Outlining

You are currently browsing the archive for the Outlining category.

…all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end…

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Ulysses

Here’s how dull that pause — that end we call the front page — has become:

front-page-trendAnd yet every newspaper needs one. So it’s not going away. But to stay current — literally — papers need something else as well — something Net-native that bridges the static page and the live flow of actual news.

Twitter isn’t it.

Yes, these days it’s pro forma for news media to post notifications of stories and other editorial on Twitter, but Twitter is a closed and silo’d corporation, not an institutional convention on the order of the front page, the editorial page, the section, the insert. Most of all, Twitter is somebody else’s system. It’s not any paper’s own.

But Twitter does normalize a model that Dave Winer called a river, long before Twitter existed. You might think of a river as a paper’s own Twitter. And also the reader’s.

In the early days Twitter was called a “microblogging” platform. What made it micro was its 140-character limit on posts. What made it blogging was its format: latest stuff on top and a “permalink” to every post. (Alas, Twitter posts tend to be snow on the water, flowing to near-oblivion and lacking syndication through RSS —though there are hacks.)

Dave created RSS — Really Simple Syndication — as we know it today, and got The New York Times and other publications (including many papers and nearly all Web publishers) to adopt it as well. Today a search for “RSS” on Google brings up over two billion results.

Now Dave has convened a hackathon for creating a new river-based home page for newspapers, starting once again with The New York Times. On his blog he explains how a river of news aggregator works. And in a post at Nieman Journalism Lab he explains Why every news organization should have a river. There he unpacks a series of observations and recommendations:

  1. News organizations are shrinking, but readers’ demand for news is exploding.
  2. The tools of news are available to more people all the time.
  3. News organizations have to redefine themselves.
  4. Users have a special kind of insight that most news orgs don’t tap.
  5. Therefore, the challenge for news organizations has been, for the last couple of decades, to learn how to incorporate the experience of these users and their new publishing tools, into their product — the news.
  6. Like anything else related to technology, this will happen slowly and iteratively.
  7. The first thing you can do is show the readers what you’re reading.
  8. Having the river will also focus your mind.
  9. Then, once your river is up and running for a while, have a meeting with all your bloggers.

— and then offers real help for getting set up.

I want to expand the reach of this work to broadcasting: a business that has always been live, has always had flow, and has been just as challenged as print in adapting to the live-networked world.

I want to focus first on the BBC, not just because they’re an institution with the same great heft as the Times, but because they’ve invited me to visit with them and talk about this kind of stuff. I’ll be doing that in a couple of weeks. By coincidence Neil Midgley in Forbes yesterday reported that the BBC News Division would be cutting five hundred jobs over the next two years. I’m hoping this might open minds at the Beeb toward opportunity around news rivers.

In the traditional model, reporting works something like hunting and gathering. A reporter hunts on his or her beat, gathers details for stories, and then serves up meals that whet and fill the appetites of readers, viewers and listeners. This model won’t go away. In some ways it’s being improved. Here in the U.S. ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity are good examples of that. But it will become part of a larger flow, drawing from a wider conceptual and operational net.

A river for media as major as the Times and the BBC flows in the center of a vast watershed, with sources flowing inward through tributaries. Each of those sources can be lakes, streams and rivers as well. At their best, all of them sustain life, culture and commerce along their banks and in the areas surrounding them.

For institutions such as the Times and the BBC, what matters is maintaining their attraction to sources, destinations, and lives sustained in the process. That attraction is flow itself. That’s why rivers are essential as both metaphor and method.

To help with this, let’s look at a watershed in the physical world that works on roughly the scale that the Times and the BBC do in the journalistic regions they serve:

CD06_Amazon_River_NetworkThat’s the Amazon River basin. Every stream and river in that basin flows down a slope toward the Amazon River. While much of the rain that falls on the basin sinks into the earth and sustains life right there, an excess flows downstream. Some of the water and the material it carries is used and re-used along the way. Much of the activity within each body operates in its own local or regional ecosystem. But much of it flows to the main river before spilling into the sea. The entire system is shaped by its boundaries, the ridges and plateaus farthest upstream. Its influence extends outside those boundaries, of course, but what makes the whole watershed unitary is inward flow toward the central river.

In his Nieman piece, Dave identifies bloggers as essential sources. (Remember that blogs have a river format of their own: they flow, from the tops to the bottoms of their own pages.) Email is another source. So are comments on a news organization’s own stories. So are other publications. So are news agencies such as the Associated Press. So are think tanks, industry experts and investigative organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity.

Missing from that list are ordinary people. All of those people are in position to be sources for stories, and many already contribute to news flow through the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Every one of those intermediary systems cries out for improvement or replacement, both of which will be happen naturally if they feel the by the gravitational pull of rivers at central journalistic institutions such as the Times and the BBC.

