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Archives: February 2011

Online ads that don’t suck

For many online media websites, it’s a struggle to balance giving proper display to online advertising and providing a great user experience in which advertising doesn’t compete with the site’s online content. There have been many attempts at creating ads that live alongside editorial content that range from the usual suspects like banner ads, pre-roll video ads, and in-line linking to the worst offenders like mouseover popups and ads that fly across the screen or take up the whole page.

Online ads can be an eyesore, but they don’t have to be. In fact some online advertising can be pleasant and not as overbearing. I am far from an advertising guru, but as a frequent news and media consumer, there are certain advertising experiences that I actually look forward to.

One such mode of advertising is the wrap ad that is sometimes featured on major news websites like The Washington Post (below) and is seen frequently on sites like Pandora.

This type of online advertising offers up prime real estate by surrounding the content of the website without actually interfering with the layout of the page. When done right, it looks good. On the other hand, if it’s intrusive or overwhelms the website, it can be distracting to readers and viewers.

Another type of online advertising that works well is the “choose your own ad” model frequently seen on Hulu. Instead of a standard pre-roll ad that runs automatically with no input from the viewer, visitors to Hulu and other websites can select one of several ads from a single company. For some long-form video such as television episodes, viewers are offered the option to watch either one long ad, or several shorter ads interspersed throughout the video.

One other cool form of advertising that is compelling without being intrusive are the ads found in iPad apps. While the interactive ads we were promised at the launch of the device are few and far between, often in-app ads are as visually appealing as the content itself. The experience is akin to flipping through a tech or fashion magazine and staring at the ads in addition to the editorial content.

Ads from the Elle US and The Daily iPad apps (below) include video content that gives an extra dimension to what otherwise looks like a static ad.

Just as there’s innovation happening in journalism, the same goes for online advertising. As the ad experience is perfect, online advertising will eventually become less jarring and more seamless.

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How you can get involved with the online journalism community today

Chances are that if you are a frequent reader of this blog, you probably have a Twitter account and your own blog, which are already great first steps at being involved in the growing online community of awesome journalists.  If you want to take it a step further, there are tons of opportunities just waiting for you to snatch them up.

Take part in the Carnival of Journalism

What it is: The Carnival of Journalism is an online symposium of forward-thinking journalists who share their ideas around a common topic every month. The Carnival was recently reinstated by’s David Cohn and will continue as long as there’s a community to continue supporting it.

How to get involved: This is a monthly commitment to sharing your ideas on the topic assigned by that month’s host. January’s topic was about how to make universities hubs of information in communities, and February’s topic was about how to increase the number of news sources. Join the Google group and keep an eye on to get news of the month’s topic. Then blog away to your heart’s desire before the deadline and share your post with others in the group.

Why you should do it: Taking part in the Carnival of journalism is a good mental practice. There are few guidelines for the topics and you have to really force yourself to assess the industry and think outside the box about your answer. It’s a good way to keep your writing polished, keep fresh posts on your personal blog, and challenging your personal argumentative abilities through writing.

Join or host #wjchat

What it is: Web Journalism Chat is a weekly chat around topics facing the online journalism world. Topics range from digital news design, to community engagement, to radical newsroom culture reinvention. Each week is a different topic and there’s always lots to learn.

How to get involved: Wednesdays at 5pm PST (8pm EST), get on Twitter and search for the hashtag #wjchat. Respond to the questions, submit your own questions, and walk away from the two hours knowing something new. If you think you’d be a good host for the chat, get in touch with Robert Hernandez.

Why you should do it: It’s a free way to tap into the collective minds of all the bright web journalists on Twitter. It’s not often that there are so many people in the industry on Twitter at the same time watching the same hashtag. Use it to your advantage.

Create or participate in ONA meetups in your city

What it is: The Online News Association is an organization dedicated to journalism innovation online.  If you’re looking for real-life, face-to-face interaction, Online News Association meetups are an awesome thing to have in your city.

How to get involved: If your city already has a meetup group (see the full ONA meetup list for a point of reference), join the group and show up! Simple as that.  No city is too small for an ONA meetup group. If you’re interested in creating a meetup group, email ONA’s community engagement coordinator Jeanne Brooks and get started. It will require a monthly or bi-monthly commitment to finding a venue, sponsors, and getting the word out.

Why you should do it: Unlike the big ONA meetup that takes place once a year and draws thousands from around the world, regional ONA meetups are a way to build local connections, brainstorm on local projects, and keep the creative juices flowing.

Create or participate in a Hacks/Hackers event

What it is: Somewhat similar to ONA is the Hacks/Hackers meetup groups that are joining forces across the U.S. and abroad.  Hacks/Hackers is more focused on programming and uniting the Hacks and Hackers, rather than online journalism in general.

