On a journalism mailing list to which I subscribe, the following claim was made recently:
One more thing: the last time I checked, more people used the Yellow Pages as a reference tool than Google.

No contest.

Suffice it to say, I found this claim somewhat unbelievable, since I personally haven’t had a yellow pages book in my home for over ten years now.  I can’t think of anyone else I know who does either.  Last time I used the yellow pages, I was in a hotel room, looking for local pizza delivery.  (That must have been five years ago at least.  These days, I just use the GrubHub app on my smartphone. That way, I don’t even have to take my wallet out of my pocket or talk to anyone on the phone.)

So I decided to check it out.  It’s a claim of fact, so it should be pretty easy to find out, right?

I fired up Google Chrome, and typed “yellow pages statistics” into Google’s search engine, which naturally yielded about 20 million hits.

Some fun facts about the yellow pages:

Considering that Google processes something on the order of two billion searches per day, every day, I’d say the answer is no.  More people use Google these days than use the Yellow Pages.

ReadWriteWeb reports today on a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The takeaway?

According to the survey, 46% of people now say they get their news online at least three times a week, surpassing newspapers (40%) for the first time. Only local television is more popular among Americans, with 50% indicating that’s their regular source for news.

Not to mention this beautiful graphic:

So things are looking good for the web.  Not so good for newspapers.  Even less well for magazines, and worst of all for cable news.

I suspect that a large reason for the 13.7% drop in cable news numbers can be directly related to the perception of partisanship on most of those stations.  At least, I hope that’s the reason — it’s a good one.

So tomorrow is December 1, which is the deadline for entries into the Knight News Challenge, an annual contest for innovative ideas for the intersection of technology and news, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

I (along with my buddy Eric Marden) have an entry in this year’s competition.  It’s a project we’re calling News Grader.  Here’s the meat and potatoes of the proposal:

We propose building a web service which can intelligently parse and analyze text it has never seen before, and offer insight into the quality of content, along with the degree to which the filter is confident in its analysis: the “News Grade”. We envision making this available in much the same way as Akismet or OpenCalais provides their service – an open API, providing third-party developers an easy way to make use of News Grader’s analysis and quality ratings. This API will enable the easy integration of our system into a variety of formats which could include browser extensions, CMS plugins, and desktop/web applications such as RSS readers, news aggregators or social networking software.

We believe we can do most of the heavy lifting using well-known algorithms, including a modified version of Bayesian induction, the Porter stemmer algorithm, entity extraction algorithms, and manifold learning algorithms. We intend to identify and weight word clusters in an article, and compare a new article to the ratings of other articles with similar word clusters, amongst other techniques.

This automated process will be supplemented by a mechanism for users to provide structured feedback, which will allow the web service to “learn”, and which will increase the quality of the analysis provided over time. The more that people use the service, the smarter it will get. It also makes it more difficult to “game” the analysis of a given piece of content, since the machine intelligence will compare new content to other content it’s previously encountered, and will weight new feedback as only a portion of its analysis.

You can read our full proposal here.  If (and that’s a big if, since there are hundreds of entries) the KNC people end up being interested in the idea, you can be sure I’ll be writing more about it when we put together a business plan and timeline for the second round of the competition.

I’ve been pretty interested in mechanisms for machine learning lately, and since the KNC folks were specifically looking for some proposals about authenticity, trust, and content discrimination, I thought this idea might be up their alley.

Of course, some folks think that open-ended machine learning systems are an all-too-common startup idea which never seems to quite work out.  To those folks, I’d like to point out that useful expert systems have been relatively rare until pretty recently, simply because doing it right is computationally intensive.

Furthermore, I think it’s worth noting that where this sort of system has worked in the past, it’s worked really well.  Netflix, for instance, paid out a million-dollar prize in 2009 for improving their recommendation algorithms by a mere 10%.  Amazon relies on it’s recommendation system as a driver of sales.  There’s just no question that systems like these can work; the only questions are what do you want to measure, and how do you use the information?

Netflix and Amazon want to predict what an individual will think about a particular recommendation.  Will you buy it?  Will you like it?  And that’s a great idea — it drives commerce on these sites, and makes them more useful for users.

