#DemandAlJazeera: How Al Jazeera is using social media to cover Egypt—and distribute its content in the US

Mark noted in today’s This Week in Review that ”the organization that has shined the brightest over the past 10 days is unquestionably Al Jazeera.” Most viewers in the US, though, have had to watch the news network’s coverage of the uprisings in Egypt on their computers rather than their televisions: Al Jazeera isn’t part of most U.S. cable packages.

So, hoping to cement an “I want my MTV” moment, Al Jazeera is taking to Twitter to find its way onto TVs in the US. The network is using a promoted trend on Twitter, #DemandAlJazeera, to make the case that it’s time for the Qatar-based broadcast to debut on TVs here in America.

In using Twitter, Al Jazeera is tapping a network that has been particularly beneficial to it as events have unfolded in Egypt. If you’ve been online in the past two weeks, it’s almost hard to escape Al Jazeera’s coverage of the demonstrations and political turmoil around Cairo, whether in the channel’s breathless reporting on its site or its updates on Twitter. But it has largely been the channel’s online livestream that has caught the attention of many in the US, and the result has been big traffic.

“We’ve had a lot of people writing about ‘Why do we have to watch this online, why can’t we get (Al Jazeera) in the US,’” Riyaad Minty, head of social media for Al Jazeera, told me. “Almost 50 percent of traffic to our livestream is coming from the US.”

Al Jazeera has explored using promoted trending topics on Twitter before, Minty said, but couldn’t find the right conditions for it. Do you use it to promote single stories, broader coverage, or the network itself? Egypt, however, provided the right opportunity for experimentation. ”We knew a lot of people would be turning to Twitter to get news as we’ve seen in past world events,” Minty said. “Specifically in breaking news events, people use the search function quite a lot.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a news organization use a trending topic on Twitter to try and promote itself: This past fall, The Washington Post sponsored the #Election hashtag on Election Day. With #demandaljazeera, though, Al Jazeera is trying to promote itself in a slightly different way: by simply ensuring that people have access to it. The channel wants to help build momentum to try and convince cable providers to carry it in their lineup. Twitter users who follow the link off the trending topic will be taken to page where they can fill out a simple form to notify the cable operator in their area that they want it to offer Al Jazeera English (the English-language sister channel of Al Jazeera). Al Jazeera is also coordinating meet-ups in over 200 cities around the world.

“Specifically because of our coverage from Egypt, the whole world, you could say, has turned to watch our screens,” Minty said.

The network has been receiving praise and winning fans for its Egypt coverage, and Minty attributes that to a combination of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and ingenuity in using new media. It all starts, Minty said, with the simple fact that Al Jazeera was in place when events set to motion in Egypt.

“The biggest key to all of this has been mainstream media,” he said. “We’ve had traditional media on the ground in Egypt before the story broke.” That included not just reporters, producers, and camera teams on the ground, but also a network of bloggers and citizen journalists Al Jazeera had identified in advance, Minty said. All of that became more important, of course, as Internet access was shut down in the country.

“Generally, from previous experience, what we realize is: Once communication goes offline, you need to be able to deal with old technologies in a new fashion,” he said. “So new media doesn’t only mean the latest trending topic that’s out there or the latest social network.”

When people couldn’t tune in because their broadcast signal went down, Al Jazeera distributed pamphlets with the latest updates and information about alternate ways to access its news coverage. It also published phoned-in reports using Scribble Live and Audioboo. Online staffs, Minty said, have been using Storify internally to curate and keep track of citizen videos and other social content. (And as many noted last week, the network has also offered up some of its coverage through Creative Commons.)

The non-stop news coverage and resulting traffic has also taken a toll on Al Jazeera’s site, at several times causing servers to crash. But Al Jazeera’s distribution across social media helped there, too. ”Even if people couldn’t access us on our domain name, we had our social campaign that was up and running,” Minty said. “So we could just redirect traffic across to other platforms and people could still see us and access us.”

Al Jazeera faces a more difficult path than most in trying to crack the US TV market, something Minty acknowledges. For many in the US, there’s been a lack of understanding about the network, coupled with some misconceptions about its mission and philosophy. In some ways, the #DemandAlJazeera campaign will be a test of people’s perceptions of the network, providing something like market research on its brand within the US. But its coverage of the turmoil in Egypt has demonstrated Al Jazeera’s capabilities and value, Minty said. And that’s something the network intends to build off of.