But the most important challenge is leveraging what Dan Gillmor famously said many years ago, when he was still at the San Jose Mercury News: “My readers know more than I do.”

As a visiting scholar in Journalism at NYU for the last two years, I have participated in many classes led by Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky. (Most of those were in the Studio 20 program, which Jay describes as “a consultancy paid in problems.”) One subject that often came up in these classes was the institutionalized power asymmetry between news media on one hand and people they serve on the other — even as the preponderance of power to provide news material clearly resides on the side of the people, rather than the media.  You can see this asymmetry in the way comments tend to work. Think about the weakness one feels when writing a letter to the editor, or to comment under a story on a news site — and how lame both often tend to be.

This last semester I worked for awhile with a small group of students in one of Clay’s classes, consulting The Guardian — one of the world’s most innovative news organizations. What the students contemplated for awhile was finding ways for readers with subject expertise or useful knowledge to bypass the comment process and get straight to reporters. I would like to see future classes look toward rivers as one way (or context within which) this can be done.

The Guardian is far more clueful than the average paper, but it would still benefit hugely from looking at itself as a river rather than … well, I’m not sure what. It used to be that http://guardian.co.uk went to the paper itself, but now it detects my location and redirects me to http://www.theguardian.com/us. And when I click on the “About us” link, it goes to this front-page-ish thing. In other words, packed with lots of stuff, as front pages of newspaper websites tend to be these days. Which is fine. They have to do something, and this is what they’re doing now. Live and learn, always. But one thing they’re learning that I don’t like — as a reader and possible contributor — is made clear by several items that appear on the page. One is the little progress thingie at the bottom, which shows stuff behind the page that is still trying to load (no kidding) long after I went to the page ten minutes ago:Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.05.48 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.05.55 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.10.38 AMAnother is this item at the bottom of the page:Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.13.23 AMAnd another is this piece — one among (let’s see…) 24 items with a headline and text under it:

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.14.29 AMThe operative word here is content.

John Perry Barlow once said, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” But fear isn’t the problem here. It’s the implication that stories, posts and other editorial matter are all just cargo. Stuff.

The mind-shift going on here is that’s a huge value-subtract for both paper and reader alike. (Yes, I know there is no substitute for content, other than the abandoned “editorial,” and that’s a problem too.)

Speaking as a reader of the Guardian — and one who reads it in the UK, the US and many other countries on  the World Wide Freaking Web — I hate being blindered by national borders, and regarded as just an “audience” member valued mostly as an “influential” instrument to be “engaged” by “branded content,” even it’s laundered through a “Lab.”

This kind of jive is the sound an industry makes when it’s talking to itself. Or worse, of editorial and publishing factota dancing on the rubble of the Chinese wall that long stood between them, supporting independence and integrity on both sides.

If the Guardian saw itself as a river, and not as a cargo delivery system, it might not have made the moves in the U.S. that it has so far. To fully grok how big a problem these moves have been (again, so far), read The Guardian at the Gate, by Michael Wolff in GQ.

Newspapers and broadcast networks tend to be regional things: geographically, culturally, and politically. The Guardian’s position — what Reis and Trout (in Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind) call a creneau — has been its preëminence as the leading newspaper for culture and leftish politics in the UK. Creating something new and separate in the U.S. was, and remains, weird. It would be even more weird if the BBC tried the same thing. (Instead, wisely, it’s just another program source for U.S. public radio. And its voice is clearly a UK one.)

Another term from the marketing world that’s making its way over to the production side of media (including news) is “personalization.” At the literal level this isn’t a bad thing. One might like to personalize, or have personalized, some of the stuff one reads, hears or watches. But the way marketers think about it, personalization is something done by algorithms that direct content toward individuals, guided by the crunchings of surveillance-gathered Big Data.

Some of that stuff isn’t bad. Some might actually be good. But the better thing would be to start with the role of the paper, or the broadcast system, as a river that flows through the heart of an ecosystem that it also defines. That role is not just to barge content downstream, but to collect and grow shared knowledge.

We’re at the beginning of the process of discovering all the things a river can be. This is why Dave’s hackathon is so important.

RSS gave newspapers a new lease on life at a time when the old one was running out. Rivers will do the same if newspapers, broadcasters and other essential media leverage them with the same gusto.

It helps that, at the heart of both RSS and rivers, there are old and well-understood concepts. For RSS it’s syndication. For rivers it’s publishing. Both RSS and rivers use these old concepts in new ways that work for everybody, and not just for the media themselves.