But the questions we’re interested in answering don’t rely on personalization; we’re not so much interested in what a particular user cares about.  We’re interested in predictive modeling of things like bias, completeness, and novelty, independent of the tastes of a particular user.  The question we’re asking is, “Can we discover good journalism, regardless of subject matter?”

We think the answer is going to be that we can.  We won’t know until we actually run the experiment, however.  As far as I can determine, nobody’s ever tried precisely what we’re proposing vis-a-vis journalism on the web.  Only time will tell if we get the opportunity to try.

**Update, 1/12/2010:  The Knight Foundation declined our proposal.  Anyone want to fund the idea?  Otherwise, I’d say it’s dead in the water. **

CC-licensed image, courtesy of Steve Rhodes, via Flickr

This post is an amalgam of several emails I sent to a private journalism-related listserv.  I’ve got a project brewing in the ol’ noggin relating to journalism, objectivity, and transparency.  I figured I’d post this publicly, in the hopes of soliciting more opinions, so please feel free to post in the comments.

So, one of my pet peeves about the universe of journalism is the fact that most (primarily non-journalist) folks, and particularly those on the conservative end of the political spectrum, insist that journalists must be “objective” in their reporting.

This notion is, of course, under constant debate, but it has recently been brought to the fore by several cases, including Juan Williams, Keith Olberman, Helen Thomas, and Octavia Nasr, who was fired over a mere tweet which was seen by some folks as partisan.

See also this article on TechCrunch for some insight:

Frankly, I don’t believe that it’s possible for such a thing as genuinely objective reporting to exist in the real world. We might aspire to write just the facts, we might try our best to present every side of an argument without favoring one or the other, but ultimately, there’s no such thing as a human with no bias, and therefore by logical necessity, no reporting without bias.

Furthermore, because of the epistemological impossibility of “objective” reporting, I’m personally inclined to treat those who base their journalistic reputation on objectivity as suspect, because they either A) haven’t considered the philosophical consequences of their claim or B) they don’t believe that I’ve thought about it deeply enough to see their claims are bogus, or perhaps worst of all C) they genuinely DO believe that they are being more objective than anyone else, which is a level of self-delusion I’m not prepared to accept.

The primary benefit that a professional journalist brings to the table (in my opinion) is the impetus towards investigation and a willingness to discuss multiple points of view in their stories.  Take for example Dave Weigel, who was fired from the WaPo for comments he made on a private listserv. Even though he didn’t personally hold the same beliefs as the folks he was reporting on, nobody was complaining about the content of his stories.  He was reporting on a point of view that differed from his own, and apparently doing it well enough to satisfy the conservatives of the world (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this point).  Ultimately, he was undone by expressing his personal opinions in a private forum.

Perhaps it is that the real advantage of professional journalism over “citizen journalism” is in fact that it requires a certain amount of exposure to ideas which may not completely cohere with your intellectual predisposition?  Maybe what the NYT, Dallas Morning News, and Chicago Tribune offer is the opportunity to encounter a bit of cognitive dissonance from time to time.  It may not be comfortable, but that just means you’re thinking about it.

I thought Mathew Ingram presented it well in this article on GigaOm :

David Weinberger, a former fellow with the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, has also argued that “transparency is the new objectivity,” and that readers can now make up their own minds about whether journalists are credible or not by looking at the sources of the news they are reporting, rather than relying on the notion of objectivity. “Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases,” he said in a blog post last year. “Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.” Transparency is also much more effective online because journalists can link to supporting evidence for their arguments, Weinberger said, instead of just relying on the principle of objectivity to buttress their opinions. “Objectivity,” he wrote, “is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”

Jay Rosen has taken to referring to the mythical objectivity which some journalists invoke as the “view from nowhere”, a term apparently coined by Thomas Nagel, and he’s got a lot of opinions which I find myself agreeing with on the subject.

Any thoughts from the noosphere on the subject?  Is transparency the new objectivity?  I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.

Greeting, friends.

Eleven months ago, I left Florida to come to Chicago and work my way through Northwestern’s Master’s of Journalism program.  Since then, I have been gainfully unemployed, focusing all my attention on my studies.

