Dream endorsement

Jay Rosen likes The New Fuelist!


New Media!

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy shared my quantum dots story with its Twitter followers today. I thought I should catch that tweet and put it on the blog before it faded away into Twitter oblivion. Like catching a firefly in a jar.

Whether or not I, as an ethical journalist, should relish this occurrence, is beside the point.

In other news, Rolling Stone just changed the world.


The Baseball Backchannel

The term "backchannel" has been used by New York University professor and new media philosopher Jay Rosen and others to describe the new opportunity, provided by the web and mobile technology, for the audience (of anything) to talk to each other during events.

The backchannel changes the the flow of communication and, in turn, the flow of authority. Now the audience can yell at the Master of Ceremonies behind his or her back. Think TV viewers tweeting during the Oscars.

As Rosen says:
"The horizontal flow changes the situation for speakers and producers in any communication setting that retains the trappings of one-to-many."
Recently I've come across an unexpectedly fascinating manifestation of the backchannel: beat bloggers and reporters tweeting during live broadcasts of the baseball games they are covering.

Now don't get me wrong, baseball telecasts are famous for their broadcasters, and good play-by-play guys like Dave Niehaus, who covers the Seattle Mariners are essential to the game. But these days in the Twittersphere, another broadcast is going on. The bloggers and reporters (like Dave Cameron of USS Mariner, Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, and Ryan Divish of the Tacoma News Tribune) who cover the Mariners are engaged in full-fledged tweetscussion that is more journalistic and analytic than the generally feel-good back-and-forth that happening between Niehaus and his partner Mike Blowers on the air (obviously not ALL local commentators are so positive, but still). It adds another layer of interpretation to the game for fanatics like me, and so far has significantly reduced the number of times per game I yell at the TV screen.

Baseball fan? I recommend the experience.


Crisp Commentary

I'm beginning to accept that the web-based argument between those that say journalists should leave science communication to scientists, and those, myself included, who think that's one of the worst ideas ever, is just one of those eternal conflicts like Democrats v. Republicans and Yankees v. Red Sox.

As a scientifically-minded journalist-in-training, I find this to be a relief. For the past few months, the debate has caused an annoying level of cognitive dissonance, which is finally subsiding.

Now, I'm not saying (some of) the relentless tweeting and blogging back and forth on this topic doesn't continue to add value to the scene. Why else would I be writing this post? Communication is the lifeblood of any relationship, and the dialogue between scientists and journalists is extremely important to truth-telling.

Often the crowd reaction to these science-communication-flavored web transmissions ends up being just as meaningful as the original post, and many times the comment thread is where the best content hides.

Take, for example, this post by Sophia Collins. It's well-constructed analysis the question that won't die: Should we replace science writers with scientists writing about their area of of research and expertise? It concludes that there are many ways to communicate scientific concepts, and the more diverse the communication ecosystem the better. There are niches that need filling from both scientist-writers AND science writers.

That's my view too, provided no one is misrepresenting, which is why I thought this comment from Ed Gerstner, a Senior Editor at Nature Physics, was poignant:
The big problem I have with the idea of doing away with journalists is the inherent conflict of interest in scientists writing about own work. This is an immense problem with the increasing prevalence of churnalism on the web. Actually, it's not really churnalism, but pure PR. That is, an increasing number of science stories I see on the web are not stories (in the journalistic sense) but university press releases.

And if you want to see misrepresentation of the worst kind, you could barely find worse than that of scientists writing about their work for a popular audience.

Yes, science news is more difficult to get to grips with than, say, entertainment news. But I utterly disagree that it's that much more difficult than say, financial news. Or legal news.

Should we do away with financial journalists as well, so that bankers can put a clearer case for banking reform? Or legal journalists so that litigators can put a clearer case for, say, libel reform?



We Gotta Save Society

I like this Clay Shirky point:
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.


WTF is content?

If you are like me, you are really damn tired of using the word content, but are resigned because there is no synonym.

