Tag Archives: The New York Times

A look back at The Facebook in 2004

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It’s always interesting to see what people thought of technology when it first launched. Here is a New York Times take on the site back when it was still known as The Facebook:

LIKE many addictions, it begins innocently enough. A tentative experiment here, a repeat visit there. Before too long, only the strong survive.

“At the beginning of the year you had people checking every five minutes to see if they had any new friends,” said Isabel Wilkinson, a Princeton University freshman from New York City. “I like to think it’s subsided a little, but it’s still heinous in terms of procrastination or wasting time. Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I went on for a half-hour or 45 minutes.”

I joined Facebook in 2004, and it would remain exclusive and college-only for several years to come. It was incredibly addictive. The exclusivity didn’t hurt either, and it was a really different experience when it was just a bunch of college kids making friends and sharing stories.

In many ways, Facebook is even more addictive than ever. It’s a testament to the staying power of the site and the additional work that has gone into the site that people still find it addictive 10 years later. Ten years is a long time in Web years.

Yes, Facebook users are aging, but the site is growing up with us. Where we used to share drunken stories and try to check out people of the opposite sex, we now connect with family all over the country and stay in touch with our college friends.

It’s hard to describe what Facebook was like when it first started if you weren’t there, but it took off like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. Most people don’t get Twitter at first. Everyone got Facebook the moment they saw it.

Within days of it coming to Lehigh, almost all of my friends were on it. Everyone just had to have it. It made my last two years of college a lot more memorable.

When Facebook first launched, it was a lot wilder. It was just college kids, and there was no way for outsiders to see what we were doing. You could also see what classes people were in and even where they were checking into Facebook from.

If you met someone at a party at night, you just had to check them out on Facebook when you got back to your dorm and friend them. When I look back at the messages we exchanged back in the early years, they really crack me up. Now everyone is scared of employers seeing what they do on Facebook, but before those issues cropped up, it was kind of like hanging out in a pub.

The magic of Facebook now is that it allows adults to stay in touch with each other when they move around the country. I get why that appeals less to teens, but Facebook was built for Zuckerberg and his friends when they were in college and now they are all grown up.

There is demand, however, for a new Facebook — an exclusive social network just for college kids. I don’t know if that will ever happen again, but it was a blast. I’m sorry kids today won’t get that experience, and that privacy is one reason many might be flocking to Snapchat.

The Facebook of today is not a great tool for irresponsible high school and college kids. On the other hand, when they graduate from college and really start their lives, they’ll really like what Facebook has become. It’s an indispensable tool in my life.

I only see my nieces and nephews a few times a year, but thanks to Facebook, I get to see lots of photos and videos. I can quickly say high to one of my high school or college friends and see what they are up to. It helps make the distance seem smaller.

Thoughts on nytimes.com redesign

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The new nytimes.com website is not the kind of design I would give a news website, but it is a big step forward for the news organization.

I’ve waited a few weeks to do a critique of the new nytimes.com design because I wanted to give it some time to sink in and really spend several hours with it. Additional time spent with the new design has made my opinion of the site more favorable. The site is universally better than the one it replaces and is better than most websites from traditional news orgs. 

I’ve come to appreciate some of the design choices more with time, although there are still some things that should be changed. It’s a cleaner, smarter website, but it at times tries to mimic print too much and still doesn’t embrace good design enough.

Below are some of my thoughts on what I like about the new design and some things that I think could be tightened up. I didn’t do a usability study with live users like I’ve done with other news sites, nor did I run tests to check for accessibility (this may come in the future). Below are my impressions based on my expertise, but additional studies and testing would be advisable before making big changes.

