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May 17, 2013, 2:28 p.m.
LINK: governingalgorithms.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   May 17, 2013

Today at New York University, a bunch of smart people are gathered at the Governing Algorithms conference.

Algorithms are increasingly invoked as powerful entities that control, govern, sort, regulate, and shape everything from financial trades to news media. Nevertheless, the nature and implications of such orderings are far from clear. What exactly is it that algorithms “do”? What is the role attributed to “algorithms” in these arguments? How can we turn the “problem of algorithms” into an object of productive inquiry? This conference sets out to explore the recent rise of algorithms as an object of interest in scholarship, policy, and practice.

If this interests you, I’d suggest following #govalgo on Twitter, checking out the proposed pre-conference reading list, and looking at the discussion papers submitted. One that stood out to me was Tarleton Gillespie’s “The Relevance of Algorithms,” which connects the idea that algorithms are “objective” to journalists’ conception of the same idea (emphasis all mine):

This assertion of algorithmic objectivity plays in many ways an equivalent role to the norm of objectivity in Western journalism. Like search engines, journalists have developed tactics for determining what is most relevant, how to report it, and how to assure its relevance — a set of practices that are relatively invisible to their audience, a goal that they admit is messier to pursue than they might appear, and a principle that helps set aside but does not eradicate value judgments and personal politics. These institutionalized practices are animated by a conceptual promise that, in the discourse of journalism, is regularly articulated (or overstated) as a kind of totem. Journalists use the norm of objectivity as a “strategic ritual” (Tuchman 1972), to lend public legitimacy to knowledge production tactics that are inherently precarious. “Establishing jurisdiction over the ability to objectively parse reality is a claim to a special kind of authority” (Schudson and Anderson 2009, 96).

Journalist and algorithmic objectivities are by no means the same. Journalistic objectivity depends on an institutional promise of due diligence, built into and conveyed via a set of norms journalists learned in training and on the job; their choices represent a careful expertise backed by a deeply infused, philosophical and professional commitment to set aside their own biases and political beliefs. The promise of the algorithm leans much less on institutional norms and trained expertise, and more on a technologically inflected promise of mechanical neutrality. Whatever choices are made are presented both as distant from the intervention of human hands, and as submerged inside of the cold workings of the machine.

But in both, legitimacy depends on accumulated guidelines for the proceduralization of information selection. The discourses and practices of objectivity have come to serve as a constitutive rule of journalism (Ryfe 2006). Objectivity is part of how journalists understand themselves and what it means to be a journalist. It is part of how their work is evaluated, by editors, colleagues, and their readers. It is a defining signal by which journalists even recognize what counts as journalism. The promise of algorithmic objectivity, too, has been palpably incorporated into the working practices of algorithm providers, constitutively defining the function and purpose of the information service. When Google includes in its “Ten Things We Know to Be True” manifesto that “Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust,” this is neither spin nor corporate Kool-Aid. It is a deeply ingrained understanding of the public character of Google’s information service, one that both influences and legitimizes many of its technical and commercial undertakings, and helps obscure the messier reality of the service it provides.

The Tuchman reference is to Gaye Tuchman’s 1972 landmark piece “Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity.” The Michael Schudson/C.W. Anderson piece is “Objectivity, Professionalism, and Truth Seeking in Journalism” (2009). The Ryfe is David Ryfe’s “The Nature of News Rules.”

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LINK: firstlook.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Caroline O'Donovan   |   November 25, 2014

First Look Media announced today that Racket, the political satire magazine originally headed by Matt Taibbi, is shutting down.

Since Matt Taibbi’s departure, we’ve been working with the team he hired to consider various options for launching a project without him. After multiple explorations, we’ve decided not to pursue the project. Unfortunately, this means that the team Matt hired will be let go.

