Online Publishing provides perspective

The three textbooks read for Online Publishing class

By Mark Godi

What did I learn in Online Journalism? Answer: Too much to fit into one blog.

All the same, I will take a shot.

I think what hit me the hardest this class was the idea of perspective. Know the audience and understand what they see. Then, reading each classmate’s blogs, perspective further resonated with me.

If you want to reach an online audience, go beyond presenting information. Web reporting requires a new level of catering to the consumer. To do this, publishers must learn to understand what people want. They want information fast, at their convenience, which is easy to understand. Often times, they want to get in and get out. To make them stay, your site has to be interactive.

This thinking connected with me on several parts of each reading, but probably most in Don’t Make Me Think. In my earlier evaluation of Steven Krug’s book, I talk about liking his chapter on usability testing. That chapter still has me pondering. It is easy to build web pages for my likes or the bosses likes. Let testers come in again and again and then listen to them. Be humble.

There is no room for narrow mindedness. The consumer has the control or a “voice.” Want proof? Ask NBC how much Olympic coverage has been embraced. Their Sports Group Chairman is already talking about changes in the future.

As much as I fell in love with Krug’s lesson, classmate Sylvia Mendoza offered her own perspective.

“The chapter on usability testing was long and drawn out; not as concise as other chapters. The “what bosses think” chapter also seemed laborious to wade through. The info here could have been condensed and even inserted into an already-established chapter.”

I didn’t struggle with the chapter like she did. Who opinion is better? Who knows? The book would need to be usability tested. Adjustments may be made depending on popular feedback.

A cartoon about usability testing from Don’t Make Me Think

Reading Aim For the Heart, the idea of interaction lingered. Consumers don’t want a lot to read. They want to “play.” They want to share, email, make a comment, vote in a poll or play a game. Interaction was a fraction of the book, but largely what I wrote about in my Week 2 response. Sylvia and Glenda McCray-Fikes are the only others to mention it in great detail.

Meanwhile, Sylvia, Glenda and Jane Clifford-Mickler each did like myself and ended their Aim For the Heart response talking about the social media guidelines for journalist.

Michael Simpson, however, wrote how he found the tugging at audience’s “heart strings” most relevant.

We all interpreted content similar, yet each gravitated toward particular ideas.

In the last reading, Linked, author Albert-Laszló Barabási asks readers to change perspective as well. They are asked to see the perspective of the group or “network.” Those closest people to you are in fact not the ones most important at times. It is the acquaintances or distantly connected that need to be investigated.

I panicked during the reading that I didn’t understand Barabási’s heavy dialogue.  My feelings were put at ease when several others in the class mentioned difficulty.

Sylvia, once again, interprets like I do. She makes mention early in her first Linked response that the content was hard to digest. In class, I think it was Jane who made mention of struggling to get through concepts as Barabási relates to mathematics.

Don’t for a minute think you’re alone. But don’t think you know what you’re doing enough to go on cruise control.

In the fast moving world that is journalism, it’s easy to get caught up in yourself. It’s easy to think you know how something works and move forward. It is not as easy to step back and see what gets results.

My blog posts did not have links before this class. Now they will. Making a headline clever was priority No. 1. Now I will think hard about search engine optimization. I vow from now on to take a billboard mind set. After I omit words from a story, I will read again and omit.

Thank you professor Collington. I hope we can stay in contact.

Linked reading finally sinks in

Author Albert-Laszlo Barabasi as seen on the book jacket of Linked.

I wanted so bad the formula for sure network success when I finished reading Linked.

I was disappointed.

It took thinking for a long time about the principles in Albert-László Barabási’s book to realized my expectations for the second half were not realistic. There is no finite formula for turning everyone into hubs. If there was, the scale-free model that our democracy is built on would not exist.

However, what Barabási offers is more of a guide. Before I start tackling a story, or really anything, I can ask myself: Where does network theory fit in here?  Who are the people connected with this issue? Who are they connected with that I might not initially think of? What kinds of paths are common in this network?

In the first half of the book, Barabási explains what the scale-free model of growing a network is. He touches a bit on how the model effects society, but goes much further in the second half of the book. In the second half, Barabási mentions more about what made networks fail or succeed.

Apple’s early Newton device next to a more evolved IPhone.The Newton was handy, but was unable to overcome a handful of usability flaws.

One chapter that I really liked was No. 10, Viruses and Fads. In it, spreading rate and critical threshold are discussed. What is the degree of desirability of your product and what level of difficulty will consumers put up with? The example used is Apple’s Newton handheld computer. It was the first of its kind and did lots of things well. But certain usability issues proved too much.

A good product with good marketing still has little room for error if the market is ripe with competitors who can shore up similar problems.

I also really liked the idea in Chapter 14: Network Economy, where it talks about the success of Hotmail verses the decline of Epidemic.com. Hotmail had the means to cascade. Hotmail was cheap, easy to sign up for, and advertised itself on each email sent. Epidemic.com paid users to put advertisements in their emails. The problem was that once initial users passed along emails, there was no reason for their friends further “infect” others. Epidemic.com spent over $2 million advertising during the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a key flaw. The company went under.