But do you really know what it is? Let the famed Jeff Jarvis fill you in: Online, content is almost everything and almost everything is content.
When we email a link to a friend, that act creates content. When we comment on content, we create content. When we mention a movie in Twitter — that’s just useless chatter, right? — our tweets add up to valuable content: a predictor of movie box office that’s 97.3% accurate. When we take a picture and load it up to Flickr — 4 billion times — that’s content. When we say something about those photos — tagging them or captioning them or saying where they were taken — that’s content. When we do these things on Facebook, which can see our social graph, that creates a meta layer that adds more value to our content. On Foursquare, our actions become content (the fact that this bar is more popular than that bar is information worth having). When we file a health complaint about a restaurant, that’s content. Our movements on highways, tracked through our cellphones, creates content: traffic reports. Our search queries are content (that awareness — that new ability to listen to the public’s questions — led Demand Media to a big business).

No More Birdcage Lining

I agree with a lot of what Jonathan Stray says in this post about the inherent differences between publishing print and web journalism. Especially this graf:
Yesterday’s newspaper lines birdcages, but yesterday’s web stories will be showing up on Google five years from now. An editor selecting stories needs to be thinking about not only tomorrow’s page views but next year’s as well, and also, crucially, how the story will function in combination with stories from other outlets. There are close ties here to the concept of stock and flow in journalism, and the new-media notions of topic pages and context.

An this one:
The web demands that we put more online than we would publish on paper, and provides a place for information of all grades. In this new medium, amateur journalists (such as bloggers and thoughtful commenters) are often much more adept at creating value from information by-products than their professional peers. News organizations will have to find forms for publishing unpolished information, such as the beat blog.

Still, while I buy the idea that there is value in publishing "unpolished" information, let's not get carried away. The web's credibility will suffer as long as there is a lack of "distributed trust network," as Craig Newmark calls it. And this won't emerge until the public demands more trustworthy journalism, web or print, polished or unpolished.


Pop music

Emily Bell, digital content director for The Gaurdian, was interviewed about her decision to leave for New York City, where she will take over Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism in July. She said some interesting things.

On NYC being a hotbed for digital journalism:
"If you wanted to be a pop musician in 1963, you probably went to Liverpool," Bell told me in a leaving interview. "If you're in digital journalism at the moment, the east coast is a really exciting place to be - it's where a lot of the conversation and action is taking place."

On the future of web and mobile ads:
"I sat in rooms in 2002/03, when we were having exactly the same debate about digital - online ads being dead, full stop. None of us anticipated Google (NSDQ: GOOG) correctly or the growth in digital display, but now there's a much more sophisticated display ad market. Advertisers are still going to pay for an audience. Immediate evidence suggests the ad model will prove to be more robust than people have said."

"The free model has worked for us. The apps market has worked quite well. The conference model has worked quite well." Will the paid mobile app switch to recurring subscriptions? "It's far too early to say. We look at all of these things all of the time. It would be wrong to say we definitely will do that and that we have a solid plan to do that because we don't. But this is an emerging market and we've got to look at what our opportunities are."

The apps market is indeed intriguing...

I don't get drunk, I get awesome.

Via VentureBeat, Twitter chief exec Ev Williams recently discussed one of his company's biggest problems: too many people don't understand how to use their product.
“Twitter is too hard to use,” he said while speaking at Chirp, Twitter’s developer conference in San Francisco. He later added, “We’ve known this for a long time, but it was growing too fast for us to address these issues.”

For example, he showed a Google search where he started typing in “I don’t get” — the second suggested search (after “I don’t get drunk I get awesome”) was “I don’t get Twitter.” And Twitter was the only product on that list.

Ok ok, Twitter is hard. Here's how to get started using it:

First of all, understand that there is no obligation to contribute to whatever tweetscussion you see on the screen.

After you internalize that, make it your news feed. Follow your favorite periodicals, reporters, and writers. When a tweet inspires you, re-tweet it. If you want to expand your feed, go to the profile pages of your favorite tweeters and see who THEY are following. Finally, don't be afraid to unfollow!

Speaking of News Pegs...

