In 2014, the Associated Press began using algorithms to write earnings reports covering publicly traded companies. These articles synthesize information from firms’ press releases, analyst reports and stock performance, and are widely disseminated by major news outlets within hours of publication.
“Through automation, we’re providing customers with 12 times the corporate earnings stories as before, including for a lot of very small companies that never received much attention,” said Lisa Gibbs, AP’s global business editor.
This year, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Washington evaluated the role of automated journalism in capital markets. The analysis conducted by professors Elizabeth Blankespoor and Ed deHaan, along with PhD student Christina Zhu, found compelling evidence that AP’s automated articles increase firms’ trading volume and liquidity.
“After the articles are published, we see an increase in trading volume that persists three to four days after the story comes out,” explained deHaan, an accounting professor at the University of Washington.
What is the role of the media industry when it comes to investing?
The media contribute to more informed and efficient financial markets by conducting analysis, uncovering corruption and holding executives accountable. Beyond that, news organizations relay facts from public accounting reports to the public through a vast distribution network.
This study found a positive effect between the public dissemination of objective information and market efficiency, a major discovery for the implications of automated journalism on capital markets.
“It’s an exciting first step in what is possible with automation technology,” Blankespoor said. “It’s not about displacing journalists from their jobs — it’s about providing coverage for firms that were not previously in the news.”
What was the study’s methodology?
The researchers focused on firms that did not have AP articles written about their earnings announcements from 2012 to 2014, before automated coverage started. Within that group, they separated and compared companies that began receiving reports and those that hadn’t.
Blankespoor said that when the researchers controlled for other factors, they found the change in abnormal trading volume and depth was more positive for firms that began receiving coverage than those that hadn’t, “suggesting that automated coverage increases firms’ trading and liquidity around their earnings announcements.”
Learn more Automated Journalism in this guide published by the Tow Center.
Francesco Marconi is the manager of strategy and corporate development at The Associated Press and an Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.]]>
Why is this unusual? News media rarely publicly reflects on its own standards of production, let alone providing any degree of transparency into the managerial decision-making underlying the working practices of journalists. These memos, which came both from a digital native and legacy media organizations, tell us something about the current expectations, rules, and constraints that journalists are facing on Twitter.
As a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, I interviewed 26 political journalists who work for the top broadsheets and cable news channels in the US about the influences on and motivations behind their Twitter engagement, especially during election times. Twitter provides journalists with direct and unfiltered access to their audiences, unlike news pieces, where editors can rephrase or cut any indication of opinion or stance before it sees the light of day. To manage journalists’ social media engagement, the vast majority of news organizations have introduced guidelines and policies that outline preferred and punishable behavior (I’ve previously written about this here). Yet, this is often in vain, as Paul Farhi of the Washington Post outlined last week in a story that called out a number of political reporters for biased tweets about Trump.
Tweeting in the heat of the moment
The New Yorker recently argued that “most key elections have a key medium, and whoever wins this year’s frantic Presidential contest will owe that success partly to Twitter.” Although it may be difficult to quantify the platform’s actual influence on the electoral outcome, Twitter has become one of this election’s most popular social spaces for public and real-time analysis, commentary, and deliberation of two notoriously polarizing candidates. For example, the second Presidential debate on October 9 was the most tweeted ever:
The October 9 presidential #debate was the most Tweeted ever: 17+ million debate-related Tweets sent and seen more than 3.6 billion times.
— Twitter Government (@gov) October 11, 2016
Naturally, journalists are drawn to spaces where news events are unfolding. But it is one thing to use Twitter to keep tabs on the debate and “sort of do surveillance and monitor…what are people talking about right now” for story ideas and different reporting angles, as one journalist told me in my research. It is another thing to get actively involved; after all, not all (journalistic) Twitter engagement is created equal.
When emotions like disbelief, outrage, or joy get the better of us, research has shown how people often take to social media to share what they are feeling. Usually, this doesn’t have serious consequences; unless you’re a hard news reporter and this behavior on Twitter goes against the professional ethos and integrity that the news industry has been so keen to uphold in the digital age. One reporter admitted that, in the heat of the moment, he sometimes needs to remind himself: “don’t do anything that you’ll regret in the morning.”
“A new crop of journalists”?
The 2016 presidential race has stirred up strong political sentiments all over the country, including the news industry, where some candidate endorsements have been unexpected or break long-standing traditions of party support. Donald Trump has picked his fair share of fights with media outlets, blacklisted some of them, and publically insulted countless reporters. Last week, USA Today reported a “massive rise” in hate speech on Twitter in relation to election coverage, much of which appears to be targeted at journalists.
When things get personal and nasty — and they have often enough during this election — news organizations provide little to no support for individual journalists in managing negative experiences and attacks on social platforms, as my research findings further indicate. Journalists are often left to their own devices. As Twitter can feel “casual,” and boundaries between professional and personal may blur, some reporters find it difficult to hold back — not necessarily so in order to dish out revenge, but to blow off steam or out of a protective instinct for one’s reputation and career. Amidst all of this, one reporter told me how he observed a new kind of journalist being forged on Twitter:
I’m still very wary about social media because… you’ve seen people get in so much trouble. You’re not going to catch me losing my job for saying something crazy. But a new crop of journalists feel more empowered to do that and are less concerned.
Another one described how being involved and outspoken cultivates a brand on Twitter, how this helps him look out for himself and optimize career prospects in an unstable labor market. He argued that “the more willing you are to put yourself out there as a journalist on Twitter, the better you will be at building up that loyal base of followers who will follow you regardless of where you are.”
The audience appreciates smart analysis, but they also like a good laugh
Journalists are competing for the audience’s attention everywhere, including a platform as saturated as Twitter. One strategy is to provide high quality content in an environment where not everything lives up to that standard, and trust that your audience will recognize and appreciate the difference. We’re unlikely to disagree with one journalist who told me “the more valuable tweets are those that put something in context.” But for some journalists, offering content in addition to (or even instead of) fact and smart analysis has become another avenue to garner attention and connect with (actual and potential) followers. After all, to use another reporter’s words, “there is a high premium on Twitter for snark and…humor.”
During my interviews, many journalists have repeatedly emphasized that they don’t want to “be perceived as robots who push out bits and pieces of information,” and instead “share glimpses of being a real person.” One journalist even admitted: “You know, we make fun of people who do boring tweets. I mean Twitter is supposed to be the repository of clever. “
While political journalism is one of the classic hard news genres, during this election it has had to grapple with a significant amount of soft news topics. For example, this year’s first presidential debate focused more on personality than any other in US history. Personal attributes, subjective experiences and character judgments move into the foreground of the public debate and even become the news story themselves. And these stories are the kind of content that not only disproportionately invite snark, wit, and humor, but, more often than not, they also do exceptionally well on Twitter in terms of generating engagement and traffic — not because of their news value, but because of their entertainment value (a phenomenon known as the news gap, where the information preferences of the media and the public diverge). While reporters may overstep the bounds of their professional code, news organizations often perceive the outcome as positive (or at least not harmful), so reporters on Twitter may get away with what was once a privilege reserved for opinion writers.
The spectrum of journalistic Twitter engagement has broadened
Overall, journalists’ engagement is significantly shaped by a) the nature of their employing news organization’s social media strategy, and b) how strictly it enforces a respective policy and sanctions misdemeanor and/or rewards desirable performance. One journalist explained:
Because the one thing you learn is that there is no one reporter bigger than [my news organization]. So you don’t bring any reproach to it. If you’re going to embarrass it, you know….You just don’t, because it will be there when you leave. And that’s what’s important. And it’s part of your journalistic integrity, don’t weigh in because you need people to read your story.
Another reporter said:
I’ve always been waiting for the day to come when an editor walks up to my desk and says, ‘You’ve been tweeting 50 times in a row about this stupid vine that someone posted. Get to work.’ But it never happens because it almost always is considered a positive when you’re on Twitter because [your news organization] gets a lot out of it. Twitter spreads their stories, [and] they know that you’re getting stories from it. They know that you’re waving the flag of the company on it. But the downside is….I mean everybody lives in terror of knowing that you’re one tweet away from everything going on. And a lot of people have gotten fired for tweeting something they shouldn’t have.
However, when an organizational social media strategy is more of a well-intentioned recommendation than a rule with an iron fist, journalists enjoy more leeway. Their Twitter engagement is notably shaped by journalistic role-perception, personal preferences and individually desired benefits (all of which can be of an organizational, professional or personal nature, of course). One reporter highlighted:
You know, I think everybody in my newsroom uses Twitter very differently. I haven’t seen a very uniform usage quite yet, whether that be in my own news organization or even how I see my competition using it. I still think that there’s a very individual aspect to how you use it.
My research findings suggest that the spectrum of journalistic Twitter engagement has broadened. The keen observer of journalists’ profiles might have spotted similar journalistic roles during this Presidential election: those who appear to belong to a “new crop” of tech-savvy, outspoken journalists who take some risks to own the Twitter culture; those who are cautious, risk-averse and see themselves as a reporters “with traditional values trying to use modern tools;” and many in between, who are still trying to figure out the “weird balance,” as one reporter put it, between the opportunities and risks of having a direct link to the audience on Twitter, and “knowing where the line is” between the two. With the election only days away, media attention is at its peak and reporting stakes are high — for all journalists on Twitter.
Svenja Ottovordemgentschenfelde is a PhD researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She works on the ‘Beyond 140 characters’ project and her writing has been published on the Tow Center Blog, LSE’s POLIS blog, and in Journalism. Find her on Twitter @sgentschenfeld.
Image: I. J. Clark.]]>
By Jennie Kamin | @VajennieMonolog
Many news cycles ago, back when over a dozen Republican candidates were vying to save the party, I was working in entertainment and applying to journalism school with the dream of doing something media-related to impact the election: something sophisticated, like a cartoon depicting Jeb Bush as a noodle. That was the seed of The American Affair.
When I got to Columbia, I realized it was my chance to collaborate with the talented and diverse people here to make the satire show a reality.So I brought it up with a few people in my class. To my surprise, they were into it. They were more than just into it, actually. People like Heba Elorbany, a documentary student with a non-profit business background, asked, “Hey, can I organize this with you?” The group took it and ran.
Our resulting first episode focused on the third party candidates and their impact on this election—a topic, might I add, John Oliver followed suit in investigating in October. In the past month, we have recapped the presidential and vice presidential debates, publicized the deadline for voter registration and journeyed to Philly in search of the swing vote, resulting in 42,000 views on Facebook.
Why are we talking Facebook views? Simply put, because Silicon Valley is petty as hell. Facebook goes out of its way to minimize Google and Twitter, so YouTube videos do not get the same views on Facebook as videos uploaded directly to the platform (YouTube is owned by Google). Our collective experiences have shown that Facebook is pushing native video, especially live video; and that’s what we’re providing.
The blood, sweat and tears poured into this project in between finals and documentary shoots is bottled from performers like Eva Andersen—you may recognize the YouTube star from her Sarah Palin impersonation at a McCain rally eight years ago, which made it onto the Rachel Maddow Show —and accomplished editors like Tony Lin, an author and filmmaker who claims to be 27, but was actually born 600 years ago in Rivendell. The list goes on. I am in awe of these people. Together, our group of 15 hailing from six countries has made a commitment to create impactful comedy grounded in hard journalism, data and investigative research.
There’s a stereotype that millennials prefer taking quizzes that will reveal their spirit-Teletubbies to picking up the Times. (By the way, you should know that our anchor Jon Allsop was in two episodes of Teletubbies.)
