Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Tag: technology


Lessons learned from a (briefly) disconnected life

For three weeks in September, I lived without a cell phone of any kind. When I was away from home or work, I was an island.



This wasn’t some grand experiment staged so that I could write a blog post about it and wow you all with my insights into Disconnected Life – it just happened. My iPhone died a sudden death at Kolkata airport in the middle of a two-week trip in India. One minute it was there, the next, the screen faded to black, as if it had suffered a digital embolism. I was tethered to a constrictive U.S. cell contract and two weeks away from receiving the latest advancement in Apple technology. I decided to wait it out.

Going from a connected life – a very connected life, I’ll admit – to one of total, sudden disconnection, was in some ways like losing one of my senses.

I have had a cell phone of some sort since I was 19 years old. Before that, I’d had a pager issued by my parents – which probably gives you a pretty good clue about my age. Somehow, I made it through high school and one year of college without a cell phone. I was pretty active on social media in 2008, when I got my first smartphone. At the time, that act was something like giving a self-functioning meth lab to a cough syrup addict. I never would be alone again – with my thoughts, with someone else, without a clue as to what’s happening, for better and for worse.

Until now.

At first, it wasn’t so bad, as I was already on limited use, traveling on international data limits through my phone plan. I rarely use my phone for actual voice calls – I bet I take less than five total a week – so that wasn’t a huge loss at first, either.

But after a few hours of being alone in a foreign country – and really alone without access to the world beyond – the enormity set in. I was off the grid. If I got lost in India, nobody would even know. Not even me.

Without a phone, I felt so alone in the world, which was at once freeing and terrifying. On one hand, I didn’t have the burden of always being connected and, thus, always being one email or text away from a problem at work or home. On the other, I was adrift and unfindable. I had no way to tell anyone where I was. If I didn’t know where I was, I had no maps app to consult, I had to ask for directions like some sort of tourist (which, in New York City, is akin to telling someone you have leprosy).

It manifested itself in many small ways, too. If I couldn’t find a cab (which happens in Queens), I couldn’t just bring up my Uber app to have a car come save me. I didn’t know when trains were due to arrive, so I was often late. I couldn’t text my husband to tell him to pick up kitty litter. I couldn’t check my work email between meetings. I couldn’t take conference calls on the way to the office anymore. I couldn’t multitask. I couldn’t check sports scores or see what was happening in the world outside my immediate space. And the most odd experience: I was often the only person at a restaurant, on a subway car, in a meeting or airline terminal that was actually looking at other people, which made me feel like a creep.

It was a lot of “first world problems”, to be sure, but three weeks without a digital tie to the rest of my world forced me to become a bit more resourceful. I had to change some habits and, in doing so, had to confront some uncomfortable truths about the life I was living.

A few lessons learned from the Great Disconnection

1. It isn’t a good idea to be overly reliant on maps apps. Once upon a time, I was a Girl Scout. I could read maps and had a decent sense of direction. As an adult, I run out the door never even bothering to check addresses or to learn the basics of navigating the city where I live. At the very least, I know I should be aware of the address I’m going to and have enough working knowledge of the city grid to get close without getting lost.

2. Leave early to be on time. I am bad about timeliness all of the time, but it was especially bad without calendar reminders, directions and train schedules. I need to leave earlier – I know this. We all know this. We should be better.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for information. I realized I often use my phone in circumstances where it would have been easier to just talk to a human in real life for information. When did I become so anti-social?

4. Stop checking in, because it is dumb. I’ve been a habitual user of Foursquare since its inception. Between the introduction of Swarm and this phone drought, I’m finally over it. It turns out, it really isn’t much of a value add to my or anyone else’s life to know where I am.

5. Push alerts are not actually necessary, in most cases. Facebook messages about friends spamming me with events in faraway cities, headlines of news in other places, “your friends are talking about X on Twitter” alerts… I don’t actually need to know that stuff when I’m not on the phone. Unless that headline is “Giant fireball headed for New York”, chances are, it isn’t so bad to not know immediately.

6. Get over yourself. It turns out, in my weeks without updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so often, nobody seemed to miss me and my witty outlook on the world. Most of my friends will be surprised to learn I was ever gone.

7. Pay more attention to others when they are actually there, in person, with you. I know, I shouldn’t have had to learn this lesson, but when all of your friends (and your spouse) are always-connected journalists, it is easy to forget a time when we weren’t all keeping one eye on the phone. It is never more obvious when you have no phone in a room full of people – or even just the one you’re trying to spend time with – who aren’t looking up. Look up.

Technology is a solution, not a problem, for women in newsrooms

So maybe you’ve noticed – there’s a lot of talk about women in journalism these days in the wake of Jill Abramson’s unplanned exit from the New York Times. Aside from being a woman and a journalist, I haven’t generally felt that I have much expertise to add to this conversation as it has played out. Until today.

