Focus on the task at hand

Keeping a sharp mental focus is a difficult task in the connected world; but perhaps it always has been.

Right now I should be doing homework, but I must first strongly resist the urge to start coding up a fix to one of my web projects or dabbling in some new trick. I like that code can be like poetry. It gives expression to ideas; nothing deep or dramatic, but simple, clear ideas that help the communication process.

Weird that my principal distraction isn’t music, games or movies, but code.

E-learning still has a long way to go

One week into my studies at U-M’s online master’s program, and I can tell that e-learning has a long way to go. I don’t think it’s the fault of the professors, but the systems they’re given.

We use Blackboard, which is surely a robust system that seems to do an adequate job at handling different kinds of learning modes. It has certainly come a long way since its days as WebCT. But I still feel like I’m using a website designed in 2002. Framesets, seriously? And all kinds of Java, which always seems slow and buggy to me.

For a user who is accustomed to the ease of navigating Facebook, Twitter and numerous iPhone apps, Blackboard is just plain ugly and awkward. For someone who appreciates simple, unobtrusive design, it’s a chore to use. Granted, it is clearly a product that has collected a lot of functionality over the years — a compliment to its apparent flexibility — but lacks the finesse that comes with a product that was designed on purpose.

A better web learning system would integrate webinar-style lectures and interactions, collaborative writeboards and other teamwork tools, integrated file sharing, a user directory with avatars, chat (show me if any other classmates are online), integrated calendar and RSS feeds, private messaging, live notifications and other features that make me addicted to it the way I’m addicted to checking my Facebook. In other words, look at every successful feature of social networks, and design them for a learning environment, which are essentially the same as “groups” with a leader/moderator.

If the Blackboard system I’m using now offers any of those features, they are not obvious. (Another design flaw.)

Of course, I am only seeing half of the end-user experience. I’m sure the teacher/admin side isn’t pretty, either.

If I get in the right mood, maybe I’ll whip up a quick wireframe on what Blackboard could look like if it got some real design direction.

 

Back to school

After four years since my undergrad career ended, quite satisfyingly, I am entering graduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia today.

This is the realization of a sort of dream I’ve had since high school, when my journalism teacher at the time described how wonderful the school was and how it cultivated great journalists.

I am nervous and woefully out of practice when it comes to academic work. The media management program is entirely online, which will be a new experience for me, even though I suppose I am part of that generation of those who grew up online. Perhaps the oldest edge of that generation. I grew up with dial-up, not broadband, after all.

Meanwhile, my students are coming back to school today as well, going to class and getting to work on running the University’s daily newspaper, keeping up an important, if misunderstood, tradition.

One thing I hope to come to understand in grad school is how to create the best student media program possible. Not many folks are into this sort of thing, and it doesn’t make for interesting dinner conversation. But I consider it vital to the future of journalism, both its study and practice. More thought should be put into college media. It seems silly that so much money goes into college football, which, I’ll admit, is awfully entertaining, but isn’t intended to develop and support one of the critical aspects of our republic.

To my students, and myself: good luck this year. Be kind and work hard.

A hack job toward single-post exporting

I spoke too soon. Somebody already wrote a plugin that lets you export a single post into an InDesign-friendly format: tagged text, no less.

So, of course, when I came across it my immediate desire was to hack it up and see what I could make it do.

First was to see how I could manipulate the InDesign tags to fit the stylesheets we have in place at The Daily Cougar. Easily accomplished by exporting a complete story (headline, cutline, etc., included) into tagged-text and looking at the guts of it.

This got to be pretty interesting, so I went on a tangent, and realized I could access all of the WordPress functions available through the loop. That meant I could export the headline (the_title) and category (get_the_category) fairly easily. The trick would be writing some simple functions to fetch our custom-field driven subheadline and bylines. And the icing on the cake would be to grab the cutline from the first image attachment of the article.

So, long story short, I’ve got a workable web-to-print workflow piece, customized for our environment and ready for testing in the wild.

