September 1, 2008

Taking the “dead” out of the dead tree media

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:48 pm

Last week we saw that Steve Jobs died. The week before, we learned that Barack Obama chose Chet Edwards to be his running mate.

Both were the results of slips by news organizations. Bloomberg prematurely put Jobs’ obituary across the wire, apparently after someone had just finished updating it. The Los Angeles Times released various versions of a story about Obama’s vice presidential pick featuring likely candidates and a couple of long shots. (I wonder if they had a version ready for McCain picking Palin.)

News organizations routinely prepare and update profiles on famous people to be ready to go when something big happens. In one odd case, the author of The Washington Post’s obituary of Gerald Ford died 11 months before Ford.

The big mistake isn’t that news organizations accidentally release the work like they have in the last few weeks; it’s that they don’t keep that work online to begin with. All of this time and effort goes into maintaing these stories and they only see the light of day when someone dies or otherwise makes news. The profiles of Chet Edwards, Kathleen Sebelius, Evan Bayh and others written by the Los Angeles Times are valuable, even though they weren’t selected to be Obama’s running mate.

Think about the people pages you could create with such profiles. They could be linked to from within news stories to provide users context or serve as a standalone reference. Think of the Google juice!

One thing that computers suck at and humans excel at is analyzing and synthesizing information. Compare the Post’s automatically generated page on DC mayor Adrian Fenty with the Adrian Fenty page on Wikipedia. For someone looking for a summary of Fenty, the Wikipedia page is the clear winner. The Post page requires the reader to read and synthesize many stories. (This page, incidentally, is the page that automatically links to on Fenty stories.)

The Post surely has an obit ready to go in its system with a profile similar to the Wikipedia page. But that more helpful page won’t be available until Fenty dies.

To be sure, that information isn’t updated as often as Wikipedia. But the edited profiles along with automatically generated recent stories would be a big improvement over what exists today. It would be even better if significant stories were highlighted versus run of the mill daily stories.

Even the list of people for the reporter to call for quotes at the top of the Jobs’ obituary is valuable to readers who are trying to understand a subject. The list includes Steve Wozniak, Heidi Roizen, Bob Iger, Al Gore and John Lassiter. Think of the page views!

The problem is old line thinking in newsrooms that revolves around traditional media. The assembly line mentality needs to go.

See also:

About these ads

June 15, 2008

The first first draft of history

Filed under: flickr, journalism, media, newspapers, television, twitter, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:47 pm

In journalism school, you’re taught that newspapers are the first draft of history. Today it’s common for news outlets to scoop themselves on their Web sites. But even that may not be fast enough when news breaks. Lost Remote reports that news of Tim Russert’s death broke not on NBC or by a news site, but on Wikipedia.

In the screenshot below, you can see the change made at 3:01 E.T., adding simply “died June 13, 2008″.

Wikipedia screenshot of Russert\'s entry

This was more than 30 minutes before Tom Brokaw announced the news. You can even see the incredulity, as a Wikipedia editor, fearing vandalism, reverts Russert’s page to bring him back to life. (Wikipedia also shows the uglier side of humanity with insertions such as “Liberal piece of crap finally died.”)

The 24-hour news networks delayed reporting the news to give NBC the opportunity to break it, according to CNN’s David Bohrman:

I sent a note out internally in CNN in Washington to hold off. This is a story we’re not going to report first. And at the same time, the Fox bureau chief in Washington, Brian Wilson, and I had a quick communication. And we both sort of quickly said we’re not going to go first on this story.

We’re going to wait for NBC to go on the air. We’re going to let Brian or Tom or whoever it was make the announcement, and then we would be ready to follow in.

Not all of the media played along; the New York Times Web site reported the death before NBC. In fact, the Wikipedia contributions may have come from a journalist looking to get the word out. The original edit originated from an IP address belonging to a company that hosts Web sites for local TV stations.

We’ll see more of this as publishing becomes easier and a wider audience becomes used to it. We’re just as likely to see news broken by a text message to twitter or a picture uploaded to flickr from a cell phone.

Whether we believe it, or we like what we see is another matter entirely.

See also:

August 14, 2007

Rewriting your corporate history on Wikipedia

Filed under: web 2, web 2.0, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:17 pm

WIRED has a story about companies rewriting their history on Wikipedia. The story is based on Wikipedia Scanner, a tool from Cal Tech grad student Virgil Griffith that allows you to look up anonymous Wikipedia edits from a specific company’s computers. Among the companies who apparently edited their own Wikipedia entries are Diebold (removing criticism of its voting machines), Wal-Mart (outsourcing, employee wages, etc.), Exxon (that Valdez thing) and Microsoft.

Some of this appears to be transparently self-interested, either adding positive, press release-like material to entries, or deleting whole swaths of critical material.

Voting-machine company Diebold provides a good example of the latter, with someone at the company’s IP address apparently deleting long paragraphs detailing the security industry’s concerns over the integrity of their voting machines, and information about the company’s CEO’s fund-raising for President Bush.

The text, deleted in November 2005, was quickly restored by another Wikipedia contributor, who advised the anonymous editor, “Please stop removing content from Wikipedia. It is considered vandalism.”

It’s not just corporations; religious groups and politicians are also cleaning up their own images. See WIRED’s Threat Level to view and vote on the most shameful spin jobs.