Curation is another one. It comes up nearly every time I talk to a news organization about what only it can do, or what it can do better than any other institution. Some curation should be done by the media themselves. But it should be done in the context of the new world defined by the Net and the Web. That’s why I suggest flowing  rivers into the free and open Web. Don’t lock them behind paywalls. My one-liner for this is Sell the news and give away the olds. It’s off-topic for rivers, syndication and the Live Web, but it’s a topic worth pursuing, because old news can always have new value, if it’s free.

And that’s what the Net and the Web were born to be — for everybody and everything: free. Just like the sea into which all rivers flow.

Back to Tennyson:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

nytimesriverDave says “The New York Times home page needs a re-think.” But he doesn’t stop there, because thinking isn’t enough and complaining is worse than useless. (As I’ve often found. For example, here.)

We need to hack up something new, different, better and — most of all — simpler and easier to implement than anything the Times can do on its own.

(The Times is kinda busy now anyway. And it’s not inclined to simplicity, especially on the Web. That’s not a knock. We’re talking DNA here. But the Times can listen and act, as it did back when Martin Nisenholtz and his team followed Dave’s lead and adopted RSS, reforming and reinvigorating the whole publishing business in the process. We want the same kind of adoption and effects again this time.)

The simplest thing you can do as a programmer is leverage something Dave came up with years ago called river of news. As a reader you can blog, tweet and otherwise submit to the world your suggestions.

Hashtag: #timesriver.

Tagline: All the news that’s fit to flow.

Here’s Dave’s own current set of rivers.

That’s a handy model, but neither Dave nor I want that to restrict your thinking or your coding. We want new thinking, new hacking, new (and renewed) heads on the case and fingers on keyboards.

For that Dave has convened a hackathon. Here’s how he got it rolling:

Here’s an OPML file with all the NYT feeds I could find, in Oct 2012.#

Your task: Build a website using the flow of these feeds. A new way to sample the flow of news from the NYT.#

Here’s what I’m using now, designed years ago. Surely you can do better!#

Share a pointer to your work with this hashtag: #nytfeedfun.#

There’s a lot of data flowing through there. #

A picture of a slice of cheese cake.

PS: Deadline? We’re having an RSS meetup in NYC in mid-June.#

Guidance from my (non-programming) corner:::

Think about turning the Times from a static thing to a live one* — literally, from a paper to a river.

Think about how a river forms. Its sources are tributaries: branches that flow in, not out. The biggest rivers sustain life in their waters and alongside their banks. They are at the very core of culture and civilization. And they pour out through a delta to the ocean. The ocean is the Web. The delta is whatever we make it.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming days and weeks, both in service to journalism’s cause (whatever it is — and I mean that seriously) and to wrap my tour of duty as a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter,Journalism Institute. (In that I’m following the large footsteps of Dave, who served in the same post under our friend and mentor Jay Rosen.)

So hack away. I’m very eager to see the results — but not as eager as I hope the Times itself will be — for everybody’s sake. (I’m serious about that too. The Times is the anchor institution for civilization as well as journalism. Helping it adapt may be the highest calling we have.)

* Some background on the static/live distinction, written almost a decade ago, and now more relevant than ever.

Below is my live blogging, in outline form, of the final presentations of work by NYU graduate journalism students in Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 class, which I’ve served for three semesters as a visiting scholar. Open Studio was the name of the event.

I wrote and posted it with Fargo.io. Blake Hunsicker, on the left, also talked up Fargo and outlining in his talk.

Mike Rothman, one of the students, asked me to live blog the event. Jay also asked me to shoot pictures there. So I got off to a bit of a slow start as those two obligations collided a bit. My notes gradually improved after the first couple of presentations, including Mike’s. Apologies for the slow start.

I finally got into a full groove during Josh Benton‘s closing talk.

It’s now 1:36 in the morning, so I’ll stop editing at this point and pick up the rest after I’ve rested.

Meanwhile, it was an absolute pleasure and privilege to participate in this class. I’ll miss everybody, but I’m also glad to know how well they did and how much better they’ll do as their journalism careers take off.

Links:

Jay’s guidance: “Your presentation needs to rock”
Patrick Hogan (@phogan)

  • Geeks and Glass
  • Alas, was busy shooting pix and doing other stuff. Will fill in later.

Mike Rothman (@TheRealRothman) with ABC News

  • Live Blogging is his topic, and what I’m doing now.