Lee Billings attempts to connect a top-of-the-ladder(of abstraction) concept -- the failure of interconnected networks of complex systems -- to a bottom-of-ladder, real life, TIMELY!, much-discussed example: the big volcano in Iceland. I think he succeeds. Here are a couple of the nerdiest grafs:

For me, the past week’s events resonated most strongly with a study from Sergey Buldyrev and colleagues that was published in Nature the day before Eyjafjallaj√∂kull’s eruption. The researchers investigated catastrophic failures in complex networked systems—systems like the closely coupled infrastructures underlying modern transportation, electricity distribution, telecommunications, and financial transactions. These systems are constructed from many interdependent nodes, which gives them greater stability and resilience: If one node fails, material, money, energy, or people are routed through other nodes, and functionality is maintained. But past a certain critical threshold of node failures, the system fragments and cannot function.

Buldyrev’s team modeled how disruptions percolate through a tightly linked pair of idealized interdependent networks, and found a counter-intuitive result: The failure of even a small number of nodes in one network can cause additional failures in the second. These failures can then feed back into the first network and cause yet more node failures. In other words, the greatest strength of an interdependent network in isolation is also the greatest weakness of interdependent networks as a whole. Two closely linked, highly resilient systems can suffer catastrophic failure through initially small disruptions that would have been essentially harmless to either network individually. What’s true for two linked networks presumably holds for larger assemblages.



Ferris Jabr, professional hitter-of-the-nail-on-the-head, explains two big reasons science journalists are needed. And the man speaks of more than a "cute story." (Emphasis mine)

I agree that science journalism, and journalism in general, could benefit from much more integration of raw data - especially when that data appears as an engaging infographic and when the reader is provided with the original source of data.

But scientific data is collected by people using tools made by people. It certainly isn't infallible.

Quotes and characters bring a lot to journalism that data cannot offer: emotion, personality, narrative, an articulated perspective based on years worth of experience. Quotes and characters are vital to helping readers relate to a story and engage with the science. If science journalism was pure data and analysis, people wouldn't read it for the same reason they don't read through research journals: it's too boring for most people.



There has been a fair amount of online discussion and tweeting lately about the "role" of journalism and journalists, specifically in the context of science journalism.

(Some of the most interesting examples, in no particular order: A well-argued essay by Bora Zivkovic, aka @BoraZ, posted on his Scienceblog, a thought-provoking set of interviews with several of today's most visible science journalists by Ontario-based science journalist Colin Schultz, and a fascinating recorded discussion with Andy Revkin, hosted by Chris Mooney and sponsored by the Center for Inquiry)

Let me first say I think writers and readers of science-related content should definitely be engaging in these types of discussions, and hashing out their meanings and repercussions together.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Every time I turn on the television, log-in to the New York Times, cruise around the Twitterverse, or refresh Matt Drudge's report and Josh Marshall's blog, it's clear that peeps and tweeps are walking (or sitting) around carrying at least several different definitions of the word "journalism" in their heads.

How can we have a discussion about journalism's role before we discuss what journalism -- either in general or specifically within the context of science communication -- is? A conversation between a scientist and journalist, about the journalist's role in the communication of science, can be productive only if the interested parties work together to determine a mutually-held definition of the term in question.

So, in the spirit of Explainthis.org, I have opened two questions up to the crowd:

What is journalism?

What is "news"?


What is "news"?


What is journalism?

Use the comments.


Shachtman on Breitbart

Noah Shachtman's Wired profile of Andrew Breitbart solidified my image of Drudge's partner in crime as online media's version of a low-talent rapper who knew the right people in the recording business, and struck it rich by throwing thoughtless lyrics over a few can't-miss beats.

He does sound relentless though, so I guess he deserves credit for that.


The Thing Called Journalism?

One of my favorite things to do is watch for the tweets that provoke/inspire me, and then respond, with the goal of repaying the favor. Last night, I had this exchange with Andy Revkin of the New York Times:

tweeted:@mtobis nearly right saying "science journalism in future will mostly be conducted by scientists." Sub "communication" for "journalism."

I responded: @Revkin so what happens to journalism then?

He then answered: @mike_orcutt Journalism is shrinking slice of growing communication pie. Media that survive will expand beyond the thing called journalism.