This year-long project has been a success thus far.  I’m now in my fourth quarter, and the end is in sight.  Medill has allowed me to build up a host of skills that I hadn’t yet fully developed, and on balance, I consider it to have been an extremely successful endeavor.

But as I reach the end of the program, I’m confronted with the reality that I’m now headed back into the job market, at a time when jobs seem to be particularly hard to come by.

Thus, I’ve decided to adapt a technique from the open-source software community, and to apply it to my job hunt.  It’s become common among groups that deal in open-source software to offer a cash reward to anyone that can code a particularly useful new feature, or quash some persistent bug.  (Interested in bounties in the open source world? Check out this, this, or this.) So, I’ve decided it would be an intriguing experiment to see if the same technique could be useful in finding my next gig.

I’m offering a $250 cash bounty to the person or persons who can provide me with a tip, lead, or introduction that leads to my next full-time job.

Why am I doing this?  Because I am convinced that the best jobs are not the ones you go and find, but rather the ones that find you. I’m interested in finding out just how useful it is to leverage social networks and personal connections in job hunting, or whether I’m better off going through want-ads and online job sites.  And I want to reward the folks who try to help me do well in life.  After all, it’s only fair, right?

So what kind of job am I looking for?

In short, I’m not sure.  There are lots of things I’m qualified to do, and I have an interesting skill set, combining a variety of expertise which often are not found together.  This makes me uniquely qualified for some kinds of positions which are generally very difficult to recruit for.

First of all, I have more than a decade of experience working with computers in a variety of contexts.  I’ve been a system administrator, a break/fix guy, a programmer and web developer.  I’m comfortable with a wide variety of platforms and technologies, from the executive level down to nuts-and-bolts of  implementation and support.

I’m proficient with a wide variety of media creation applications and production processes, including print, online, audio, video and interactive media.  I have been trained as a journalist at one of the most prestigious J-schools in the United States.  I understand newsroom dynamics and producing content on deadline.  I have good news judgement, and I know how to cultivate sources and story ideas.  My written work has been published in a variety of outlets.

I have excellent communication and problem solving skills.  I have a history of finding creative solutions to complicated problems.  I can translate complex technical information in to everyday language.  I can take creative ideas and translate them into technical specifications.  I’m a good multi-tasker, and can balance several projects simultaneously.

I have worked deeply with new media and social media, and I understand how to leverage new platforms to build audiences and maintain relationships.  I have experience with stuff like online advertising (both from a technical and business point of view), search engine optimization, and the semantic web.

Some possible jobs I’m qualified for:

  • Web Editor
  • Information Technology Manager
  • Content Specialist
  • Science/Technology Reporter
  • User Interface Specialist
  • Web designer/programmer
  • Project manager

This is only a partial list.  Frankly, (and hopefully without sounding too self-aggrandizing) I’m a pretty smart fellow, and I know how to make myself useful in a wide variety of roles.  I’m used to wearing many hats.  I’m flexible, responsive and I bring a good deal of value to my employer.

Here’s my current resume. Of course, I am happy to provide published clips, as well as professional and personal references upon request.

My Job Selection Logic:

  • Really interesting/innovative jobs get first priority in my search, no matter where they may be.
  • Jobs in the Chicagoland area get consideration over jobs that would require relocation.  However, relocation is not off the table for the right opportunity.
  • I’m not averse to traveling as part of my next job, and, in fact, I enjoy a little business travel from time to time.
  • Media-related jobs get consideration over technical-only jobs.
  • Full-time jobs get priority over contract positions.

The Rules:

  • I will pay $250 USD, via cash, check or Paypal to the individual that can provide me with a tip, introduction, or lead that translates into my next full-time job.
  • The bounty is payable upon my first day of employment.
  • Employment at this job must begin between December 14, 2009 and January 11, 2010.
  • Tips must be submitted via email. Send the email to: jobtip@ianmonroe.com.  If more than one person submits the same winning job tip, the winner of the bounty will be determined by timestamp on the email.
  • Professional recruiters may not win the bounty (but don’t let that stop you from getting in touch about potentially interesting positions).

So, do you know of a job for which I might be qualified?  Don’t hesitate — email me today and let me know.

