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  • Eric Ulken 7:57 pm on January 23, 2011
    Tags: Libraries   

    Libraries: An appreciation 

    If I couldn’t be a journalist, I think I’d be a librarian. I decided this after spending a lot of time in libraries in the last couple of years and interacting with some very smart (and completely unstuffy) librarians.

    Maybe it’s because, as it turns out, journalists and librarians have a lot in common.

    Fundamentally, we’re both interested in making information useful and meaningful to the widest possible audience. Beyond that, practitioners in both fields are committed to public service, free speech, open access, transparency in sourcing, etc.

    Librarianship might not be the hippest profession — one more thing we share, I suppose — though, as my former LAT colleague David Sarno points out, this is changing.

    Librarians with an eye to the future speak not of books but of an information commons — an open network of places, both physical and virtual, where people come not just to receive knowledge but to create and share knowledge with others.

    In the U.S., public libraries are seeing record numbers of visitors. Even circulation is up.

    Unfortunately, budgets are down. Libraries are a convenient target for cash-strapped local governments looking to save money.

    But cuts to public libraries, especially in bad economic times, are short-sighted. They hit job seekers, community groups and people engaged in independent study, among others.

    It’s time civic leaders took a closer look at libraries and the services they provide and imagine how much poorer our society’s information commons would be without them.

    Photo: Seattle Central Library by Flickr user pmorgan (Creative Commons)

    Posted from Boston, Massachusetts, United States.

  • Eric Ulken 4:05 pm on February 8, 2009
    Tags: Robert Peston, , , , University of Central Lancashire   

    What I’ve learned in England (so far) 

    "Look right"

    I’ve been in the U.K. for about a week now — long enough to feel guilty for neglecting my blogging duties, but not long enough to really get my head around what’s going on over here.

    I was in Preston last week for the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, where I met journalists from Europe and Africa and heard some familiar stories about change-averse newsroom culture. I also visited newsrooms in Liverpool and Birmingham and listened as editors described the very real changes taking place there.

    Some trends I’ve observed in the process:

    In posts over the next few days, I’ll try to elaborate on each of those points. Meanwhile, here are some happenings in the U.K. media world that have spawned dinner-table conversation in the past week:

    Next: England’s Twitter explosion

    Photo by Charles Collier via Flickr

  • Eric Ulken 6:37 pm on January 30, 2009

    ‘Killing local news’? I doubt it 

    I rarely opine about the print side of the newspaper industry, because it’s not my area of expertise and I don’t usually read printed newspapers. But humor me:

    As part of its continued downsizing, the Los Angeles Times has announced that it’s getting rid of the standalone California section and folding local news into the front section. Reactions are predictably negative, with one Twitterer deducing that the Times is “killing local news.” I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dried. The Times has obviously done a poor job of explaining this move, but to me it is defensible.

    Combining all the paper’s general-interest news into a single section could be a good thing for several reasons:

    • A unified A section means the paper is finally putting local news where it belongs: front and center. Nothing is more important to the paper’s long-term success than local news, so relegating most California stories to an inside section always seemed a bit unfair to me.
    • Since there are already a lot of local stories in the A section, it makes sense to put the rest there too. Honestly, hardly anybody outside the newspaper industry understands why some local stories go in the A section and the rest appear in the local news section. It’s needlessly confusing.
    • People are going to have to get used to smaller newspapers; economic realities dictate it. So rather than print a bunch of anemic 4-page sections, why not do fewer, beefier ones and save some money in the process? (This of course presumes that the total number of pages doesn’t decrease substantially. I’ve seen no official word yet on how much news space is likely to be lost. If the local news hole shrinks as a result of this move, then I’ll retract this defense and join the chorus of outrage.)
    • One alternative that’s been mentioned, merging business and local news into a single section, doesn’t feel right to me because the two are thematically different. Local news is general; business is, well, specific. Meshing the two on a single section front could confuse readers. On the other hand, readers are already quite used to seeing local news merged with national and foreign on A1.
    • This solution, even if it puts some people off, feels more palatable journalistically than other alternatives, which might include even more editorial staff cuts or the closing of additional bureaus.

    It’s too bad this news comes at the same time as the announcement that 70 more Times journalists will walk out the door. That will hurt. Juggling pages is comparatively painless.

  • Eric Ulken 11:14 am on January 26, 2009
    Tags: Brussels, Clo Willaerts, European Journalism Centre   

    Distinctions that no longer matter 

    Today in Brussels, I sneaked into the kickoff seminar for the European Blogging Competition, at which about 90 bloggers and would-be bloggers, representing every European Union nation, are getting a crash course in E.U. politics and blogging techniques.

    Good panelists, good Q&A. But oddly, one of the liveliest discussions revolved around this old question: Is blogging journalism? (It’s a question that, in my view, misses the point. Blogs are simply a platform, much like newsprint, on which journalism can be produced.)

    What was really being discussed, I think, was the difference between independent and affiliated journalists, or between amateurs and professionals, or between traditional and non-traditional news sources. And there, the distinctions are increasingly hard to make.

    To use U.S. analogies: Is a reporter for TechCrunch independent or affiliated? Is The Huffington Post amateur or professional? Should we trust a scoop on TPM Muckraker less or more than a scoop in the New York Post?

    Some in the audience seemed set on drawing a line between the journalism produced by paid journalists working for traditional news organizations and that produced by “bloggers.”

    People wrongly conflate “traditional” with “credible.” (Of course, a strong brand will always bring cachet, but there are new strong brands emerging all the time.)