Again, we have a good product with a good marketing. This time, however, the product didn’t lend itself well to cascading principles.

Barabási finishes with the Chapter: Web Without a Spider. In it he focuses on the idea that curing cancer or growing a democracy is so difficult because the last century has only identified the network’s pieces. A shift in focus needs to be taken next.

Scale-free network: nodes prefer to link with more connected nodes to create “clusters” and then “hubs.”

He says, “The goal before us is to understand complexity. To achieve that, we must move beyond structure and topology and start focusing on the dynamics that take place along links.”

To me, this means that I should take this book as a jumping off point, not a Bible.

I think the part where I tripped up soon after putting the book down was with expectation. The book read so scientifically that I was expecting a finite answer at the end. I wanted Barabási to say, in essence, “grow your network by following steps, A, B, and C.” Or say, “Destroy this network by following this formula.”

Bottom line: Barabási has given me a good place to start when problem solving.

Barabási’s Linked tedious, but worth the work

By Mark Godi

The most recent cover of Linked

Ah-ha, now I get it. Thanks for the example professor Barabási.

As I navigated the first half of Albert-László Barabási’s book Linked, this is the thought that dominated my mind. It is clear early in the reading that Barabási is a physics instructor by the way he describes each principle. Luckily, he follows each mind-numbing idea with a lay-person’s example. On top of that, he uses several illustrations which are also helpful.

In the end, I think I got what Barabási was saying and enjoyed the first half of the book. What he is talking about applies to so many levels of society.

Linked starts with an introduction on how western minds first began understanding networks. It starts with the work of Paul Erdős and Alfréd Rényi, and expands to Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz. The last few chapters I read started getting into Barabási’s work. This is where I feel like I started connecting (pun intended).

Basically, networks begin with isolated nodes. As the nodes link, they form small clusters. As the connections continue, a number of hubs, or highly-connected nodes, will start to form. It is these hubs that allow small, seemingly different nodes, to connect from far away.

The part of the first half I found most interesting were chapters seven and eight. In seven, The Rich Get Richer, the idea is that “real networks are governed by two laws: growth and preferential attachment.”  In chapter eight, Einstein’s Legacy, fitness is introduced and we learn about the explosion of Google in 2000.

Google is a node that sought growth and linked with Yahoo, which was a hub. The link with the hub plus Google’s incredible fitness or amazing usability, turned it into arguably the biggest hub on the internet.

I stopped for a while after chapter eight to try and scale this model to something I might do. Say I had a news story or a “node” and I want to grow it. I am going to first have to make sure it is desirable, well put together or “fit.” Next I’m going to want to find the proper hubs and get them to point or link to my news. If my timing is right and I have the resources (see chapter seven), my news can blow up. If I prove worthy, nodes will start seeking me.

I made another deduction after reading Chapter nine: Achilles’ Heel. It discusses how strong networks can become and cites how the terrorist’s attacks of 9/11 were unable to destroy the “network” of the United States. The U.S. was damaged and a chain reaction ensued that is still seen today. However, the country was not destroyed because enough of the countries’ “nodes” remained.

My daughters Presley, left, and Payton

Meanwhile, Google was able to dwarf all other search engines without an attack. It demonstrated fitness, displayed preferential attachment, and rose to power. Yahoo, Alta Vista and others were not destroyed, but they have been relegated to second fiddle.

If you want to grow yourself in a network, worry more about making friends and less about who you perceive is in your way.

The first half of Linked forced me to really step back and adjust how I see the world. Am I a hub? Am I a node? Is there a formula for attracting yourself to the best hubs?

I feel like I’m pretty successful and I should attribute that to my hubs. My mother and father are huge hubs, both well connected in the community. The randomness of being born got me established ahead of others. I have two wonderful daughters, an incredible wife, parents, in-laws, job, etc. How much of that is attribute to my “fitness” and how much is attributed to my “links?”

Here’s to an equally as inspiring second half of the book.

Aim For the Heart is on target

ESPN.com’s home page.

By Mark Godi

Aim for the Heart by Al Tompkins has hit its bullseye.

I read Chapter 13: Tell the Story Online, put the book down, and was flooded with ideas. The first thought was to go look at some of my favorite news web sites and see how they apply Tompkins’ principles.

The top web site for me is ESPN.com. I have known for long time that it is an amazingly engaging site. But I took it for granted. It wasn’t until reading Tell the Story Online that I really understood why this site is so successful. I feel now like it should have been common sense.

ESPN.com is all about what Tompkins’ preaches:  interaction. The experience starts with reporting news. After that, it is up to the user to decide how they want to expand.

One example Tompkins uses is The Washington Post. Their web site tracked fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan and gave readers the option how they wanted to categorize the statistics. This tool offered a new perspective and gave users some control.

Also talked about in the book is how print limits journalist to giving a fraction of information. Say an article prints two quotes during an interview with a subject in a 15-inch story. Online, if a reader wants more of the interview, why not give it to them? A reporter can post an entire audio interview.  This means, happy audience, and in turn more user time spent on your web site.

