Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together

There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together

There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

“Expanding the palette of public radio”: Marc Maron’s WTF moves from podcast to program

Last month, we posted an interview Josh did with The Sound of Young America‘s Jesse Thorn. During their conversation, Thorn mentioned that he was working on trying to bring his friend Marc Maron‘s interview show WTF to public radio sometime in the “late spring of this year.”

Well: It is done. Last week, WTF was picked up by PRX (FTW!), thus making it available for distribution to stations around the country. And a number have already signed on: WTF has been licensed so far by New York’s WNYC, Chicago’s WBEZ, and, as of yesterday, Austin’s KUT — with more, Thorn told me, on the way.

WTF both is and isn’t standard public radio fare. On one hand, it’s two people sitting behind microphones, one interviewing the other, a form as old as the medium. On the other, it’s far less formal and more sprawling than what you’d get from a Terry Gross or a Diane Rehm. Maron interviews comedians in each episode — Conan O’Brien, Robin Williams, Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. — in loose conversations that can extend well beyond an hour. The format and Maron’s abilities have led to surprisingly open and revealing interviews. As Ira Glass told The New York Times, “People say stuff to him that you can’t imagine them saying to anyone else. And they offer it. They want to give it to him. Because he is so bare, he calls it forward.”

As part of the shift to a public radio format, podcast episodes had to be compacted and reshuffled to fit into one-hour time slots. There was also some bleeping necessary; WTF suggests “sensitive listeners should be advised.” Glass, who championed the show’s move to radio, insisted on keeping the name intact, acronym moralists be damned. (Check out Glass’ promos for the show below. You can hear all 10 episodes, pulled from the best of WTF’s archives, at PRX’s website.)

Thorn said he hopes that WTF can be part of a move to broaden the kind of content — and the kind of show formats — on the public airwaves. “I think the type of interview that Marc does is something that’s new to public radio,” he says. His interview style signals a shift not because it’s profane or vulgar — “which I think is what, sometimes, program directors assume about it” — but because it is raw and real in a way “that you don’t hear almost anywhere in broadcasting — outside of, to some extent, your semi-exploitative television interviews” (Oprah, Barbara Walters, etc.).

That emotional, human-to-human connection can be a rarity within a platform whose definition of professionalism is often bound up in the interviewer’s ability to express both empathy and detachment at once. (Paging Jay Rosen.) “I don’t think it’s something that has existed in public media in the context of an interview show — and especially on a public radio show,” Thorn says. He likens Maron’s interviewing style to that of…Howard Stern, since, say what you will about the shock jock, “one thing that he’s capable of doing brilliantly is finding emotional revelations in his guests. And he does that by being so honest about himself that the guest can’t help but be honest about themselves.”

That authentic element, Thorn notes — the closeness, the rawness — is part of what has made shows like This American Life and Radiolab into successes, particularly with younger listeners. And when Glass made his push to promote WTF into a show, furthering that trend was part of the idea:

It’s high time we on public radio harvest the very best of the podcasts out there and bring them to our audience. This is a great, easy, audience-friendly way to do that.

It’s about, essentially, “expanding the palette of public radio,” Thorn says: about providing listeners with new ways to understand the intimacy of the spoken word. “I think that Marc recording the show in his garage, with his books, feeds that strength of audio as a format,” Thorn says. “It’s like having something whispered in your ear. It’s automatically very intimate.”

Both the short and long of it: How sportswriting is taking over the web through innovation and adaptation

Readers paying attention to sportswriting for the past few months have had ample room for excitement. Not only have we been treated to great takes on the Super Bowl, March Madness, new seasons for baseball and tennis, the specter of an NFL lockout, NBA and NHL playoffs, and an upcoming Barcelona-Manchester United UEFA soccer final at Wembley Stadium — we’ve also seen the launch of several important publishing experiments on the web deliberately breaking out of sports’ traditional press box.