Cecelia Bittner (@MCeceliaBittner)

  • Problem: Can networks of people help in reporting a beat?
  • Partner: Fast Company
  • “A generation of women with the world and all its knowledge at their fingertips.”
  • Hashtag: #FCMobilize
  • High correlation between tweeting actively and moving conversation forward. Branch and Facebook were fails.
  • “Not worth a reporter’s time to force connections.”
  • Nice graphic of a Mobilizing Machine

Nuha Abujaber (@nuabu) and Mélodie Bouchaud (@Meloboucho)

  • Problem: Keeping ‘city life’ coverage current with the way users communicate now.
  • Using short videos and stills to augment the print magazine.
  • Like the many variations on TONY (time out new york), e.g. TONYpreview, TONYnow, OnlyTONY.
  • “Fifteen seconds is enough…”

Simran Khosla (@simkhosla)

  • Partner: Pando Daily
  • Problem: Adding data specialists to a newsroom doesn’t spread data journalism fast enough
  • Solution: data visualization-based stories “We thought visualization first…Doing the chart starts the article.” Helping the data journalist. e.g. with tutorials.

Derick Dirmaier (@derickdirmaier), Jesse Kipp (@JesseKipp), Johannes Neukamm (@JFNeukamm)

  • Problem: With “Snow Fall” the innovation came after the story was completed. Can’t we do better?
  • Partner: Creativist, digital mag Atavist
  • “Snowfalling” became a term used in newsrooms. Style followed. “The aesthetic was more important than the story telling.”
  • “Story Wars” with scroll kit, hi, sStory, Cowbird, Maptia, Creativist…
  • The solution: Profoundly Digital Reporting. PDP.
  • So they entered the Mongol Rally.
  • Captured motion, audio, video. stills, traced the route, 20k miles.
  • Design tools are storytelling tools.
  • PDP 1) Platform 2) Open Source Tools 3) Photo/Video/Audio Editing software 4) Data Visualizations
  • Preview titled Traverse.
  • 3 persepectives — Jesse’s notes, audio tracks, navigation elements
  • You get a feel for the experience of the Rally, with a map slider. TimelineJS, GeoJSON, D3 Libraries…
  • Not all stories are profoundly digital.
  • New genre of journalism: opportunity, not a threat.

Blake Hunsicker (@BlakeHunsicker, BlakeHunsicker.com)

  • Problem: Most people are coming in the middle of the movie: How do we catch them up?
  • Partner: Syria Deeply
  • Solution: a Deep Reader.
  • Went to Turkey, working on ways journalists can explain. “We don’t get much out of what the news tells us… updates but no context. Where to start?”
  • Need for onramps. Ways to become acquainted.
  • Used an outliner: “I came to this after digging Fargo.io, Dave Winer’s outliner. (Which I’m writing in now, here.)
  • Deep links, annotated comments, expanding, contracting, telescoping to whatever depth you like. You can read two minutes’ worth, or half an hour.
  • FAQ — Syria according to Syrians: “their stories, more than those told to us by pundits or politicians…”
  • Takeaways: 1) Repuurpose what works elsewhere 2) Explore how to change a deep reader as news develops 3) Work with good people

Boryana Dzhambazova (@BoryanaDz)

  • Problem: We’ve got a core group of dedicated fans: what do we do with them?
  • Partner: Narratively
  • Narratively was born as a kickstarter, has grown dramatically since. Fanatical fans, which are also a core market.
  • Introduce a paid model. Membership perks: e.g. personalized search, read later feature, notifications of upcoming themes, ability to comment, ebook collections, member-only events
  • Model: Pay what you want, as with Radiohead.
  • Many pitches come from aspiring writers. So turn a burden into an asset. Hence a fan club page where writers can pitch to other writers, with winners getting hired off submissions. Includes real-time editing.
  • Nice archive of timeless and beautiful stories.
  • Weekender: archived stories. Much higher than industry average open rates.
  • Assignment room. New approach to navigation and browsing. Go by theme, editor, writer, notes…

Danielle J. Powell (@DanielleJenene)

  • Problem: Repurposing TV documentary by putting it on line is lame: there has to be a better way.
  • Partner: Aljazeera America (@ajam)
  • Disruption in cable news. More media used online. Cord-cutting. Meanwhile TV is still the king of news.
  • Harmony where there is disruption. Add value.
  • Worked with @ajam on Faultlines, a documentary series.
  • Create harmony:
  • 1) Identify content that complements rather than mirrors
  • 2) Take other content into account, stuff that can stand alone, and add value.
  • Content that works:
  • Background — explains, like deep reader
  • Conversational — e.g. live tweets
  • Follow-up — info not seen in episode, or current after broadcast
  • Visual — infographics, instagram.
  • Key: production process that takes multiple platform into account simultaneously
  • talk digital and map out projects from the pitch
  • collect digital assets
  • Viewer+ : turn viewers into both viewers and readers, commenters, etc. Expand beyond cable, for example to where it’s not available.