“We believe that our product speaks for itself,” Minty said. “It’s just a question of sending people to our website. Read our news, watch our packages on YouTube, find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or watch our stream online — and you’ll know what Al Jazeera is all about.”

This Week in Review: Egypt’s media lessons, The Daily’s detractors, and Apple’s strike against e-books

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

Al Jazeera, the network, and social activism: For the last week, the eyes of the world have been riveted on the ongoing protests in Egypt, and not surprisingly, the news media themselves have been a big part of that story, too. Many of them have been attacked by President Hosni Mubarak’s lackeys, but the crisis has also been a breeding ground for innovative journalism techniques. Mashable put together a roundup of the ways journalists have used Twitter, Facebook, streaming video, Tumblr, and Audioboo, and the Lab highlighted reporting efforts on Facebook, curation by Sulia, and explainers by Mother Jones. Google and Twitter also created Speak to Tweet to allow Egyptians cut off from the Internet to communicate.

But the organization that has shined the brightest over the past 10 days is unquestionably Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based TV network has dominated web viewing, and has used web audio updates and Creative Commons to get information out quickly to as many people as possible.

Al Jazeera also faced stiff censorship efforts from the Egyptian government, which stripped its Egyptian license and shut down its Cairo bureau, then later stole some of its camera equipment. Through it all, the broadcaster kept up live coverage that, both online and offline, was considered the most comprehensive of any news organization’s. As Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman pointed out, Al Jazeera’s coverage showed the continued power of compelling live video in a multimedia world.

Salon’s Alex Pareene called Al Jazeera’s coverage an indictment on the U.S.’ cable networks, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis and others urged cable companies to carry Al Jazeera English. Tech pioneer Doc Searls used the moment as a call for a more open form of cable TV: “The message cable should be getting is not just ‘carry Al Jazeera,’ but ‘normalize to the Internet.’ Open the pipes. Give us à la carte choices. Let us get and pay for what we want, not just what gets force-fed in bundles.”

The protests also served as fresh fuel for an ongoing debate about the role of social media in social change and global political activism. Several critics — including Wired’s David Kravets, The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, and SUNY Oswego prof Ulises Mejias — downplayed the role of social media tools such as Twitter in protests like Egypt’s. Others, though, countered with a relatively unified theme: It’s not really about the media tools per se, but about the decentralized, hyperconnected network in which they are bound up. J-profs Jeremy Littau and Robert Hernandez, along with GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, wrote the most thoughtful versions of this theme, and they’re all worth checking out.

Tepid reviews for The Daily: Within the bubble of media geeks, one story dominated the others this week: On Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. released The Daily, the first daily updated news publication produced specifically for the iPad. If you can’t get enough coverage of The Daily, go check out Mediagazer’s smorgasbord of links. I’ll try to offer you a digestible (but still a bit overwhelming, I’ll admit) summary of what people are saying about it.

Leading up to Wednesday’s launch, Poynter’s Damon Kiesow found many of the people who are working for the heretofore secretive publication, and media analyst Alan Mutter and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka examined the reasons why it might or might not take off. Once the app was released Wednesday afternoon, the reviews came pouring in.

First, the good: The first impressions of most of the digital experts polled by Poynter were positive, with several praising its visual design and one calling it “what I’ve always hoped newspapers would do with their tablet editions.” PaidContent’s Staci Kramer was generally complimentary, and The Guardian’s Ian Betteridge gave it a (not terribly enthusiastic) “buy.”

Most of the initial reviews, though, were not so kind. Much of the ‘meh’ was directed at lackluster content, as reviewer after reviewer expressed similar sentiments: “a general-interest publication that is not generally interesting” (The Columbia Journalism Review); ”Murdoch’s reinvention of journalism looks a lot like the one before it” (Macworld); “fairly humdrum day-old stories that you might read in, well…a regular old printed newspaper” (Mathew Ingram); “little [of Murdoch's money], it appears, has been invested in editorial talent” (Mashable); “the Etch A Sketch edition of Us Magazine” (Alan Mutter); “barely brings digital journalism into the late 20th century, much less the 21st” (Mark Potts).

The bulk of that criticism seemed to be built on two foundational questions, asked by the Lab’s Joshua Benton, which The Daily has apparently yet to answer convincingly: “Who is The Daily trying to reach? What problem is it trying to solve?” TechCrunch (and several of the above reviewers) asked similar questions, and GigaOM’s Darrell Etherington attempted an answer, arguing that The Daily’s not for the obsessively-Twitter-checking news junkies, but for iPad users struggling to adjust to life after newspapers.