However, according to studies like this one from Pew Research, millennials are tuning in—regularly—to satirical news shows, and they’re doing so online. The Pew survey found that the online American audience for the Daily Show is on par with USA Today the Huffington Post; what’s more, they’re spending more time there.
We’re not claiming that satire will replace hard news, but it does have a place in social commentary, and an increasingly important one.That’s why we do what we do. That and because it’s fun.
While The American Affair began as a guerrilla operation without the university’s recognition, we are no longer Columbia’s bastard child: The school graciously granted us affiliation last month. In celebration, my brilliant colleagues are putting together our Election Live Show, showing Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. The musical special will be open to the public in the Stabile Center in Pulitzer Hall and on Facebook Live. Join us as we hurtle together to the conclusion of this raucous ride to America’s next presidency.
Jennie Kamin is a member of the Columbia Journalism School’s Class of 2017. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rebecca Schuetz, CJS ’17, contributed to writing this blog.]]>
By Lydia Namubiru | @namlyd
Before I left Uganda to start my master’s at the Columbia Journalism School in August 2015, I had been teaching data skills to working journalists in the East African nation. We had trained 78 in the 18 months before my departure for New York.
In June 2016, when I returned home after graduation, my employer, the African Centre for Media Excellence had some news for me: As part of its routine research into media practices in the country, the centre had analyzed nearly 3,000 stories in local news media and found that only four of them had originated from data analysis.
In my mind, this meant that our training efforts had yielded nothing!
The news was certainly bad, but not necessarily surprising. The lack of data skills is only half of the problem here. The other half: The data itself is not available.
I once said to Dean Steve Coll that the biggest difference between practicing journalism in the U.S. (as we did at the J-School), and doing it in Uganda (as I did for years before J-School) was: “You get actual, useful information here when you Google.” That really is true. It’s not that data of public interest doesn’t exist in Uganda. Our technocrats conduct censuses, track crime, study people’s health behavior, track the economy etc., just as it happens elsewhere. The difference is in public access.
In the U.S., microdata from the census is online for download; in Uganda, two years after the last census, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics released more than 1,000 PDFs of tables and text, like this one.
One’s interest is better restricted to the statistics they choose to make public. Getting any additional data from the bureau is a process of indeterminate length. Four months ago, I requested a 10 percent sample of the census microdata for use in data journalism training. I am still waiting for the bureau to even acknowledge receipt of my request. So in the setting of a real, fast-paced newsroom, it isn’t surprising that data analysis would not occur to Ugandan journalists as a source of stories. It’s far easier and more productive, to call up a source for a controversial quote and make news out of that.
Yet when I first saw the evidence that our trainings were not producing data journalists, I wanted to quit my job, regardless of the fact that for this same job, I had overlooked the many great opportunities with which the J-School connected.
“What’s the point of teaching data journalism in a data vacuum?” I wondered to myself.
Then again, what’s the point in quitting altogether?
Instead, I have appointed myself chief data complainer in this country, and luckily for me, my boss is agreeable. A brief job description for chief data complainer goes something like this:
The media centre I work for is taking this role seriously. In August, we acquired an open data portal (www.data.ug) that had once been championed by an expatriate open data enthusiast. When Reinier Battenberg left the country in 2015, the utility fell into limbo. We are reviving it and will publish any datasets we get from my data hunts.
We are hoping that combining open data publishing with data journalism training will put a dent in the near-complete absence of data analysis for news.
I don’t know if this will prove to be the magic formula. “What if it isn’t?” I ask myself many mornings. “Will I end up wasting my training from Columbia’s awesome data journalism program?” But then, I commit myself for better or worse, with the words of Miley Cyrus from that Hannah Montana movie my daughter likes: “There’s always gonna be another mountain. I’m always gonna wanna make it move.”