Speaker: Josh Benton of Nieman Lab

  • Jay: “Josh is almost as obsessive as I am.”
  • Topic: The Year in Innovation. Twenty slides/topics
  • Mobile
  • Customizing Breaking News. Out of NBC. Can mute some topics, e.g. Miley Cyrus. All about interrupting you properly. Breaking news is not the same for every brain. The app will evolve over a year.
  • Still lots of news used on desktops and laptops. Still just for Mac and Safari. Still a way off from this being generalized.
  • You get an inbox, everybody gets an inbox. Latest: Instagram direct. Move your sexting from SnapChat to Instagram. “I cannot tell you how terrifying” this is. Too many inboxes. The more we move to closed networks, the more problematic access becomes for journalists.
  • Reporting: building beats beyond geography. Buzzfeeds fascinating. Building a beat structure from scratch. Construct reporting structures from the ground up.
  • Global cooperation. Level of what we have now was impossible in the past. You can make it work now. Example: offshoring. New thing: “collaboration fatigue” 86 journalists in 44 countries.
  • (A fire alarm went off. Ignored. Interesting: not news… not anything.)
  • Robot reporting. Algorithmic, that is. (There are no good pictures of algorithms, but are of robots.) LA Times had a story with a map up in seconds or minutes (8 in this case), thanks to an algorithm that picks up news from data sources. “Our robot friends are allies and helpers.”
  • Incentivizing truth. Rise of politifact, et. al. People are more likely to believe false negatives based on ideological bent: believing wrong info about the other side. “What if we gave small rewards” they remember X was not the case. Rewards raises likelihood of admitting they don’t know. We talk about polarization. But there is potential for seeing a thinner layer of wrongness.
  • Presentation. Snow flurries following Snow Fall, which was so big, intense and developed that everybody now has one. Or more. Remarkable that these can now be produced at a high rate. Nicely designed articles are one side effect of the flurries. Stories get more special presentation than in the past. Future will feature nicely designed articles than full-blown Snow Falls.
  • Adding structure to comments. Venn-ish diagram of overlaps in responses to the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. Gives people a moment to pause before issuing vitriol.
  • Infinity comes to radio. NPR’s infinite player. (Not many knew about it, me included.) Creating a radio-like experience that leverages content backlog, and gives NPR a way to see what people like. Pandora-like “more like this” and “less like this.” Mention of PRX, with the Remix service and app.
  • Responsive and unloved redesigns. One code base that works for all formats. Great solution to terrible mobile websites. Led to a lack of info density on websites. So you have one giant story, with a few other items. Take a moment to consider that it is possible to think too much about mobile. 85% will still be on a tablet or desktop, not a smartphone.
  • Social. Event Parrot (@eventparrot): a Twitter experiment. Permission to be interrupted by Twitter, for news. “By the way, Mandela just died.” An interesting moment because news orgs have invested in Twitter, which is mostly non-prejudicial. But::: when you live on somebody else’s platform, you run risks.
  • The triumph of the morning email. e.g. Quartz. 2013 had the rise of the stream. Design choices toward the steam, and a counter-movement toward digest-y summary by email. Qz has story after story online, yet has a success with the daily email.
  • Everybody has a TinyLetter. A little mailing list for newsletters, in addition to other methods. Reporters now work not only for publishers, but for their own “brand.” The idea is to personalize communications with readers or audiences.
  • New York Times’ Fourth Down Robot. Real-time notification of success rates in those situations. Punt or not? Remarkable that this is a twitter account and a news service. Find how your team’s coach made a poor decision.
  • News video for social and mobile. e.g. Now This News. Mobile/Social. Looks like MTV in 1983. Seems a bit alien at first. They can create, on the spur of the moment, create a :15 video for Instagram and :06 for Vine.
  • Money. Paywalls 2.0: Build the paywall you want. NYTimes set the pace, made it okay for everybody else. We can assume that others will follow the Times’ moves in 2014. They got 750k people to pay. Nice, but slowing. And can you get revenue from those not subscribing. They plan a super-premium level, with access to Times events. Editors will come over and wash your car. Headed toward lots of pay products.
  • A local television paywall. WCPO in Cincinnati will be the first to put up a paywall. Vetting for Scripps. Hiring dozens of new journos to work there. Until now local TV has not been nearly as disrupted as other news orbs. Many potential problems. Uptake, for example.
  • The Boston Globe’s Airline pricing. Already has comfort with many Web products. After investing in responsive design, they came out with an iPhone app, that’s just $4 month. The bet is that if you pay $4 for iPhone, you won’t pay $15 at all. So it’s like airline seat pricing this way. Trying to undercut their own model.
  • Packaging. Putting content in new containers. e.g. The Guardian’s robot newspaper: the long god read. Have a small batch paper that culls successful pieces from the last week, algorithmically, and then lays it out, again algorithmically, in a form that works for readers in a coffee shop. This is the seed of an idea that will have other applications in the future.
  • Today’s paper. e.g. NYTimes’. If the President gets shot mid-day, it won’t be in here. In this sense it’s like the print paper. It’s a reaction to the constant stream of content, which is still in NYTimes.com. With this you know hundreds of thousands are reading the same thing. (Also, presumably, not personalized.)
  • Retro Report. Stories covered 20-30 years ago. e.g. Garbage Barge. 12-minute videos. Bracing reminder that coverage is often terribly mistaken. Nice to see archives put to use. The archives are there.
  • Civil Beat’s Law Clinic. An Omidyar project that covers stuff differently. What can a news org be and stand for in a different way? One answer: fighting for the readers. A legal aid center for a constituency. Civil Beat will provide help in the form of real legal assistance. Example of a forced rethinking of what a news org does. Fulfilling information needs in a different way.
  • Overall, optimistic.
  • Started Nieman Lab in ’08. Been uphill since then. Continued growth and institutionalization. Seeing that old dogs as well as new ones have new tricks.

