Tagnew york times

The NYTimes Reveal isn’t your usual bathroom mirror

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The New York Times R&B department, NYT Labs, just showcased the Reveal. It is a prototype of something we’ve seen before as design studies: an interactive bathroom mirror. But here we have a prototype, built more or less from off-the-shelf compontents. A screen, speech recognition, a Microsoft Kinect. It’s all there, combined into a new device that could blend right into our daily lives without too much fuss.

By using a special semi-reflective glass surface, the users of the mirror are able to see both a normal reflection of the real world as well as overlaid, high-contrast graphics. We’ve dubbed this “augmented reflection”. Conceptually, the idea is that our mirror can reveal the halos of data around real-world objects, including ourselves.

If you spot some interesting stuff while brushing your teeth, tap your phone against the mirror and you can read the articles on the subway. It is, at least in theory, a smooth, embedded experience. Not an interruption, but an enhancement of your daily routine.

It’s also a glanceable of sorts, a screen that wouldn’t necessarily require our focus, but gives us easy-to-access information at a glance, without drawing much attention.

As such, it’s quite amazing. In fact, I’m convinced that we’ll see a whole new market segment emerge of this type of thing: Highly networked devices that add an information layer to the things in our lives that have, so far, been quite passive and inanimate. Things that won’t stand out much, no major investments or eye catchers, but day-to-day objects. Like bathroom mirrors.

Wikileaks, Afghanistan & The New Rules Of Engagement

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As of two days ago Wikileaks has released 92.000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, leaked (most likely) from within the US military. After discussing this with quite a few folks, we all agreed that this will be one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of 2010.

As a former media and political science major, as well as a former editor, this stuff is pure gold to me.

First, what I am not going to go into: the Afghanistan conflict, its sense or legitimation or political implications; or the legalities of this kind of thing: does a leak like this break US law, and would that even be applicable? That’s for US lawyers to decide.

The basics first: What happened? Wikileaks got hold of some 91.000 military documents regarding the Afghanistan conflict, from analyst papers to ground reports. (What is Wikileaks?) Before releasing these documents themselves, they gave them in advance to three traditional news media: New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany). (All of the links go directly to the Wikileaks specials.) After these media ran their exclusives, Wikileaks went public with the leaked documents, called the Afghan War Diaries:

The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. (…) The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

So why is the Wikileaks story so big? It’s big not just because it’s something new and a huge scoop, but because it touches on so many complex and highly relevant issues:

  • the issue at hand, the conflict in Afghanistan
  • the way the US government handles information
  • … and by extension, the bigger questions of truth & trust
  • the relationship between governments and their citizens
  • the relationship between US government and their allies, and how information flows between them
  • the way media work today
  • the (new?) role that media play today (trust center verifying information scoops rather than gathering them)
  • the way the internet changes politics and media (and how news media not bound to nation states operate under different circumstances than we are used to)
  • Is it irresponsible to leak documents?

For some great background and discussion, I recommend you jump straight to Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both who have great write-ups.

Trying not to repeat to many of Rosen’s and Jarvis’ points, there are a few things I find worth considering.

Truth & trust, governments & citizens The White House was clearly pissed off after seeing the Afghan War Logs emerge. Understandably so, after all those documents will clearly make a dent in the war effort, so to speak. However, legalities aside and assuming the documents are the real thing – the documents leaked are internal military documents. While it’s always painful to be called out on your own mistakes, it’s not job of the media to support certain policies; and it’s most certainly not the job of a whistleblower site like Wikileaks to support any policies. It’s their job to get out information so folks can make informed decisions.

It’s probably part of winning a military conflict to occasionally bluff and put a game face on. But it’s fair game to call that bluff; I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this can happen to a government just like to any poker player. These war reports seem to be such a case where the bluff (“the war is going kinda alright”) is called. The question is: Could the US government – instead of trying to clamp down on Wikileaks and the internal military source – try to make the best of the situation, for example by trying a crowdsourced effort to analyze the patterns of what has been going wrong in the conflict? (Might not work, but should be looked into by some of the smart folks within or around the US government.)

The new role of media What I found particularly interesting is the new role that media played in this case. This is not a case of investigative journalism by the media, but by a third (non-journalistic) party. We are talking about three of the most distinguished media outlets world wide. Yet, they did not get the scoop here, they did not have the sources inside. They were not the address the military sources wanted to talk to. (Why might be a moot question, but an interesting one still. Get back to that in a minute.) Instead, the media were there to a) spread the news and b) verify the information, to lend credibility. They served as a trust center for another organization’s scoop. Once they got the information, the media then did what they do best: sift through the material and make it more accessible, as well as spread the information.

As Jay Rosen put it, referring to a New York Times editor’s note:

“At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.