What’s amazing is that they’re not even trying to hide it; the changes are being made from trackable locations. If the same changes were made from a coffee shop, they wouldn’t be directly trackable.

There’s no direct evidence of intent. It could be corporate policy to edit Wikipedia for public relations or it could be an employee who takes the initiative without company approval. Or it could just be someone goofing off on company time: “One CIA entry deals with the details of lyrics sung in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode.”

June 16, 2007

Wikipedia and pop culture

Filed under: web 2, web 2.0, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:04 pm

The Wall Street Journal has some interesting comparisons that highlight Wikipedia’s skew toward pop culture. Additional comparisons are in the story, along with a trivia quiz.

Wikipedia and pop culture

May 31, 2007

Aloha to Mahalo, Calacanis’ new reference tool

Filed under: google, search, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:56 pm

Mahalo launched yesterday to much fanfare. The reference tool comes from Jason Calacanis, the entrepreneur behind Weblogs, Inc. and the founder of the Silicon Alley Reporter. Billed as “the world’s first human-powered search engine”, Mahalo is a cross between Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project. All three use human editors to deliver, theoretically, better answers.

The goal of Mahalo is to curate the “head” of search queries – the queries that are the most popular. Mahalo currently covers about 4,000 terms, with the goal of expanding to about 10,000.

Mahalo logoSearching for popular terms like “Britney Spears”, “iraq war” or “Wii”, returns results that have been written by a human editor. (Searches for terms that Mahalo doesn’t cover return Google results.) Part of the premise is that a team of trained editors won’t be gamed by SEOs and SEMs the way an algorithm can be.

Unlike Wikipedia, which is open for anyone to edit, and the ODP, which has about 8,000 volunteer editors, Mahalo has a small team of staff editors. Where Wikipedia focuses on facts and ODP on Web sites, Mahalo offers a mix of the two and then some.

The content of the search results pages vary dramatically based on the content of the term. The search for Wii brings up categories such as News, Reviews, Retailers and Coupons and Deals. A search for Steve Jobs brings up videos, photos, a profile and a bio. For someone looking for basic information on a topic, Mahalo provides quick nuggets of information. A section labeled “The Mahalo Top 7″ is consistent from page to page.

Mahalo mixes in feeds of information on fast changing subjects. In the search for “iraq war”, you get headlines on the topic including a story from Reuters and a feed from Fox News.

One of the challenges of human-edited results is that even in a limited universe of 10,000 pages, things change and pages get outdated quickly. Links can break. News becomes old. The Iraq War page’s News section has the headline “House OKs Iraq bill with timetable for pullout”. The story is more than a month old and has been superseded by more recent events.

The other big challenge is that it brings up the question of bias. Does the choice of Fox News as the feed provider for “Hillary Clinton” reflect a bias on the part of Nicole Gustas, the editor of that page? Or is Fox News the only feed easily available?

Results can be quirky, reflecting the whims of editors, both in terms of what’s covered and what’s on the Mahalo page. Searching for “Larry Page” or “Sergey Brin” didn’t bring up a Mahalo page, but you do get Mahalo pages for “Kevin Rose” and “John Battelle”. The #4 link on a search for eBay is a link to the member profile for andy46477. I’m not sure if that link, designated as a “Guide’s Choice”, is an inside joke that I’m missing.

The site has a playful feel to it, from the name (which means “Thank you” in Hawaiian) to the shaka (sorry, no Mahalo results for shaka), next to Guide’s Choice links.

Mahalo is backed by top-flight investors including Sequoia, Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal) and News Corp.

On the whole, it’s an interesting experiment. I don’t see Google shaking in its boots over Mahalo yet, but I can see using it when I’m looking for a quick overview on a topic. And with the serious backing, it’s definitely one to watch.

August 1, 2006

Comedy Central vs. YouTube

Filed under: video, web 2, web 2.0, wikipedia, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:26 pm

Last night, the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s satire of Bill O’Reilly, aired a hilarious segment about Wikipedia and what Colbert termed “Wikiality”. It was so funny, I wanted to share it with some friends.

I went to Comedy Central’s Web site and searched for Wikiality. No dice. Not even an error message indicating no results found. I navigated through the horrendously designed Web site to find videos and ended up on a page called “Mother Load”. Immediately, I got a pop-up blocker alert. When I got through that and tried view videos, I was prompted to download an ActiveX plugin for Firefox. Not wanting to destroy the reason I use Firefox (security), I switched to IE. In IE, I found that the video wasn’t available. This was around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, about 13 hours after the show aired.

Contrast this with my experience on YouTube. I went to the front page, typed “wikiality” in the search box and the first result was the Wikiality clip. No popups, no installs, just direct access to the content I was looking for.

As of about 10:30p.m. on Tuesday (about 23 hours after the show aired), the video had logged 65,380 views. Judging from the the timestamps on the comments, the video was posted within 2 hours of the first airing.

Although the video is now available on Comedy Central’s site, you’ll have to disable your pop-up blocker and, if you use Firefox, install the ActiveX plugin. You can’t search for it from the main page. Unlike with YouTube, you can’t comment on it. And you can’t embed the video in a blog.

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 227 other followers

%d bloggers like this: