Farewell to immersion

The young women in front of me was moving in sync with the rhythms from the stage, enjoying the live music and the uniqueness of sharing an experience with other people. Or so I thought. Suddenly her body froze, then she started fiddling in her pocket and found the smartphone, clearly oblivious now to the music and occupied for the rest of the band’s song with texting, e-mailing, updating her status — or something. I felt sorry for her: Shouldn’t experiencing a live concert be about forgetting everything else, immersing yourself in the sound here, now? Not anymore, 4 minutes is too long for that kind of deep concentration.

Robert Kaplan makes a related point about travelling:

I am not saying information is now harder to come by. I am saying the intensity of the experience of foreign places has been diluted. The real adventure of travel is mental. It is about total immersion in a place, because nobody from any other place can contact you. Thus your life is narrowed to what is immediately before your eyes, making the experience of it that much more vivid.

With regards to meeting sources as a journalist, Kaplan notes that “It was all so much more efficient then” — paradoxical, now that we have all kinds of tools to get information instantly. The intensity of conversations has also been diminished.

Kaplan is 60 and I am not exactly young anymore, either. The default reply to laments such as these are: Young people deal with the lack of immersion in a natural way and it’s no problem for them. I am not so sure. If you have experienced the world pre-www, you can make comparisons. If anything, I would expect young people to romanticize the past. A good example is journalism students who say their biggest ambition is to work in a printed newspaper.

Why quality journalism is winning

It was an epiphany: On the list of most read stories on nytimes.com during the last week of January, number one and three were thoroughly researched and expertly edited, and they were long — 5000+ words. These articles about how Apple’s remarkable success is tightly interwoven with the evolution of a global economy are examples of top-class journalism. But stories like these aren’t supposed to make it to the top of the web’s most-read lists, even on a highbrow website. So what’s going on here?

I noticed these stories first on the New York Times’ free Android app. Then I saw them tweeted and retweeted; it was clear they were being shared and recommended, driving readers in cascades to the articles (maybe the NY Times people could share the traffic data?) Recommending and sharing has a social logic* that may well have played a part in the stories’ success. When you recommend something to your friends, followers, circles or whatever, it reflects back on you. If you want to belong to the group of people who consider themselves enlightened citizens, politically aware, curious, discerning, and even with good taste, you recommend the investigation of working conditions producing the iPad, not the latest paparazzi scoop (in this case, it didn’t hurt that the imagined recipient of the recommendation would indeed be reading the article on an… iPad).

On a structural level, we might be witnessing the well-known circulation spiral effect, but now on an international scale. In its original version, the theory claims that in a competition between two newspapers, over time the bigger one gains more and more of the advertising market, making it able to invest in quality journalism. The smaller newspaper gradually loses its share of the ad market, the quality declines, and often it eventually will fold. In the digital market(s), there are x competitors. But it appears that size and quality matters here as well. The NY Times and others are able to reinvent themselves digitally while keeping the printed newspaper going as main source of revenue for as long as possible, financing increasingly attractive digital content across platforms. Buoyed by the combination of what The Economist Group’s CEO terms “the mega-trend of mass intelligence”, and the recommendation effect, this strategy might well succeed.

You guessed it, my second example of quality journalism winning is The Economist. Its audience is growing strongly. In the first half year of 2011 the weekly had close to 1,5 million subscribers and 100.000 digital subscribers. The large majority of the latter paid for the iPad app. The Economist now has a unique opportunity to invest in the quality of its content, reinforcing the positive spiral effect. Especially interesting is how the website is used to maintain and increase interest in the weekly edition. Keen users will have noted how several new blogs have strengthened both quality and interactivity. Essential ingredients here are that the blogs are authored by the magazine’s own writers and that they contain lots of original research and observations. This is more expensive than the more common model of having external bloggers contributing (often for free). However in-house bloggers makes it easier to ensure a consistent level of quality, and consistency with profile and brand values.

