August 3, 2013
It’s one of the most commonly used phrases in journalism — “death toll.”
Like a number on a giant scoreboard in the middle of an arena, it appears in every newsroom when tragedy strikes. It might be a train crash, a tornado or a war. But the first thing we want to know is how many people died. And this makes sense, of course, because the worst thing that can happen in any situation is the loss of human life. Without it, we are nothing.
And so the relentless and ominous death toll begins. We start with a preliminary number, perhaps an estimate, and go from there.
Sometimes the death toll from a disaster will take weeks to unfold. In the case of a war, it can take months or even years. It may reach the point where the death toll is only revised when thresholds of a thousand are reached. At certain point, the numbers become meaningless. What does it mean for 100,000 to be dead in a war? Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy for friends and family.
I won’t try to answer the philosophical questions involved here, but I can say unequivocally that referring to a “death toll” is an unnecessary trivialization — a habit we have fallen into for the sake of convenience in headline writing. “Death toll hits 46” is about as tight as it gets when it comes to writing — and it could be argued that we don’t have a duty to do anything more than inform. Why not leave it to others to interpret the meaning of the number.
If all you aspire to is commodity journalism then, sure, stick with the tried and true “death toll.” But we are living in an age where people expect more from journalism, especially if it’s journalism they’re actually willing to pay for. And aside from that, I suspect that deep down we expect more of ourselves as well. To that end we really need to stop treating human lives as nothing more than numbers on a Jumbotron.
I’m not gong to be so presumptuous as to prescribe a replacement term for “death toll.” We’re all smart enough to figure these things out on our own. But I do urge all of us to treat “death toll” the way we do any other cliché, with the realization that with a little effort we can almost always improve our writing by using words that more precisely fit the circumstances. Think about the context, think about why the number of dead is important to an understanding of what has happened.
A story about loss of life demands at least this much from us.
July 13, 2013
I’ve groused about Instagram pictures not displaying on Twitter timelines due to a dispute between the two. Today, I stumbled across this article at CNET that tells how to make Instagram pictures display properly on Twitter.
I haven’t tried it yet, but if it works it will be a bit of a breakthrough. It would be great to be able to use both.
Update: It works!
July 7, 2013
Here’s the problem: you’ve got a Twitter widget on your website based on a hashtag. It’s a unique hashtag, so you can be fairly confident that it will only be used by people you tell about it.
But still, it crops up from time to time in other people’s timelines and they make their way into your widget. Maybe they’re just trying to get your attention. Maybe they’re retweeting and the hashtag comes along for the ride. Who knows what the great unwashed will do with your precious hashtag?
You can’t stop them from using the hashtag, but you can stop them from appearing in the widget. Twitter’s advanced search comes to the rescue.
There are only two fields you need to fill in: “these hashtags” and “from these accounts.” In the first case, of course, fill in your cherished hashtag. In the second, fill in the names of accounts that you want to be allowed in the widget. It might be just yours or it might be several people in a group. If it’s more than one, separate each account name with a space.
Then click on the Search button. You’ll get a list something like this: “Results for #yourhashtag from:youraccount OR from:anotheraccount.”
Now click on the gear at the top right and go for “Embed this search.” Assuming you’re logged in, you will go to Twitter’s standard page for configuring a widget. If you like what you see, click on Create widget, and you’re good to go.
Now your widget will only show tweets with your hashtag from the people you’ve specified. You own that hashtag.
Of course, Twitter’s advanced search allows for all kinds of combinations and permutations. Let your imagination run free.
July 4, 2013
Twitter, of course, allows you to embed a timeline widget on your website. But the CMS I’m using — Textpattern — has a plugin that does much the same thing except that it blends in with the style of the site.
I’ve added it to the sidebar here at newsonaut.com so I can experiment with some of its special abilities. I’m hoping I can get it narrowed down so that only certain tweets show up. I’d also like it to be able to display pictures and video.
I’m usually not a big fan of Twitter feeds on other sites, so bear with me.
Update: I’ve changed the feed so that only tweets with #newsonaut show up. That way I can ensure that only tweets I feel are relevant to this website are displayed.
Update 2: The whole thing was kinda meh, so I dropped it.
June 21, 2013
Instagram has a lot of good things going for it, but it’s no good for journalists. That terrible realization came back to me when the app was upgraded to allow videos as well as photos.
Once again, I thought about how it would be great to use Instagram, and once again I realized I couldn’t.
The thing is, we need to be able to post to Twitter, because that’s where all the breaking news is. But Instagram’s owner, Facebook, has decided not to co-operate with Twitter, so pictures posted to Twitter from Instagram are not displayed in the timeline. You have to click on a link and go off-site to see them.
Look at the screenshot below. The picture of Spock has a link to the Instagram site and that’s it. The picture below of solstice day has a View Photo link that allows you to see the the picture in the timeline.