A few other issues surrounding The Daily that drew attention: One was its separation from the web by virtue of its place within the proprietary iTunes Store and iPad, as well as the general lack of links in or out. (That hasn’t stopped an unauthorized daily index of links to the web versions of articles from springing up, though.) Salon alum Scott Rosenberg (in two posts) and j-prof Dan Kennedy led the charge against the walled garden, while the Lab’s Megan Garber pointed out the draconian anti-aggregation language on The Daily’s AP content, and Justin Ellis wondered how user engagement will work in that closed environment.

Then there were the economics of the publication: Media analyst Ken Doctor had two good sets of questions about what it will take for The Daily to financially succeed (the latter is more number-crunchy). Jeff Jarvis also looked at some possible numbers, and media consultant Amy Gahran chastised Murdoch for investing so much money in the venture. Gahran also looked at the hazards of dealing with Apple, and paidContent’s Staci Kramer noted that Murdoch wants Apple to lower its share of The Daily’s subscription revenue. And on the News Corp. front, Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about the role Murdoch’s impatience will play in its fate, and Subhub’s Evan Radowski gave us a history lesson on News Corp. initiatives like this one.

Apple strikes against e-publishers: In its ongoing tightening of App Store access and regulations, Apple made a significant move this week by rejecting a Sony iPhone app that would have allowed users to buy e-books from the Sony Reader Store. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram did a great job of putting the decision in the context of Apple’s past moves, explaining why they make good business sense: “What’s the point of controlling a platform like the iPhone and the iPad if you can’t force people to pay you a carrying charge for hosting their content and connecting them with their customers?”

But others (even at GigaOM) were more skeptical. Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch said the decision underscores the downside of closed content platforms, and posited that it’s the first shot in a war between Apple and Amazon’s Kindle, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo urged Amazon to pull its Kindle app out of the App Store. In another widely expected move along the same lines, Apple also told publishers that within two months, any app that doesn’t take payments through its iTunes Store would be rejected.

AOL follows Demand’s content-farming path: We talked last week about Demand Media’s explosive IPO and Google’s intention to make content farms harder to find in searches, and we have a couple of updates to those issues this week. First, Seamus McCauley of Virtual Economics explained why he’s skeptical about Demand’s true valuation, not to mention its accounting methods. And while Google’s algorithm limiting content farms is not yet live, search engine startup Blekko has banned many content farm domains, including Demand’s eHow, from its search results. Meanwhile, the debate over Demand continued, with Adotas’ Gavin Dunaway and MinnPost’s John Reinan delivering this week’s broadsides against the company.

AOL hasn’t been talked about as a content farm too much as of yet, but that may change after Business Insider’s publication this week of a leaked internal document called “The AOL Way,” which reads a lot like the textbook content farm strategy guide. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and Fortune’s Dan Mitchell blasted the plan, with Ingram asserting that “the chasing of eyeballs and pageviews is a game of constantly diminishing returns.” Martin Bryant of The Next Web, on the other hand, said AOL’s model is not a misguided, diabolical plan, but “an inevitable, turbo-powered evolution of what’s happened in the media industry for many years.”

Reading roundup: A few things to check out this weekend while you’re most likely snowed in somewhere:

— This week’s WikiLeaks update: Julian Assange sat down with 60 Minutes for an interview (there’s also a video on what it took to make that happen), WikiLeaks was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger gave his own account about working with WikiLeaks, and NYU’s Adam Penenberg made the case for Assange as a journalist. Reuters also profiled the new WikiLeaks spinoff OpenLeaks.

— A few paid-content notes: The New York Times isn’t releasing details of its paywall plan just yet, but it is fixing technological glitches with the system right now, while Media Week reported that some industry analysts are skeptical of the wall’s chances. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News announced they’ll start offering an e-edition to paying subscribers.

— GigaOM founder Om Malik wrote a simple but insightful guide to creating a successful consumer Internet service, focusing on three elements: A clear purpose, ease of use, and fun.

— Berkman fellow David Weinberger has a short, thought-provoking post offering a 21st-century update on Marshall McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message” aphorism: “We are the medium.” It’s a simple idea, but it has some potentially profound implications, a few of which Weinberger begins to flesh out.