If you’re catching up, here’s your cheat-sheet (organized by chronology):

  • In January, ESPN.com/Associated Content alumnus Dan Shanoff started Quickish, a “real-time(-ish)” aggregator of sports-related tweets, links, and commentary. It’s designed to give readers a quick peek at the day’s biggest news and sharpest observations, powered by a combination of reader tips and Shanoff’s own curation: “Come back when big news happens, drop by in the morning or at the end of the day to find out what you might have missed or just visit the site when you have a free 60 seconds to catch up. It’s that easy.” Shanoff plans to expand the site’s reach beyond sports later this year: “Mother’s Day” and “Bin Laden Dead” are already trending topics on the site.

  • In April, recently-departed Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky announced that he and fellow tech-writing ex-pats Nilay Patel, Paul Miller, Joanna Stern, Ross Miller, and Chris Ziegler were creating a new technology vertical for rising sports blog empire SB Nation. It’s SB Nation’s first move beyond sports, but for Topolsky, what mattered most was the editorial model and developing technology: “SB Nation is actively evolving its tools and processes to meet the growing and changing needs of its vast editorial teams and their audience communities. They’re building for the web as it is now. From the perspective of a journalist who also happens to be a huge nerd, that’s a match made in heaven. SBN isn’t just another media company pushing news out — it’s a testbed and lab for some of the newest and most interesting publishing tools I’ve ever seen.”

    The yet-untitled site is slated to launch this fall out of new office space in New York’s Union Square; meanwhile, the core team has a temporary home writing about gadget and technology news at This Is My Next.

  • Around the same time, Longform.org launched a sister site, SportsFeat, spotlighting well-crafted longform sports and sports-related writing. Most of the stories are current, but others reach into the archives even as they relate to the day’s news. For the Kentucky Derby, the site featured Hunter S. Thompson’s famous “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”; when basketball coach Phil Jackson announced his retirement, they linked to Jack McCallum’s 1991 profile of Jackson for Sports Illustrated.

    The typical SportsFeat blog post features a link and story excerpt, with minimal commentary. Recently, Bethlehem Shoals (founder of the sadly shuttered FreeDarko.com) contributed a kind of review-essay, under the column title “Three Seconds,” linking and commenting on three classic stories from sportswriters around the web. Besides Shoals and Longform’s Max Linsky, other curators on the site include Wired.com’s Erik Malinowski, PBS Frontline’s Gretchen Gavett, and Alan Siegel, who’s written popular sports/pop culture stories for Deadspin.com and The Atlantic.

  • Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks owner and tech entrepreneur questioned whether it was worth it for sports teams to give web journalists access to players and coaches at all, calling out Yahoo and ESPN.com by name: “I think we have finally reached a point where not only can we communicate any and all factual information from our players and team directly to our fans and customers as effectively as any big sports website, but I think we have also reached a point where our interests are no longer aligned. I think those websites have become the equivalent of paparazzi rather than reporters.”

    Now, slamming bloggers (or reporters, period) for trafficking in headline-grabbing gossip is old hat. More significant is Cuban’s argument that between the organization’s PR machine, players’ use of social media, and amateur blogs, sports teams can communicate just as well with their audience, and fans’ desire for information can be just as satisfied, without the need for professional journalists as intermediaries. It’s a provocative claim, but also a signal that sophisticated writing about sports is being produced for digital media by many different organizations with very different interests.

  • Finally, later in the same month, ESPN.com unveiled Grantland, a long-awaited joint venture driven by superstar writer Bill Simmons, fresh off his best-selling Book of Basketball and acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series, both of which successfully fused sports history, pop culture, and personal/eclectic storytelling. That’s the formula for Grantland, and the reason why Simmons’s team is packed with names not necessarily known for sportswriting: Malcolm Gladwell, Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Lane Brown, and former GQ/Entertainment Weekly editor Dan Fierman.

    The first Grantland preview stories, Katie Baker’s “The Garden of Good and Evil” (thick description of the New York Knicks’ promise and shortcomings paired with a personal history of Baker’s own Knicks fandom) and Molly Lambert’s “Summer of Robots and Reboots” (a good-naturedly snarky preview of summer movies) offer a glimpse of the site’s future: smart writing for a sports audience infinitely less obsessed with scores and stats than it is absorbed by games as a forum for witty observations and conversation.