The announcement follows weeks of seeming instability at the company. New York Magazine’s Andrew Rice broke the news last month that Taibbi, who had been brought on to run the magazine, would be leaving the project. The team at First Look’s The Intercept followed up with a detailed explanation of the management and culture clashes that led up to his departure. Shortly thereafter, Glenn Greenwald announced that editor-in-chief John Cook was leaving The Intercept and returning to Gawker Media.

In the wake of Taibbi’s departure, the remaining staff of Racket, presumably under the leadership of Racket executive editor Alex Pareene launched a new project that fit in well with what was to have been the magazine’s satirical tone and penchant for pranks. RacketTeen, a somewhat inscrutable Tumblr account, poked fun at everything from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to media insiders to parents.

The announcement, which leaves the entire staff of Racket without jobs, was met with consternation and general upset by those in the media who had hoped RacketTeen was the sign of more cutting-edge commentary to come. Some also expressed concerns for how the staff had been treated by First Look.


What’s next for the staff of Racket, and for First Look, remains to be seen.

I reached out to Racket staff members for comment, but so far haven’t heard anything back.

Amid the wry jokes, though, it’s important to remember that Pierre Omidyar, First Look’s founder, promised $250 million to the project last year. The organization is often cited on the list of new media projects that are cause for optimism about the state of the industry. With plenty of funds and talent on hand, there’s considerable confusion over what is causing First Look to falter.

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LINK: www.nber.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 24, 2014

When I’m asked about the future of news, I always say I’m optimistic, at least on net. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be holes, and the holes I worry about most are at the local level. The pre-Internet journalism model was highly localized because distribution was highly localized; the web changes that dramatically.

That’s the context for this interesting new paper from Horacio Larreguy, John Marshall, and James Snyder, Jr., looking at corruption in Mexico and how it gets reported — and how that that reporting impacts elections (emphasis mine):

We estimate the effect of local media outlets on political accountability in Mexico, focusing on malfeasance by municipal mayors…In particular, we compare neighboring precincts on the boundaries of media stations’ coverage areas to isolate the effects of an additional media station.

We find that voters punish the party of malfeasant mayors, but only in electoral precincts covered by local media stations (which emit from within the precinct’s municipality). An additional local radio or television station reduces the vote share of an incumbent political party revealed to be corrupt by 1 percentage point, and reduces the vote share of an incumbent political party revealed to have diverted funds to projects not benefiting the poor by around 2 percentage points.

We also show that these electoral sanctions persist: at the next election, the vote share of the current incumbent’s party continues to be reduced by a similar magnitude…However, we find no effect of media stations based in other municipalities.

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LINK: mobilemediamemo.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 18, 2014

You may known Cory Bergman as the cofounder (and now general manager) of the innovative mobile app Breaking News, or as the cofounder of Seattle hyperlocal network Next Door Media. But now he’s got a new email newsletter, Mobile Media Memo, that I suspect a number of Lab readers will be interested in. (Subscribe here.) The first issue just went out and features some smart thoughts on a pet peeve of mine: Journalists’ obsession with equating length and quality.

In the world of media, longer content is heralded as higher quality. A six-minute piece is more prestigious than a minute-twenty package. Full-length features trump shorts. Shows beat webisodes. Two-thousand words are better than two hundred. There are lots of reasons for the industry bias toward longer content. Legacy platforms and business models. Prominence and awards. Creative freedom and journalistic context. Ask just about anyone in the content business, and they prefer longer work.

[…]

That doesn’t mean there’s not a market for longer-form content on mobile. I read books and watch movies on my iPhone while flying back and forth from NYC. Tablet users, especially in evening and nighttime hours, read longer-form stories and binge on Netflix. But on average across the mobile universe, shorter content is consumed more. It’s also the gateway to longer forms of content: social apps act as recommendation engines for your attention. That’s how Facebook’s app became the “home page” of mobile, accounting for more time spent than all mobile browsers combined.

[…]

Part of the problem is the industry’s fixation on “time spent” as an engagement metric. I remember a Poynter study a couple years ago that discovered the average “bail out” point on a tablet is 78.3 seconds of reading. The recommendation? Write the story in such a way that gets users to keep reading. The obvious solution: write a shorter story.

