Tag Archives: Washington Post

Thoughts on Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s new website

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Ezra Klein’s Project X is here, and now it is called Vox.com.

This is what he and several of journalists left The Washington Post for. It’s early, but I’m impressed. There is still much work to done, however, to really make this new news organization stand out.

Here are my early thoughts:

  • The design is simple — There is nothing about the Web design of Vox.com that is eye popping. The site is clean, simple and easy to use. The design probably took less time to build than a lot of metro newspaper websites. Good design is about saying no, not yes. When you look at most journalism websites, it looks like no was almost never said no, except when it came to trying new things. Vox.com isn’t cluttered with random crap that most people don’t want. That’s the beauty of its design. Also, the design works very well on mobile, which is key to harnessing social media traffic properly. I also imagine Vox.com is aimed at a lot of educated, urban users who will read stories on their way to work on public transportation or at coffee shops on breaks. This website is perfect for those kinds of users.
  • The content is delicious and slightly esoteric — Naturally I’m a fan. Vox.com is a general interest site, except it’s not. It’s a general interest site for people who share Ezra Klein’s taste, just as Daring Fireball is a general interest site for those who share John Gruber’s taste in tech. It’s a site aimed at educated, urban, urbane readers who care about policy. Frankly, it’s a website that  appeals more to your typical white-collar DC-area worker than the Washington Post does.  I think general interest news sites are a tough business when they try to appeal to everyone. That’s what metro newspapers have traditional done, and while it worked in print, it’s a tougher sell online. Vox.com is a general interest website aimed at a niche audience. I think it’s the only way general interest can work on the Web. I also would think that advertisers are pretty excited about this site.
  • I love the Vox Conversations videos — There is nothing fancy technologically about these videos, just a big heaping of taste. The quality is high, and the videos are well thought out and edited. This isn’t smartphone journalism. This is video that would make Charlie Rose and TED proud. Lots of news organizations could do the same thing, but video like this takes time to build. These conversations are the kind of videos, however, that will be relevant for a long time to come, like TED Talks, which allows you to have higher production costs. The idea of producing tons of journalism each day is incongruous with high quality. These videos showcase that.
  • Cards are Wikipedia-esque way to explain large stories — I’d suggest firing this feature up on a mobile device to really get the full effect. Essentially cards are a way to explain by topics, such as the Ukraine Crisis, in more manageable chunks. Think of it as a more approachable Wikipedia that is more tightly edited on current hot-button topics. This is also a way to give context to stories. And Cards are a nice way to present ads to users every few clicks and swipes without detracting from the main content. Cards are kind of a high-brow way to do slideshows on important topics. Every news organization that has covered what is going on in Ukraine should have an explainer feature about what is going on. Just reporting on the day-to-day goings on with Ukraine and Russia doesn’t educate users on the why. News organizations should care more about the why. Cards are all about the why. The true value of cards, however, won’t be realized until they can be linked to additional reporting.
  • The lack of comments and community features is disappointing — News websites feel dead without community. Even though Vox.com features a nice design that works well on all my devices, and has stories that speak to me, the inability to read what people think and share my own opinions leaves me detached from this site. I don’t comment on most journalism sites that I read, but just reading the comments that are left (at least on the sites that build strong communities), enriches the experience and makes me feel a part of something bigger. The comments on nytimes.com, for instance, are fantastic and often extend the story significantly. I hope we see community features added soon, because Vox.com just doesn’t feel complete right now.
  • Excellent use of charts and data — I’m not talking about big data or fancy data-drive projects. I’m talking about putting in easy-to-read charts and graphs when they help tell a story. Does your story involve data of some sort? It should have at least one data visualization. That could be as simple as an Excel chart.
  • I dig the yellow color — Yellow is not a common color for websites. I’m grown weary of seeing so many blue websites or black and white color palettes for news organization. The yellow works well on several levels. Not only does Vox.com feel fresh like spring, but the yellow also reminds a user of highlighting a college textbook. Vox.com is a general interest news website, but it also wants to be educated and wonkish. The yellow color and the way links look like underlines in a textbook really underscore that. They even made links look like a real highlighter went over them by not being symmetrical. It’s a nice touch.
  • Text could be bigger — The text on Vox.com is bigger than most news organizations (some news organizations seem to want to make reading as difficult as possible), but I’d still like to see it bigger. Larger text is easier on the eyes, making reading easier for longer periods of time. For a site that wants to be wonkish and bookish, bigger type would help accomplish that. Bigger type is also easier on older eyes and people with vision issues. Medium does the best job of any website with text. I love the size and font choices they made. I’d like to see Vox.com adopt something similar.
  • Look Mom, no Flash! — The videos are viewable without Flash. Every news website needs to do this. It’s no surprise that a tech-focused company like Vox would use HTML 5 for everything, but it’s still worth mentioning.
  • I’d like to see higher resolution video — This is also a complaint that I have with another Vox property, The Verge. I’d love to be able to see some of their videos in higher resolution. The initial Vox Conversations video is soft and highly compressed. This keeps costs down and helps with loading times, but I’d like to see an option for at least high quality 720p video. Heck, I’d probably chip in $10 a year just for this feature. A lot of people won’t care about this, but it’s a premium feature that some may enjoy.