In a column on the Washington Post’s new PostEverything site today, Nikki Usher added a new facet to the discussion:

Technology has made it harder for women to survive, and thrive, in journalism. … Sophisticated infographics, interactive storytelling, and data-crunching have become essential to online journalism. It’s part of a critical mission to keep web news profitable. And unlike many other parts of traditional newsrooms, these teams are still hiring. But they’re hiring programmers and techies, most of whom are male. Women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs. According to Forbes, that number isn’t growing.

She’s right when she notes that the rising profile of digital skills in newsrooms hasn’t resulted in a growing number of women hired, but it isn’t fair to “blame the techies”, as the column’s deck suggests, for the diminished role for women in newsrooms. On the contrary, technology has largely been the answer to getting more women into newsrooms because it is getting more people with different skill sets than those valued in the past into newsrooms.

The rising importance of digital skills in newsrooms has made it possible for me to work my way up in this industry.  If those technology and social media skills weren’t valuable and someone at the top wasn’t pushing for their inclusion in new hires, I wouldn’t have been able to work at any of the great places I’ve been. If “techies” hadn’t been put in charge somewhere along the way, I’d never have gotten the opportunity to grow my skills, never gotten into a leadership role, never in turn been able to hire more women to those sort of roles.  Technology was my only leg up. But that’s just me.

Is it a problem that more women aren’t working in the highly prized journogrammer wings of elite newsrooms? Yes, absolutely. But it’s a far bigger problem that more women aren’t moving up the ranks across newsroom teams, a pre-existing culture problem which trickles down to those building these new tech teams.

There are lots of factors we can blame for women’s diminished role in newsroom leadership: Promotion culture focused on longevity over innovation, poor succession planning, closed social networks, legacy experience valued over digital experience, unfair expectations for female candidates, a lack of a farm system for qualified women, lack of flexible work options, fewer networking opportunities, etc.

Why do these things happen? How can we fix these issues? If I had all of the answers off the top of my head, I probably wouldn’t be unemployed.

Digital journalism and the people behind it aren’t what’s holding women back from newsroom leadership roles, but they are likely in the best position to solve that problem from within. These teams are already trying to change their cultures. They have increasing power and are generally recognized as the future of the industry – so what can we do to help them?



Recommended reading on saving journalism, new technology and social media

“New” Tools and Technology

  • Prior to its demise, Editor & Publisher had written about allegedly “new tools” the newspaper in Knoxville uses to police website comments. First of all, I find it alarming that anyone, particularly a publication supposedly in the know about our industry, would find this community management approach new or innovative. I say the system Knoxville has employed is a bare minimum for every site with comments. (For the record, my paper has had a nearly identical system for two years – and it isn’t even close to ideal.)
  • To their credit, E&P also talked to working journalists trying out Google Wave in the newsroom. Also features quotes from a familiar source (shameless plug!). I’d link to E&P directly, but they have a paywall that makes their news useless on the internet. I guess even a paywall on your site can’t save your business model, huh?
  • Econsultancy has created a helful look at search engine optimization for jounos. SEO is a strange and complicated business, but it’s worth knowing the basics if you want to get your content read by more than just your regular visitors. Everyone says the future (or, really, the present) lies in the power of search – so it’s good to know.

Social Media

  • Despite what some curmudgeonly types say, social media is definitely not just for kids. Recent demo studies say senior citizens are making huge inroads into social networks like Facebook and YouTube. I’m hearing all of the time how we need to keep hold of our senior readers by focusing more efforts into print, but maybe we as an industry just aren’t giving them enough credit in regards to the Internet.
  • Speaking of social media in the newsroom, Mashable thoughtfully put together The Journalist’s Guide to Maximizing Personal Social Media ROI. If you ever wondered why there’s a push to get into social media or what exactly you can get out of it, it’s worth a read. They have really good ideas for building a social media routine and establishing priorities for reporters and other news managers using social media in reporting/branding/aggregation.
  • If you aren’t very familiar with the mobile social network Foursquare, here’s something of a guide to get started. Foursquare has a lot of potential for journalists, mobile reporters in particular. I hope to write about this a bit more soon.

Saving Journalism

  • Robert Niles asks: What should the government do to help journalism? Niles really goes out on a limb to suggest that the government can help journalism not by funding it directly, but by changing the health care system and raising taxes on the wealthy. Sound crazy? Well, I don’t see your solutions anywhere.
  • In case you’ve been living under a technology rock, Apple’s making a tablet next year. Everyone’s been expecting it – and it very well could be the turning point in this particular realm of technology started by the likes of the Kindle and iPhone. For once, the journalism would would be wise to capitalize on what could be the beginnings of a new technology shift and we ready with tablet reader friendly news. No guarantees it’ll work out for Apple or for our industry, but it’s worth a shot.

Google Wave has potential for journalism – but that’s all it is right now

First of all, I’m not going to explain Google Wave, lots of others have already done that. But I’m here to say it’s worth a look as a potential new tool for journalists.

It’s a combination of the features associated with a Wiki, email, message board and chat room with options to add interactive features like maps, polls, videos and images. So what does that mean for journalists? Potentially a lot.

Depending on how Google Wave develops before it formally rolls out to the public, it could become a solution to many technology problems facing newsrooms (and tons of other businesses) today. It has the potential to become an invaluable tool for internal and external communication and collaboration.