Medill and McCormick launch a news innovation lab with $4.2 million in Knight funding

In 2009, while announcing that year’s Knight News Challenge winners at a conference at MIT, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen mentioned the foundation’s desire to launch “test kitchens” for journalistic tools: laboratories where innovative ideas for news production, distribution, and financial sustenance might be devised, improved, and put to use.

This afternoon, Knight is taking a definitive step in the test-kitchen direction. It’s announcing a grant — $4.2 million over four years — to Northwestern University to establish the Knight News Innovation Laboratory. The Knight Lab will be a joint initiative of the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern — at its core, a partnership between journalism and computer science. It’ll be populated by Northwestern faculty and students, as well as, possibly, technologists and members of the media at large. And it will aim to help build and bolster the digital infrastructure that will guide journalism into its next phase.

“Speeding up” media innovation

“This is a significant step forward in terms of collaboration between journalism and computer science,” says Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Medill (and one of the Knight Lab’s four faculty overseers). The Knight Lab joins a smattering of similar hacker-journalist-oriented programs popping up at J-schools across the country — Studio 20 at NYU, the joint Journalism/Computer Science M.S. at Columbia, Medill’s own journalist/developer scholarship, and on and on — all of them responses to the recognition that the content of journalism will increasingly be connected to the tools we use to create it.

Indeed, “to advance journalism excellence in the digital age, we must use the tools of the digital age,” Eric Newton, vice president of Knight’s journalism program, puts it in a release. “We hope this pioneering partnership between a school of journalism and a school of engineering will demonstrate how a major university can speed up media innovation in its surrounding community.”

One of the ways the Knight Lab is unique, though, is in its focus on outcomes. Though the Knight Lab is set in a school, its goal is pretty much to escape the ivory tower. And, to an extent, to topple it. The Knight Lab will team up with Chicago-area news outlets — partners so far include The Tribune Company, Chicago Public Media, The Daily Herald, the Chicago Community News Trust, and the Chicago News Cooperative — with the goal of improving the information available to the communities those outlets serve. In that, the Knight Lab’s mission is aligned with the general mission of journalism, Gordon says: to “accelerate media innovation in ways that advance the interests of journalism and well-informed communities.”

The Lab’s initial focus is the Chicago area simply because, Gordon notes, the Evanston-based Medill already has connections with the Chicago community and the publishers who serve it. “It makes sense,” he says, “to focus our energy on the community that we understand best.” That doesn’t mean that expansion won’t be a possibility for later on, though. “We assume that if we find ways to create things that are valuable to Chicago, it’ll be available to everybody.”

Closing the loop

One of the intriguing aspects of the Knight Lab project is its connection to the Knight News Challenge. The Knight Lab will make it a point to work with the technologies that have been created by News Challenge winners. News Challenge projects have generated myriad journalistic tools with large amounts of back-end code; one of the Knight Lab’s goals is to ensure that those technologies remain relevant even after their Knight funding runs out. It hopes to maximize the use of the code that’s been developed through the News Challenge, refining it and improving it and making it as helpful as possible to the media outlets who might put it to use.

Some of the plans for doing that include:

  • Cataloging and organizing software projects that have been supported by Knight Foundation grants to date;
  • Evaluating the software and determine if there are technical reasons why these systems have not been more widely adopted;
  • Determining which features of larger systems can be abstracted into freestanding tools that might have a greater chance of being adopted;
  • Looking for feature overlap that argues for the integration of multiple systems – and, if warranted, do that technology integration; and
  • Integrating these tools with existing publishing platforms as needed – for instance by creating plug-ins for popular content management systems.
  • There’s a strong component of pragmatism to all this: The goal isn’t just to improve code in general, but to improve it, in particular, according to the value it could present for media users. (And then, Gordon says, to “do whatever we have to do to get that code more widely adopted.”) In some sense, to be ultra-nerdy about it, Knight Lab : Knight News Challenge :: OpenBlock : EveryBlock.

    Another noteworthy aspect of the Knight Lab is its focus on information as its own kind of platform for innovation. Medill has departments not only in journalism, but also in Integrated Marketing Communications — and Chicago, with its storied national newspaper and its buzzing field of niche news sites, offers a particularly vibrant landscape for studying user engagement. Part of the work of the Knight Lab will be to analyze, in detail, how people actually consume news: what they want from news, what they need from news. “There are opportunities to better undestand both how and why technologies are adapted by real people looking for news and information,” Owen Youngman, Medill’s Knight Chair in digital media strategy (and another Knight Lab faculty overseer), told me. The overall mission, he says, is to ensure that citizens and the communities they live in get the news and information they need.