The Economist’s concept of quality journalism sets it apart from traditional thinking on the nature and value of news. By reading The Economist you expect to gain a better understanding of a topic. You do not expect to find the latest expose of some secret document. In fact, many of the articles are well-written and edited summaries, with an analytical edge, strictly speaking not news at all. Many old school news journalists would find that utterly meaningless, but it might be just what many readers need. Classic news stories have a very short halflife and are seldom very interesting to read — as texts. You probably will not recommend a typical news story of five paragraphs about working conditions in Guangzhou. But a broader analysis of how China’s labour market affects your country’s economy or an investigaton into how Apple is managing its supply chain, that’s something else.

*Thanks to Håvard for pointing out this dynamic to me.

Do happy users want to pay?

By the end of the second quarter of 2011 the New York Times had acquired 224.000 paying subscribers to its digital services (plus 57.000 e-reader/e-edition subscribers).

As Felix Salmon has pointed out, the NYT paywall model is different from other high-profile attempts such as the FT’s and the WSJ’s. The NYT does its best to integrate its subscriber model with the open web: Users coming to a page on nytimes.com via links on other websites or search engines, will not see the wall. Regular users have 20 free articles per month. If they read an article more than once, only the first time is counted.

More efforts are made to entice the user to pay. When you are logged in, a module in the right column is telling you how many articles you have read during the past 30 days, and showing you ten recommendations based on your behaviour on the site. Of course, the more articles I read, the better the recommendations get. If the NYT can continue to pile up such incentives, chances of making me pay will increase.

As a contrast, the FT and the WSJ paywalls try to shut you out. Especially the FT is bombarding you with user-unfriendly messages that are annoying even to paying subscribers, as Salmon shows.

It’s too early to tell if the NYT paywall is a success (others have criticized the pricing model). Are happy users really more likely to become paying subscribers? So far the signs are encouraging: By making the paywall so porous, the NYT can uphold its commitment to the open public sphere. The porous paywall has been ridiculed by many tech-savvy users, but actually the ease of sneaking past the wall is the point, as Salmon concludes:

Paying for something you value, even when you don’t need to, is a mark of a civilized society. The NYT treated its readers as mature and civilized adults, and outperformed internal expectations as a result. Meanwhile, the WSJ and FT are still treating their readers with mistrust, as though they’ll be robbed somehow if they ever let their guard down a little. It’s a sad and ultimately self-defeating stance, and I hope in future they learn from the NYT’s embrace of the open web, even in conjunction with a paywall.

It is becoming more and more clear that the NYT functions as a leading innovator for all the world’s established news media, both on the business and editorial side (see beta620 for examples). It is now really a global Leitmedium.

Riksarkivet på Flickr Commons

Foto: Riksarkivet/Landslaget for reiseliv i Norge. (No known copyright restrictions).

Riksarkivet er blitt den tredje norske institusjonen til å legge ut fotohistorisk materiale på Flickr Commons. Dette prosjektet vokser støtt og stadig; nye arkiver, biblioteker og museer kommer til, og de som har vært med lengre legger ut nye bilder. For to år siden skrev jeg en artikkel i forbindelse med at Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek ble den første norske deltakeren i prosjektet.

Finding the source of an epidemic: Faster with open data?

German public health officials are working around the clock to find the source of the e.coli (EHEC) epidemic. Today as many as 365 new cases were confirmed, in all there are more than 1000 cases. So far at least 14 deaths have been registered.

Germany is probably one of the countries in the world most able to deal with such a serious epidemic. However, looking at media coverage and the way public health agencies are informing citizens, I think a different approach could speed up the crucial process of finding the source.

A similar, though not so quickly developing epidemic occurred in Norway in 2006 (link in Norwegian). 18 persons, 16 of them children, were hospitalized with e.coli. One of the children died. Research by the public health agencies, including of course interviews with patients and their families, pointed initially towards ground meat as the culprit. But this turned out to be a wrong lead (as many of us following the news had suspected). Several weeks went by until the bacteria was found in “morrpølse” and traced back to a specific production facility.