For those wondering, we’ll be launching a new responsive design this summer for the Interchange Project. This design was hastily hacked together. I’m excited to put all of my previous Web knowledge together with everything I’ve learned in my Human-computer Interaction master’s program.

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.

Listen to this week’s show:


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Show notes: 

Episode 36: Hacks and hackers

We begin by discussing my experience at BarCamp NewsInnovation Philadelphia, one of the best (un)conferences around. It brings together journalists and technologists.

What I really like about events like BCNI is that people take the sessions seriously and the audience is engaged and asks lots of questions. The sessions really become great Socratic debates. No one is proposing a session just so they can get in free; BCNI costs $5 and came with free breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The event led me to write a post about taking news beyond the narrative form based on a session I attended.

We then discuss the whole Washington Post blogPost mess. We have to ask, who really made the ethical lapse at the Post?

Also, Jeremy thinks that working on blogPost is the worst entry-level journalism job he has ever heard of.

There are also a few good rants. So buckle up.

Listen to this week’s show:


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Show notes:

On failing young journalists

The Washington Post’s Ombudsman Patrick Pexton says the Post has failed some of its young journalists:

But The Post failed her as much as she failed The Post. I spoke with several young bloggers at The Post this week, and some who have left in recent months, and they had the same critique.

They said that they felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing. Guidelines for aggregating stories are almost nonexistent, they said. And they believe that, even if they do a good job, there is no path forward. Will they one day graduate to a beat, covering a crime scene, a city council or a school board? They didn’t know. So some left; others are thinking of quitting.

Without guidelines, training and vision from the top how can you say a blogger failed?

Source: Washington Post.

Who really made the ethical lapse at blogPost?

Trevor Butterworth at the The Awl says former Washington Post blogger Elizabeth Flock was setup to fail:

How can this be a “significant ethical lapse” when the whole point of blogPOST is to profit from other people’s work? Because she drew attention to the essence of what aggregation really is? The story ends with Discovery protesting at being obviously burgled rather than being burgled and left with a thank you note in the form of a small trickle of click-throughs. Ms. Flock immediately and voluntarily resigned, saying the mistakes were hers, that it would only be a matter of time, given the pressures of the job, before she made another mistake. The full extent of her journalism crime was the omission of a link.

An 11 hour day, seven posts, almost 3,000 words and getting pushed out over making a mistake less than 1 percent of the time.

I encourage you to read everything Butterworth wrote. It’s a keeper, and I hope editors at the Post read it. Butterworth and I may defer on whether or not we believe that aggregation can be done well (I do believe it can), but top editors at the Post need to have clear guidelines for what they expect from bloggers and figure out a strategy that provides value for all.

Source: The Awl.


Episode 25: Much a EULA about nothing?

We follow-up last weeks’s show about iBooks and iBooks Author with some discussion of the infamous iBooks Author EULA.

We then get into whether or not the Washington Post is innovating too much. A common question of newspapers.

We also discuss the mythical iTV and the whole movie rights mess that may be holding it back. I preordered Game of Thrones to stream to my Apple TV, which demonstrates what we could have one day. I now own every episode of the first season in HD and can stream it whenever I feel like it or put it on my mobile devices.

We also talk some other random topics that come up, like how I was pleasantly surprised to see a book I preordered for the Kindle show up just after midnight on the launch day.

Listen to this week’s show:


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Show notes:

Can newspapers innovate too fast? Is that what went wrong?

Can you innovate too fast? That’s what the Washington Post’s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton wants to know:

One of the things that surprised and heartened me when I came to The Post 10 months ago was the tremendous amount of innovation going on.

Hardly a week goes by without the Web site or newspaper launching some feature, or a venture to attract more revenue, or a blog, or a social media innovation. Just since I have been here, The Post has redesigned its Web site; installed a new content management system; pioneered the Facebook social reader, which tracks and announces what your Facebook friends are reading; added a team of policy bloggers to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog; revised its comment system for readers; added a ton more news videos online; started The Root DC, a site aimed at African American readers; and probably about 10 other things I can’t remember.

The answer to innovating too fast really depends on your position as a company. If you’re a dominate company, racking in profits, perhaps spending too much time and money on new stuff would be a mistake. Targeted R&D in the Apple mold produces better results than the spaghetti-on-the-wall R&D of Google. But there isn’t a newspaper company that is an Apple or a Google.

If you are a company in a besieged industry that is rapidly disappearing, I don’t think it’s possible to innovate too fast. Does anyone really think that the newspaper industry is in the situation it is in today because it innovated too fast?

But it is important to draw a distinction between new initiatives and innovation. Thus the proper questions are, “Are the new initiatives we are trying the correct ones? Are we spending our time wisely? Do we have the proper setup to ensure innovation?”