For most people this is a minor inconvenience. But for journalists it’s pain in the neck. We want our stuff to show up right away. On top of that, if the timeline is embedded on our website, we want people to stay as long as possible — not go traipsing off to Instagram.
Making this state of affairs sadder is the fact that Facebook is also hurting itself. There are plenty of alternatives to Instagram, including the Twitter app itself, which can crop pictures square and add filters. And iOS7 will allow you to do it with the built-in Camera app.
It really is a missed opportunity.
June 16, 2013
With all the attention Circa has been receiving lately, you’d think it was the best news app since sliced bread. And you wouldn’t be far wrong — it serves the news in bite-sized slices and offers a way to receive added slices on topics that catch your interest.
An article might start off as a few screens of information, but can grow over the days and weeks as more information becomes available. You use a checkmark system to follow along.
Once you get used to the concept, it’s a neat way to keep up with the news, especially stuff that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. And it’s especially suited to mobile.
As an example, there have been rumours about various companies taking over or buying Hulu, a U.S. TV and video streaming service. They started swirling in March and there have been updates as late as June 6. As long as that story stays in my Followed list, I can keep up with the latest.
There are a few drawbacks to the app at this point, the main one being the limited number of topics. If you live outside the United States, nothing about your own country will be covered unless it’s something of interest to the rest of the world. The Politics section covers only American politics. And beyond that there are Technology and Science & Health.
I suspect Circa will broaden its range soon with the hiring of Anthony De Rosa as editor in chief. He has a fine pedigree as Reuters’ former social media editor, and a version 2.0 is said to be in the works.
De Rosa and CEO Matt Galligan have alluded to plans for partnerships with other news providers along with some original reporting of their own. Circa is a pure-play news app — not the product of an old-school news service — so it’s definitely worthwhile to watch where it is headed.
You could even, ahem, put it on the Follow list.
June 9, 2013
I’m not sure what the medical term is, but hunchitis might do. All those hours hunched over a smartphone or computer add up fast. Oh how we love our devices, but unfortunately they can twist our bodies into unhealthy shapes over time.
So is there an app for that? As it turns out, there are a gazillion apps out there to get you back in shape with exercise programs. Just try doing a search on pushups in the App Store. I got so many hits, I gave up counting.
The one I chose is called Pushups 0-100. The idea — as is the case with many of these apps — is to gradually work your way up to 100 pushups a day, three days a week.
With Pushups 0-100, you start off with beginner pushups — pushing off a counter while standing. They’re a lot easier than getting down on the floor. You start off with five minutes of stretches, which is a good idea because working on a computer or over a phone can get those muscles tensed up in ways they shouldn’t be.
Next comes fives sets of pushups with 90-second rests in between. The interface that coaches you along is nicely designed and easy to follow. You wrap up with another five minutes of stretches.
Looking ahead, the number of pushups gradually works up to five sessions of 20. After that, there is the option of moving up to intermediate pushups from your knees. After that, it’s full body on the floor.
Of course, you could just as easily do a similar program without an app. But an app, whichever one one you choose, has a couple of advantages. First, it’s nicely laid out for you, which is encouraging. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the icon sits there on the screen day after day, reminding you to get busy. It could even go in the dock and become an even more prominent reminder.
I’m only on the first couple of steps in Pushups 0-100, so the question remains as to whether I’ll be able to maintain my enthusiasm over the next few weeks. I’m hoping an app on the screen will do the trick.
June 2, 2013
I’m about as sure as I can be that Feedly will replace Reeder as my feed reader of choice.
With the demise of Google Reader, some tough choices have to be made. Reeder has long made a good front end for the Google service, but that service comes to an end on July 1. The app has options to use other feed services such as Feedbin or Fever, but neither of them appeal to me. Feedbin doesn’t allow for sharing with Twitter, Facebook and email. And Fever seems to like a pain to set up on a server.
Both also involve payment, and I’m fine with that. But why pay when there is free service that so far appears to be better.
And that’s where Feedly comes in. You sign up using your Google account and they take care of the rest. Once Google passes on, they promise you will be switched to their own platform — without you noticing the transition.
Feedly will eventually go with a freemium business model, which means you won’t have to pay unless you want more features. Since there are already plenty of good features, this won’t be an issue for anyone but power users.
I’ve been fiddling around with the settings in Feedly, and I’ve got the app just the way I like it. My only beef — and it’s small one — is that it insists on scrolling stories page by page instead of continuously.
Feedly, it looks like you’ve won me over.
Update: A coming version of Reeder will have the option of running off a Feedly account. This is so confusing.
May 30, 2013
A lot of journalists really love Twitter, likely because it reminds them of wire services — a constant stream of the latest news and information, along with some gossip and rumours thrown in.
And many of us join in because it seems exciting to be part of the headlong rush.