Lydia Namubiru is a 2016 M.S. graduate of the Columbia Journalism School’s data concentration. She can be reached at email@example.com.]]>
The audiences for journalism are increasingly fluid. Whether by search or social media, every story can now find its own readership, beyond that of its parent publication. But while journalists now have more ways than ever to interact with their readers, it’s still hard for them to know exactly who their stories are reaching.
Most of the decisions editors and reporters make are done with a typical reader in mind. Academics call these “imaginary audiences”—a mental image of the people who surround us, formed by a blend of experience, observation and imagination. These audiences affect how we present ourselves to the world. Likewise, they influence what stories journalists pursue, and how.
I’m delighted to be leading a research project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that is exploring the ways writers and editors see and understand their audiences. The work, we believe, raises questions vital for journalism’s survival: How do I find an audience? How do keep them engaged in my work? How do I know my work has impact? Who am I missing? How do I connect with them?
The analytics tools available in newsrooms report the basics: how many people read a given story, where they came from, and how long they stick around before “bouncing” away. But that data reveals very little about who those readers are, and nothing at all about who they could be.
We’re starting our project by focusing on a single line of reporting—education in New York City. The education beat is important but not over-saturated. It is covered by diverse media outlets (from large national papers to small single-subject websites) and read by large, well-defined audience segments. We’re hoping to use this as a case study with findings applicable across journalism.
Research for the project is well underway, and will culminate in a paper to be published by Tow in the near future. Assisting me will be Efrat Nechushtai, a PhD candidate at Columbia School of Journalism with nearly a decade’s experience as a working reporter and editor.
Along the way, we’re hoping to get to know the audience for our own work. So if you find this interesting, we’d love to hear from you. Take our brief survey or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll keep you posted.
James G. Robinson]]>
By Nicki A. Softness | @nickisoftness
With a 24-hour news cycle, journalists face incredible pressure to report quickly, and ideally, first. This speed can result in dangerous and inaccurate rhetoric and information. As molders of public opinion, journalists have to pay particularly careful attention to how they cover terror attacks, and understand how their rhetoric can create a fearful or Islamophobic society.
On October 17, the Tow Center hosted a panel with former Al Jazeera opinion editor Burhan Wazir and Charlie Beckett, London School of Economics professor and POLIS think tank director, to discuss the evolving relationship between journalism and terrorism. At the panel moderated by Tow director, Emily Bell, Wazir and Beckett discussed their reports recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review as part of a series on covering terrorism.
Wazir’s report, “Fear and the Ballot Box: How Political and Media Responses to Terrorism Influence Elections,” explores four elections—in Israel, Spain, the U.S., and India—that followed acts of terrorism. He found that terror attacks indeed have a profound impact on elections, by heightening the public’s sense of security, reframing the political debate, and causing citizens to feel disillusioned with their incumbent governments. Notably, he reports that real-time coverage of attacks can prove detrimental to public trust in the government, especially if citizens feel barraged with inaccurate information.
Beckett’s report, “Fanning the Flames: Reporting on Terror in a Networked World,” suggests that we are in a cyclical era of “new terrorism, and new news media.” Inflammatory journalism only provides terrorists with larger audiences, and more opportunities to radicalize. Beckett believes this is irresponsible on the part of journalists. “We can’t treat ISIS like Wild West cowboys, or the hipsters of horror,” he said at the panel.
When do you call it “terrorism”?
The panel agreed that the media’s fascination with Islamic extremism is dangerous. The decision to frame attacks by domestic perpetrators as isolated incidents, and those conducted by ISIS as terror, “reinforces stereotypes, and allows for simplistic responses from politicians, and the unthinking discourse we see in politics,” Beckett said. “We need to do better.”
Wazir added that newsrooms constantly struggle with this debate: “There’s definitely a general awareness that if you scream ‘terrorism’ after an event, there will be a price to pay.”
SEO, speed and social media: the role of technology
Bell noted a present-day moral dilemma brought about by technological advances: Even responsible newsrooms that debate language choices often end up choosing inflammatory terminology. “The problem is online search functions.” she said. “If you don’t call it terrorism, people won’t find your story.”
