Thinking Digitally in the Newsroom: What’s New *This* Week?

social-media-550767_960_720.pngOne of the hardest things about “thinking digitally” in the newsroom is that it’s almost impossible to fully keep up with all of the new storytelling tools and techniques. We can try, but we’ll inevitably fail.

How do I know? Well, I’ve been primarily a “print guy” for more than two decades, an era when one new story form after another has challenged my creativity in presenting the news.

First, believe it or not, was photography. Just as the commercial web was emerging, so was digital photography — cheap, mobile, ready for posting. There was more of it, so we used more of it, both in print and online. That alone was like learning a new journalism language.

Then came blogging, microblogging and later live-tweeting. Now we were also doing audio, feature video, livestreams and animated data visualizations. We’re even letting computers write some articles now.

Today, our imaginations are going wild thinking about the possibilities of 360 video, drone photography and augmented reality. Just as we start figuring out what works and doesn’t work with each of these new forms — and just as we come to terms with the ethical dilemmas they pose — other innovations won’t be far behind.

So, it seems to me that the best any media mortal can do is to keep an open mind, embrace experimentation and be prepared to fail a lot. That line of thinking has become cliche in Silicon Valley, but maybe that’s because the tech world has been absorbing change at a pace that the media world is only now appreciating.

I Analyzed My Facebook Data, and It All Seems Fine to Me *

26405895567_3ba098e250_zPhoto by

My relationship with Facebook is complicated. I think Facebook does a lot of good things. On balance, I think it spreads more information than disinformation. It helps people organize peaceful movements for change. My far-flung family is watching my kids grow up over Facebook. Facebook is how I stay connected to my former classmates and colleagues in members-only groups. Last week I had an impromptu, 30-minute Messenger conversation with a friend from grade school who I haven’t spoken to in 35 years and who lives in Michigan. I was grateful that Facebook allowed me to do that.

I believe that Facebook is also causing harm, though, by making social interactions superficial. People get more depressed and feel more isolated the more they use it, studies show. It’s too often a forum for bullying and divisiveness. It propagates fake news. At least once a day I nearly collide with a pedestrian who is too busy checking his feed to watch where he’s going. We’re obsessed with Facebook, and that’s not good.

Even Sean Parker, a Facebook billionaire and its first president, now criticizes social media generally as “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he said.

Despite all that, after carefully analyzing my downloaded Facebook records, I find it hard to muster any outrage about the personal data the company is collecting about me. Almost nothing I found alarmed me. There are 465 conversations, but a quick sampling reminds me that I’m pretty careful with my words on Facebook because I know my messages are being stored. There’s my whole timeline and a boatload of photos and videos, but again, I don’t post anything that I would be ashamed to see beyond the confines of my friend network.

*-One file disturbed me — the one that had the contents of my entire contact list, taken from my phone. This is just a direct copy of my phone book, which includes a whole lot of people who aren’t even on Facebook. This kind of data collection feels intrusive.

So, all things considered, the uprising over Facebook’s data-collection practices seems overblown. Should Facebook collect less of our data? Maybe. Should it curb or eliminate the ability of third parties to gain access to our personal data? Yes. Should Facebook, as a potentially abusive monopoly, be watched closely by regulators and reined in if necessary? Absolutely.

But am I surprised that Facebook collects everything I post to my timeline or send in a message? Do I feel that my privacy has been invaded? Do I feel duped? Nah.


Is Facebook Making Your Depressed? | Psychology Today, Oct. 14, 2017:

Why It’s Time to Curb Facebook’s Power | Inc. magazine, Dec. 19, 2017:

Back to School for This Old Fart: An Intergenerational Journey | Reflections Blog

dangerfieldIt’s a good bet that I’m further along in my career than most of my classmates. This means that I’m old and want them to get off my lawn. This also means that there’s already a certain amount of momentum behind my career path that may be harder to alter than if I were starting fresh.

So when you ask what from Intro to Digital Communications will have the biggest effect on my job and career, I’m not sure I have a dramatic answer.