If there’s a common thread to all of these moves, it’s hybridization and metastasis. The tools that drive compelling sports journalism on the web aren’t limited to sports. Nor are they exclusively held by sportswriters working for independent media companies.

As Rob Neyer wrote when he moved from ESPN to SB Nation, the new ethos in sports journalism, as elsewhere, seems to be breaking down the distinction between “us” and “them.” And this is a distinction that you can interpret much more broadly than one between writers and readers, pros and amateurs, sportswriting and non-sports writing. When the walls tumble, they tumble everywhere.

My bet is that this will be good for everyone — not just sports fans, sportswriters, and smart media companies, but everyone looking for new ways to read and write smart material on the web.

Give Me Something To Read

In particular, the shift towards faster and more readerly sportswriting helps correct a long-standing imbalance in sports fandom, perhaps especially online. Net-connected computers let you store and search for hitherto unimaginable amounts of data. And in any subject area, the web tends to empower a vocal population of argumentative superfans. Both amplify some of sports’ longstanding tendencies towards fetishization of the same, whether in print, on sports radio, or at a corner bar.

Sheer erudition — and erudition of a very specific type — throws up large barriers to entry. Too often, newer, younger, and more casual sports fans “can sort of get to a certain point of enthusiasm before they hit the ‘stat wall’ where discussion of sports becomes pedantic and quantitative for no discernible reason other than as a social indicator of investment/knowlegeability,” says Grantland’s Katie Baker. “In particular, I constantly see women driven away from sports because they are fed it as a zero-sum game: either you know everything about everyone or you don’t.”

Now, what defines a committed fan is much less monolithic. Quick, real-time tools like Twitter help open up a richer sense of what counts as meaningful information in sports. “To me,” Baker says, “sports has always been just as much about, say, the face that Player X makes when he fouls out of a game as it is about the argument, hashed and rehashed boringly for days over sports radio, about whether that was ‘the right foul to take in this situation.’”

Short, observational takes on sports also recognize the time constraints placed on new media formats. Even those superfans want to be able to stay plugged-in to the discussion when they don’t have hours or days to spend listening to sports radio: on the subway, at the airport, at work, on the move.

In this case, even “less” news helps feed the desire for more. In “Five reasons it’s still a great time to become a sportswriter,” SportsJournalism.org’s Jason Fry writes that “if there’s an upper limit to the desire for sports news, we haven’t found it yet.” When CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell tried to go a week without Twitter, he says “I felt like a guy who strangely just decided to stop talking to his friends. My followers were sending me tweets telling me to end the experiment. Translation? What I was doing wasn’t fair to them.”

And as hungry as fans are for quick takes and real-time updates, they’re equally hungry for history of the game and the stories that shaped how we see it. Longform/SportsFeat co-founder Aaron Lammer explains the hunger for old stories for a generation accustomed to tracking down and collecting the best of the past:

Everyone has that one standout piece that gets seared into their skull, so it was exciting, when someone mentioned one, to actually be able to track it down and pass it around. For me, the process echoed the early days of MP3s, when out of print and ultra-rare recordings that had been stuck in record industry purgatory all started making the rounds. Except with long-form stories, the whole thing is amplified, because most of these pieces have totally dropped off the map. [emphasis mine]

And with a hundred and one ways to get the day’s stats and highlights and deals and signings, including directly from the teams themselves, anywhere and everywhere, there’s a premium on well-curated, extended, critical profiles and analysis — especially when we have time to sit and read.

The sports-tech demographic

At the same time, there are reasons that outlets cater to the audiences they do that go well beyond feeding the news hole or the geek-premium in sports culture. There’s fierce competition across all media for high-information readers/viewers/listeners/app users, particularly men, whether teenagers or middle-aged dads. This is a prime demographic for advertisers; it’s also a choice target for media companies or sports teams looking to cross-sell products in other businesses.