The discussion then turned toward the role of technology companies. Companies such as Facebook and Alphabet’s Jigsaw are actively working to combat hate speech and intervene into the processes of terrorist recruitment, Bell said. Audience members questioned the practicality of these efforts, noting that shutting down terrorist Twitter accounts is like playing whack-a-mole, and prevents the government from monitoring suspects.
However, Beckett added that social media platforms, growing in power every day, are able to conduct profiling in ways news organizations never would. “Right or wrong, these are the places that it will be happening,” he said.
The panelists offered varied opinions on the benefits and disadvantages of these platforms, and of this unprecedented access. Beckett described a circular relationship between open source providers and journalists, nothing that social media may provide valuable source material and instant feedback to a journalist’s editorial choices, but also presents dangers such as groupthink and misinterpretation of trends. He said these dangers are particularly high during breaking news cycles.
Wazir added that this instant feedback cycle has erased some of the nuance that used to define politics and journalism. Speed receives priority over this nuance. Particularly as competing sources gain access to social media audiences, the story becomes broader and less thought-out. Beckett cautioned that while government authorities, bystanders, victims, and aggressors are able to reach communities, they do not yet garner the respect and trust that traditional journalists have.
Nicki Softness is an MPA Candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also a graduate research assistant to the Initiative on the Future of Cyber Risk. Find her at email@example.com.]]>
As part of that grant, we are pleased to announce a new call for research project proposals. We invite students, researchers, faculty and practitioners in the fields of computer science and journalism to propose potential research projects that fall within our four areas of inquiry:
We are particularly interested in funding people to study the following topics:
You can read some of the previous research supported by the Knight Foundation here. Since January 2015 Tow Fellows have studied a broad range of topics including Virtual Reality, Podcasting, Design and Journalism, Newsroom Metrics, and Solutions Journalism.
We outline the proposal process for research projects in further detail on Submittable, and encourage you to adhere closely to the outline noted.
For more details and to submit your proposal, visit our Submittable page.]]>
Good journalism in the U.S. is fueled by emails, voicemails, FOIA requests and First Amendment arguments. But these are luxuries that many countries do not afford their journalists. Last week, the Tow Center and CJS Global welcomed J-School students and alumni who have managed to work around such limitations—and the threats that accompany them—to produce reporting that is founded on integrity and facts.
Here are five takeaways from the panel:
There tends to be a blurred line between journalism and politics: Journalists in the room hailing from across the world pointed to examples of the marriage between politics and the press. For example, some said it was not uncommon for former diplomats or political leaders to take over major editorial roles—and vice versa, when journalists would go on to embrace titles in government.
The U.S. has it good: One journalist in the room noted that as controversy-ridden as the 2016 election has been, the country is fortunate to have an environment that allows for difficult questions and hard-hitting investigative reporting.
Self-censorship is as big a threat as censorship: Threats, even implicit ones, are built into the system. They leave journalists worrying about their every move and sometimes going so far as to prompt them to leave the country. Some communities, such as women journalists and reporters who have pledged to protect sources, are more vulnerable to these threats.
Social media is both a force of good and bad for journalists: Some reporters in the room pointed to examples of social media as a way to better hold the government accountable, while others experienced it as a way to be publicly shamed for their reporting.
There is no one solution: These stories can be disheartening and there is no right answer or all-knowing savior. However, there are ways to balance good reporting with personal safety. For example, one journalist noted having to resort to making dozens of phone calls to corroborate data after a government agency refused to take calls.]]>
Sharing audio, however, is a tougher nut to crack.
Delaney Simmons, in a Nieman Lab article about shareable audio, mentions how, in radio, there’s a “unique problem in that our content isn’t necessarily shareable.” At the core of shareable audio is a set of interconnected design challenges: how to allow listeners to skim podcasts, zero in on the stories and moments they want to share (and support multiple kinds of moments and sharing), create an eye-catching visual component that expresses but doesn’t overshadow the content, and–in the end–let the listener express their fandom the same way a gifmaker on Tumblr might.