It was certainly refreshing to be able to pause long enough to see the media industry from afar and assess the extent to which the digital transformation is affecting not only the business but readers and citizens. And certain revelations from the class will stick with me, such as the extent to which the news industry’s reliance on advertising can distort judgments in the newsroom, and how that phenomenon is accelerating online.

More than anything, I think this class helped me learn from the experience of my classmates. Many of them never knew a world without an internet. Hearing them talk about their optimism for the promise of technology while also expressing alarm about the implications of technology on privacy, democracy, work conditions and the job market was illuminating and reassuring.

This is the age group that is already shaping the direction of digital media, and I look forward to learning more from them as this program progresses.

Digital Advertising and Public Relations: More Guided Missiles, Fewer Carpet Bombs | Reflections Blog

Advertisers know more about the effectiveness of their messages than ever. Metrics rule: How many people saw that website ad? How many clicked on it? How many clicked on it and then made a purchase? How did the response to that online ad compare with the response to a similar TV ad?

Now, factoring in the cost of the ads, which produced the highest amount of sales for the smallest price? What’s the return on my advertising investment?

Despite these strides, a large chunk of big-brand advertising budgets still goes to forms of media — like traditional television, radio and newspapers — that don’t lend themselves to high-quality data collection. How many sales resulted from that $1 million Super Bowl ad? How does brand awareness from such an ad contribute to sales over time? Nobody really knows. A lot of advertising is still guesswork. My expectation would be that over the next 5 to 10 years, advertisers will gravitate even more to modes of media that produce quantifiable results.

A direct reflection of the fragmentation of media, this vision of the near future means that consumers will increasingly see messages reinforcing their brand choices in subtle ways: A brand like Nike, instead of spending $100 million on TV ads to reach a cable audience of, say, 5 million — many of whom might not be potential customers and many of whom might fast-forward through the commercial — might want to spend an increasing share of that budget on highly targeted ads that show up in the Facebook and Snapchat feeds of only the most probable and profitable customers.

In war-making terms, you might say that advertisers are likely to move toward more precision-guided missiles and fewer carpet bombs. The same might be said of public relations campaigns. Increasingly it’s more important to reach the right people than to reach the highest number of people.

Why Digital Media Didn’t Kill Off the Career Journalist | Reflections Blog


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Digital media has forever changed journalism. There’s no going back to a time when the audience was captive and the conversation was almost completely one-way. And most of the traditional news jobs that have gone away are not coming back. But at least one doomsday scenario for people who earn their living as journalists has not come true: Citizen journalists aren’t replacing career journalists when it comes to original reporting.

Don’t misunderstand me: Citizen journalism is also here to stay. Non-career journalists will continue to contribute to news-gathering in valuable ways, like allowing us all to witness police brutality. Each one of those videos of a cop shooting an unarmed black man was an act of journalism. Citizen journalists also contribute valuable feedback and specialized know-how to more traditional reports.

Career journalists (I reject the term “professional journalist” because it’s not a licensed profession and, by constitutional design, not reserved for an elite group) are still central to the news because they are tested. They’ve learned and sharpened their craft by doing, by making mistakes and then correcting them. They’ve interviewed countless people and know how to judge people’s credibility. They’ve written articles that were unfair to people and learned how to avoid repeating the mistake. They’re practiced at distinguishing between good sources and bad sources. They’ve made, in many cases, thousands and thousands of news judgments, day after day, and now that critical-thought process is automatic. They’re proficient storytellers.

So we still rely on career journalists because we need people fully dedicated to the endeavor. Modern Americans hunger for information and, I hope, regard journalists as watchdogs checking the power of governments and corporations. We are dependent on them to bear witness in places we can’t go. Their measured and dispassionate reports guide how we feel about climate change and who we’ll vote for. An informed citizenry is indispensable in any democracy. For that we need people on the case full time.


How Big Data Reflects and Contributes to Income Inequality | Reflections Blog


(Photo by @mvdheuvel)

How does big data factor into the digital divide? I hadn’t considered the relationship between these two phenomena before this assignment. When we think about big data, we think about governments and corporations amassing financial, medical and digital-behavior information about all of us. But this big-data stuff is very new and so, like any new technology, it’s most visible among the more affluent. That’s where the money is, so that’s where the early capital is steered.