That’s one reason why SB Nation’s first non-sports vertical will focus on consumer technology. CEO Jim Bankoff helps explain the logic in this insightful interview with Forbes’s Lewis DVorkin:

“First of all, we have a big male audience,” Bankoff says. “Depending on who you believe, anywhere from ten to twenty million adult males — tech-savvy adult males.” Already at SB Nation, according to Bankoff, “about 30 percent of our revenue is coming from advertisers who are tech companies.”

When the post-AOL/HuffPo Engadget exodus began, Bankoff — who as VP of programming convinced AOL to buy Engadget and its parent company Weblogs Inc. back in 2005 — found his team to bring sports and tech together.

“Our company was built on the marriage of talent and technology,” Bankoff told DVorkin. “The talent makes the technology better… The more talented storytellers we find for what we do, the better they push our product team, and the more excited our product team gets to work with them.”

Changing how (and where) news is presented

As the Lab’s Laura McGann wrote last year, by building its platform around sports teams and sports fans, SB Nation had to create sophisticated platforms to:

  • manage many sites at once
  • blend local and national news
  • blend text with multimedia
  • facilitate reader participation and content creation
  • update developing stories in realtime using “story streams”
  • whittle down a huge number of stories to find the most important/relevant while still allowing news junkies to go as deep as they’d like
  • push news everywhere and to every device sports fans want to find it

In short, it’s the same challenges every news organization faces, but arguably compressed and magnified. If tech talk/geek culture dominated the anonymous, text-heavy newsgroups and forums of the 1990s, and snarky, image-heavy media, gadget, and celebrity gossip sites represented (fairly or unfairly) the first wave of for-profit blogs in the 2000s, sports networks might be the best indicator of where news is going in the 2010s.

Back to the roots

Quickish’s Shanoff sees it a little differently. Sites like Simmons’s Grantland, he says, remind him more than anything of ESPN’s lauded Page 2 site during its “classic period” from the early-to-mid 2000s, when literary-minded writers like David Halberstam, Ralph Wiley, and Hunter S. Thompson brushed against unknown, try-anything bloggers with strong voices, including a young Bill Simmons. (Even the name “Grantland,” an allusion to sportswriting legend Grantland Rice, suggests a return as much as a step forward.)

“The connective tissue between Page 2 and Grantland,” Shanoff says, “is a notion that there is always room to push boundaries when it comes to compelling editorial in sports — most relevantly, that there are undervalued talents who can, when paired with critical resources like distribution, can emerge and create new value for readers and publishers.”

Even sports coverage on television has become increasingly web-like, both in look and tone. If you watch a sporting event, news recap, or opinion show on TV, you’ll find a screen cluttered with text and graphics, framing on-screen personalities (overwhelmingly men) who argue and joke with each other.

Shanoff thinks the influence between TV and the web is mutual:

The most “web” product in the history of sports media came from a TV show that launched even before the initial popularization of blogs: Pardon The Interruption, which launched in 2001 with its implicit refutation of windy sportswriting cliches and its marriage of accessible personalities and a user-friendly format. I cannot think of a sports-media product that is more highly regarded by fans and “pros” alike. PTI accurately foreshadowed — down to its on-screen graphics — the “stream” that would become the dominant visual metaphor for both Facebook and Twitter (and thus the dominant visual metaphor for news consumption in the 21st century).

Shows like PTI, and the countless programs it influenced, offer a graphic approach to television news perfectly suited for the sudden ubiquity of big-screen high-definition TVs and an audience increasingly accustomed to processing multiple information streams at once. But we don’t just experience sports in front of the TV, on the radio, or at the event any more. Even when we do, we’re likely to have a mobile device in hand, ready to tweet our thoughts or share video and pictures about what we see.

And we don’t only read online sportswriting in front of our desktop PCs, with multiple browser windows open giving us stats in hand. We also read it in coffee shops or in bed, on tablets. We don’t read it only to win arguments, to boo or cheer, but to relax, reflect, and remember.

Image by Bob Jagendorf used under a Creative Commons license.