But really, there has to be more to it than that. After all, most of us are working for profit-making ventures and we don’t do stuff just because it’s fun — it has to contribute to the bottom line somehow.
The arguments in favour of Twitter are usually along the lines of branding. It’s a good way for news organizations and journalists to become known among the news junkies who frequently monitor Twitter. That makes sense to some degree, but it’s not exactly something you can put on a balance sheet.
The other thing we’re told is that it can be used to drive traffic to the website, boost pageviews and help keep the ad rates up. But all the data I’ve seen shows only a tiny percentage of visits to news sites is driven by Twitter. In fact, you’ll have much better luck with Facebook.
So while I’ve jumped into Twitter wholeheartedly, there has always been a nagging doubt about whether this was really helping anyone other than the people who own the service.
The first step toward a solution came with embedding a widget on the website. Lots of news sites do that, but we figured we would be more deliberate about how we use it.
The main advantage of the widget is that it updates quickly. So if, for example, someone is at the scene of a bad accident, they can take a picture, put it on Twitter and it’s available to our website readers soon after. And that was the key — providing content not just for Twitter (which pays nothing) but for the website, which actually does generate revenue.
But the trouble with placing a widget based on our account was that there was a lot of duplication. It seemed silly to tease a story with a link on the Twitter widget when the story might by sitting right beside it on the web page.
Also, we wanted to make it easy for the reporters to contribute through their own accounts. This would help them with their own branding and make the widget seem like more of a team effort. That’s when we came up with the idea of a hashtag unique to our site — in this case, #kamnews.
By running a widget based on a hashtag, we could target material specifically for it. What gets the hashtag? Just about any kind of picture that’s news related. It can be something breaking or it can be a behind-the-scenes look at a feature we’re working on. Also videos — so far Vine seems to work best because the videos it produces are short and upload quickly. Bits of text are also OK, but we’re concentrating on the visual because it is more engaging.
There are a couple of couple of limitations, though. First, videos don’t display unless you click on a link labelled Show Media. I worry that people will instead click on the link for the video itself and be taken offsite. There may be a way around this, but it is not immediately apparent.
The second worry is that the hashtag could be hijacked by disgruntled readers or people doing promotions. This hasn’t happened so far, but it’s still early days. A way around this would be to create a separate account just for the widget. But then all tweets would appear to be from the same user instead of the variety we are striving for. Also, the need to switch between accounts could create some confusion, especially if time is of the essence.
Still, the early results are encouraging. It’s far too early to know whether there has been a boost in readership, but it sure feels like there should be. A targetted hashtag widget brings in a stream of fresh content in addition to all the other updates we do — making the website more vibrant than ever.
It’s also a bit of a morale boost. Filing pictures to a service run by a major U.S. corporation is OK, but filing straight to the loyal readers of our website feels great.
May 26, 2013
Somewhere between 1968 and 2013, something went terribly wrong with science fiction movies. I realized this after watching the original Planet of the Apes for the umpteenth time — just a week after seeing Star Trek Into Darkness.
For some reason I never tire of Planet of the Apes. Such unforgettable lines: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!’, ‘You know the saying, ‘Human see, human do’ ‘, ‘It’s a mad house! A mad house!’. Such unforgettable scenes: the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evil tribunal, the interspecies kiss, the half-buried Statue of Liberty. An engaging plot with a timeless message and a twist at the end.
I could go on and on.
Meanwhile, Star Trek Into Darkness could be summed up as a series of explosions with bits of dialogue in between. The few memorable scenes are scenes I would just as soon forget: Spock pre-echoing Kirk’s cry of “Kha- a-a-a-a-an!”, young Spock getting useless advice from future old Spock, Carol Marcus showing off her undies. And what is the darkness referred to in the title? Darned if I know.
What happened to science fiction in general is what happened to Planet of the Apes. Sequel followed sequel, each worse than the one that preceded it until the movie-going public couldn’t stomach it any more and refused to pay good money for the garbage being pumped out by Hollywood producers devoid of imagination.
The difference these days is that we get so-called reboots. The original Star Trek movies got boring as hell, so they were rebooted with Star Trek The Next Generation. And when those staggered into deserved oblivion, JJ Abrams came along with the latest series. Hollywood is likely hoping the same thing will happen with a reboot of Planet of the Apes. Their policy, it seems, is that there is a fresh crop of suckers born every generation.
But it’s not just terminal sequelization that is the problem. It’s also the over-reliance on special effects. The original Planet of the Apes would never have made it out the door because there is way too much plot, way too much character building. Star Trek is a gold mine for directors taking advantage of short attention spans — the main characters have built-in stereotypes with little need to evolve except in the most superficial way. That leaves lots more time for things that go boom.
With all the science fiction movies coming out these days, you’d think a buff like me would at long last be happy with the selection at the theatres. Alas, good science fiction is as rare as it ever was.