    Oh! And they’re hiring

    Medill-McCormick is looking for a full-time executive director to run the Knight Lab’s day-to-day operations. It’s also looking for a director of software engineering and several full-time software developers. To learn more — about the job openings, about the Knight Lab in general — Knight and Northwestern will be formally announcing the project later today. And at 4pm CST, they’ll be hosting a “virtual Q&A” session about their plans, which you can access here.

    [Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

    “Serendipity and surprise”: How will engagement work for The Daily?

    All of us here at the Lab watched the unveiling of The Daily (even those of us who are on a beach sipping umbrella drinks).

    But there was something that News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch said that seems significant now that the genie is out of the bottle. He said this about today’s readers:

    “They expect content tailored to their specific interest to be available any time, anywhere. Too often this means that news is restricted, only to interest that have been predefined. What we are losing today are the opportunities for true news discovery. The magic of newspapers and great blogs lies in their serendipity and surprise, and the deft touch of a good editor.”

    There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, but what is interesting to me is how it jibes with what we are learning about how engagement will work on The Daily — specifically how they plan to use comments and social media, and to access the greater Internet.

    The Daily deserves credit for making strides to meet expectations of social functionality we see on news sites: You can share stories with your friends via email, Twitter and Facebook, and you can leave comments within the app. (Something we’re particularly interested in here at The Lab is audio comments. Seems to open up all kinds of questions — for example, what do trolls sound like? And can the comments be turned into more content, a comments podcast, perhaps? But I digress.)

    Similar to The Washington Post iPad app, The Daily will be able to deploy Twitter feeds in stories or other features. Further, editor Jesse Angelo said today, they plan on linking out and pulling in HTML5 content as needed.

    As Jon Miller, the News Corp. digital chief presenting The Daily, said, “The Daily is not an island. It definitely will be a part of the entire web discourse and the social world.”

    The Daily seems to fit that description, but I can’t help but wonder: Can you really link to stories from The Daily? In the questions following the demo, Miller and Angelo gave the impression that access to The Daily from the greater web would be, well, tricky, to say the least. Stories shared from the app would be free (meaning if I send you a link from The Daily, you can see it). But direct from the homepage, apparently: not. (This seems similar to the balance the NYT has struck between walled garden and open web: side-door entry, through blogs and social media, leads to the same thing as front-door. But it’s the front door where you’ll be asked to pay for admission.) Angelo gave the impression that select content from the app would be mirrored online, but not the whole publication — or even the whole piece of content.

    For The Daily to succeed, of course, it’ll need subscribers. But does that mean its Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog will be used to engage readers — or simply as a promotion device?

    So the question then becomes: How will the “serendipity and surprise” that Murdoch talked about actually work?

    In a way, it would seem that The Daily wants to incorporate the web from inside the app, but not from outside it, taking it a step further than the “walled garden” approach we’ve seen in some apps. The app (if you’ll allow a Minnesotan transgression) reminds me of the Chaska Community Center, an indoor, one-stop destination that includes (deep breath) a soccer/multipurpose field, hockey rink, two gymnasiums, workout facilities, a movie theater, and swimming pool complete with a water slide several stories high. In other words, a lot of shiny, cool stuff that you can use all under one roof.

    As an iPad-only newspaper, The Daily is clearly betting on people spending a lot of time on the device, and in some ways that seems to harken back to the glory days of subscribers reading every section of the paper. It wants to move away from the “drive-by” audience, instead rewarding subscribers for their loyalty.

    Reader engagement, at least as we’ve come to think of it, requires an open and two-way exchange, one that can benefit publishers by potentially creating a stronger connection with readers while putting their content in front of more eyeballs. As best as I can tell, story sharing and linking will have to come primarily from subscribers out to others, which would create limited opportunities for those “I didn’t know I needed that before now” moments of serendipity. Murdoch noted, during the launch, the benefits of “true opportunities for news discovery.” Whether The Daily will be able to create those, though, remains to be seen.

    Who is The Daily trying to reach? What problem is it trying to solve?

    Technically, I’m on vacation in warmer climes this week, far away from the northeast’s snowpocalypse du jour. More honestly, I was checking out the launch of The Daily like every other future-of-news nerd.