What I like

  • Small headers — There is no reason to push your content half way down the page with a huge header and navigation system. I particularly like how article pages get a smaller logo than the homepage. This let’s users get into actual nytimes.com quicker and makes pages feel more about content and less about a corporate brand. One issue with a huge header and navigation system is that it can raise your bounce rate because it takes users longer to figure out what is going on.  Remember, the vast majority of visitors to news websites come in via search engines and social media referrals. These users more likely have less of an idea of what they are about to get into then someone who has navigated to an article from a homepage of a news website. Even a few moments of confusion is enough to cause a user to X out of your webpage.
  • No more side navigation — The main navigation system has been moved to the top of the site from the left-hand side. This allows for the homepage, article pages and section pages to be more dynamic and allows for many more article page template optins. It gives more pixels to what really matters on a website. It also puts the navigation in the same place on desktop, tablet and mobile, which a side navigation cannot do (navigation really needs to be at the top on mobile to be usable for users). The only reason to have a left-hand navigation is if you’re doing a dynamic news river with real stories with compelling headlines. Having a side navigation with links such as news, sports, opinion, etc. is a waste of space and should be immediately redone.
  • Cleaner article pages — For all that is going on on nytimes.com article pages, they are surprisingly clean. There is text, images, video, graphics, related links, additional stories to read, comments, etc. Despite this, the site feels clean and airy. This is good. The New York Times was smart with how it paced different design features on article pages. Some websites try to cram everything below on article page or in a right-hand column. The new nytimes.com starts at the very top and works its way down to the bottom. The much smaller header and navigation on article pages also really helps here too. The pacing of website features and story content feels very natural.
  • More entry points to additional content — Getting a reader onto an article page is not enough; most users will leave your website after reading an article if they aren’t presented with interesting articles to read next. You need to present users with additional stories to read and photos and videos to view. The new nytimes.com does a fantastic job of presenting lots of different entry points for users, while not making article pages feel cluttered and cheap. The top of every article has editor’s picks stories. The bottom has top news, additional stories from the section you’re reading and the most emailed stories.  Sections such as news, sports, health, business and opinion are not entry points. Actual stories with compelling headlines are. The nytimes.com redesign does a good job of presenting lots of additional options without bedazzling the page in cruft that detracts from the user experience. It’s a fine line to walk, but the nytimes.com redesign does it as well as anyone.

What needs improvement

  • Why aren’t photos and graphics bigger? — In general, I don’t get why news orgs insist on putting small photos and graphics into article pages. There is no real use case for this, and this seems like a print anachronism that page designers insist on bringing over to the Web. Big photos and graphics look better and are easier to understand. The worst is when an image is placed into a story at a small size and can’t be enlarged and because of that you have no idea what’s going on. There is no use case for that. There will never be a use case for a news organization showing photos and graphics that are indecipherable. The nytimes.com redesign usually lets you make photos and graphics bigger but not always. I don’t know why the behavior isn’t consistent, but it should be. This is particularly and issue for charts that have small type and keys on them.
  • Text needs to be bigger —  News orgs have a big issue with small text. I have to assume that designers think it looks better, but it’s hard to read, and if you make something hard to read, people often won’t read it. Reading is a fundamental thing that users do on news websites. Text should be big, feature a high quality font (particularly for HiDPI displays) and have a good contrast. The new nytimes.com has bigger text, but it could still be 25-50 percent bigger. There are two reasons for this: A) bigger text is easier on older and tired eyes and B) bigger text is more enjoable for everyone to read, making it more likely that people stay on your text-heavy site longer. People used to claim that people don’t like to read as much on the Web, and because of this, writing on the Web should be shorter. This is false. The issue is that Web text is often small, poor contrast, with low-quality fonts. Of course people don’t enjoy reading that. Part of this had to do with display technology and we had to make certain affordances for poor, low resolution display technology, but HiDPI displays (what Apple calls Retina) are taking over the market. They make text look as good as printed text. A good display will certainly encourage users to read more, but Web designers still have to do their part with high quality typography. Last year I wrote how Retina/HiDPI displays will reduce eyestrain and should lead to more reading. It lays out why this new display technology, which most mobile devices have and increasingly laptops have, is making Web reading easier (my phone, tablet and laptop all feature a HiDPI display, and I love reading on them). This is also allowing for higher quality, print-caliber fonts, which also make reading more enjoyable. Medium does the best job I’ve seen of using typography for Web writing. It’s just an enjoyable reading experience for years. That’s what all news orgs should want. Traditional news orgs are some of the best producers of the written word in the world. They need to start making the written word more enjoyable to consume on the Web.
  • Not enough nods to what users like — One of my favorite new navigation features is trending topics, where underneath the main navigation is a set of topics that are getting the most traffic on the website. I’m not surprised The New York Times wouldn’t hand over navigational control to the crowd, but it’s still a missed opportunity. Users like to know what other users find compelling. Topics, as opposed to stories, are a good way to let people delve into bigger issues too (there isn’t just one New Jersey bridge scandal story, for instance).
  • The homepage is bland and forgettable — It is true that design time should be spent on article pages and not on homepages and section fronts, as the majority of traffic comes to individual article pages, but the cluttered and boring homepage design for the new nytimes.com is still disappointing. It still features small photos. It still features small headlines. It still has trouble driving a users eye to a main story or any story for that matter. The New York Times can get away with this for tradition’s sake, but almost every other news organization can’t. It’s not just that it looks too print-like, it’s also that it doesn’t even function well. Frankly, everything kind of just blends together on the NYT homepage, making it hard to pick out anything to read. I rarely find myself going to the nytimes.com homepage anymore, partly because it’s such a frustrating user interface for discovery. Instead, I find almost every nytimes.com story from social referrals.
  • Having trouble viewing mobile website — On my laptop, I can view mobile.nytimes.com and see the new homepage on mobile. On my phone it takes me to the desktop homepage. This is a bug that should be easy enough to fix, but it does need to be fixed. The desktop homepage is virtually unusable on mobile.

