A New York Times Explainer
Some learning moments in this graph from a New York Times article on Washington DC’s new marijuana rules.
First, tucked away in a style guide up on 8th Avenue and 40th Street is an entry that tells copyeditors that it’s a “jay” and not a “j”. Fair enough.
Second, “marijuana cigarette”? Who says that? Ever? ”Joint” is in the dictionary. Use it. — Michael
What Writer's Block? Swedish Man and His Bot Have Authored 2.7 Million Wikipedia Articles -
Via The Wall Street Journal:
Sverker Johansson could be the most prolific author you’ve never heard of.
Volunteering his time over the past seven years publishing to Wikipedia, the 53-year-old Swede can take credit for 2.7 million articles, or 8.5% of the entire collection, according to Wikimedia analytics, which measures the site’s traffic. His stats far outpace any other user, the group says.
He has been particularly prolific cataloging obscure animal species, including butterflies and beetles, and is proud of his work highlighting towns in the Philippines. About one-third of his entries are uploaded to the Swedish language version of Wikipedia, and the rest are composed in two versions of Filipino, one of which is his wife’s native tongue.
An administrator holding degrees in linguistics, civil engineering, economics and particle physics, he says he has long been interested in “the origin of things, oh, everything.”
It isn’t uncommon, however, for Wikipedia purists to complain about his method. That is because the bulk of his entries have been created by a computer software program—known as a bot. Critics say bots crowd out the creativity only humans can generate.
Mr. Johansson’s program scrubs databases and other digital sources for information, and then packages it into an article. On a good day, he says his “Lsjbot” creates up to 10,000 new entries.
That’s one way to go about it. Some Wikipedia editors aren’t happy it though.
Sometimes the CIA or the director of national intelligence or the NSA or the White House will call about a story. You hit the brakes, you hear the arguments, and it’s always a balancing act: the importance of the information to the public versus the claim of harming national security. Over time, the government too reflexively said to the Times, “you’re going to have blood on your hands if you publish X,” and because of the frequency of that, the government lost a little credibility. But you do listen and seriously worry. Editors are Americans too. We don’t want to help terrorists. —
Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor of The New York Times, to Cosmopolitan. I’m Not Ashamed of Being Fired.
In a Q&A with Cosmo, Abramson talks about life after the Times and offers good advice to young journos. For example:
I taught at Yale for five years when I was managing editor and what I tried to stress for students interested in journalism, rather than picking a specialty, like blogging or being a videographer, was to master the basics of really good storytelling, have curiosity and a sense of how a topic is different than a story, and actually go out and witness and report. If you hone those skills, you will be in demand, as those talents are prized. There is too much journalism right now that is just based on people scraping the Internet and riffing off something else.
It all comes back to storytelling.
Q: Today you saw the children lying on the beach. What was it like to see this but be unable to help?
Tyler Hicks: It was clear that these children were beyond help. I was very close to three of the four children who were killed and it was clear that they had been killed instantly. Had there been some way to help them I certainly would have. Because Gaza is so small ambulance crews arrive almost immediately when something happens.
Image: A civilian carries one of four Palestinian cousins killed by an Israeli air strike while playing on a beach in Gaza, by Tyler Hicks via The New York Times. Read the Times’ interview with Hicks about reporting from Gaza. Select to embiggen.
News You Like to Use?
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism surveyed 18,000 online news consumers across ten countries on their news habits. The results are available in their 2014 Digital News Report.
Related, via Al Jazeera, American’s faith in the news is at an all time low:
The latest edition of a Gallup poll that tracks confidence in media follows a decades-long trend that shows a declining faith in television and print news. The percentage of Americans that have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the three media formats now hover around one-fifth.
Twenty-two percent of respondents trust newspapers, 19 percent trust web-based news sites, and 18 percent say they trust TV. All three of those numbers are within the polls 4-point margin of error.
Somewhat Related, via The New Republic: Does Fox News Cause Ignorance, or Do Ignorant Viewers Prefer Fox News?
TL;DR: Yes, but give it a read. It’s a great analysis of bandwagon effects and confirmation bias no matter your political inclinations.
Image: Most Important Types of News Among US News Consumers, via Marketing Charts and based on data from the Reuters Institute. Select to embiggen.
My Handwriting’s Crap, How ‘Bout Yours
Ever since personal computers made their way into the classroom, handwriting’s been on the way out. Many schools teach kindergartners and first graders how to print but don’t move on to cursive. Consider handwriting an increasingly obsolete art.
But research shows that writing by hand actually improves brain development. For example, Nancy Darling, psychology professor at Oberlin:
Using our hands requires the development of particular areas of the brain. That’s true when we are learning to use a tool, like our ancestors wielding an axe. It’s true when we learn to play the piano. It’s true when we learn to write. It’s true when we learn to sew or play with blocks. One of the advantages of moving away from the keyboard and doing something that requires greater flexibility in how we use our hands is that it also requires greater flexibility in how we use our brains. This, in turn, requires our brains to develop in new ways.
In Pacific Standard, Ted Scheinman explains, “The benefits of writing by hand, and doing so from a young age, are fundamental: improved and sustained development in social skills, hand-eye coordination, long-term memory. And when one considers “fluency” in its literal sense, it makes sense that cursive especially can energize a more fluid and coherent process of thought.”
