides a range of commercially available services, and operates in conjunction with the CIA Foreign Broadcast Information Service. The Research and Information Unit at BBC Monitoring is dedicated to collecting and verifying data on political parties, events and leading political figures throughout the world.

I find it curious the same use of the "open source intelligence" phrase as above. Perhaps my guess above was correct?

Monday, November 28, 2005

A good overview of corporate blogging

Does Your Company Belong in the Blogosphere? (by Katherine Heires, Harvard Business School, November 28, 2005)

She says:

...a blog is an incredibly effective yet low-cost way to:

  • Influence the public "conversation" about your company: Make it easy for journalists to find the latest, most accurate information about new products or ventures. In the case of a crisis, a blog allows you to shape the conversation about it.
  • Enhance brand visibility and credibility: Appear higher in search engine rankings, establish expertise in industry or subject area, and personalize one's company by giving it a human voice.
  • Achieve customer intimacy: Speak directly to consumers and have them come right back with suggestions or complaints—or kudos.

And along the way points to several corporate bloggers including a few CEO's.

An advice blog meant for CEO's is showcased, but after reading a few entries I don't get how the content is for CEO's.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Flu pandemic scares and domineering politicos

Since I don't watch television, the "asian flu" scare has largely not affected me. But I gather second hand reading the newspaper that this is a big deal, with many people panicing over whether there's going to be a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 epidemic that killed 50-100 million people.

Of course I, and nobody else, knows whether that will be the case. But... I have something else to discuss around this issue.

H5N1 hysteria: Patent nonsense on avian flu (By Alec van Gelder The Boston Globe, Appearing in the International Herald Tribune, November 1, 2005)

Bush unveils pandemic flu strategy Improving vaccines, stockpiling antiviral drugs part of plan (Tuesday, November 1, 2005; Posted: 10:45 a.m. EST (15:45 GMT), CNN.COM)

It's interesting to contrast these two stories.

The first is along the lines of "what's all the fuss about". It's not clear the H5N1 strain that everybody is all worried about will jump to humans, and if it does whether it will be all that virulent. And how does this disease with unknown probability of affecting humans compare against the diseases that have known effect on humans, but are not getting near the same attention as the H5N1 flu?

The second story is Bush proposing a plan of proactive measures to detect flu strains early, stockpile medicines, and deploy them rapidly in event of outbreaks. Sounds like a good plan, even if it's a bit militaristic in style. Mebbe he's been fighting this war for too long?

Here's the deal ... and for this I borrow some observations from a well known conspiracy theorist. David Ickes describes the general game plan of the global elite as being to use disasters as a cover under which to cause societal changes that give the elites more control over us. It appears this is another of those instances.

The strategy Ickes describes is this: Disastrous event happens. The people are scared, frightened, worried over their safety, and looking for some way to be safe. Along comes the elite person who deploys a PR machine to shape the populaces worry towards a direction that will achieve the elite's longterm goal. It doesn't matter whether the solution is a good idea, what matters is to make the solution keep the entrenched power of the elite safe and secure. In the midst of crisis people accept solutions they wouldn't otherwise accept.

For example .. you have the September 11, 2001 attack ... disastrous event by all means of consideration ... but flowing out of that event we got the PATRIOT act which trounced all over our civil liberties, and we got a stupid illegal war in Iraq that doesn't do anything about the people who attacked us, but instead fulfills the longstanding plans of the neocons.

My analysis of Bush's flu plan is that ... it's very subtle. It's a sound-seeming idea, being proactive about detecting illnesses. Especially in our modern society with frequent around-the-world travel the opportunity for diseases to quickly spread around the world is enormous.

However ... to implement the plan would mean having some sort of international disease detection agency who has the power to enter any country and go anywhere. Such an agency would serve to take another step in undermining national soveriengty, turning that over to international agencies.

Why do I say it requires an international agency? Think about the recent history of widespread diseases. AIDS supposedly arose from a remote area of Africa. SARS arose from a remote area in China. H5N1 is arising from remote areas in Asia, and is especially connected with migratory birds. But their origins in remote areas didn't halt the spread of the diseases.

In other words - to detect these diseases early, one needs a detection system with fingers into every remote nook and cranny of the world.

How do you implement that? Well, it might be simplest to start with the World Health Organization (WHO), but the Bush administration has repeatedly accused the UN and its agencies of being ridiculous ("irrevelant"). It's especially telling that in the announcement he only had present U.S. officials. This may become another of these schemes he's had where the U.S. unilaterally says we're better/stronger/etc than the rest of the world, and we're going to dominate the rest of you into doing this our way.

Either that or his plan is extremely narrow minded and he's going to completely ignore the international aspect to this issue. In such a plan the detection would only be in the U.S. and serve only U.S. citizens.