It’s often better to maximize “time saved” rather than time spent, especially on a per session basis. Imagine, for example, that you can get the nugget of a 2-minute video in a 24-second clip, or 80% of the value in 20% of the time. For most mobile users, that’s more delightful than watching the full 2 minutes. The more delighted the users, the more frequently they’ll return, which all adds up to a lot of time spent/user at the end of the month.

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LINK: ww2.cfo.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 17, 2014

CFO magazine has an interview with Victoria Harker, the chief financial officer of Gannett, which is one of a number of news companies in various stages of splitting off its print properties (newspapers, mostly) from its broadcast and digital ones. The positive spin is that it’ll let each type of company pursue the best approach without strategy tax; the negative spin is that it’s sending print off onto an ice floe where its continued decline will no longer infect the other side of the business. This question would seem to position Gannett as a candidate for the newspaper industry rollup (or mop-up) many have been anticipating (emphasis mine):

Q: Some people praise Gannett because it isn’t burdening the newspaper spin-off with debt, as other media companies have done. Others criticize Gannett for not including, say, Cars.com in the spin-off to provide more advertising revenue. How do you respond to these views?

A: Relative to the debt, we felt very strongly that the publishing segment — which has its own digital properties, by the way — needed to have the kind of capital structure that will enable them to be a consolidator in the industry, should that be the strategic decision they make. They have produced a very efficient model for running the newsroom of today and tomorrow. So we didn’t want to saddle them with a lot of debt. We wanted to enable a good revenue stream, a good cost structure, and good cash production, so they can do the kinds of things they need to do to create longevity within that business.

Relative to Cars.com, we will have affiliation agreements with the publishing business for five years after the deal closes. In our way of thinking it’s the best of both worlds, in that Cars.com will live in the broadcast and digital company, where it will have the right type of capital structure and investment, while the publishing side will continue to be able to leverage that relationship.

You know, we spent a lot of time with investors during the last 10 days, and a number of them asked how they can become an investor on both sides of the house once we spin. So it’s not that everybody wants to go into growth and be in broadcast and digital. We have a number of investors saying, “We’re very interested in publishing, this is an interesting story for the value side of our investment house.” And it’s a dividend-producing entity, which is very attractive to them.

Getting external capital for that sort of move will likely only get tougher, so flexibility on the balance sheet is important.

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LINK: blog.pastpages.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 13, 2014

Hopefully you know about PastPages, the tool built by L.A. Times data journalist Ben Welsh to record what some of the web’s most important news sites have on their homepage — hour by hour, every single day. Want to see what The Guardian’s homepage looked like Tuesday night? Here you go. Want to see how that Ebola patient first appeared on DallasNews.com in September? Try the small item here. It’s a valuable service, particularly for future researchers who will want to study how stories moved through new media. (For print media, we have physical archives; for digital news, work even a few years old has an alarming tendency to disappear.)

Anyway, Ben is back with a new tool called StoryTracker, “a set of open source tools for archiving and analyzing news homepages,” backed in part by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou.

It offers a menu of options, documented here, for creating an orderly archive of HTML snapshots, extracting hyperlinks with a bonus set of metadata that captures each link’s prominence on the page and visualizing a page’s layout with animations that show changes over time.

The potential uses for researchers are obvious, but I could also imagine plenty of realtime uses. Tracking your own homepage over time, you could get good data on how the granular movement of stories there correlates with traffic over time. (To ask questions like: Is the top slot more or less valuable on weekends or overnight than during the day Monday to Friday?) You could track your competition’s homepages to get hard data on what stories they’re pushing hardest. And unlike the base PastPages, which saves screenshots of homepages, StoryTracker gets at the HTML to determine what stories are where. It’s all open source, so have at it. (Here’s a sample analysis to see what sources the Drudge Report links to most.)

Ben presented StoryTracker at a conference at RJI earlier this week; here’s the video and his slide deck.

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