But right now, that is just potential. I’m not going to be tell you there are no downsides – there are plenty.

1. Right now, Wave isn’t public. You have to have been invited to experience it as it is still in “preview” mode.

2. So far, Wave has a high learning curve. When you finally get in, it isn’t immediately obvious what it is used for, what the buttons do or how to even get started. And even though instructional videos and manuals exist, not many people are willing to jump through that many hopes just to use a new web program.

3. In preview, at least, Wave is buggy as all get out. The much-ballyhooed “playback” feature rarely works. It is incredibly slow to load and navigate. Because every character you type is public in a Wave, it seems to slow everything way down. For instance, I just watched a sentence I typed go in character by character, over a two-minute time span (yikes).

4. It isn’t easy to teach. If you, like me, have taught very basic web applications to reluctant  digital immigrants with upsetting results, you dread the idea of teaching this to your newsroom. I have nightmares just thinking about it.

But all of these cons I noted are about Google Wave right now. They’re still working on it – and I have high hopes it’s going to improve dramatically before it goes fully public. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be chalked up as a failed experiment and forgotten.

I have a lot of ideas I’ve either dreamed up or found on the Interwebs about ways journalists can use Google Wave I’ll be posting soon. For now, here are some resources you might find helpful if you’re trying to figure out what Google Wave is.

  • The manual: The Complete Guide to Google Wave is a wonderful, simple guide to the tool. If you don’t get all the ins and outs of the Wave (who does?) and you don’t want to sit through the whole video explainer, try this. Check out the Meet Google Wave section for some great suggested uses.
  • More: Where else would you got to learn more about Wave’s potential than Mashable? Scan over their coverage for good ideas.

And, if you’d like an invite to Google Wave and don’t have one, leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.

Recommended reading on start-ups, tech & social media

I’ve been all over the place with my reading of late. Here’s a few notable bits I wanted to pass on before this week really jumps off.

Recommended reading: Innovation in the newspaper world

Speaking of the need for innovation, here’s a few innovative ideas I’ve read about this week:

Revisiting the Marburger plan (it’s still terrible)

As my friend Dana noted on the last post on the subject, the Marburgers are doing a bit of a better job of explaining their plan. It makes a little more sense, but it is still ridiculously misguided and built to favor big media.

Though David Marburger has been on a new media tour trying to explain his plan is less than 2,000 words – he has been making the point to tell us what the proposal isn’t:

1. It doesn’t “advocate a statutory 24-hour moratorium on rewriting news reports originated by others” (though that’s certainly not what David Marburger says here and here, among many other places.

2. They don’t oppose linking to original content (like Google News does). Sorry if I said they did. Really, they oppose common RSS feeds that have summaries with the links.

3. And we agree on one thing: Pay walls are bad.

Honestly, though, the best look at the proposal’s intentions can be found in the comments area of the on Techdirt’s original analysis. Read the entire exchange of comments between TechDirt writers and the Marburgers and tell me that this proposal isn’t aiming for the law to make competition with newspapers illegal.

Marburger cites sites like the Daily Beast rather than aggregators as the real enemy. He believes a law is necessary to make it so they can’t write up a similar online piece based on the facts originally reported elsewhere. There’s been all kinds of claims as to why this is a problem:

1. These sites drive down online ad rates and free-ride on original reporting to make money. My take: They aren’t making much money from advertising, for one. Secondly, if they can charge a better ad rate, it’s called undercutting the competition – something that is quite legal and encouraged in American business. We might not like the outcome when it doesn’t benefit us, but it doesn’t make it illegal.

2. The newer stories get better placement on Google because they look like the same story and are newer. I say: Then get your site better optimized for search engines. If these sites have better placement, then good for them for being good at SEO. The reason big online news sites have bad SEO is because we move stories around, discontinue link availability after a certain amount of time and run buggy scripts that goof up our sites. They’re doing better because they worked at it – also, not illegal.

3. They are taking content wholesale. Again, I ask – who are the Marburgers, newspapers or the law to determine how much of this rewriting is illegal and who it applies to? I work at an online news site much like that of the PD and we rewrite existing online stories all of the time. I’ll bet they do too. We put ads on these stories and make money off of them – are we the enemy? Or just the new players in online media?

Maybe I’m misrepresenting their plan – but it isn’t for lack of trying. I’ve read the whole thing and all of David Marburger’s explanations of it. They say it isn’t an assault on free market competition, but then make statements that seem to say exactly that.

I won’t back your silly plan as it stands now – and no self-respecting journalist should. Eliminating competition isn’t a fix for newspapers’ ills and it’s downright disgusting how it is being peddled to the not-very-savvy journos among us who are desperately looking to back a magic cure-all.

Our industry was built on competition and the free marketplace of ideas. So, let’s pull ’em up, shall we? Get out there and innovate ourselves a future instead of crying to the principal about how some new kid is stealing our lunch money.

Recommended reading for April 24th through May 5th

These are my recommended links for April 24th through May 5th:

Recommended reading for April 20th

These are my recommended links for April 20th:

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