    I wish News Corp. the best — in part because I love the investment they’ve put into the product, in part because I think paid-content tablet products will be a big part of news’ future, and in part because there are some very talented people working on the project. It’s great to see projects with this sort of ambition that are tied to the generation of new content, not just the restructuring of existing stories.

    But I must confess I came away from the announcement a little underwhelmed — not just because the app seems a little laggy and unresponsive (that’s fixable), but because I’m not sold that there’s a vision for who, exactly, The Daily is trying to reach and what problem, exactly, it’s trying to solve.

    Here are three quick questions raised by the debut of The Daily:

    What will it take to really develop a new user interface? At launch, The Daily pushes the carousel metaphor, an infinite strip of pages to view, not unlike the tab metaphor of iPhone/iPad Safari or the card metaphor of WebOS. It’s a UI that takes its cues from print — which isn’t a bad thing, when the alternative is the constant click-and-back that most news websites encourage, and which leaves many people who visit a news site’s homepage scanning headlines and engaging with none of them. But The Daily’s interface still feels short of a revolution.

    Will The Daily learn from my habits and feed me more stories of the sort I’ve been proven to enjoy? (After all, an app generates far better user-behavior data than any website can.) Will The Daily be smart about alerts, interrupting me only to tell me news it thinks I might actually care about? (As opposed to, say, New York Times alert emails, which think I care more about the state legislature in Albany than I, a Massachusetts resident, actually do.) Will The Daily push me from one article to another not only based on what’s next in the queue, but according to what’s most likely to interest me?

    At first glance, at least, The Daily seems to marry a mass-media sensibility to tablet tech, in a way that still leaves plenty of room for future revolutions. I’m sure the staff of The Daily is thinking about solutions to these questions and hoping to iterate the user interface in new and innovative ways. But I was hoping that The Daily — well funded, with plenty of talented people on board — would bring us closer to the new interface the news really needs. I don’t see that in version 1.0.

    Does the tabloid sensibility fit the iPad? While News Corp. may be home to properties like The Wall Street Journal, the design language of The Daily is surprisingly tabloid: big headlines, big pictures, short stories, and a populist feel. The sections — with “Gossip” given a high second billing to news — seem much more New York Post than WSJ. Is that the right choice for iPads, which (at least at the moment) disproportionately attract a richer, more content-sensitive audience than something like the Post would? My gut instinct was that The Daily would aim more at a high-end audience than it seems to be. (My most skeptical moment in today’s event came when editor Jesse Angelo said that The Daily sees its target audience as “everybody,” which seems an approach born more out of mass media experience than the niches digital devices by their nature create. Entrepreneurs who say their target audience is “everybody” typically end up reaching something closer to “nobody.” There has to be a leading edge of adopters who serve as evangelists for everyone else.)

    The length of the stories strikes me as the biggest concern. If the iPad has proven good at anything, it’s at creating longer consumption sessions — app users spend more time reading more stories than their equivalent web users. Apps like Instapaper have created an environment for longer reading sessions. But The Daily’s content, at least initially, seems to be stuck in short pieces, infographics, and the sort of paragraph-level content that you see in the front-of-book sections of magazines. Nothing wrong with that, but it seems to be more of a smartphone strategy (quick, of the moment) than a tablet strategy (lean-back, discursive). It also makes it harder for The Daily to compete with the free web, where there’s absolutely no shortage of quick bursts of content to caulk in the free spaces of your day.

    What’s the use case? I wonder how The Daily will actually be used. Is it for the breakfast table? The commute on a subway or in the passenger seat? Evening relaxation time, which seems like the most common usage of the iPad?

    To push people into paying for news in a digital wrapper — something few are used to — I believe The Daily will have to find a way to seem essential. Not paying your 99 cents a week will have to seem like a mistake — you’ll be missing out on water cooler conversation, or stories important to your life, or something. Because even as The New York Times and others drop behind some version of a paywall, there will always be free alternatives available for the basics of what’s going on today. (NPR and CNN, to name two, are completely at peace with a free broadcast model.) Angelo said during today’s event that he expects to break stories, and I suspect that’s what The Daily will need to do to get noticed. Without a special alignment to a specific use case, or the sort of journalism that will get noticed outside the app’s walls, I suspect it will be difficult for The Daily to get traction.