Ok. But what exactly is this "thing called journalism" that you refer to, Mr. Revkin? And are you saying the term will eventually go away?

Look, I'm all for moving forward with the discussion about scientists, journalists, and their respective "roles" in communicating science to the public. But first, let's make sure we who are invested in this discussion are making the same assumptions about the word "journalism." That way the conversation will be more productive.


Data Viz

As this really smart Economist piece points out, we suddenly live in a vast universe of data, but most of it is just piling up because we don't yet know how to "extract wisdom" from it.

Well, in my experience, wisdom often comes from visualization, which is why I think data visualization is an essential piece of the new media DNA. A big part of the future of journalism, says Jay Rosen, is explanation. Context! Data visualization is pure explanation, pure context, instant wisdom.

Here's a perfect example. One of the major narratives designed to undermine renewable energies is is that they only exist because of a huge amount of federal financial assistance. That is true, but it's leaving out a big piece of the story. If a reporter relies only on that narrative he or she is doing a disservice to the reader. A story about subsidies for renewables is not giving the reader enough context if it does not mention that fossil fuels get much MORE federal assistance. And this handy little pie chart can make us instantly wise to the fact!

(source: Environmental Law Institute)

What is the future of data visualization as web journalism content? What was that thing that Buzz Lightyear said?

No, really though, projections are always tough. But I think it's a safe bet that data viz is gonna sell. Swing over to Katie Peek's blog, and I'm sure she can fill you in better than I can.


Ars Technica: Don't block our ads!

Ars Technica is a well-above-average science information website. Their content is varied, reliable, aesthetically pleasing, and obviously passionate -- creating the environment for the emergence and evolution, over the past 12 years, of a vibrant community of Ars Technica followers. The image that comes to my mind is a bacterial colony radiating from central point in a petri dish.

But the sad irony is that the type of communities that tend to form around sites like Ars Technica also tend to have a lot of individuals who use a browser tool to block ads. By blocking ads you are killing your favorite websites, says Ars editor-in-chief Ken Fisher in this recent post.

This graf goes a long way to clarify the challenges web publishers face in today's advertising market. In short: TV and internet ads are apples and asparagus.
Invariably someone always pops into a discussion like this and brings up some analogy with television advertising, radio, or somesuch. It is not in any way the same; advertisers in those mediums are paying for potential to reach audiences, and not for results. They have complex models which tell them if X number are watching, Y will likely see the ad (and it even varies by ad position, show type, etc!). But they really have no true idea who sees what ad, and that's why it's a medium based on potential and not provable results. On the Internet everything is 100% trackable and is billed and sold as such. Comparing a website to TiVo is comparing apples to asparagus. And anyway, my point still stands: if you like this site you shouldn't block ads. Invariably someone else will pop in and tell me that it's not their fault that our business model sucks. My response is simple: you either care about the site's well-being, or you don't. As for our business model sucking, we've been here for 12 years, online-only. Not many sites can say that.

Did you know that? Now you know...


Via the Guardian, the news is that Ian McEwan is about to release a new book about a solar energy scientist. I've only read one book from McEwan, and it blew my mind.

The author says he had wanted to write about climate change for a long time, but, like many frustrated journalists today, just couldn't find the right angle.
"I couldn't see a way in. A subject so weighted with moral and political value is not helpful to a novel. I couldn't see a way of making it come alive."
McEwan's idea-bulb finally lit up while he was in the arctic for a meeting between artists and scientists. He says he was inspired by the juxtaposition of the idealistic evening discussion and the "chaos of the equipment room."

Politically, he remains "baffled" by the exaggerations of those who would like to paint the East Anglia email situation as a game-changing scandal, but his book research did end up changing his views on nuclear power.
"We just don't have anything else that can run our cities on a windless night in February." Better nuclear energy than coal, he said. "It is rare that virtue and necessity collide. Sooner or later we're going to have to find a new energy source for mankind."
Preferably sooner. Stay tuned.


"We were after the holy grail. And if we didn't get that we didn't care."

Michael Kanellos, the skeptical dude in the 60 Minutes piece and the editor-in-chief of Greentechmedia, pointed his pocket camera at K.R. Sridar and asked all the questions 60 Minutes should have. Science journalism!