The Washington Post and many other news organizations are certainly trying a lot of new things. I wouldn’t call that innovation. New initiatives that resonate with users, drive traffic and ultimately help a news organization make money (and thus employ staffers) should be considered innovation. New initiatives that push journalism forward should be considered innovation and ultimately encouraged.

By this measure, I would say the Post and other news organizations need a lot more innovation. Particularly missing right now is innovation on the business model front. While The New York Times has been experimenting with different ways to make money, most notably its pay meter, I don’t recall any serious initiatives from the Post when it comes to business models. That’s innovation that the Post could sorely use.

Pexton does cite that several Post users complain that washingtonpost.com is becoming cluttered. I think that’s a fair point. I find Washington Post story pages to be distracting and hard to read (almost built for Instapaper and Reader to declutter them). This isn’t due to too much innovation, but rather far too little restraint.

This is an issue afflicting most legacy news organizations. The experience of focusing on and enjoying an individual story is rapidly disappearing beneath an avalanche of chrome: social media widgets, ads that are far too distracting and rarely relevant, polls that are unrelated to the story at hand, links to unrelated content on the site, newsletter signups, etc, etc.

My guess is that Pexton, and the employees at the Post agreeing with him, haven’t thought too deeply about what innovation at a news organization looks like. I’d suggest they check out the new tech news site The Verge. They have real innovation like story streams that allow them to create micro-blogs for big, ongoing stories. Their reviews feature layout and typography that makes them feel more like an interactive magazine spread, complete with very high-caliber video reviews and charts.

While the Post may have rolled out a new content management system and design (the site doesn’t look or feel much different to me, the end user), you can tell The Verge has a CMS unlike what traditional news outlets have. The site looks and feels different to end users. It’s what innovation feels like.

Perhaps Pexton should ask his colleagues why the Post’s website doesn’t look and feel nearly as a good as The Verge. There is no good reason it doesn’t.

Facebook releases top 40 most shared articles in 2011, list dominated by 4 news orgs

Facebook’s list of top 40 most shared articles in 2011 contains stories from only six news organizations.

A few things that stand out to me:

  • Hard news is not very popular. Opinion pieces are. The one major exception was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
  • Yahoo! is struggling but Yahoo! News is a major destination for news and its stories — largely not hard hitting stories — are popular on social media sites.
  • The top five most shared stories — except the top one about the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan — are all largely fluff pieces.  Gems such as “Parents, don’t dress your girls like tramps.” CNN in particular is really good at these link-bait stories.
  • The Wall Street Journal has only one story in the top 40. This is no doubt largely due to the paywall that the Journal has set up. The NYT’s 20 story meter on the other hand clearly encourages more sharing. Any pay wall that doesn’t even allow people to taste your journalism is probably doomed in this social era. How will people even discover if they want to pay for the Journal? The NYT at least encourages people to try before they buy and its meter is built to work well with social media.
  • The Washington Post is low on the list. Will the new social reader app change this? I’d really like to see next year’s data.
  • Steve Jobs, his life and his death were popular on social media sites.

The future of journalism is linked to technology. Tell newspaper columnists this.

The future of journalism is inextricably linked with technology. There is no way around that. And journalists who don’t get that are actively holding journalism back.

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote a piece about Steve Jobs and technology that was so off base and so out of touch, one would almost have too assume that it’s satire. Maybe he is auditioning for The Onion:

Before reading this, you should know the following: I do not own an iPad, an iPhone, an iPod or a Mac. I abandoned my typewriter only recently. In short, I have not enlisted in the digital revolution and have kept my involvement to a desktop computer, e-mail and the Internet…

By history’s measure, Jobs’s achievements are tiny. Transforming the music industry is not the same as transforming society. There are many technological advances that had a far larger impact on society: antibiotics, air travel, air conditioning and television. By contrast, many of Apple’s products are gadgets, as commentators have noted. Their ultimate social impact may be less than Facebook’s.

The work that Steve Jobs did on personal computers, smartphones, tablets and general usability for technology far outweighs some of the “big” examples that Samuelson exposes. The television? Honestly, that’s nothing compared to computers.

Many tech savvy people of my generation are forgoing traditional televisions because Internet-connected devices are so much deeper and more powerful than a TV. Standalone TV is a blimp in history that will be replaced by Internet video (all video will eventually go over IP, and this transition is already underway).

Steve Jobs and his works are big because they brought computing to the masses. The Internet and personal computing — PCs, smartphones, tablets, etc. — are some of the biggest advances in human history.

Steve Jobs worked to take technology and make it usable for non-technologists. He helped democratize technology. That is huge.

For a journalist to not understand technology, when technology is disrupting journalism so greatly and allowing for journalism to do things that it could never do before, is somewhat mind blowing. Samuelson is not some Podunk journalist. He works for one of the best news organizations in America.

I expect more.

We become journalists because we’re addicted to learning and reading. We simply have to know more about our world around us. Samuelson, a good political reporter, would be a better journalist if he was more curious about technology.

Hat tip to Daring Fireball.