    “You are what you read”: NYT CTO Marc Frons on the paper’s new article recommendation engine

    The New York Times has been talking for a while about how it wants to create a more personalized, engagement-oriented user experience. And quietly, late last week, the paper took another step in that direction: It launched nytimes.com/recommendations, a customized story-recommendation page. Most notable about the page — beyond, of course, the awesomely mohawked-meets-buzzcut default profile pic, the same one you’ll find on Times People — is the “What you’ve read” box on the page’s right, which displays, in an almost sports-stats-like way, how many, and what kind of, Times articles you’ve consumed over the past month. The totals are broken down both by section — Business, Magazine, U.S., etc. — and, more broadly, by topic. (My most popular include “Computers and the Internet,” “News and News Media,” and, um, “Murders and Attempted Murders” — the last of which I’m really, really hoping has to do with my following of the events in Tucson…)

    Particularly during a time of transition at the Times — the paper’s paywall is set to rise any day now — the Recommendations engine is an intriguing new feature. I spoke with Marc Frons, the Times’ CTO for digital operations, to find out more about the engine — and how it fits into the Times’ broader strategy for user engagement.

    “A more personal connection”

    “The whole idea is to expose our readers to as much of our great journalism as we can,” Frons told me. On the web, it can be hard to find the things you like — not to mention the things you don’t know you’d like until you like them. The new Recommendation engine, Frons says, “allows us to expose content to our readers that they wouldn’t see any other way.” And it allows the news organization, more broadly, “to establish a more personal connection between what we do online and what our readers do online.”

    While a lot of the rec engines out there are framed around content that users have read previously, “what we try to do is look at people’s patterns, and how they move around the site, and what sorts of different things they might look at,” Frons notes. The engine tries to accommodate the complex dynamics of usage and movement as people navigate a through a news experience. The Recommendations page displays a range of stories — stories that are connected, in particular, “by your various interests,” Frons says, “not just what you looked at last.” (That focus on pattern is the reason the Times built its own engine, in fact, rather than teaming up with an existing personalization platform.)

    The bonus for the user (and, I’d add, for the paper that wants to encourage user loyalty): The more Times articles you read, the more relevant, ostensibly, the recommendations will be.

    But while the system is educating the Times about your interests, it’s also educating you about them. As Frons puts it: “It’s kind of like taking one of those personality tests where it tells you things about yourself that are only obvious in retrospect.” And the numbers — X stories about “World,” X stories about “Entertainment,” etc. — are stark. They quantify news consumption in a way that news consumption is generally not quantified. It’ll be interesting to see, from a user-interface (and, really, a user psychology) perspective, whether that running tally of stories read, and categories and topics followed, will affect what kind of news people choose to consume. Will the Times’ all-seeing eye — “we’re not judging, or anything, but you seem to read a lot about murder” — encourage me to read more about, you know, kittens? Or at least about politics? And will the “What you’ve read” totals double as a kind of graded assessment, encouraging us to do better — ie, read more articles — next month?

    “You are what you read”

    The recommendations project has been in the works, conceptually, for about nine months, Frons estimates — and in actual development for the last three or four. Derek Gottfrid started it off (and “we couldn’t have done it without Derek,” Frons notes); once Gottfrid left the Times to work at Tumblr, the paper’s software group took over the engine’s development. The team rolled out the engine Thursday night, in a rare-for-the-Times soft launch. And that was in part because, particularly for something as personal as, you know, a personalized recommendation engine, user feedback is key to improving the engine’s functionality. As Frons puts it: “The recommendations cut both ways.”

    Indeed, there’s a social aspect to this — if not the give-and-take of Facebook-like story sharing, the implicit interchange between the reader and the publication. I asked Frons whether the Recommendations engine is at all connected to News.me, the social news service designed in the Times Company’s R&D lab and being developed by Betaworks*. It’s not. “News.me is a separate strategy,” Frons told me. “It’s a blending of different technologies. It’s really not connected, except for the overarching idea that we want to give our readers as many choices as we can to look at our content, and read our content, on as many platforms as possible.”

    For that matter, with its porous-paywall-esque “you’ve read X articles so far” framework, does the Recommendations engine have anything to do with the Times’ paywall? “Only tangentially, if at all,” Frons says. “Paywall or no paywall, our job, and the job of other news organizations, is to provide relevant news and information for our readers. To me, no matter what the model, the more people who read and are engaged with your website or your digital products, the better. So the recommendation engine just fits into our overall strategy of increasing user engagement.”