Finally, even if you don’t have a tip that is immediately relevant, please consider that you might know someone who does.  So feel free to pass this offer along to anyone you think might be able to point me in the right direction.

PS – I will update this post with the results of the experiment as they become known.

UPDATE (11/19/2009):

World-renowned DJ and producer Q-Burns Abstract Message has decided to try out the job bounty idea as well.  He’s offering a 10% cut of his fee for anyone that can provide tips or contacts which end up turning into a live show.  Read the post about his variant here. Also, he’s posted some sweet DJ sets to provide a sample for the uninitiated.  Know a club or promoter that might be interested?  You should get in touch with him.

Another thing that came my way via the excellent Overcoming Bias site.

The author of this piece, Paul Starr, is a professor of Sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, and he floats the idea that public subsidies of investigative journalism might be one way to combat the deluge of journalists that have given up investigative reporting, and are now turning their skills to trade pubs and special-interest public relations.

It’s an interesting idea, and I don’t entirely disagree, but I need to think more about it before I’m sure.

“Curiously enough, government subsidies that are viewpoint-neutral and that do not give officials any discretion may be a less constraining method of supporting journalism than leaving it to dependence on patrons. Today, any such subsidies should be not only viewpoint-neutral, but also platform-neutral. We need the modern equivalent of the postal subsidies of the early American republic, except that there ought to be no bias in favor of publications that appear in print.

At this point, I am not advocating any specific form of subsidy — only that we should be open to the idea. There may be lessons for America in the experience of countries that have subsidized the news media without controlling them. Many European countries, for example, exempt news publications from the value-added tax; we have no VAT, but we do have a payroll tax, and one possibility might be to exempt not just newspapers, but all recognized news gatherers from that tax in whole or part.”

Via Cato-Unbound.org .  The whole article is worth a read.

Starting today until the beginning of June, I’m working on Health/Science reporting.

My beat is Technology/Gadgets/Nanotech. If you should happen to have any good tips on these subjects, please please contact me and clue me in (ian at ianmonroe.com). I finally have a beat that I can write about with some kind of clarity, so I’m looking to make it as interesting as possible.

Thanks in advance!

This fellow gets it.

Everyone knows by now that the newspaper industry is broken, possibly beyond repair, but, particularly over the last three or four years, I’ve come across countless folks that want to sell you a solution to “fix” it.  But it can’t be fixed.  The environment has changed, and the niche that newspapers have thrived in for decades has dried up.  The “newspaper organism” is going to become as extinct as the dodo.  This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it’s just what’s happening.

Clay Shirky understands, though:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

Found via mental_floss.

Here’s the thing — journalism is transactional.  You rely on other people to feed you information that you can use to write your stories.  In exchange, your sources get to draw attention to the things that they think are important.

For instance, if you’re writing an article about a new business, you contact the business owner or spokesperson, and they talk to you, give you an interview, answer your questions, or whatever.  In return, they get to communicate their message to potential customers, they get to get the word out about their business.

Or how about if you’re interviewing a politician?  Well, again, they provide the journalist with information, and in return, they get to have their viewpoints publicized.

Perhaps you’re doing an article about health food, so you contact health experts for opinions.  In exchange for their opinions, they get their names in print, which helps to build their reputations as experts in their field.

But if you are a student, working on, oh, I don’t know, a graduate degree, for instance, and your work is only being distributed internally, or on a private website, then the transaction breaks down.  The source feeds you information, and they get nothing in return, because nobody (or only a small number of people) reads the finished reporting.

So there’s no incentive for anybody to talk to you, unless they are motivated solely by listening to themselves speak.

When I was working for the Orlando Weekly, I could simply disclose my affiliation with the newspaper, and whoever I was talking to would take me seriously enough to answer my questions.  But now that the only place that my writing is showing up is on a private website, nobody can be bothered to return my phone calls or provide me with any kind of useful information at all.  Particularly since my beat is business, where everyone is busy trying to make money, and I have nothing to offer them in the transaction of journalism.

Frankly, it’s pretty much bullshit.  Maybe I should just call myself a freelance journalist.  That would get me more respect.