Episode 91: Responsive Web design

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We discuss responsive Web design. Should all websites be responsive? But first, what exactly is responsive design?

When is it the right time to make a responsive Website? What about making a dedicated mobile website, tablet site and desktop version instead of going with a responsive website?

We also discuss Nate Silver building his dream team of data journalists at ESPN.

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Episode 90: Is there a glass ceiling for new media at The New York Times?

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Another week and another top talent at The New York Times has left. This has been a banner year for talent leaving The New York Times.

Is The New York Times suffering a brain drain?

Turnover is natural, and in many ways a good thing. So, it’s important not to overreact when people leave. But with so much top talent leaving The New York Times in one year, this may be beyond turnover.

What caught our attention are all of NYT staffers with Web, social and new media skills that have left this year.  Is there a glass ceiling for new media talent at The New York Times?

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Episode 79: Chromecast and Nate Silver going to ESPN/ABC News

We discuss Google’s Chromecast, and whether or not it’s worth picking up.

It is afterall $35, so it really can’t hurt to pick it up. But if you already own a Roku or an Apple TV, what does this device do that your device doesn’t do? But, again, it’s a $35 streaming TV device. It’s the cheapest way to get Netflix to your TV.

We also discuss Nate Silver going to ESPN and ABC News and why we think that happened. This is a big move.

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Episode 66: The Google Reader Treason and news paywalls

We discuss the awful Google Reader Treason.

And would you trust Google with its new note taking app Google Keep? Is Google Keep something that keeps your data until Google gets bored with it?

We then discuss paywalls and pay meters for news organizations. Which do you prefer and which organizations do you think have made a compelling case for paying for their content?

There is a big difference between The New York Times erecting a pay meter and a local newspaper doing the same. We think the mid-major papers in particular are in trouble.

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The curious case of sharing on Facebook (sometimes it comes with a price)

Nick Bilton on the curious case of sharing on Facebook:

Every Sunday morning, I started sharing my weekly column with this newfound entourage. Those garnered a good response. For example, a column about my 2012 New Year’s resolution to take a break from electronics gathered 535 “likes” and 53 “reshares.” Another, about Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owing me $50 after the company’s public offering, quickly drew 323 likes and 88 reshares.

Since then, my subscribers have grown to number 400,000. Yet now, when I share my column, something different happens. Guess how many people like and reshare the links I post?

If your answer was more than two digits long, you’re wrong.

As a social media manager and researcher and as someone who spends thousands a year on Facebook ads for work, I can confirm that Facebook’s sharing algorithm changes a lot, has been all over the place the past year or so and that paying for ads — even small amounts like $10 — makes a huge difference in engagement and reach. The amounts of engagement that Bilton is seeing normally sounds low, however, and perhaps that is due to his content and not just the algorithm.

You don’t need to study social media to see that pictures, images and memes are what rules Facebook these days. This was not always the case, but in the last few years, sharing links has not gotten the same penetration as sharing photos and other visual content.

I believe this is for two reasons: Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm prioritizes visual content over written, and users prefer visual content or at least are more likely to notice it, click on it, like it and share it. Bilton’s own Facebook page bears this out. He shared a photo of himself with his dog at In-N-Out Burger that received about 30 times the engagement as a recent New York Times story of his. While we can all agree that Bilton’s writing is usually better content than him and his dog eating a cheap burger, Facebook friends and users feel differently, and Facebook’s algorithm prefers his smartphone photos to researched journalism pieces.

We have responded to this changing situation on Facebook by making a push to share more visual content on our Science News Magazine’s Facebook page. We will often share a great photo, image or illustration from a story and then provide a link to it in the caption on Facebook. This does significantly better than just sharing the story alone.