    Nor, for that matter, does the recommendation algorithm use personal data to make its recommendations. “It really deson’t look at your demographic profile at all,” Frons says. Instead: “You are what you read.”

    A more central experience

    The plan is to roll out the engine more broadly over the next few weeks. “Right now, it’s a Recommendations page,” Frons notes. “But what we’re going to do eventually is make it more central to your experience on the site.” That could involve, for example, a “Recommended for You” tab next to the Most Emailed/Viewed/Blogged tabs on articles pages’ “Most Popular” boxes — a nice little nod to the twin virtues of the Internet news experience: personalization and serendipity.

    As the engine rolls out, and as people respond to it, it will adapt. Right now, for example, the engine counts only articles that you consume on the web, not on mobile devices — but that’s only a temporary limitation. “It will eventually count across all devices,” Frons notes — iPhone, iPad, the mobile web, etc. — “because we know that people will want to read us on every device.” And that — again, the feedback loop — will mean more accurate recommendations. “The algorithm is evolving,” Frons notes. “We’ve played around with a lot of things, and it will continue to evolve.”

    *This post initially said that News.me is a product the Times is developing in conjunction with Betaworks; I updated it with more precise wording to reflect the fact that News.me is a protoype that was designed in the Times Company’s R&D lab — and then sold to Betaworks in exchange for equity in Bit.ly. As part of the deal, a team of developers from the Times’ R&D lab worked at Bit.ly to help bring News.me to market.

    Could BiblioBouts, an online sourcing game for academia, offer lessons for media literacy?

    Karen Markey had a fairly straightforward idea: Teach students to steer clear of unreliable sources of information through the use of a game.

    What the University of Michigan professor wants her students to focus on navigating is academic research. But instead of citing credible references on the rise of the Medici family, what if we could apply a similar game to distinguishing the credibility of news sources?

    “The problem is today’s students still don’t know where to go for authoritative, good information that is trustworthy,” said Markey. “But they sure do know how to go to the web.”

    If we swapped out “students” for “readers,” you’d have the basis of an argument for media literacy and the importance of finding a way for readers (and journalists themselves) to find good information.

    The game Markey created, BiblioBouts, could potentially be an example to educators, j-schools or nonprofits on how to teach media literacy. It’s an idea that’s getting investment, like the Knight Foundation’s funding of the expansion of a civics and news literacy program in West Virginia called Globaloria.

    In BiblioBouts, students gather citations from library databases or online sources and rank them against each other based on credibility, content, and relevance to assigned topics. The game is built off Zotero, an open-source online citation tool that lets users organize and share research. In a way, the game is a little like the academic equivalent of Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft: You assemble the best team possible and hope to come out on top. Though maybe it’s a little like the Legend of Zelda in a “gather the tools you’ll need for the journey” way. (Then again, I may just be a big nerd.)

    Through rating and tagging each other’s citations, students evaluate what makes a good source, with (hopefully) the more thorough and useful sources rising to the top. If competitiveness is any kind of factor students will look at the winning sources and want to emulate that process, Markey said. “It puts people in situations where the game-like features encourage them to continue playing,” she said. “And if they continue playing, hopefully they’ll learn more.”

    It’s arguable that doing research has never been easier, thanks to the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Markey said professors aren’t surprised by studies saying students lend too much credence to search rankings in Google rather than relevance or authority. But Markey is clear that she’s not entrenched in an anti-Internet camp when it comes to research. She said there are plenty of good tools (Google Scholar, for instance), as well as sources for surfacing information — but students need to learn to be more discerning and know when to look deeper.

    BiblioBouts may seem like a technology solution to a technology problem, in that you’re using one system to try and bring order to another (solving the “there’s too much information” problem, or perhaps the filter failure problem). But Markey thinks making more critical readers is the answer, and in that way BiblioBouts is just a tool.

    “I think we need to teach people methodologies,” she said. “When you retrieve something on the web, you need to ask questions about what I am looking at and whether the information can be trusted.”

    Markey can see a ready analog in journalism and the idea of media literacy. A similar game, call it truth-squading or BS-detecting, could be used either in training would-be journalists how to ferret out information, or creating more shrewd news consumers. “We need to be critical consumers of information to make decisions that impact our lives,” she said.

    Image by Kimli used under a Creative Commons license.