An example on ESPN.com is today’s story about Jeremy Lin not resigning with the New York Knicks. Lin was not highly sought by NBA teams out of Harvard. He seldom saw playing time as a rookie before breaking out as a star last year with the Knicks. Now Lin is highly sought after and the Knicks opted not to pay him what the Rockets will.

Clicking on the story, there is text, explaining the news. Surrounding the text is a smorgasbord of options. On the top left corner is a menu explaining how the story can be shared. Don’t know who is being talked about when a name is mentioned? No problem, the names are clickable, taking users to short biographies. Not sure how you feel about the issue? Click one of the links that offers pundit opinions. Want to have your say? Leave a comment at the bottom or vote in the user poll on the right.

I grew up with a newspaper mentality so it is hard for me to grasp some online principals. I tend to read the story, weather online or in print, and then move on. All the visuals I write off as noise. This “noise” is stuff that others take seriously.

The other part of the chapter that stuck with me was the analytics part. This relates to last week’s reading about user testing. When I cover something, I intuitively guide myself by asking what I would want to know. I assume I know what people want. In fact, like Tompkins says, looking at page views, visitors, unique visitors and time spent on site is a must.

Staring at ESPN.com’s breaking news window, it dawned on me that a lot of time probably went into that tiny box. It’s not simply a guy sitting at a desk randomly picking what he thinks is important to tease. Instead, I bet a team of people are studying analytics rigorously to find out what is getting hits.

Again, this seems common sense to me now. But it took really thinking about Tompkins’ words on trending before understanding.

Finally, the section I absolutely loved was the Ethics and Social Networks. Tompkins touches on some guidelines to publishing social network content. I am friends on Facebook and Twitter with some of the subjects that I cover for my local newspaper. Social network “friending” is a good way to get information and now I have a reference for processing that information.

As a print journalist, it is so easy to get comfortable. You gather information, type the story, file it and move on. As we transition to a new kind of medium, that kind of thinking doesn’t work. This is where Tompkins’ writing comes in handy.

I plan to read the rest of Aim for the Heart.

Krug’s Book is Eye-Opening

The home page picture of a crowd of people from far away could have been better.

By Mark Godi

My heart sank a little after reading Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. I wish I had been tipped off to it a few years ago.

As undergraduates, my wife Laura and I picked up a very basic understanding of web building. She was more advanced that I was, having a novice grasp of the old Front Page software. When my father would come to us in 2009 to build his real estate business a web site, we accepted, thinking it would be simple. Laura and I figured we’d find out what he wanted, build it, and be done. Instead, the struggle that unfolded was eye opening.

We thought the limited technical understanding that we had would be enough. What we didn’t have was the usability understanding that is covered in the book. We knew nothing of how sites need to be tested and re-tested. We knew nothing of dealing with input.

Putting the book down, I reflected.

The first chapter that struck me was No. 8, “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” In it, Krug talks about design teams trying to address usability issues with discussion. The problem is that opinions go round and round with little resolve. The opinions that should matter are the users; hence user testing should be important. The users are the ones who should be catered to.

My dad, Laura, and I were completely oblivious to user testing. We figured that it’s my dad’s web site; we’ll just make the site how he wants. The problem was that his understanding of good web design was flawed. He was a 74-year-old business owner with no clue what web building was. Even worse, Laura and I were equally as naive, yet we thought we knew what we were doing.

My dad wanted as much information and as many graphics crammed into space as possible. Like Krug’s book would say, he wanted a “noisy” web site. He had met with several important political figures over the years and had pictures with them. He wanted all these pictures postage stamp sized in a mosaic on one page. We tried to explain that it doesn’t matter whose picture you have posted if it’s not big enough for people to see.

We fought each other endlessly. In the end, the blame was on my wife and I. Never did we think to bring in people not close to the situation to do a web test.

After this epiphany, I decided to go back and look more closely at the site. It had been at least two years since I’d seen the pages. I told myself, “I bet I see the site completely different now that I know what to look for.”  I was right. Visuals that I was oblivious to while working on the site, blew me away now.

The navigation introducing real estate agents was horrible. There is a page called “Our Agents,” and it went against everything Krug talks about in Chapter 2 about a “Billboard” mentality. The page is a giant picture of the back of people’s heads. To read about the agents, the user has to find these tiny name links strung across the bottom of the page. The contrast of the links was poor, making the names even harder to see.

Agent links along the bottom force people to search for links.

Another part of the book that hit me was Chapter 5, “Omit Words.” I went over my dad’s “Why Choose a Realtor?” page. Krug would have been appalled. The page had lengthy paragraphs inside a scrolling box that I now realize are unlikely to be read. It should have been streamlined significantly.

Laura and I simply didn’t have the time to upkeep the web site so it now only exists on her computer. My dad went with an outsider to create a new site for his business and it is better than the one Laura and I created.

Overall, our site wasn’t as terrible. We got a lot of aspects right. With the knowledge of Krug’s book before hand, it could have been a lot better. I plan to keep the book on my desk and recommend it liberally.

Too much text is unlikely to be read.