So, why Wikileaks not New York Times? We can only speculate why the internal source leaked the documents to Wikileaks and not to one of the major newspapers. But there are a number of considerations at play here: First, Wikileaks is much harder to subpoena than any traditional news organization that operates under US (or European) law. Second, Wikileaks is by nature very much distributed. They are a true internet-based, decentralized organization, making it harder to suppress information. Third, Wikileaks is independent, donation-funded, without anyone to report to. This can be good or bad, of course. And on certain topics, a political biased can be assumed. But again, it makes it harder to believe there could be a reason for Wikileaks to withhold this kind of information, much unlike the news organizations that also want to send their reporters into war zones as embedded journalists along the military. Fourth, Wikileaks knows about secure communications. Maybe Guardian, Spiegel and New York Times do too, but a source wouldn’t want to take any risks. Wikileaks are strong on anonymity. They are strong on crypto. They really know how to keep communication channels secure and anonymous. All of these combined make them a more secure place to go to than any single newsroom.

Is Wikileaks acting irresponsibly? One could make the case for either the value of keeping information secret, or for absolute transparency. In a military conflict, that’s a tough one. But it seems to be like Wikileaks is going to great lengths to be as careful and responsible as the overall context allows (once it’s decided to publish leaked info, that is). They are holding back a significant number of documents until further review and clean up (think removing names etc):

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

Giving the documents to some trusted traditional newspapers of making sure the information is getting a decent journalistic treatment, followed by full disclosure of all the source material for extra vetting.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of getting it all right: Responsible dealing with the information as well as working the media right.

Jeff Jarvis raises an interesting point in his post: Will leaks like this incentivize organisations not to write down as much because they fear leaks, leading in the long run to less transparency? I certainly hope not, but it’s not a fear I share. Large-scale organizations need documentation, and where there is documentation there is a chance of leaks.

What I’d hope for instead is that the mere chance of leaks alone will lead to more transparency up front. After all, if an organization is more transparent the chance of getting called out on grounds of hiding information is a lot lower.

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, if you do appreciate this kind of document leak, I do recommend you consider donating for Wikileaks.

New York Times getting ready to charge readers? Fail.

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New York Times is supposedly getting ready to charge online readers:

What makes the decision so agonizing for Sulzberger is that it involves not just business considerations, but ultimately a self-assessment of just what Times journalism is worth to the world. This fall, Keller told the Observer that at some point, the decision is a “gut call about what we think the audience will accept.” Hanging over the deliberations is the fact that the Times’ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East. “As we got into it, it was clear to me I was getting cut off from a lot of my readers in India and China where 50 dollars per year would be equal to a quarter of college tuition,” Friedman recently told me by phone. “What was coming to me anecdotally from my travels was the five worst words that as a columnist you ever want to hear: ‘I used to read you before you went behind the wall.’

For one, this simple quote shows pretty clear that hiding behind a paywall is a bad idea. I was interviewed recently for a (internal) study regarding paid content and its chances of success, and my opinion is pretty clear. I said: If a publisher tried to charge readers for news content, the results will be depressing.

More importantly, though: It’s almost depressing to see that many publishers are so desperate that they just jump at the chance to charge readers now that Murdoch has put the option back on the table. It’s sad, it’s desperate, it’s bound to fail – and it’s just dumb. I really hope this will turn out to be a hoax.

Could Crowdsourcing Help Save the New York Times?

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New York TimesThe New York Times is in trouble, big-time. That’s about all everybody can agree on. (The opinions on consequences and options differ widely. Check out The Atlantic’s judgement and Jeff Jarvis’ comments, for example.) To get an idea of how bad the newspaper is hit, here’s the figures quoted in The Atlantic:

Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

Now that’s the NYTimes. For other papers the future looks even more bleak. After all, the NYTimes has some advantages over their competitors: A long-standing tradition and strong brand, national (rather: world-wide) distribution, and extremely high journalistic standards. Also, being the respected news organization the NYTimes is, they have a strong supporter community. (I’ll come back to the community at the end of this post.) That said, continuing business as usual surely isn’t an option. So what is?

Cutting costs has been proposed a great many times (and sadly led to mass layoffs). Micropayments have been discussed. Ditching print for online has been proposed and done. (The Christian Science Monitor will switch from print to online-only this April.)

A completely different way, and probably a much better one, is the one proposed by Janet L. Robinson, the president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. Instead of cutting down, Robinson proposes to aim at keeping up the major asset the NYTimes has over it’s competitors – high-quality journalism:

“As other newspapers cut back on international and national coverage, or cease operations, we believe there will be opportunities for The Times to fill that void,” she said, for both readers and advertisers.

This sounds like a plausible way to go. More importantly, though, it also just like a generally good idea, eh? The New York Times has proven over and over again, that they know how to work the web, and have experimented a good deal over the years. Just now, they launched a prototype of an experimental user interface, the Article Skimmer. (More prototypes.) Certainly not the next big thing, but a solid experiment in other ways of displaying news.

NYTimes Article Skimmer New York Times Article Skimmer Prototype (Screenshot)

But back to the community. The NYTimes clearly has a strong, and large, community of supporters. (And that’s both private readers and instituions of all sorts.) Couldn’t the paper go the way of many a web projects and give their community the chance to support them directly? We’re talking community support of all sorts: Fundraising, marketing, but also content. Why not adapt a citizen reporter segment of sorts, a strong online community site, all that kind of stuff? Surely there must be a way to crowdsource for effort and cash when one of the flagships of old-school quality journalism is at stake?

I would give a few bucks to rescue the NYTimes. And I’m not even based in the U.S.