How to get involved: Check if a city near you is on the chapters list. If not and  you want to start a chapter, email The monthly commitment requires coming up with a topic, finding speakers, snatching a venue and getting the word out.

Why you should do it: Hacks/Hackers is a great  hands-on way to learn new skills from people in your community and build lasting partnerships for future collaborations

Fund a story using

(Disclosure: I was part of the redesign team for the latest launch).

What it is: is a community-funded journalism site, meaning you give money to the stories you want to see reported.

How to get involved: To get involved, go to and find a story that you think is worthy of being reported upon. Either donate a few bucks, donate your talent (reporting, photography, resources) or take a sponsor survey and donate credits for free.

Why you should do it: If you care about supporting independent, investigative journalism for a relatively low cost, is the easiest way to show that.

Participate in a Poynter live chat

What it is: Poynter Institute of Journalism hosts live, open chats on its website with media professionals, educators, innovators — you name it. Each week, there’s a chat about managing your career. There are biweekly chats about writing and breaking chats about hot topics.  Topics vary from areas like Government hiring its own reporters to using Twitter as a correction tool.

How to get involved: Visit Poynter’s website and follow them on Twitter to stay up to date on upcoming chats. You can send yourself reminders using the CoverItLive widget embedded on each chat preview. Then hop in, answer the survey questions and interact with the chat host with your own input and questions.

Why you should do it: It’s  a great chance to get your questions out in the open and learn from the pros.

7 Show-stopping headphones

As any audiophile will tell you, good audio starts with a good pair of headphones. If you want your headphones to look as good as they sound, check out some of the cool models below.


Swarovski DJ Headphones

These Swarovski crystal-studded Audio Technica headphones will make both your audio and you shine. At £1799.99 (about $2,900 USD) they may be pricey, but at least they come with free delivery.


Philips O’Neill Stretch Headphones

These cool headphones also come with some cool features — a tangle-proof cord, a stretch headband, and soft ear cushions — and for made for those on the go.


Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator

Add a touch of class to your audio experience with these headphones that include suede and leather lining and gold accents, in addition to some powerful sound.


Miles Davis In-Ear Headphones

The spirit of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis are invoked in these in-ear headphones specially made for listening to jazz music.


Crochet Bow Headphones

These handmade, crocheted headphones look both cute and comfortable. While there are no guarantees on the audio quality, at least you’ll look pretty sweet.


Star Wars Headphones

R2D2, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and other Star Wars characters and iconography are emblazoned on these Coloud headphones that include a built-in microphone/remote.


9mm Bullet Headphones

Who shot ya? You’ll be number one with a bullet with these in-ear headphones styled after some heavy-duty ammunition.

What newsrooms can learn from tech startups

NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen recently led a Web Journalists Chat on Twitter around the topic of “radical change in the newsroom” (see the highlights here). One of the reoccurring themes of the chat was that newsrooms need to radically revamp their culture. Tech startups are seeing their heyday right now, while the news industry, well, it’s seen better days. Newspapers could take a hint from some of the forward-thinking cultural environments of tech startups if they want to take a stab at reinventing newsroom culture.

Transparency of team

How often can you click on an author’s name on a news site and actually learn about the person who provided that information? At most, you might get a list of other articles written by that author, like The New York Times does. In the very least (and most often, especially for smaller newspaper sites), you’ll see a static page with a list of editors’ names and links to their email addresses:

In an era when we’re pushing for news transparency more than ever, creating a team page and individual biography pages should be easy to accomplish within any CMS.For inspiration, take a look at some of these team pages from the awesome tech startups and compaies: Viget, Get Satisfaction, Technology With Passion, and Arc 90. (Take the time to click through to the links to those team pages. You’ll be distracted by their awesomess for at least give minutes, guaranteed).

After clicking on an individual person’s team page, you get useful biographical information, links to latest posts and social media accounts. For a newspaper or other news site, the page could contain background information, areas of interest, disclosures, and ways to contact that author if you have a tip.

News as software

Andrew Spittle, a former colleague and current happiness engineer at Automattic (the company behind WordPress) wrote an interesting blog post about treating news as software. What he meant by this:

  • Use, not consumption. Traditional news worked as a unit of consumption, but today, it needs to serve a sense of utility to users.
  • Experimentation and play. Give readers (or “users” when taken from the software perspective), a way to play with your content. Give then an API. Or, take a hint from the Boston Globe and do something like Beta Boston, an experimental site that lets users test drive products and give feedback before they’re released.
  • Help your users. As Spittle notes, The New York Times has a “help” page, but it’s mostly information about subscribing to the paper or using the archives. What it fails at is guiding users toward fostering community and adding value back into The Times, like so many tech companies and web apps do.

