Category Archives: Tools & Techniques

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Yesterday I created a new personal web site, TomAbate.com, or more accurately Tim Bishop whipped it together while I watched and did the small stuff. Tim also activated a new email contact, tom (at) tomabate (dot) com. I was long overdue for a central place to establish my identity in cyberspace. This blog represents just one of my interests and it behooved me to have a more rounded representation of who I am and what I hope to do.

The addition of a personal web site is the second recent upgrade to my digital persona. Regular readers will have noticed that this site was entirely redesigned in the spring by Charlotte Yee, who took many, many hours away from launching a business (preserving mementos of children’s art) whilst contesting her forced exit from her former job as an economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It has been my great good fortune to have friends like this to assist me but the flip side of that truth is that I am pretty helpless on my own in picking up new technological tricks. Tim, for instance, has been chiding me for not getting onto the telegraphic messaging service, Twitter, of which I am certainly aware — but do not use. I was made aware of Twitter last spring at the Society for New Communications Research conference in Las Vegas, where Ted Shelton, Chris Heuer and other social media entrepreneurs were Twitting (or is it Tweeting) like crazy. And I see the use for a blas message service of this sort if you have been, say, imprisoned in Egypt.

However, I am not planning to visit Egypt and I do not believe Egyptian authorities have the gall that the American government has manifested with its new policy of extraordinary rendition. (I suppose I might want to Twit or Tweet if I were picked up by U.S. authorities, but habaeus corpus has been suspended so what would be the point of the protest, if the government has put it powers of imprisonment above the law?).

I can imagine business uses for Twitter. Some months ago, for instance, I created a Twitter account after one of my workmates (at the SF Chronicle where I am a business reporter) started a pilot project to test its usefulness on the job but it would take a large and conscious effort to get the tool into wide circulation among the staff and then figure out how and when to use it — as something other than a distraction.

And that is my orientation to digital technology in general — if I don’t use it as a tool, then I avoid it as a distraction. The downside of this attitude is that I end up lagging on projects like building a personal web site. Tim was able to accomplish in a three hours what I had meant to do for a year. Of course Tim likes to “geek out” as he says, so no doubt I am the beneficiary of many hours of learning on his part. I wish I knew a little more about the tools, and I will learn as time and energy allow. Meanwhile I’m just grateful that I have friends who will help me over the technical hurdles of expressing myself in this networked medium.

Tips for television interviews: be energetic, unhurried

tn_friedman.jpg Marsha Friedman says: relax

So you’ve got your 15 minutes of fame and you are about to represent yourself, your company or your cause on a television interview. No pressure! Wrong. It will be unnerving and pass quickly. Study the tips suggested by publicist Marsha Friedman.  Be energetic and concise. Pay attention to body language. Pay attention to the interviewer. Be descriptive. Strike the proper emotional tone.

Why not do a mock interview with friends and supporters.  Encourage tough questions. Practice thinking on your feet. I love and hate television. Noting else has the reach . . . or the shallowness. I have been a television guest a few times in conjunction with my reporter’s duties and I remember one time that I wish I had been able to take one of Friedman’s exhortations to heart. She says the last thing you should do before going on-air should be to research your topic for new themes or subtopics:

“If the anchor asks you a question about a timely news story and you don’t know what he’s talking about it erodes your credibility, and ‘likeability factor’ to their audience.  So it’s a good idea to do a quick online news search for any stories related to your topic right before your scheduled interview.”

 Would that I had done that back in the late 1990s when I was covering the Microsoft antitrust case from a bureau office in Silicon Valley and I was invited to appear on either CNN or FOX in San Francisco. I had to drive up to the city after filing my column and I barely made it to the office. No time to check anything. And what am I asked?

“What do you think about the ham sandwich remark?”

So there I am on network television with a look of astonishment on my face: ham sandwich? Well, as it turned out, Joel Klein, the Justice Department lawyer prosecuting the government case had that very day filed a legal brief to the effect that Microsoft had asserted the right to require computer makers ” to put ‘orange juice’ or ‘a ham sandwich’ in the box with a PC” as part of the contract for loading Windows onto the machine.

Of course I had not checked in advance — I suppose I had a pretty good excuse but what did it matter. After a brief and painful experience I was allowed to leave. I was never invited to return. All over a ham sandwich. Well at least I know why Windows is so slow in booting up. It’s got to eat that ham sandwich and rinse it down with OJ.

EUFeeds and Imooty both aggregate Euro news

 Last fall I wrote about Imooty, a site that aggregates European news feeds.  Who would be interested? Anyone who must follow European politics and government; foreign currency traders; language students; European expatriates; others?

The other day a commentor from Italy wrote me to say: “EUFeeds is better!”

You be the judge. Visually the two sites are quite different.