Lower-income people often have less credit history than higher-earning people. They also generally spend less time on social media, conduct fewer financial transactions, see doctors less often, spend less time in school and use fewer Internet-connected devices. So it would stand to reason that less data is collected about lower-income people and that marketers would place a lower value on data about them. Capitalism will catch up to this cohort, but for now many lower-income people are flying below the big-data radar.

So, the sparse representation of lower-income people in big data is a reflection of the digital divide, because less access to gadgets means less data collection. But I suspect that the process is also working in reverse: The absence of information about the poor in big data also contributes to and reinforces income inequality, because poorer people are becoming even more invisible. As a result, governments and corporations making spending decisions based on big data are likely to skew those decisions toward the interests of the wealthy and middle class over the rest of us.

Journalism’s Brain Drain and the Effect on Local Coverage | Reflections Blog

data.jpgOf course we should care that public relations jobs are growing faster than journalism jobs, and that a tight job market in America’s newsrooms may be driving smart young people away from journalism. The result is a talent drain that deprives the public of vital information and insights that might help them become more informed citizens. Meantime, the voices of government institutions and corporations are getting louder, with the help of former journalists turned spokespeople and digital channels that let them circumvent the news media.

This is especially true at the local level, where most of the newsroom cuts are occurring. The national news media like CNN and The New York Times are still making money and aren’t cutting their headcount. Rather, they’re just reshuffling and reassigning reporters and editors to reflect how their audiences have changed in the move to digital.

Local news media, by contrast, have had a much harder time transitioning to digital; they’re losing ad revenue but not making up the difference with subscription or other revenue. So now many regions of the country no longer have even one daily newspaper, and the ones that remain are hanging by their fingernails. That often means there’s no one covering the local planning board meeting; there’s no one covering the statehouse; and there’s virtually no one holding local public officials and businesses accountable.

Many of the veteran journalists who have been displaced by this reshuffling have moved into public relations, including a good number of my former colleagues at The New York Times who, like me, have taken buyouts over the last two years. I don’t see that as tragic at all. Many of these people had long and distinguished careers in journalism, and now they’re having their second act, using their talent for telling stories in a different venue and making room for new kinds of journalists who are more attuned to the evolving way we’re telling news stories: visually, with data, and with real audience measurements behind it all.

All of that seems perfectly healthy. The Times has just about as many journalists in its newsroom as it had a decade ago; it’s just that more of those journalists are in untraditional roles like data visualization and audience development. The real crisis is occurring in small towns and even some big cities, where the atrophy of the news media is causing a dangerous imbalance between powerful institutions and those paid to watch them.

My Name Is Dave, and I’m a Digital Media Addict | Reflections Blog


My digital consumption diary told me what I pretty much already knew: that the demands of my job require that I be online for most of the workday. The news never stops. Then, on top of that, I choose to be online for much of my non-work day, whether it’s to listen to NPR One on my commute or to stream an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with my wife after the kids have gone to bed.

Overall, the leisure portion of my online use doesn’t seem so obsessive to me, because really I’m doing a lot of the same things I used to do, only now I’m using streaming apps instead of over-the-air radio or TV. That said, I do spend more time than I should messaging with people over iMessage or Facebook Messenger. Curbing that activity would improve my quality of life, I’m sure.

For a brief time, when the mobile Internet was new, having access to news all the time and on the go was novel and exciting: Read tomorrow’s news today! There’s no going back now that we’ve come to expect news as it happens. But a big part of me misses the days when there was one deadline per day and I didn’t know what my competition had until the next morning. Back then, there was a much clearer delineation between my work life and my life life. Now, not so much.

I do think we’re hooked on information technology, and I’m conflicted about it. My hope for my children is that many of the negative aspects of tech obsession – distracted driving, repetitive stress injuries and political division, to name just a few – will become quaint by the time they become adults. Hopefully by then, information will arrive more invisibly, in the background, freeing us from our dependence on the device in our pocket. We’ll still be hooked, but at least we won’t be staring down at our phones all the time.