In working on Shortcut, an audio sharing tool built in collaboration with This American Life, The Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and The Knight Foundation Prototype Fund, we’ve had the chance to learn from listeners, podcast creators, and prior experiments in shareable audio to develop a tool that answers some of these questions, and opens up more space for other tool builders to explore.
Our design thinking
Our vision for Shortcut–which has remained relatively steady since the start–was a tool that would allow users to access a podcast archive (currently, This American Life), quickly jump through an episode to find their favorite moments, convert those clips into beautiful, transcribed .mp4 videos, and share those videos on social media. (You can read more in Stephanie Foo’s article here.) The very first step in our design process was to take stock of the existing landscape, as a way to catalyze our thinking and start solving the right problems.
We broke the exploration up into several facets: other experiments in shareable audio, other experiments in shareable content in general, and examples of emergent fan culture across the web. So, in addition to audio-based sources of inspiration like Clammr, WNYC’s Audiograms, NPR’s experiments in viral audio, and Audible’s Clips, we also explored the larger design space, like “Why We Love Gifs,” Giphy, Vine, histories of gif culture, research on “emotional subtitles,” Blingee, and more.
Ultimately, we came down to a set of questions and priorities for the kind of tool we wanted to create, namely:
With a long list of design questions, we started rapidly iterating on wireframes. In order to support different types of use cases, we settled on three styles of browsing to play with:
You’ll see a lot of these elements repeated through the following wireframes, but shifted in subtle and important ways.
It’s worth pointing out that this design process was an extremely collaborative one. Every team member—regardless of their official role—provided invaluable ideas and insights along the way.
An initial wireframe. There’s an abundance of input options, from typing in a timecode to reading through a transcript to scrolling through a waveform. We had thought it might be useful to put the fine-tune waveform clipper at the top (as Clammr does), since folks would ultimately be using that functionality the most. However, in our case, we realized it threw off the visual hierarchy: going from timecode (broad) to fine-tune (focused) to scrubber (broad) to transcript (broad, but more focused than the scrubber) was confusing and unintuitive.
A Giphy-inspired version. Here, the user chooses their starting point, and–rather than clipping with brackets–simply selects a duration, making fine-tuning basically the only interaction. Since the transcript was down to the second, we also played around with the idea of letting you “snap to” the end of the sentence, as you might snap to a grid while arranging items in Photoshop. This didn’t include any transcript search, which is a feature we ended up really liking and prioritizing, so we scrapped this.
Our first working prototype. You’ll notice that the hierarchy on the right goes from broadest to most focused (episode scrubber to fine-tune clipper). We’ve added a customization dropdown as well, letting users choose the animation type they want to use for their text. We included all the share options on this page, which we found felt somewhat cluttered.
A more final wireframe. You’ll notice that we’ve winnowed down the 6 (!) editing tools in the first wireframe to just three, and put them in the hierarchy laid out before (from broadest to most focused). Sharing options have been removed from this screen and moved to the preview page. We’ve also switched the side the video preview appears on. Customization has been streamlined from a dropdown (which takes up a not-insignificant amount of space, and won’t necessarily work well on smaller screens) to two arrows arrows on either side of the video–almost Snapchat-like–which cycle through different styles (bouncing, scrolling, etc.).
A napkin sketch by Stephanie after our beta tests. You can see the mobile version shifting into a multi-step process: rather than trying to jam everything on just one or two screens, this gives all the elements room to breathe.
The final product! Jason, one of the developers of Shortcut, came up with the idea to let people click and drag within the transcript to highlight the segments they wanted (rather than having to select whole segments and then fiddle around with the fine-tune clipper). His change was a huge improvement, usability-wise. Eve Weinberg designed beautiful animations that helped showcase the text and give it life.