Users navigate Imooty using a map to pick the country of interest. The site then offers eight tabs that represent attempts to filter incoming news into buckets: world, society, sciences, business, sport, leisure, star, media. So one could pick, Poland, Star, to see whether Paris Hilton has been partying in Gdansk — or whatever.

EUFeeds has a cleaner, minimalist user-interface. There are a row of flags across the top and yes, that means knowing the visual difference between the emblems of Slovenia and Slovakia. But the flags are arrayed in alphabetical order so it is possible to guess that Austria is first, followed by Belgium, and when in doubt, one can move the mouse move over any given flag to reveal the underlying word. Unlike Imooty, EUFeeds does not attempt, at least thus far, to filter country news into subject areas. Instead, when one toggles the country flag, the top headlines of its top newspapers flow to the screen. One can click thru the headline to the story but again, holding the cursor over the headline offers a brief glimpse into the article’s contents. Very neat.

I have frankly not used either site other than to toy around so I have no basis for a preference other than preferring the visual simplicity of EUFeeds. I think both sites are excellent windows into Europe –for those whose jobs or interests make them look to the Old World.

Conferences, workshops and tools, oh my!

I just registered for NewsTools2008.org, a three-day mashup that will bring together journalists, technologists and entrepreneurs from April 30-May 3, 2008 at the Yahoo! Conference Center in Silicon Valley. Early registration is $295, a bargain for me as I live a short drive from Yahoo HQ. This conference is part of a continuing series titled, Journalism that Matters, and the Future Newsroom project (details).

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Friday begins the Santa Cruz Media Summit a three-day gathering sponsored by Project Censored and 911truth.org. It is billed as “a strategy session for already active and influential players to . . . forge tactical alliances, introduce new distribution technologies, and mutually enhance each other’s strongest work.” For a flavor of the event and attendees, check out the aggregation blog, Coup News.

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Multimedia Tools: Your 2006 Shopping List, is a $29.95 course, held Thursday, Jan 31, should easily recoup its cost if you are buying visual and audio capture and editing tools. (Details and registration

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 In his article, Teaching online newswriting, Online Journalism Review Robert Niles offers this nugget:

” . . . my students first focus on single task unknown to print journalists: search engine optimization. . . . To place well in search engine results, an article must be sharply focused to the keywords that readers are likely to use in an effort to find the piece. To write such articles, I asked my students to put themselves in the position of their potential readers (never a bad idea for a writer!), then envision what one or two words and phrases a reader would use to search for their piece . .  when you write a piece to score highly in search engine result pages, you craft a piece that serves its readers, as well.”

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All things in moderation? We wish. With more sites encouraging comments, controlling passion without inhibiting involvement and expression becomes the art of social networking. Paid Content writer Amanda Natividad writes a useful pointer to an article in which MediaShift’s Mark Glaser lays out the dos, dont’s and maybes of moderation.

Useability testing for small websites and newspapers

Online Journalism Review continues its occasional but helpful series on how to test web sites during redesign with an article describing about how the The Decatur (Ala.) Daily (weekday print circ 20,500) found cheap and cheerful ways to get feedback. The paper got a graduate student at the University of Alabama journalism school to ramrod the project.  Under the guidance of faculty advisor Wilson Lowery, that student, Steve Stewart, used cheap online tools like SurveyMonkey to solicit email feedback and took lessons from useability testing books (notably: “Don’t make me think,” by Steve Krug).

One immediate success of this Jschool-newspaper collaboration was that, Stewart, the newly-minted J-school grad, got a job as Internet supervisor of the site he helped redesign.

Stewart authored the OJR piece and in it he passes on many useful tips that any weekly, small daily or Web zine could use to make its site more navigable, including this notion from useability consultant Jared Spool:

“The [metric] that’s probably the most useful is what people are typing into your search box,” (he) said. When people search for something, it’s because they can’t find it on the current page. “If you know what page they were on when they typed it, they’re telling you what page it should have been on.”

Here is another link to Stewart’s OJR piece which is well worth reading for anyone embarked on a Web site redesign.

I see a couple of other lessons here, for:

– journalism students; look who got the job.

– for journalism schools; can you partner with local media?

– for older working journalists (like me!); do not rest on your newsgathering or editing laurels; get new media capable. That doesn’t mean becoming a useability expert but there are skills like basic picture grabs, possibly sound and video grabs, and posting text and photos to blogs that hiring editors will simply demand of any reporter or editor. Copy editors, in particular, need to brush up because they are increasingly laying out pages for print and online. (I wrote about the new hiring requirements here.)

Reporters: here is another set of suggested skills posed as a challenge by media blogger and newspaper guy Howard Owens. I’ll say more about his challenge later but wanted to park it here for those who haven’t seen it earlier.