The story and the “ground meat hypothesis” dominated the media, and this was a hot topic for discussion around breakfast and lunch tables all over the country. At the time, I wondered why the public health experts didn’t disclose more of their findings. If they had published all data and information from interviews and research (of course anonymized for privacy), then other experts, and smart people in general, could have contributed their own analysis. Perhaps they could have pointed to leads that officials had overlooked, patterns they hadn’t observed. Can we for example rule out that some IT experts have better tools at their disposal, or at least other tools than the officials in charge? Of course, data should be published in English so that foreigners also could weigh in.

One obvious counter-argument is that asking for ideas and analysis from the public would open the floodgates and confuse rather than help researchers. But this is again a question of having the right tools available for filtering and analysing contributions. After all, crowdsourcing research processes has been tried before.

In the ongoing German epidemic, online media could play a constructive part by starting such a process of asking the audience for advice and ideas. At least they should start by offering more in-depth interactive presentations of how the epidemic is spreading. Detailed maps would be interesting and helpful in itself. At least some government agencies are providing quite specific information about where cases originated (Schleswig-Holstein, pdf). Media could in general use this opportunity to file requests for data and demonstrate the potential of data journalism.

UPDATE June 5: The suggestion above more or less takes for granted that the responsible government agencies, hospitals etc. at least have an efficient way of collecting and disseminating information among themselves. But this is doubtful, as criticism in the German media the last week of several aspects of how the epidemic is handled shows. Hospitals complain about the late arrival of questionnaires to be used in interviews with patients. The Robert Koch Institut does not disclose much information on how they are working to find the source of the epidemic, one hospital director says. By tomorrow, June 6, a new Internet government platform for sharing of information between agencies will be launched — another indication that the information infrastructure part of dealing with the epidemic has had flaws so far.

UPDATE June 15: On Zeit Online’s Data Blog, some of the same questions are raised and debated, with comments from the Robert Koch Institut.

Fans of the permalink unite

Sometimes forgetting is useful and necessary, but in web publishing the default option should be “never forget”. Unfortunately lots of big and resourceful organizations such as newspapers and public sector agencies rate among the worst when it comes to allowing link rot. So I was glad to see that at least The Guardian knows the value of the everlasting permalink. I know there are others on our side out there, such as The New York Times and Spiegel. In fact, all those could help the cause of the permalink by explaining what they gain financially from their open web archives. What is most difficult to understand about link rot is that it reduces the value of those archives. Who would want that?

In the meantime, we just have to conclude that it’s fairly simple to keep links working when switching systems, even simple bloggers can manage with a little help from their friends (link in Norwegian).

Enjoy paragraph-level linking!

Inspired by Alexis Madrigal’s story on how nytimes.com has implemented paragraph-level linking on its articles, I decided to install Daniel Bachhuber’s WordPress plugin WinerLinks. And because WordPress now works so well, it took less than a minute to introduce this major innovation to my blog. Of course, it also means that all the old posts have been enhanced with this feature as well. Wonderful.

How to find the link: First, you need to be on post/article level (not on the home page, archive pages or tag pages). Hover at the end of the paragraph, and a # will appear with the link.

Given how useful this feature is, it’s strange that it hasn’t been developed for WordPress or other blogging tools before.

(See also: Nieman Lab on the redesign of PressThink, which also has this feature).

From social realism to social media

In his European Intellectual History Since 1789, Roland N. Stromberg writes on p. 258:

Among the curiosities of the 1930s “social realism” was the “Mass Observation poem” attempted in England, originating in those who wanted to be both surrealist and communist. Thousands of people all over the country were supposed to send in their literary reports on a single event, the coronation of George VI, from which a composite poem wold somehow be created. Predictably, the result was not impressive.

It will be much easier to do something similar at the next royal mega-event, with Twitter and all!