After six years on the VRM case, it seems obvious to me that individuals need to be the points of integration for their own data — and of data about them, held by companies. But it’s not yet obvious to the marketplace, since we still lack suppliers willing either to part with the personal data they already hold, or to provide easy-to-use tools that people can use to combine that data, analyze it and put it to use.

So, to help with that, here are a few starters:

  • Quantified self data. Right now all the data produced by your Withings scale, your Zeo sleep manager, your Nike+ sportwatch, your Omron blood pressure monitor, your Fitbit Flex wristband, your Moves smartphone app, your Sportline heart rate monitor, your MoodScope log, your Accu-Check blood glucose meter and your workout machine data from the gym are silo’d by the companies supplying those devices. Even when that data is open and exportable (as it is, say, with Zeo sleep data), you can’t easily pull that data into one place that is yours, where you can analyze them together, and make fully informed decisions based on that data. There are apps and services, such as Digifit, that can combine data from multiple devices made by multiple manufacturers, but those services are silos as well — and they don’t include data from companies not on a privileged list. If you had that data, you could correlate weight loss or maintenance to specific workout routines, moods or dietary practices. You could present that data to your insurance company or health care provider to get better rates and services from both. The list goes on, and can get very long — especially when you integrate it with the other stuff below.
  • Retail. Think of what you could do if you had all your spendings in electronic form, and not just on paper receipts and invoices, or buried ten clicks deep on Web pages  You could look for ways to spend less money, or spend it more wisely. You could share back some of that data to retailers whose loyalty programs wear blinders toward what you’ve bought elsewhere: intelligence that might get you more favorable treatment from those retailers, while also providing them with better market intelligence.
  • Home expenses management, including energy and utility usage. Today “smart” devices and metering are almost entirely silo’d by manufacturers and utility services, so it’s no wonder almost nobody does anything with the data. The green button initiative is a good start in this direction, but implementation by the energy industry is minimal, while consumer awareness and tools for examining the data are also nearly absent. The only thing suppliers want to make easy to read are the invoices they send out. There is no doubt that we could save a lot of money, and spend it far more wisely, if we could see and manage that data with our own tools. But until we get those tools, we’ll stay in the dark.
  • Media usage. Sometimes, when I talk to a group of people in the U.S., I’ll ask how many listen to public radio. Usually nearly all the hands go up. Then, when I ask how many pay to listen, only about 10% stay raised. But when I ask if people would pay if it were “really easy,” the percentage doubles. If I add, “How about if you didn’t have to endure those ‘pledge breaks’ when the station begs for money and promises you a cup or a CD if you call in,” even more hands go up. The problems to solve here are equating listening with value, and easing the ability to pay. That was the idea behind ListenLog, which was featured on the first edition of the Public Radio Player from PRX. It was a nice experiment, but it was buried too deep in the feature list, and the results weren’t easy to get out and put to use. But it would be cool if our usage of media devices and services would yield data we could gather and use. And, if we shared that data back, it would also help media with subscription systems to improve those as well. Most of those are informed by what can be learned only inside their own silos — or by the conventions that include enticements many of us don’t fall for. This is why, for example, I still don’t subscribe to the New York Times, even though I am a loyal buyer of the paper on news stands and often read it online as well. I would also love to pay for music on a per-listen basis, whether I already own that music or not. While that is totally anomalous today, it might not be if all of us had easy ways to weigh and measure the actual value media has for us.

Keeping this stuff from happening is something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Since we lack tools for examining data from various sources, those sources see no need to share that data. And, in the absence of that data’s availability, we lack tools to do stuff with that data.

In respect to personal data, we are where personal computing was before the spreadsheet and the word processor, and where worldwide communications was before the Internet. Once we had the spreadsheet and the word processor, creative and resourceful individuals could do much more with numbers and words than big companies ever could — and that was good for those companies as well. Likewise, once we had the Internet, each of us could do far more with global communications than phone companies and other big players could alone. And that was good for everybody concerned as well.