Facebook is always changing its algorithm, and as it currently stands, unless you pay money to sponsor an update that links to a story, you may not be getting great engagement or traffic out of it. The other issue I see with Bilton’s feed is that he doesn’t post that often. Posting daily on Facebook leads to more engagement per post. There is an upper limit to how often you should post to your Facebook page — roughly once every three hours — but Bilton is nowhere near hitting that limit.

Now, as to the paid vs. organic engagement, well that is an issue. This gets to the heart of Facebook versus Twitter. On Twitter, you are normally shown every single tweet from the people you follow in your timeline. On Facebook, you are normally shown only the content that the Facebook algorithm deems the top content in your feed.

The algorithm works as a positive feedback loop. The more often you interact with someone’s content, the more often you see that person’s content and then the more often you will see it again in the future. This has resulted in people seeing updates from a small selection of the people they are friends with on Facebook, and is something that bugs me as I find it too limiting. Facebook users can switch their news feeds to show most recent content instead, similar to a Twitter feed, but this is not the default and few people change this.

I can’t confirm this, but I feel that Facebook switches back this preference for users, as mine always seem to end up back on top stories. In Facebook’s mind, top stories is a great way to show content from strong ties — family and close friends — while drowning out of the noise of some of your weaker ties. I don’t have an issue with prioritizing strong tie content over weak tie content, but I have not liked the mix on Facebook and believe it needs to sprinkle in more random content from my weak tie Facebook friends and pages.

Unfortunately, Facebook followers of journalists is the definition of a very weak tie (it’s not even a two-way tie like a normal Facebook friendship). As long as Facebook shows the top stories algorithm instead of just most recent content like Twitter, people like Bilton are going to continue to see lower engagement than expected.

So, why does paying help this situation? Paying to make sure your content is shown to your followers and friends means that your content will be shown in someone’s news feed even if they have selected top stories and the algorithm would deem you too weak of a tie to show right now. What this is saying to Bilton is that his page is not deemed a top story driver for most of his followers.

Maybe Bilton’s followers would disagree with this and maybe they would prefer a stronger mix of content in their news feeds. I have found my news feed being dominated by a few friends and family with recent changes to the top stories algorithm. The positive feedback loop seems to have run out of control.

I believe that if Bilton started sharing more content and more varied content, with an emphasis on visual content, he would see more engagement per item, even his links to stories. That said, the Facebook algorithm seems to have issues showing variety by focusing too heavily on strong tie content, and I think this hurts journalists and other content creators. I don’t necessarily think this is anything nefarious by Facebook in an attempt to grab cash by encouraging people to pay for ads, and I do agree with the Facebook engineer that he quoted that this is not a good thing for Facebook.

If people want to see Bilton’s content, and they aren’t, that’s not good for anyone.

 

Episode 63: Tesla vs. The New York Times title fight

2013-Tesla-Model-S-cockpit

We discuss the Tesla vs. The New York Times battle going on.

A lot of blows have been landed, and this battle is still not over. What do two journalists think about this mess? In short, we find fault with both, but as journalists, we have a lot of questions for John Broder and the Times.

We also discuss the recently announced PlayStation 4. Is it a modern video console? The console gaming industry is changing, and Internet services and streaming services are a big part of any video game console. Video games are just part of what video game consoles are anymore.

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Taking news beyond the narrative form

Below is a post inspired by Barcamp News Innovation Philadelphia, an annual unconference focused on journalism innovation and the future of news. There is a big emphasis on the intersection of journalism and technology. I may have more posts in the coming days about BCNI.

Sean Blanda wonders why news articles online still look like news articles from a newspaper from the 1800s (here is a link to his prezi).

The essentials are the same: Headline, sub-headline, author name, dateline and a narrative. Below are a series of images that Blanda presented from news stories from the past three centuries:

That’s pretty damning evidence if you ask me.

The argument could be made that news stories are being presented in much the same way after 150 years because the format works. And in many ways, the news narrative does work. I’m not dismissing that attitude, but I do believe Blanda is right that there are other ways to present news and in many instances, much better ways to present news and information.

Blanda wonders why so many stories are still in narrative form? Do you really want to read a narrative about the NFL draft or do you want a list of draft picks with links to more information about each pick and what draft experts think of the pick?

I want the latter. People think of a draft as an event that happens in chronological order, and most sports websites now have draft trackers that present the draft as a series of lists with links to more information. By thinking of much of this information as information that doesn’t need a narrative, it can be reused into different packages and stories.

ESPN has a list of all seven rounds of the draft with thoughts about each pick and video analysis. If the videos were fixed to a single story, and not a part of a video database, ESPN couldn’t link to the video analysis on the draft list page.

