The Guardian’s “NSA Files Decoded” and Multimedia Journalism

A new multimedia extravaganza from The Guardian takes an in-depth look at what Edward Snowden’s leaks “mean for you.” It comes replete with plenty of high quality video, a gorgeous custom page layout, and lots of doodads throughout. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it’s The Guardian’s volley in the “Snowfall” game first served up by my former colleagues at The New York Times.

I’m pretty ambivalent about this new strain of multimedia journalism. As well executed as these early examples are, both this and “Snowfall” clearly cross the line from utilitarian storytelling to superfluous bells and whistles. Also, in my own personal, decidedly unscientific polling, of all the people I’ve met who marvel at “Snowfall,” no one has ever told me that they actually read it. (That’s actually not true; someone told me they did read it, but then again that person has three newspapers delivered to her doorstep every morning, so I would say she’s an outlier.) I suspect the same thing will be true of “NSA Files Decoded.” These kinds of things, I think, are meant to be marveled at more than they are meant to be read.

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Goodbye to Two Greats

The world has been mourning Roger Ebert, who passed away last week, and I join them. I learned a lot about watching movies from the man, but as I observed from afar as he struggled valiantly with disease I learned a lot more about what it means to fully become a person. His film criticism was always commendable, but the way he used it to undergird a life of great curiosity and thoughtfulness was remarkable. He’ll be greatly missed.

I won’t try to write any more than this about Ebert, since so much has already been written about him just in the past two days. Not as much will probably be written about the passing of longtime comics great Carmine Infantino, though, but that doesn’t take anything away from his own remarkable life.

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The Race for Mobile News

Here is a quick list I made of some of the many mobile news apps that have entered the market over the past few years: Prismatic, Circa, Pulse, News 360, Summly, and Zite. These are all serious, well-funded and/or well-staffed entrepreneurial attempts at building the next great news brands. You can probably name at least a few others.

To some degree or another, they all propose to define a new kind of news reading experience that lies at the intersection of mobile access and customizable headlines. Some of them are pretty good at it, too. But none of them have truly come to own this category, and similarly none of them have become indispensable mobile brands the way that say Instagram has.

This situation puzzles me, because reading the news is one of the core use cases on a mobile phone — just about everyone does it. It surprises me that we’re almost six years into the iPhone-fueled smartphone era, and we don’t yet have a commonly agreed upon winner among news apps. Not just a clear leader in downloads, installs and active users, but an outright brand leader, an approximate equivalent to what CNN was in the first decades of cable news.

There is a distinction, of course, between producing original news, like CNN does, and aggregating or repackaging it, like almost all of these apps do. And maybe the fact that these brands have already come up against the limits of their popularity suggests that aggregation will always be inferior to original news.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long run that turns out to be the case; research suggests that legacy news brands enjoy an advantage in mobile (at least for now).

Still, I highly doubt that the combination of mobile access and customized headlines has already played itself out fully. While I take nothing away from what these apps have done so far, it strikes me that we are still just learning what mobile news consumption means, and how it’s very different from traditional or even desktop media models. As our understanding matures, new apps and brands will enter the market with radically different interaction models.

If you also have a little bit of faith that technology will continue its heretofore unceasing forward march, then it becomes quite reasonable to expect that we are due for huge innovations in relevance and automated customization sometime in the next decade, which will benefit this category of software immensely. That is, solutions to the challenge of creating a news experience tailored just for your interests (explicit and implicit) are bound to get more and more sophisticated — and accurate. The company that is the first to combine such technology with a truly advanced understanding of mobile news consumption will become the next great news brand.

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Thoughts on News and User Experience

As promised, Tina Roth Eisenberg has posted video of my talk from last Thursday morning at FREITAG am Donnerstag in Zurich, Switzerland. If you didn’t get to make it to the event, or you just want to relive the good times, it’s all available for viewing at Swiss-miss.com or over at Vimeo. The videographer who recorded my talk did a terrific job giving you a sense of what the space was like, capturing the contrast between my ideas about digital news and the old world sensibility of the print shop-style showroom in which the lecture was held. Also, very helpfully, some of the slides from my Keynote deck were laid into the video directly, so you can follow along with the specific points I was making.

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The Meaning of Photoshop

Whether France’s proposed Photoshop retouching notification law is a valuable idea in the interest of the public good or a misguided example of government overreaching, I can’t say. But I’m pretty sure that it’s a debate worth having. In case you hadn’t heard, earlier this month fifty politicians put a law in front of French parliament under which digitally manipulated images would bear the somewhat rueful label “Retouched photograph aimed at changing a person’s physical appearance.” The goal is essentially one of public health and consumer expectation: don’t try looking like this at home.

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Election Night

Elections Coverage at NYTimes.comAfter all the build-up, everything comes to a head tonight. I mean, yeah, it’s Election Day and all, but I’m talking about our election coverage package over at NYTimes.com, where’ve spent weeks putting together a solid offering of results data. I just had a quick look around at the competition, and I gotta say, I think our designers really pulled it off; it’s the best looking presentation for elections results on the Web tonight.

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Fall Ball

Though I follow it passionately, I don’t write a lot about baseball here. This is mostly owing to the fact that, in contrast to those others in the blogosphere who write both more eloquently and/or more precisely about the subject, I generally feel that anything I have to offer runs along the lines of ‘blowing smoke out of my ass.’ I came late and unexpectedly to this passion, and while I have a lot of opinions about it, I feel much more like a student of the game than a sage expert.

Which is why I hesitated, really, to write about the Yankees’s 6-0 loss last night to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series. They’re down in this five-game set now, 2-1, and they must win the next two games or summarize another season as a dismally oversold failure.

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Blockwriter Big in Britain

The GuardianBlockwriter, my concept for a reduced-functionality word processing application that acts just like a manual typewriter, is slowly but surely inching its way to reality. Just two weeks ago, an editor from the Britian’s Guardian newspaper asked me to write about the idea for their Office Hours section, which runs on Mondays. The article ran in today’s edition of the paper with the somewhat over-promising title “Strokes of Genius.”

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Thinking about The Times

The New York TimesWhen Behavior was working on our redesign of The Onion, we would frequently look to The New York Times for hints on how a publication should present itself online, how content should be organized, how the user interface to an archive of articles should be manifested, etc. In so many ways, The Times is a de facto standard that leads the way in best practices: the decisions they make in developing their user interface can effectively validate a design convention.

For instance, their recent decision to provide, from articles, access to all the paper’s sections in a DHTML pop-up menu is a convincing argument for a navigational method that might previously have met with skepticism from any client I proposed it to. In my experience, the fact that “the Times does it” is proof enough that a convention is widely understood and acceptable.

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