And, once we have the means to do our own hacking, on data of any size and provenance, we will do for data what we did for computing and communications: make it personal and productive beyond any imaginings that are possible in the absence of those means.

This is why today’s “Big Data” jive, coming entirely from big companies selling to other big companies, sounds very much like the mainframe business in 1980 and the networking business in 1990. It’s mainframe talk. Nothing wrong with it. Just something very inadequate: it ain’t personal. Worse, it’s highly impersonal, unless it’s about how companies can know you so much better than you know yourself.

But that will change. It has to, because we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. As soon as it’s clear how much more each of us can do with data than the corporate hoarders can, a $trillion market will open up. Count on it.

What will make that clear? My bet, for now at least, is on personal clouds. You’ll find more on those in today’s link pile. For a look at what companies need to do, see everything Craig Burton is writing about the API economy at KuppingerCole.

And, by the way, both this post and that link pile were written in Fargo: another space to watch.

Here are some of my open tabs, now closing as I list them here in outline form:

I’m working in WordPress here, going back and forth between the Visual and HTML tabs in WordPress’s UI for composing posts. I do this by making a plain unordered (bulleted) list, and then hacking it in HTML to make the list into a two-level outline. Labor-intensive, it is.

I would rather do this with an outliner. Which I will, thanks to the Little Outliner that Dave Winer and friends are working on. I’m one of those friends, and I’m looking forward to lots of fun with this. I’m an outlining freak going all the way back to when I first encountered Dave, in 1984, when he was working on Think Tank.

Outlining is one of those practices that are hard to get but easy to do once you get them. With the Little Outiner, people finally will. The right people, anyway. :-)

Jackson Pollock[Updated 1 December to add the addendum below. If you're new to this post, start here. If you've read it already, start down there.]

In Journalism as service: Lessons from Sandy, Jeff Jarvis says, “After Sandy, what journalists provided was mostly articles when what I wanted was specifics that those articles only summarized. Don’t give me stories. Give me lists.”

Journals aren’t going to stop giving us stories, because stories are the main attraction. But lists are the service. They are also the frontier, because journals on the whole suck at lists. That’s what we’ve been learning over and over and over again, every time something Too Big happens. (Sandy, Katrina, the Arab Spring, the financial meltdown, yada yada.) We get plenty of stories, but not enough lists. Or, not the lists we need if we’re affected by the event.

Back when Sandy was going on, I stayed in Boston and blogged it live. One of my main sources was The Weather Channel, aka TWC — on TV, more than the Net. (My “TV” was an iPad channeling our Dish Network set top box in Santa Barbara.) As I recall, TWC had two main reporters on two scenes: one in Point Pleasant, New Jersey and one at Battery Park in Manhattan. Both had lots of stories to tell and show, but as a service TWC missed approximately everything other than what happened in those two places. I say approximately because the damage being done at the time was widespread, huge, and impossible for any one news organization to cover. (And TWC actually did a pretty good job, as TV channels go.) Seen as an outline, TWC looked like this:

SANDY

  • General coverage from studios
    • TWC
    • National Hurricane Center
  • Field coverage
    • Battery Park
    • Point Pleasant

That’s far simpler than what TWC actually did at the time, of course. But I’m trying to illustrate something here: that coverage itself is an outline. Also that cover, as both noun and verb, is something no single news organization can create, or do. They all do a partial job. The whole job, especially for a massive phenomenon such as Sandy, requires many journals of many kinds.

In a way we have that with the Web. That is, if you add up all the stuff reported about Sandy — in newspapers, on radio and TV, in blogs, in tweets, on social media — you’ve got enough info-splatter to call “coverage,” but splatter isn’t what Jeff needs. Here are his specifics:

I wanted lists of what streets were closed. I wanted lists of what streets the power company was finally working on. Oh, the utility, JCP&L, gave my town, Bernards Township, lists of streets, but they were bald-faced lies (I know because my street was on that list but their crews weren’t on my street). The town and our local media outlets only passed on these lists as fact without verifying. I wanted journalists to add value to those lists, going out to verify whether there were crews working on those streets. In a word: report.

I wanted media organizations or technology platforms to enable the people who knew the facts — my fellow townspeople — to share what they knew. Someone should have created a wiki that would let anyone in town annotate those lists of streets without power and streets — if any — where power crews were working. Someone should have created a map (Google Maps would do; Ushahidi would be deluxe) that we could have annotated not only with our notes and reports of what we knew but also with pictures. I’d have loved to have seen images of every street blocked by trees, not just for the sake of empathy but also so I could figure out how to get around town … and how likely it was that we’d be getting power back and how likely it would be that buses would be able to get through the streets so schools could re-open.