He then goes into this doozy of an anecdote from Valerie Hotchkiss at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign:
Recently, an undergraduate asked me for help with a manuscript she was studying. I assumed it was something along the lines of a medieval Latin text or perhaps even a particularly difficult Marcel Proust letter (our library holds the largest collection of Proust letters in the world), but when I bent over the letter to help, I saw that it was in English and in the very neat, clear hand of John Ruskin. “What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t do cursive,” answered the undergraduate.
Takeaway: Practice your chickenscratch. — Michael
Image: Some words, written using the Dakota font.
One in every seven statehouse reporters today (or 14% of the total) is a college student. — Statehouse reporters, who cover state government and public policy, are on the decline, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. Get the facts here. (via pewresearch)
Hacking Politics with Browser Extensions & Twitter Bots
Sixteen-year-old Nick Rubin created a browser extension that shows who’s funding US politicians. Called Greenhouse, the extension pulls data from OpenSecrets.org so that when reading a story you can mouse over politicians’ names to get a quick overview of what industries have donated to them. Additional data pulled from Reform.to shows if the politician supports campaign finance reform.
Over in the political satire corner of the Web, this Chrome Extension will play Entry of the Gladiators when an article about Toronto mayor Rob Ford loads in your browser. Entry of the Gladiators? You might know it better as the clown song that’s played at the circus. Sounds like this.
Meantime, two bots on Twitter are fighting the transparency fight.
One, @PhrmaEdits, tweets whenever anonymous edits to Wikipedia are made that can be traced back to a pharmaceutical’s IP address. The bot is based on @CongressEdits by Ed Summers, that does the same.
As Summers explains on his personal site, the idea behind @CongressEdits has gone international:
The simplicity of combining Wikipedia and Twitter in this way immediately struck me as a potentially useful transparency tool. So using my experience on a previous side project I quickly put together a short program that listens to all major language Wikipedias for anonymous edits from Congressional IP address ranges… and tweets them.
In less than 48 hours the @congressedits Twitter account had more than 3,000 followers. My friend Nick set up gccaedits for Canada using the same software … and @wikiAssemblee (France) and @RiksdagWikiEdit (Sweden) were quick to follow.
Image: Best Web Browser Extension by I Can Barely Draw. Select to embiggen.
The Robots are Coming, Part 132
First, some background, via Kevin Roose at New York Magazine:
Earlier this week, one of my business-beat colleagues got assigned to recap the quarterly earnings of Alcoa, the giant metals company, for the Associated Press. The reporter’s story began: “Alcoa Inc. (AA) on Tuesday reported a second-quarter profit of $138 million, reversing a year-ago loss, and the results beat analysts’ expectation. The company reported strong results in its engineered-products business, which makes parts for industrial customers, while looking to cut costs in its aluminum-smelting segment.”
It may not have been the most artful start to a story, but it got the point across, with just enough background information for a casual reader to make sense of it. Not bad. The most impressive part, though, was how long the story took to produce: less than a second.
If you’re into robots and algorithms writing the news, the article’s worth the read. It’s optimistic, asserting that in contexts like earnings reports, sports roundups and the like, the automation frees journalists for more mindful work such as analyzing what those earning reports actually mean
With 300 million robot-driven stories produced last year – more than all media outlets in the world combined, according to Roose – and an estimated billion stories in store for 2014, that’s a lot of freed up time to cast our minds elsewhere.
Besides, as Roose explains, “The stories that today’s robots can write are, frankly, the kinds of stories that humans hate writing anyway.”
More interesting, and more troubling, are the ethics behind algorithmically driven articles. Slate’s Nicholas Diakopoulos tried to tackle this question in April when he asked how we can incorporate robots into our news gathering with a level of expected transparency needed in today’s media environment. Part of his solution is understanding what he calls the “tuning criteria,” or the inherent biases, that are used to make editorial decisions when algorithms direct the news.
Here’s something else to chew on. Back to Roose:
Robot-generated stories aren’t all fill-in-the-blank jobs; the more advanced algorithms use things like perspective, tone, and humor to tailor a story to its audience. A robot recapping a basketball game, for example, might be able to produce two versions of a story using the same data: one upbeat story that reads as if a fan of the winning team had written it; and another glum version written from the loser’s perspective.
Apply this concept to a holy grail of startups and legacy organizations alike: customizing and personalizing the news just for you. Will future robots feed us a feel-good, meat and potatoes partisan diet of news based on the same sort behavioral tracking the ad industry uses to deliver advertising. With the time and cost of producing multiple stories from the same data sets approaching zero, it’s not difficult to imagine a news site deciding that they’ll serve different versions of the same story based on perceived political affiliations.
That’s a conundrum. One more worth exploring than whether an algorithm can give us a few paragraphs on who’s nominated for the next awards show.
Want more robots? Visit our Robots Tag.
Image: Twitter post, via @hanelly.
The relationship between the government and the media is like a marriage; it is a dysfunctional marriage to be sure, but we stay together for the kids. — Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, quoted in Time. Bloggers, Surveillance and Obama’s Orwellian State.