Product management

Most big news organizations have a product management team for the business and marketing end of things, but the same way of thinking can be applied to the editorial side too. Product managers at tech/software startups (from my experience) are in control of speccing out product functionality, determining user clickpaths, and providing the basic framework that a UI designer will eventually materialize.

This closely ties in with the previous point about treating news as software. Your consumer are users and more than just thinking about what you’re writing for them, there needs to be thought about how they will approach your content and interact with it.  As an example, when The Atlantic released its project Cablegate Roulette in December, they designed it without thinking about usability. On Twitter, I made the suggestion to Alexis Madrigal that a simple fix for the confusion behind how the “refresh” button was implemented (see below) would be to make it more like a web app.

The key: even for editorial projects that are seemingly not “product”-related, think again. Everything you product is a product, and the actions that users could take need to be thought about.

Behind the scenes blogging

Of course, this isn’t something new, but it’s always worth nothing. There’s so much we can learn from trials and tribulations in our newsrooms that we can share with other newspaper staffs or our readers. Another idea that I’ve always advocated for is having an open editorial calendar that displays upcoming stories to allow the community to give input, tips, sources, etc.

Startup 37 Signals has a blog called Signal vs. Noise that is about design, business, experience, simplicity, the web, and culture, which is maintained by their team. Awesome examples of newsrooms already doing this are Times Open and the Chicago Tribune news apps blog. Over at Tatango, a tech startup that specializes in group text messaging, they took it a step further by installing webcams throughout their office and creating

“Investors in this economy are not only looking for a company with a great idea, they also want transparency. We are launching Tatango.TV to allow investors the ability to tune in and watch their investment anytime via the web” said Derek Johnson, CEO and founder of Tatango. “People keep a close eye on their investments, such as their house, children and pets, why not the startup company theyʼve invested in?”

Although that might be a little too over the top for a newsroom, the idea that editors shouldn’t be walled up behind cubicles without interacting with the community is the takeaway.

General startup culture

In general, startups are awesome. At Jason Calacanis’s startup Mahalo, employees get free car washes, tae kwon do lessons, and healthy breakfasts. But beyond fun the fun, trendy perks, startups are unique in that they offer a kind of freedom for experimentation that most news organizations don’t have.

  • Google’s “20 percent time.” I know Google isn’t really a startup any more, but their culture is still very entrepreneurial in nature. According to The New York Times, “Google engineers are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally. This means that if you have a great idea, you always have time to run with it.” The same concept would be awesome for reporters, editors, designers and developers in a newsroom.
  • Facebook hackathons. At Facebook, engineers lock themselves in a room for a few days at a time to work on awesome ideas they have. According to the blog, “Hackathon is a chance to work on the ideas we have been thinking about for last couple of months, to change the ‘That would be hot!’sentiment to something real and live on the site. The objective is to create something interesting by the end of the night that you can get feedback on from your peers and coworkers.” Not only is it a productive way to quickly iterate through a project, but with 2 am IHOP runs and being locked in a room with a team, it’s great bonding time.

Rip and read: 6 OCR tools put to the test

Journalists have been handed wonky PDF files or had to scan mountains of paper documents for years, but until relatively recently there hasn’t been an easy way to translate those docs into digital text. Several tools for converting PDF files into text using optical character recognition or OCR for short have popped up recently, but which one works best?

To see which OCR tools did the job and which ones fell flat, a one-page online document was printed and scanned on an HP DeskJet F4280 printer at 200 DPI. The results are below and you can view the original document here.



Downloadable software available for PC

Accuracy: The software gets the majority of the text right, but portions of the document are translated into indecipherable characters, especially the italic text.

View results of OCR with SimpleOCR



Private document storehouse and analysis tool for newsrooms and journalists

Accuracy: Pretty close with a few errors here and there.

View results of OCR with DocumentCloud


SayWhat Translator

OCR app available from iTunes for $9.99

Accuracy: Total fail. Couldn’t recognize a single word. The results aren’t much better with larger or less text.



Google Docs

Free document creation, sharing, and storage system with OCR feature

Accuracy: Close to perfect with a few odd characters throughout the text.

View results of OCR with Google Docs


OCR Online

Online OCR and conversion tool; several format and language options; free with restrictions

Accuracy: Near perfect with a few missing punctuation marks. Great results for a free tool.

View results of OCR with OCR Online


Adobe Acrobat X Pro

PDF management software with OCR capabilities; $499

Accuracy: Results are near perfect and comparable to OCR Online. Which means unless you already have the program or are willing to pay 500 bucks, OCR Online is a more attractive choice.

View results of OCR with Acrobat X Pro