But instead, we got mostly articles. For that’s what journalists do, isn’t it? We write articles. We are storytellers! But not everything should be a story. Stories aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying information, for informing the public. Sometimes lists, data bases, photos, maps, wikis, and other new tools can do a better job.

What Jeff wanted was a painting, or set of puzzle pieces that fit together into a coherent and complete painting. A good outline does that, because it has structure, coherency, and whatever level of detail you need. Instead Jeff got something out of Jackson Pollock (like the image above).

We need outlines, we get splatter. Even the stories, high-level as they often are, tend to work as just more splatter.

How do we get outlines? Here are some ways:

  1. If you’re a journal, a journalist, a reporter, a blogger… start responding to the demand Jeff lays out there, especially when a Big Story like Sandy happens. Provide lists, or at least point to them. It’s a  huge hole. Think about what others are bringing to the market’s table, and how you can work with them. You can’t do it all yourself. Nor should anybody.
  2. Listen to Dave Winer, who has been working this frontier since the early ’80s, and has given the world lots of great stuff already. (Here’s his latest in outline form.)
  3. Start looking at the world itself as a collection of outlines, and at your work as headings and subheadings within that world — even as you don’t wish to be confined to those, and won’t be, because the world is still messy.
  4. Go deeper than wikis. Wonderful as they are, wikis are very flat as outlines go. They are only one level deep. So is search, which is worse because every search is temporary and arcane to whatevever it is you search for at the moment, and whatever it is the engine is doing to personalize your search.

It’s not easy to think of the world as outlines. But seeing the plain need for lists is a good place to start.

Addendum

After reading the comments, I should make a few things clearer than I did above.

First, Jeff’s line, “Don’t give me stories, give me lists,” does not mean stories are wrong or bad or without appeal. Just that there are times when people need something else. Badly. Giving somebody a story when they need a list is a bit like giving somebody who’s fallen overboard a meal rather than a life preserver. It’s best to give both, at the right time and place. One of my points above is that no one journal, or journalist, should have to do it all. A related point I didn’t make is that pulling together lists, and linking lists together, is less thankful work than writing stories. True, writing stories isn’t always easy. But story-writing is rewarding in ways that compiling lists are not. Yet lists may save lives — or at least hassles — in ways that stories may not.

Second, seeing “the world as outlines” does not require that any one person, site or journal produce lists or outlines for anything. The totally flat and horizontal nature of hyperlinks (and, not coincidentally, wikis) makes it at least possible for everything to be within a link or few from everything else. While this linky flatness can excuse what I call “splatter” above, it also suggests a need for mindfulness toward coherency, and the absent need for anybody to do everything. As structure goes, the Web is more like scaffolding than like a building. If we see journalism as outlining, and lists as an essential part of any outline, and hyperlinks as a way of connecting multiple lists (and stories) together, we can make multiple scaffolds function together as a coherent whole, and ease the labor required, say, for piecing one’s life back together after a storm.

Third, we are dealing with a paradox here. Outlines are hierarchical, and — as David Weinberger put it so well in Cluetrain — hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Thus one of the things that makes the Web a web also makes it a poor place for persistent structure. Yes, we can create buildings of sorts. (For example, anything with a domain name.) But all are temporary and vulnerable to future failings or repurposings. Big as Facebook is, there is nothing about the nature of its mission or corporate structure, much less of the Web beneath it, to assure the site’s permanence. (I have exactly this concern about Flickr, for example.) Built into the Web’s DNA, however, is a simple call to be useful. That too is a call of journalism. It is a more essential calling than the one to be interesting, or provocative, or award-worthy, or any of the other qualities we like to see in stories. A dictionary is poor literature, but a highly useful document. It is also a list. A bookshelf with several dictionaries on it is an outline. So is a library.

Fourth, there are many reasons that outlining hasn’t taken off as a category. Some are accidents of history. Some have to do with the way we are taught outlining in school. (Poorly, that is.) But the biggest, I’m convinced (at least for now) is that we fail in general, as a species, to see larger pictures. We fail to see them in the present moment, or in the present situation (whatever it is), and we fail to see them across time. This is why even people called “conservatives” see little reason to conserve finite resources for which there are no substitutes after they run out.

Fifth, we need new development here. My point about wikis is that they don’t cover all the ground required for outlining the world. Nothing does, or ever will. But we can do other things, and do them better. It’s still early. The Web as we know it is only seventeen years old. The future, hopefully, is a lot longer than that.

Meanwhile, a grace of a storm like Sandy is that it can make a serious journalist call out for something serious that isn’t journalism-as-usual. And that the result might be better scaffolding to hold together the temporary undertakings we call our lives.