Untethered! Verizon EV-DO beats cable, DSL

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Verizon EV-DO lets me blog damn near anywhere

I am blogging for the first time using my new Verizion EV-DO service, a 800 kps to 1.4 megabit per second service delivered through a cellular modem (provided). So for the same $59.99 per month that I now pay for Comcast I will get comparable speeds, anywhere in Verizon cell country. Comcast supposedly delivers higher speeds but as their customer for seven years or more I rarely if ever got that speed. When I shopped the Verizon store yesterday the values were unreal. I for four of the EV-DO cards, normally a $170 purchase, for the cost of the sales tax! So now all the adults in my family will have untethered access. I also got a rather simple cell phone (an LG, a South Korean make, I believe) and the two year contract for that service (as with the EV-DO) in this case for $40 (450 minutes). I got the phone and the Verizon service because both come highly recommended by Consumer Reports. There is a tiny tale with the phone decision. I had been using an ATT Tilt, one of these new-fangled all-in-one do anything devices. But the Web access (thru the Cingular network) was rage-inducing slow. So I cancelled that, and I did not try the GPS or the other fancy features so what was I left with — a costlty, heavy gadget that I could not easily use for calling in or out or even seeing what day and time it was! So that went back in the box. Now with the ED-VO service my plan is to get, as soon as money permits, the lighest full-function PC laptip (or a Mac, but they are now 2-times the cost of PCs!!!). I’m thinking the battery life is a key; also quick booting and travel ready. This way I carry the PC and the cell and I am in business everwhere that Verizon takes a signal. I am pleased. That I was able to get the type of service to fit my needs and at a price I can afford. Oh, did I forget to mention: I will register today for a price break on the Verizon service through my employer’s discount program. Sweet! But not as sweet as when I write Comcast to cancel their crappy and costly broadband that never delivered on its promise. I will try to be polite.

Stop the presses! Ink jets print news!

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Can high-volume ink jets compete with the rotary press for short runs?

The rotary press is one of the familiar icons of newspapering because it is the formative technology upon which the mass market daily has been built. Invented in the mid-19th century, it offered the ability to produce large runs at low cost, enabling newspaper pioneers like Joseph Pulitzer to design more eye-grabbing pages at prices affordable to the working stiff and modern newspaper journalism was reborn.

More than a century later the newspaper suffers a terrible cost disadvantage vis a vis the Web as an audience-getting medium, and many wonder whether paper is passe as a presentation vehicle for news.

Against this backdrop Poynter Institute editor Amy Gahran writes about the emergence of high-volume, low-cost inkjets. Her blog is based on research done by newspaper consultant Vin Crosbie who talks about Short Run Digital Printing (SRDP) systems from Kodak U.S.A., Océ of Belgium, Fuji Xerox in Japan, and Agfa in Germany. He writes:

“For example, Agfa’s Dotrix duplex press can print 30,000 tabloid (A4) sized, four-color editions per hour (500 pages per minute). This newspaper press cost about one-quarter what a plated presses does and requires only a single person to run . . .  (but) . . .  inks for SRDP presses cost much more than those for plated presses . . .  (and) are now economical to purchase and operate only for daily newspapers of less than about 10,000 circulation — although that number is expected to double within two years and continue climbing. This would make SRDP presses economical for about 400 of the 1,450 U.S. dailies today, and double that by 2010.”

Gahran makes the following observation which I share wholeheartedly:

“What if, instead of relying on larger, centralized printing plants and expensive transportation networks for physical distribution of printed papers, newspapers (even big dailies) instead relied on much smaller, more geographically distributed printing plants closer to the papers’ final destinations?”

Short run printing opens up the sort of game-changing possibilities for newspapers that the rotary press afforded Pulitzer and his cohort. Only now the direction is reversed. Now the world wants niche or personalized news . . . and while it remains to be seen whether this technology or something like it will extend the lifespan of print and allow it to compete with the infinitely customizable web, I think the answer is yes. Convenience, disposability and graphic appeal will, I think, continue to preserve a place for printed communications . . . making the only question whether newspapers can make the cultural shift necessary to decentalization.

Over the last 100 years newspapers have become massively centralized behemoths. Media moguls want to merge and create bigger monoliths, that would include radio and television stations (see cross-ownership debate for more). Yet I think that modern life demands that big institutions be broken into smaller bits. And here is a technology for accomplishing that in print. Now that Gahran and Crosbie have brought it to my attention, I will look for more on this production breakthrough.

P.S. In looking for background on Crosbie I found an article he wrote  for OJR.com in 2004 that makes this observation abiut the switch from mass to customized manufacturing: “continued mass production of generic products is as dead or dying a concept as powering presses by steam.” Amen!