Next up: hack the plugin’s “Print post” function to generate a clean XML document that could be imported into any page layout program. If it seems worthwhile, maybe I’ll offer it up to the plugin authors as a new feature.

Man, I’m a huge nerd.

I want: Single post XML export in WordPress

I want to be able to hit a button inside the WordPress post editor that says “Get post XML” and download just that post’s XML for importing into InDesign. Or hell, give me the ability to export Doc, RTF, PDF and any other basic text format. Give me data portability, WordPress!

Do that and you’ll have a free, open-source alternative to Google Docs.

If I were a competent programmer, I’d do it myself.

Dying newsrooms should become museums

View of LA Times Building from Bradbury Room at LA City Hall
Kinda looks like a museum, doesn't it? (photo: calvinfleming via flickr)

I like the expression: “Invest in people, not buildings.”

Newspapers should rent out or sell building space to a historical foundation and let them turn the newsroom into a local museum, library or public forum. Create a vibrant, interactive museum about the city. Blend together news and history, photo and video. Newspapers are virtual time machines, but their secrets are locked away in microfiche.

No sense in having a central newsroom when the news is always “out there”. A city news agency should consist of dozens of bureaus, scattered geographically throughout the city, with mobile offices. Budget meetings could held virtually with Skype or something like it. A small production shop could produce the print edition, which is transmitted to printing presses and delivered freely in each community.

Non-profit news and the idealogy problem

News organizations are often painted “liberal” and “conservative” for good reason — usually because their editorial boards are generally left- or right-leaning. Sometimes this stigma carries over into characterizing news coverage, warranted or not.

Some of our nation’s earliest newspapers were, in fact, political newspapers established and funded (often by government subsidy) to further the interests of the party. Even in the last few two-newspaper towns, one paper was generally regarded conservative, the other liberal.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised then when the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism discovers that about 44 percent of the nation’s new non-profit news agencies have a clear ideological leaning and along with that, an unclear source of funding.

Those non-profits actually producing original, non-partisan coverage were generally more transparent in how they were funded. See the Texas Tribune, for example.

The Internet has merely given fertile ground for a new crop of partisan publications. The low cost of entry will ensure a healthy run of ideologically driven “news” agencies, but none of them will be a singular replacement for the moderate, generalist palate of ideas that the newspaper was. And that’s OK — we are gradually moving into a world where news consumers are creating their own palate of news sources on tablets and mobile devices and RSS readers.

To help educate us news consumers, Pew provides a few criteria to use to gauge a site’s journalistic worthiness. I’d like to see those applied to some mainstream media! Sure, the consumer must always be on guard. But for the non-profit news industry to mature, publications must adopt transparency and contextual clues to help readers ascertain whether what they are reading is information or whether it is opinion, or whether the news organization is at all concerned with producing new information in the first place. This basic virtue helped bring good journalism out of the murky depths of the partisan press and into real public service.

Newspapers: once part of a complete breakfast

Breakfast 7/14/08

Your typical metropolitan newspaper was like a good breakfast: an assortment of information nutrition to get you started for the day. You got a mix of local, state, national and international stories — the fruit, meat and fiber you need to be reasonably informed and clear-minded about the state of the world that morning. But you might nibble on some celebrity gossip, sample a society or lifestyle column, scan the sports box scores, picking up all the information that interests you, plus some incidental information that gets absorbed along the way. If you were to consume the paper in its entirety, you would no doubt be a well-rounded, informed individual — at least for a day.

Needless to say, one-third of US adults say they eat breakfast regularly. About the same proportion consumes newspapers reguarly. I wouldn’t go far as to say one caused the other but surely they correlate in some way — but it is awfully interesting to observe. In many households, eating a nice breakfast is likely reserved for the weekends, as is perusing a good newspaper or magazine. And so, it’s not hard to imagine more newspaper subscriptions becoming weekend-only.

Nowadays, it’s much preferable for working-class people to check their laptops or smartphones whilst nibbling toast and sipping their morning coffee. The newspaper simply has no place at the kitchen table.

And just in case you’re wondering, this won’t be the last time I compare newspapers and media to food.