Here's my existential question: Energy is how we move and stay warm. Nothing is more important than fuel. We have fought wars over fuel, and will continue to do so. Considering the ENORMITY of the fossil fuel conundrum this planet faces, how is this video not front page news? This is a man, backed by $400 million from the most famous VC firm in Silicon Valley, claiming he just invented the holy grail. Why don't we care?

This is a huge deal, and not just for technology junkies and aspiring energy reporters.

Notable moments:

"We knew what we were after. We were after the holy grail. And if we didn't get that we didn't care." --Sridar

Kanellos: "I heard you had backlog of a billion dollars in orders."
Sridar: "Uh, no comment on that."


Blah Blah Blah Bloom Box

Here's the first piece of content I'm going to talk about.

Throughout this piece, there is a casual implication that the fuel cell is a new invention, which couldn't be further from the truth.

The segment with Michael Kanellos of Greentechmedia.com was by far the most informative part, especially when he said fuel cells were "like the divas of industrial equipment" that engineers have been trying to make work since the 1830s. His skepticism of the dazzling new box was refreshing.

Still, I would guess the takeaway for the typical viewer is that Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridar is a genius -- a mad scientist whose knowledge is other-worldy, and inherently inaccessible to the feeble minds of nonscientists. And this is sad, because even though energy production is incredibly expensive, is actually a fairly simple concept, thanks to the wonderful Law of Conservation of Energy.

The real question, which the piece fails to answer (I'm not sure the producers even knew to ask it) is simple: How is Bloom's fuel cell different from existing models? One of the things that has kept fuel cell divas prohibitively expensive is that researchers have only been able to get them to work by using expensive catalysts (the material that drives the energy-producing chemical reaction inside the cell), usually platinum.

Did Sridar's group find a new, cheaper catalyst? Cause that would be a big deal. But all we are told is that he uses beach sand for something, paints the disks green and black (WHY?), and that, instead of platinum, Bloom uses a "cheap metal alloy." There are lots of "cheap metal alloys." And what is meant by cheap?

Another important idea that gets minimal explanation in this peice is that distributed energy is ideal. Placing energy sources in the vicinity of the facilities they power would be a significant improvement over transporting coal from a mine to a coal-fired power plant, burning it, and then transmitting the electricity it through power lines. All of that takes energy -- the very thing we are trying to save. If something like the Bloom Box proves it can work (for a long time!), and can compete with solar, wind, and fossil fuels at the energy marketplace, it could solve some real problems.

But I'm not convinced that will happen. In fact, the only thing this video convinced me is that 60 Minutes doesn't mind airing infomercials. And the urgency of the global energy dilemma doesn't leave us much time for those.


Shift Happens

Carl Zimmer came by to talk to my SHERP class about blogging yesterday. Conversations "about blogging" usually frustrate me, but this one most certainly did not.

"Blogging is software," said the wise science nerdsmith.

This particular blog needs to get moving. I think the tag cloud has made it clear that it's going to be a conversation about content.

As we go along, make your opinions known, please.


Linkage, Self-promotion

The most valuable feature of online communication is the link. Think of the web as another outer space, and imagine your laptop screen is the porthole through which you view the planets, stars, asteroids, and comets flying by as you propel yourself through the space. Links are units of propellant. Nothing is more valuable than fuel.

Bloggers should use links to back up their novel facts and terms, and to give readers access to more context for the viewpoints they express in their posts. Obviously, links aren't sources in the sense that a human being who gives a reporter new information is a one. But they are still sources because they can provide additional layers of context, and make a blogger accountable.

Give me the links!

Links are social media currency. Hype a good link to 150 pairs of eyeballs and a few of the brains behind those eyeballs will decide to click. Maybe one of them will pass it on to their own network of eyeball pairs. Now the link has a life of it's own. Who knows how far it will travel, how may networks it will infiltrate. Maybe it will (gasp!) go viral.

All that being said, here's a link-rich post I wrote recently for Scienceline.