Reporting live from the scene of breaking news…on an iPhone

0519_iphone-on-air

Earlier this month, as the president announced Osama bin Laden’s demise, NPR’s Robert Smith noticed on Twitter that revelers were congregating at Ground Zero. He grabbed his gear and headed into Manhattan. A few hours later, Smith was reporting live in high fidelity, playing back sound bites as if broadcasting from the D.C. studios. No engineer at his side, no setup — and, importantly, no cell-network fuzz.

It was 4 a.m. and Charlie Mayer, NPR’s director of operations, was listening at home, stumped.

“As the operations guy, it’s my job to understand how everybody gets on the air,” Mayer said. “I emailed him, I’m like, ‘Robert, that was a great two-way, how did you do it?’ And he’s like, ‘Fool, I did it with my iPhone!”

An iPhone 4, running on Verizon’s 3G network, with a standard field mike and an adapter plugged into the headphone jack. Smith pulled off what might have required days of planning just a few months ago — sending engineers to install an ISDN line at the site, Mayer suggested, or equipping the reporter with a $3,000 satellite phone. A low-quality cellphone connection would usually have to do for breaking news. ”Sounds fine,” Mayer said, “but it’s not like being right there.”

thought I was impressed last month when I wrote about a Boston radio reporter who used her iPhone to record interviews for a story. That was kid stuff. It turns out NPR has been experimenting with radio-quality live broadcasts on mobile devices and wireless connections.

Smith used an iPhone app called Report-IT Live to make the connection. No IP addresses or ports to configure, just a user name and password. NPR worked with developer Tieline to streamline the app for maximum simplicity — not so much for reporters like Smith, but for tens of millions of broadcast-capable citizens out there. ”We think of that as being for anybody with an iPhone,” Mayer said. “Every iPhone in the world is potentially an NPR recording and transmission tool.”

To hear the kind of difference in quality we’re talking about, check out this example from WNYC radio. It’s the same bit of audio, first as it was heard on air (over a scratchy cell connection), and then as it was recorded with Report-IT on an iPod touch connecting over a Verizon MiFi. (The switch happens about 27 seconds in; here’s the MP3.)

[See post to listen to audio]

People who are far away or unavailable in person can talk to a host without that “faraway” sound. The Report-IT app is a free download, though NPR pays server licensing fees. Mayer walked me through the setup during our interview; it took less than a minute to get “on the air.”

Better to try and fail than not try

Of course, cellphones have been a reporting and broadcasting tool as long as they’ve existed, but there’s always been a tradeoff in quality. The 3G infrastructure is not always reliable enough for on-air use; it’s too slow and prone to dropouts. In 2008, during the presidential race, reporter David Greene was using pro gear on a 3G connection while conducting a live interview from Hillary Clinton campaign’s party. The connection dropped midstream. (And you complain about dropped calls.)

“I feel horrible about that,” Mayer said. “But at the same time, if we don’t do that, we don’t learn, we’re always afraid of this technology, and we don’t advance quickly.”

While NPR is currently using 3G with Report-IT, Mayer said the Next Big Thing is Verizon’s nascent LTE network, also called 4G. He said it’s like jumping from dial-up to a cable modem. An LTE connection costs NPR about $50 a month, whereas a satellite phone costs about $6 a minute. So far, though, LTE coverage is still spotty — limited mostly to urban areas, and the connection does not work overseas.

NPR made its first successful LTE broadcast last month, a 24-minute interview with Sen. Kent Conrad on Talk of the Nation. The technology got another big test when President Obama visited Facebook a few weeks ago.

Reporter Ari Shapiro was sent to Palo Alto, Calif., with a portable Comrex kit and an LTE connection. “In that kind of a situation you have very limited time to file, and so we had a very narrow window in which we could talk to Ari,” Mayer said. Shapiro and Mayer were on opposite sides of the country, testing the connection and getting poor results. It was nerve-racking.

“The White House press staff shows up and says, ‘Okay, we gotta move!’ At this point Michele Norris is walking into the studio to do this interview, and it’s one of tense moments where you say, ‘All right, let’s give it a shot.’”

It went off without a hitch. The listener hustles through Facebook’s corridors right alongside the press corps. An old-fashioned phone connection can’t capture that. “That kind of interview would absolutely have been done on a cell phone a couple of months ago,” Mayer said.