The final product on mobile. Note how it grew out of the prior napkin sketch. Typically, on mobile, users would have to long-press to select the text they want. Mobile operating systems don’t give web developers the access we’d need to take advantage of this feature (perhaps this is why sites like Medium don’t offer their text selection features on mobile). Fortunately with Jason’s selection code, users don’t have to fiddle with it. They can just tap the first word and the last word to select all the text in between.
Our next steps
The testing process for Shortcut has been a multifaceted one: even aside from QA testing, we need to make sure that the tool feels good, is intuitive for different types of users, works for a variety of types of podcasts, and—hopefully—supports many types of user expression. This is an ongoing process as we refine the tool for its open source release (email web @ thislife.org if you’re interested!).
We’re happily not the only ones tackling this problem for podcasters—New York Public Radio’s Audiogram offers a self-hosted solution where users can upload any piece of audio, and Pop Up Archive is developing a Clipmaker for the AudioSear.ch archives.
We hope our research can inform these likeminded projects, and that Shortcut can offer a unique model for audio creators who want to make their archives more shareable.
In 1899, The Associated Press used Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraph to cover the America’s Cup yacht race in New Jersey, the first news transmission test of what would later be called “radio.” Today, the media industry is once again enabling the exploration of audio news – this time in a new field: voice-activated technologies.
From point-and-click to voice-enabled commands
The internet used to be in a “point-and-click” phase where desktop websites flourished, but now it’s in a “touch” phase as mobile devices and apps have increased digital access to content and services.
Soon, voice commands will usher in a third phase through the “internet of things” and all types of connected devices and experiences. These commands carry promise and the potential to link the fragmented on-demand experiences we see emerging in connected cars, homes and voice assistants.
Global revenue estimates from the smart audio market have increased to $5 billion by 2020, up from $1 billion this year, according to Juniper Research. Devices in our homes (think smart refrigerators) are forecasted to be the biggest driver of growth.
“Audio is a powerful interface for connected ecosystems,” said Mari Joller, founder and CEO of voice-technology company Scarlet. “Other than being efficient – your hands and eyes are free – and often the only viable option for certain use cases like driving, it is also perhaps the most human way to communicate information.”
How do voice-activated systems work?
While these devices can recognize that someone is speaking to them, they cannot necessarily understand what those words mean. The challenging part appears when the system needs to make sense of “What did the president say today?” That requires natural language processing, which is driven by definitions and relationships between words.
The most fascinating opportunity involving natural language processing is the ability to ask specific questions and receive answers. In order to deliver, a smart device needs to analyze the words in a question, retrieve the right answer from a specific data set such as a news archive or feed (like weather forecasts or sports scores), and finally utilize text-to-speech technology to speak back to the user.
It’s likely that news consumers will be able to stop and rewind particular stories on demand in the future. For example, if I asked, “I heard there was an earthquake today. Can you tell me more about it?,” a device would be able to surface a relevant news article or video and then play it to me on command.
“It’s a very exciting time for voice assistants and on-demand audio news,” said Tom Januszewski, a director of business development with AP. “The Amazon Echo, in particular, has surprised everyone with its broad acceptance, and the large number of news organizations already participating on the platform.
“It shows these news organizations recognize the importance of the technology and that they want to get in early.”
What are the ethics surrounding voice-enabled platforms?
According to Victor Vina, an assistant professor at the Pratt Institute, these smart devices raise the idea of “ubiquitous computing,” where we’re surrounded by technology without even realizing it. But we still know very little about the psychological effects of using these devices.
“What are the benefits to our personal lives?” he asked. “As artificial intelligence evolves, it is crucial to consider values such as empathy, identity and privacy, in addition to intelligence, efficiency and productivity.”
As this technology advances, more media organizations will be experimenting to find what works best for delivering news on such devices.
Francesco Marconi is the manager of strategy and corporate development at The Associated Press and an Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.]]>