Instead, ESPN embeds and links to their own video content all over ESPN.ocm, and does much of the same with their expert analysis information. ESPN does a pretty good job of not tying down their information to just story narratives.

Too much journalism, however, is still presented as narratives, particularly inverted pyramid narratives, regardless of the information being given. Why do we still have so much of a one-size fits all approach to sharing news?

The inverted pyramid is a style of writing that puts the most important content first — the base of the story/pyramid — and slowly makes it way down to less important information. The inverted pyramid traces its roots back to the 1800s and the telegraph.

If a telegraph transmission was cut short, a story could still be usable if it were written in the inverted pyramid format. The most important information all went first and if a few sentences are paragraphs were cut off, so be it. Of course, we don’t use telegraphs anymore, and we don’t have transmission issues.

Blanda presented three half-baked ideas for reinventing stories. His session was more of way to get people talking and thinking and less of a prescription for how to change how we report. In keeping with his session, I’m going to share some thoughts on how stories could be redone in this Internet age. This post is a bit of a brainstorm, and is geared towards getting a conversation going.

How to make articles into living, breathing documents? How to evolve articles from the same format that they were 100 years ago?

Why is everything in narrative form? More articles should be in bullet point form or as structured data in a database.

Narrative articles only work for true narratives. If people want info, put it into a form that makes sense for sharing that info: A database, list, table, box score

What if restaurant menus were in narrative format? Imagine how hard it would be to find something to eat.

If you have a story about school closings due to budget cuts, there should be a list or searchable database with auxiliary information. Also plotting the closures on a map would help a lot.

Only true narratives should be in narrative form. Trying to tell the story of how the foreclosure crisis hits? An in depth narrative filled with a lot of reporting that mixes in anecdotes from homeowners, mortgage brokers, realtors, etc. would be great piece. makes a lot of sleep. But a timeline of important events, if there are them, would help people to learn what happened.

Sometimes, however, there aren’t distinct events to be presented in a timeline or a list. Sometimes it’s more overarching decisions that lead to outcomes. With other stories, such as the events leading to World War II, a timeline can help make it easier for us to understand important events. While a narrative would certainly help fill in more details, a timeline helps add to the understanding of what happened.

Topic pages are a way to give people the backstory and some news organizations such as The New York Times are experimenting with them. Every story has a backstory. Wikipedia is popular because it gives people the backstory; news orgs should learn from Wikipedia. But topic pages have to compete with Wikipedia, which is a tall order for news organizations.

It doesn’t do news organizations any good to create a topic page that ends up being inferior to Wikipedia, which is one of the five most popular sites in the world. Compare the Times’s topic page on Israel to Wikipedia’s.

If your goal was to learn about Israel, only one of those is a serious option. Wikipedia presents a true overview of Israel, complete with geography, climate, demographics, legal system and more, while the Times presents a quick overview of what has happened lately in Israel.

Where the Times beats Wikipedia is in current event coverage and in multimedia. I like the idea of the topic pages, but the Times may need to structure their pages to highlight what they do best and perhaps link to the rest. The Times topic pages doesn’t have a lot of historical content that could inform readers as to why certain issues are ongoing, but that shouldn’t stop the Times from linking to and excerpting from others.

A river of the latest stories about Israel and the Israel and Palestine isn’t superior to Wikipedia. The topic pages on these issues could be better curated. What are the last 5-10 most important bits of news out of the Middle East? Or the latest pieces from columnists. And the Times really does need to make better use of other content on the Web from academics, other news orgs, encyclopedias, etc.

But the Times shouldn’t be faulted for trying new ways of informing their readers. I applaud them for doing so, but I think they need to find a better way of standing out on the Internet.

So, how can news articles evolve in the 21st century? What kind of stories do you like to read? What kinds of articles, stories and formats educate you the best?

Episode 21: Nobody enjoys plagiarism

Staff and student perceptions of plagiarism

We kick off the show by discussing plagiarism and how it’s handled at the college level. Apparently the process is long and arduous and no one comes out a winner.

We also discuss the state of writing in college today. Most students cannot write well coming out of high school, and this is causing headaches for college professors. Jeremy is a fan of one high school’s new plan to make a student rewrite any paper that has five or more errors in it.

We then get into how Facebook is becoming the driver’s license of the Internet. So many sites require you to have a Facebook account. Is this a good thing?

We discuss a lot this week. It’s a jam packed show and I hope you enjoy.

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