If and when the iPhone supports LTE, reporters will have a killer mobile broadcasting kit in their pockets. (A number of Android devices already support LTE, but new NPR employees are given the choice of a BlackBerry or an iPhone. The vast majority choose an iPhone, Mayer said.) The lines between professional and consumer equipment continue to blur, but there will always be a need for indestructible, professional-grade equipment, Mayer said.

“We realized a long time ago with IP audio that one size would not fit all,” Mayer said. “There’s not going to be one connectivity solution, one hardware solution, or even one workflow that’s going to work for everything that we do.”

The tech has come a long way since Smith worked for community radio in Portland, Ore., 21 years ago. He jerry-rigged a grocery cart with a car battery and a microwave transmitter to pull off remote broadcasts. “You would have to orient this giant antenna microwave thing and bounce it off a building,” he said.

“This is amazingly easier,” he said, referring to his iPhone. “I will say, though, that as I was at Ground Zero I had to keep ducking into delis to recharge my iPhone. I wish I had the car battery!”

Photo illustration based on an image by Guillaume Lemoine used under a Creative Commons license.

This Week in Review: What Twitter does to us, Google News gets more local, and making links routine

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Twitter on the brain: Last week, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller got a rise out of a lot of folks online with one of the shortest of his 21 career tweets: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” Keller revealed the purpose of his social experiment this week in a column arguing, in so many words, that Twitter may be dulling your humanity, and probably making you stupid, too. Here’s the money quote: “But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”

This, as you might imagine, did not go over particularly well online. There were a couple strains of reaction: Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and All Twitter’s Lauren Dugan argued that Twitter may indeed be changing us, but for the good, by helping make previously impossible connections.

Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch and Mike Masnick of Techdirt countered Keller by saying that while Twitter isn’t built for deep conversations, it is quite good at providing an entry point for such discussion: “What you see publicly posted on Twitter and Facebook is just the tip of the conversation iceberg,” Tsotsis said. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, meanwhile, defended Twitter’s true social nature, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci gave a fantastic breakdown of what Twitter does and doesn’t do culturally and socially.

Two of the most eloquent responses were provided by Nick Bilton, one of Keller’s own employees, and by Gizmodo’s Mat Honan. Bilton pointed out that our brains have shown a remarkable ability to adapt quickly to new technologies without sacrificing old capacities. (Be sure to check out Keller’s response afterward.)

Honan made a similar argument: Keller, he said, is confusing the medium with the message, and Twitter, like any technology, is what you make it. “If you choose to do superficial things there, you will have superficial experiences. If you use it to communicate with others on a deeper level, you can have more meaningful experiences that make you smarter, build lasting relationships, and generally enhance your life,” Honan wrote.

Google gets more local with news: Google News unveiled a few interesting changes in the past week, starting with the launch of “News near you.” Google has sorted news by location for a while now, but this feature will allow smartphone users to automatically get local news wherever they are. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski explained why newspapers should be worried about Google moving further onto their local-news turf, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram criticized newspapers for not coming up with like this themselves.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, on the other hand, said Google’s feature is still in need of some human curation to go with its algorithmic aggregation. That’s an area in which local newspapers can still dominate, he said, but it’ll require some technological catchup, as well as a willingness to get over fears about linking to competitors.

Another change, not publicized by Google News but spotted by the folks at Search Engine Land, was the addition of an option to allow users to filter out blogs and press releases from their results. This raised the question, what exactly does Google consider a blog? Google told Search Engine Land it relies on a variety of factors to make that decision, especially self-identification. Mathew Ingram ripped this classification, and urged Google to put everything that contains news together in Google News and let readers sort it out. (Former Lab writer Zach Seward wrote about the problems with Google News’ blog label back in 2009.)

Fitting linking into news’ workflow: A discussion about linking has been simmering on Twitter on and off over the past few weeks, and it began to come together into something useful this week. This round of the conversation started with a post by web thinker and scholar Doc Searls, who wondered why news organizations don’t link out more often. In the comments, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer suggested that one reason is that many newspapers’ CMS’s and workflows are print-centric, making linking logistically difficult.

CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson responded that the workflow issue isn’t much of an excuse, saying, as he put it on Twitter: “At this point ‘linking’ has been around for twenty years. The fact that this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” This kicked off a sprawling debate on Twitter, aptly chronicled via Storify by Mathew Ingram and Alex Byers. Ingram also wrote a post responding to a few of the themes of resistance of links, particularly the notion that information on the web is inferior to information gained by old-fashioned reporting.

British journalist Kevin Anderson took on the workflow issue in particular, noting how outdated many newspaper CMS’s are and challenging them to catch up technologically: “It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist.” Publish2′s Scott Karp gave an idea for a solution to the CMS mess.

AOL’s continued makeover: Another week, another slew of personnel moves at AOL. PaidContent’s David Kaplan reported that AOL is hiring “a bunch” of new (paid) editors and shuffling some current employees around after its layoff of hundreds this spring. Overall, Kaplan wrote, this is part of the continued effort to put the Huffington Post’s stamp on AOL’s editorial products.

One of the AOL entities most affected by the shifts is Seed, which had been a freelance network, but will now fall under AOL’s advertising area as a business-to-business product. Saul Hansell, who was hired in 2009 to run Seed, is moving to HuffPo to edit its new “Big News” features. In a blog post, Hansell talked about what this means for HuffPo and for Seed.

Meanwhile, the company is also rolling out AOL Industry, a set of B2B sites covering energy, defense, and government. But wait, that’s not all: AOL’s Patch is launching 33 new sites in states targeting the 2012 election. The hyperlocal news site Street Fight also reported that Patch is urging its editors to post more often, and a group of independent local news sites is banding together to tell the world that they are not Patch, nor anything like it.

Reading roundup: As always, plenty of other stuff to get to this week.

— We mentioned a Pew report’s reference to the Drudge Report’s influence in last week’s review, and this week The New York Times’ David Carr marveled at Drudge’s continued success without many new-media bells and whistles. Poynter’s Julie Moos looked at Drudge’s traffic over the years, while the Washington Post disputed Pew’s numbers. ZDNet’s David Gewirtz had five lessons Drudge can teach the rest of the media world.

— A few paid-content items: A Nielsen survey on what people are willing to pay for various mobile services, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds on The New York Times’ events marketing for its pay plan, and the Lab’s Justin Ellis on paid-content lessons from small newspapers.

— A couple of tablet-related items: Next Issue Media, a joint effort of five publishers to sell magazines on tablets, released its first set of magazines on Google Android-powered Samsung Galaxy. And here at the Lab, Ken Doctor expounded on the iPad as the “missing link” in news’ digital evolution.

— Columbia University announced it will launch a local news site this summer focusing on accountability journalism, and the Lab’s Megan Garber gave some more details about what Columbia’s doing with it.

— The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner had an interesting conversation with Slate’s David Plotz about Slate’s aggregation efforts, and in response, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case for valuing aggregation skills in journalists.

— This weekend’s think piece is a musing by Maria Bustillos at The Awl on Wikipedia, Marshall McLuhan, communal knowledge-making, and the fate of the expert. Enjoy.

The Conversation, the startup Australian news site, wants to bring academic expertise to breaking news

What would happen if you had close to 1,000 academics available to contribute to the breaking news cycle? Would it change the course, and the discourse, of news?

Andrew Jaspan thinks it will.

Jaspan, formerly an editor at The Age, the Melbourne-based newspaper, founded The Conversation, an Australian nonprofit news site, in order to combat problems that are just as present in Oz as in other news environments: shrinking newsrooms and a sound-bite-driven broadcast culture.

But The Conversation’s approach is a novel one: While the site uses professional journalists as its editors, it uses academics to provide the content for the site. The goal, says the site’s charter, is to provide “a fact-based and editorially-independent forum” that will “unlock the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems” and “give experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas by providing a trusted platform that values and promotes new thinking and evidence-based research.”