Q&A With Shea Gunther

I caught up with eco-blogger and entrepreneur Shea Gunther, who currently blogs for Mother Nature Network, and he was generous enough to share his insights on the state of the green blogging ecosystem. He was also gracious enough to give props to good reporting, which I personally found encouraging. Gunther is a proven online-business starter, and professional blogger -- he knows what's up with the green web. Check it.

Q: What drives you as a blogger?

Shea Gunther: I like sharing things that I find. Pretty much for as long as I've consumed media I've been the guy sending off an email to someone saying, "Hey, I thought you might like this." I started blogging before it was called blogging, back in 2001 or 2002. You can actually go to Archive.org and search sheagunther.org and you can still see some of the posts-- random thoughts and links and whatnot. Blogging just suits the way that I'm wired, and the fact that I've been able to find a way to make a living blogging is miraculous. Being a blogger is awesome.

Q: What are you working on right now?

SG: I write for Mother Nature Network, two posts a day, Monday through Friday. And about month ago I started working with a company that's kind of like a green Costco. There will be an online club, and you'll be able to browse through different categories and search, and buy green products, and members will get a 20-40% discount compared to regular retail. I'm writing the social media plan, so it's my job to figure out how we're going to use blogs, Facebook, and how we're going to create relationships with bloggers. It's kind of like building a marketing department.

Q: When did you to become an "eco-entrepreneur"?

SG: The first green company I started was in 2001--I started Renewable Choice Energy, which is now one of the bigger wind credit companies.

Q: What inspired that company?

SG: When I was 21 I started a dot-com at the end of the bubble, and a buddy and I raised $16 million for a project that was basically like Youtube too early. That was at the end of the 90s. After two years of working on that, a couple friends and I moved to Colorado. We knew we wanted to start something, but we weren't quite sure what. So we spent 9 months thinking about that, and we came up with this idea for a wind credit company. And this was only about 6 months after the whole concept of wind credits came about. The protocol was really new, so we just started the company.

Q: What did you do after that project?

I spent a year working as a freelance graphic designer, and then I started a green design marketing and ad agency. I spent a year doing that, and made about every mistake a person can make running a business, and ended up driving it into the ground. Then I moved back to Maine and co-founded Green Options, which is a green blog network.

Q. What was the original intent of Green Options?

SG: Well, originally I was contacted by David Anderson, the other founder, who had come across a blog post of mine and decided to contact me. He had an idea of building an online application that makes it easy for people to figure out how solar panels would work in their house. You could just punch in their address, and it would tell you things, like, you have this much sunshine, and this is what your rebate would be, and stuff like that--it told people how long it was going to take make a return on their investment. My idea was to build a green blog around it to give it credibility. Originally it wasn't a network, it was just Green options. I just hired all of my friends, all the prominent, top green bloggers, so it wasn't that hard to build a strong stable of writers.

Q: How would you describe the green blogging landscape right now?

SG: Right now it's interesting. Treehugger was always the considered the big green blog. And it spawned so many different blogs that did the same thing -- maybe a little different this way or that. And in that environment, all of these one-man shops and small blogs were able to find a niche and grow. For example, if you look Ecogeek, by Hank Green. He blogs about Greeen Technology, and no one does it better. Or take a look at ecorazzi.com, run by Michael d'Estries, which is green celebrity news. So over the years these types of bloggers have been able to build these really cool, well traveled sites. But in the last year, some of the bigger corporate money has entered the scene--like Hearst media with The Daily Green. The Discovery Channel owns TreeHugger, and now they have Planet Green. And the company that I work for, The Mother Nature Network, they're in an acquiring mood. They bought the web content of Plenty Magazine, which went under. So, in a couple years there's definitely going to be more consolidation, and a lot of these one-man shops are going to be swept up by bigger fish.

Q: Do you think some of these media networks might start featuring some real reporting, to supplement the blogging?

SG: I would hope so. I know if I were going to start a media site right now, real reporting would definitely be part of the mix. There's always going to be blog networks because it's so easy. It takes a lot less time to produce a couple posts per day than it does to do a bunch of in-depth reporting. But real reporting is able to get you above the echo chamber fray.