    In a few years, nobody will care whether a website has (or had) a legacy print or broadcast product attached. What matters in the long run is the quality of your work, as judged by your audience, and the credibility that quality brings you.

    It took me a while to understand that.

    Also today: Nice talk on standing out in the blogosphere from Clo Willaerts, who crowdsourced her presentation in advance on Twitter.

    The actual blogging in the European Blogging Competition (sponsored by the European Journalism Centre, where I interned 6 years ago) begins Feb. 1.

  • Eric Ulken 10:25 am on January 23, 2009

    Separating signal from noise on Twitter 

    Results of a Twitter search on earthquake near:"Los Angeles" within:15mi

    By now a lot of people in the media have discovered how to use Twitter as a promotional tool, judging from the growing number of auto-generated messages populating (polluting?) the Tweetstream.

    But I think relatively few journalists are actually listening to what the community is saying. Which is a shame, because this is our audience talking. And the conversation is often more transparent, more sincere and more insightful than what you see on news sites’ forums and comment boards.

    (I should note that I’m a relative Twitter novice, and I welcome the opportunity to get schooled if I’m totally off base in what I’m about to say.)

    Steve Yelvington (who, incidentally, was helming startribune.com when I was an intern there more than a decade ago), describes Twitter this way:

    It’s like a big caffeine party. Everybody’s talking at once. Really fast.

    But you have magic ears.

    You only hear the people you want to listen to, and the people who are saying something directly to you.

    That is Twitter’s great promise, but it’s also where I think the microblogging behemoth comes up short. Because two things happen when you’re listening only to the people you want to hear:

    • They say a lot of things you don’t care about.
    • You miss all the good stuff they’re not talking about.

    So, how can journalists separate the useful stuff from the chatter on Twitter? There are some technological answers to this question. Here are a few I’ve found:

    • Twitter advanced search: Sure, everybody knows about Twitter search, but the advanced search options can be a pretty effective way to cut through the noise. For a simple example, try this: earthquake near:”Los Angeles” within:15mi (The geographic search makes use of the place name that users set in their profiles as a geotag for each of their tweets. Imperfect, but it’s a start.)
    • TwitScoop: See what’s trending in real time. In the future, I imagine a local version of this (limited to tweets in a particular geographic area) on a big display on the wall of every newsroom.
    • TweetDeck: A beautiful app (built with Adobe Air, for good compatibility karma) that lets you follow multiple subsets of the tweetstream (your replies, custom searches, etc.) in real time. If you cover a beat, why not set up a few custom searches on the topics you follow and see what people are saying?

    And then there are some things I wish I could do with Twitter that, as far as I know, aren’t possible yet. Here’s this journalist’s wish list for Twitter and third-party developers:

    • Better geographic tools, so it’s easier for tweeters to update their location and for searchers to filter geographically. Community news sites could benefit from this.
    • The ability to create running searches across a subset of Twitter users. Let’s say you cover technology and are following a few key sources and want to know whenever one of your sources posts about Yahoo. There might be a tool that enables this, and if so, maybe somebody can enlighten me.
    • The ability to find conversations that mention a particular URL. Seems like it would be useful (and not just for ego purposes) to know what people are saying about the content you create. Twitturly does a good job of showing which URLs are most popular overall, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t let you specify a URL to examine.

    So, what are your techniques for separating signal from noise on Twitter? And while you’re at it, what would you add to the wish list?

    Incidentally, if you’re new to the Twitter thing, here are some good posts to get you going. And for a contrarian point of view on the whole signal-to-noise thing, check out Scoble. (Or, maybe he’s mainstream and I’m the contrarian? [Shudder])

    • Andrew D. Nystrom / @latimesnystrom 12:46 am on January 24, 2009

      Eric, a few folks the @LATimes actually had a call this morning with one of Twitter’s lead product managers.

      Besides parsing the numbers related to inauguration-related spikes in traffic – and the pleasantly surprising platform stability – we spent most of the call talking about how to mine Twitter’s APIs and search feeds.

      Re Twitter’s ’09 development plans, integrating their powerful search experience for users is a top priority.

      As widely reported, Twitter confirmed they are also working on a pro/paid version of the service, and they are actively soliciting feedback on what dashboard-type of features would make a paid service appeal to heavy users.

      As always, I’d love to hear more feedback [via @latimesnystrom] on what folks would like to see the 60 feeds @latimestweets follows do. So far, more, quicker breaking news is a popular request, along with more unique/original content, and more reporter-run streams, like @LAjurno + @latimesfood + @latimesJerry.

      Happy travels, look forward to hearing more about your adventures,
      ~ Andrew, social media guy embedded in the LA Times / latimes.com newsroom

  • Eric Ulken 7:35 pm on December 8, 2008
    Tags: Ron Kaye, Tribune Company   

    Ironic flashback photo of the day 

    YOU Own This Place Now!

    Above: Los Angeles Times employee entrance, Dec. 21, 2007. Those signs seemed a bit disingenuous even then, given the structure of the deal to take the Tribune Company private. Now they seem, well, ridiculous.

    Update: Ex-Daily News ed Ron Kaye’s thoughtful reaction to TribCo’s bankruptcy filing: It’s the beginning of the end for newspapers, but it’s also a great time to be a consumer/creator of news online. Not sure I’m quite as pessimistic as he is on the first point, but I totally agree with him on the second. (Hat tip: @busblog)

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