As Jaspan explained: “Our model is not so much to use the university as a source of news, though we do report research findings as news. What we really try to do is use academics and researchers to analyze live news events, like the killing of Osama Bin Laden through to the Fukiyama earthquakes or whatever [other] complex news stories…. We are using people who are experts to give greater depth to the understanding of complex and live issues.

Expertise and relevance

The Conversation offers a number of surprises to those looking for a more in-depth approach to issues in the news:

  • Academics writing about the “now,” within the news cycle, in areas related to their expertise
  • Taking experts to the people, instead of selectively filtering their expertise. Want the big voice on climate change? Then read what he or she has to say directly — rather than through a few sample quotes in a story
  • Readability. The site is set — mechanically, within its content management system — to make the stories easy (enough) to read. Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability index (set to the reading level of a 16-year-old for maximum readability), the CMS can actually tell academics when they’ve veered into jargon…and an editor can help steer them back
  • Real-time news updates filed twice a day — once in the morning and once in the afternoon
  • Coverage of business and the economy, environment and energy, health and medicine, politics and society, and science and technology

And, as the site’s tagline promises, “academic rigour, journalistic flair.”

As an academic myself, I was a bit skeptical of the idea. After all, some of the most bombastic and opinionated folks reside in academia — so I wasn’t sure how exactly Jaspan’s site would deliver on a promise to provide more in-depth coverage without the rhetorical flourishes that often seem to come with American academic publishing. And what about the political implications? As a group, after all, academics tend to be more liberal than the population at large.

Jaspan had three counterpoints to my concerns:

First, “every author has to fill out a profile, so the reader knows who the person is and their education. And there is the additional requirement of a disclosure of any potential conflicts which might color their judgment.” Second, in response to the political question — after noting that my academics-are-liberal assertion might be a bit loaded — Jaspan replied that what The Conversation is ultimately doing is putting people in touch with “academics who are usually better informed than the general public because of their depth of knowledge and their sense of the complexity of the issue.”

Third, and most important, Jaspan sees The Conversation, true to its name, as leading to public debate. “One of the key things we want to do with a public-facing media channel is to make sure we have a range of views on something like the execution of Osama Bin Ladin, and that we have different interpretations of what happened and whether or not the means in which it was done were judicial.” The main goal, though: “We want to surprise our readers. We don’t want to give them the usual explanations, alternative insights, and viewpoints — and that will lead to lively conversation.”

Jaspan’s backers come from both the nonprofit and for-profit realms. The Conversation is backed by Ernst & Young, among other corporate supporters. And from academia, he has drawn on some of the top Australian research universities, in addition to Australia’s Department of Education. To find the academics, Jaspan and his staff did a “census” of academics based on their areas of expertise. Then, by word of mouth, they asked participating academics to recommend colleagues who would make good contributors to the site.

Immediacy and impact

But, again, the skeptical academic in me had another question: Why on earth would a busy academic take time away from publishing (ahem) to write for The Conversation?

Part of the answer has to do with Australia’s current approach to university promotion. Research and teaching form part of the core methods of evaluation, but a third arm of assessment is an academic’s quality of public engagement and social impact. According to Jaspan, Australian universities are putting a new stress on the third.

And since The Conversation gives each writer a dashboard to measure his or her own metrics, the academic can then use those data for his or her professional promotion and evaluation, actually measuring his or her social impact in a quantifiable way for university administrators — based on, say, retweets or traffic for a particular story. The academics don’t get paid for their work. Instead, though, they might pick up speaking engagements or consulting gigs.

There’s also the instant-gratification factor. While traditional academic publishing generally makes academics wait a year (or more) to see something in print, Jaspan said that some academics relish being able to turn something around in two hours.

Currently, The Conversation is still in beta form, with Jaspan looking to add more audience engagement and commenting features, as well as richer multimedia. Jaspan estimates that the site is getting about 120,000 to 150,000 visitors each month — with those metrics rising by “10 percent a week.”

But Jaspan isn’t seeing, or hoping for, an audience purely composed of academic eggheads. “This is not a site for academics,” he notes. “This is not a site for university sector. This is a site for every day public discourse.”