Social Media: Where Everybody Knows Your Name | Reflections Blog


We do it. Our spouses do it too. So do our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, kids, co-workers and just about all of our neighbors. Why is social media so popular?

For starters, social media is free and easy to use. But that’s the minimum requirement for any website or app developer who wants their thingamabob to catch on quickly and widely. And most don’t. At a gut level, what sets social media apart, I think, is that it plays to our desire to belong. You may be home alone on a Saturday night, but there’s still a place you can go to connect with other people, to gripe, to listen, to live vicariously. It’s a virtual “Cheers.”

From a tech perspective, it strikes me that the rise of social media corresponded almost perfectly with the rise of smartphones and other mobile devices. This is no coincidence. We needed things to do on these powerful new pocket computers, and social media apps like Facebook and Instagram seized on this to position themselves as the first place people go on their phones.

Now that they have our attention, social media sites will almost certainly use emerging technology to get us to spend more and more time on their platforms. In media and on Wall Street, growth is king. So look for Facebook and others to get more immersive — more livecasting, more audio and video chat, more shopping, more location-based services. They’ll want us to live on their networks, if we don’t already.

The counterweight to this will be growing familial and social pressure (if you will) to scale back on social media as an activity. People are starting to realize how much time they spend — nay, waste — looking at other people doing things. They’re also coming to learn just how much information about them is being collected and exploited by businesses, thanks to social media. And they’re growing tired of the political division. The backlash is coming.

Predicting the Connected Future by Inventing It | Reflections Blog

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

The Internet, in true Internet fashion, gives several people credit for this quote: The management consultant Peter Drucker, the computer scientist Alan Kay, the Abraham Lincoln.

Whoever said it, I’m using it to put you, dear reader, on notice: All of these ideas about the future of the Internet are mine, mine, mine. Don’t let me catch you “inventing” any of it, or you’ll be hearing from my lawyer.

I guess I should hire a lawyer.

The truth is, predicting the future, especially the future of something as fast-paced as the Internet, is a fool’s errand. Unless your professor makes it an assignment. Then it’s a brilliant idea.


With apologies to Lincoln, I suppose the best way to predict this future is to think about the biggest shortcomings of using the Internet today and then imagining fixes.

Here’s a stab:

  • One network provider, at home and away. Enough fumbling with WiFi settings and passwords. Future broadband will be fast, mobile, always-on and cellular, for all devices.
  • More voice interfaces. “Star Trek” had it right. More and more, we’ll talk to our devices, and they’ll talk back. The interaction will seem natural, like talking with a friend — unlike the Siri experience, which is like talking to someone who doesn’t speak our language.
  • Always-there assistant. Our phones already bombard us with reminders about upcoming meetings and unfinished to-do items. But they arrive in many forms and they’re easy to miss. Voice interfaces will simplify all this, giving us gentle reminders that are contextual: “Hey, your dry cleaning is ready and on the way home. Want to pick it up?”
  • Wearables and wireless charging. “Oh no, I left my iPhone at home.” “Have you seen my phone?” “I ran out of juice.” It’ll seem ridiculous that we used to carry around this handheld device and crane our necks over it all day to connect to the network. Future devices will be affixed to our bodies, much like the Apple Watch or Google Glass. They’ll power up automatically and wirelessly.
  • Virtual-reality immersion. The growing sophistication of 360-degree video and VR gives a hint of what’s possible: “Visiting” with your grandfather at the nursing home 200 miles away; previewing vacation spots before booking; “experiencing” a film by positioning yourself inside of it. When I see early experiments of this sort of thing, like The New York Times’s VR report about the plight of refugees, it gives me hope that technology can foster more empathy than division, by making us feel what it’s like to be in others’ shoes.
  • More hacks. There’s no end in sight for the cat-and-mouse game between those who store our data and those who want to steal it. As we become even more dependent on the network, the sophistication and severity of those hacks will almost certainly grow. Innovation here will come not from better defensive tools but from smarter data-organization practices that keep our most sensitive vital records separate to minimize the impact of any one hack.
OK, so a lot of this stuff has already been thought up. If I really did have a patentable idea, do you think I’d tell you about it?