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Monday, July 1, 2013

Q&A: On The Death Of Google Reader And The Future Of Reading

Google is shutting down the Google Reader on Monday.
Google is shutting down the Google Reader on Monday.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
You can't say they didn't warn you. On Monday, Google Reader will no longer be available. The search behemoth is putting its RSS reader to rest, leaving millions of dedicated users scrambling to find other platforms for organization of their news feeds and content exploration.
One of the leading contenders in the race to replace Google Reader is the recently relaunched Digg Reader. The man behind the effort is CEO Andrew McLaughlin. A former vice president of Tumblr, he also served as the White House's deputy chief technology officer and headed up global public policy at Google. As Wired magazine puts it in a recent profile, "Dude has bona fides."
Somehow, the indefatigable McLaughlin found time to chat during the frenzied, final few days of readying Digg Reader, which went live this weekend. We talked about content overload, the puzzling math behind our social media feeds and what one RSS reader's death means for reading's future.
Andrew McLaughlin is CEO of Diggand Instapaper, based in New York City.
Courtesy Andrew McLaughlin
What does the end of Google Reader signal for the future of how we read, watch or view media?
"Most people look at the death of Google Reader and say, 'Oh, RSS readers are a dead end; there's no need for them anymore.' In a narrow sense, that's true in that RSS specifically is not the most important thing for most users. But if you look around the Internet broadly, you see many, many more people online, many more people with smartphones and doing more of their reading digitally. So that just means that for the next 10 years and beyond the project of trying to make a really great reading experience is still a valid one. I mean, reading, viewing, watching.
"There's just going to be much more demand for a great reading experience. There's more demand for one part of the reading experience which is the ability to boil down the overwhelming flood of stuff that comes at you that competes for and demands your attention. Boiling that down in intelligent ways is integral to a great reading experience. Whether it's mood, situation, the time you have or what you want to do, there's going to be ways you want to slice and dice things."
But it does seem like there are feeds we rely on for surfacing news or information that are more useful for us than RSS feeds, like Twitter or Facebook feeds.
"RSS feeds are important. There are also things you want to follow or keep up with that are not RSS. Twitter shares lots of URLs. That's not an RSS feed. But what if we could rank them [the URLs] in terms of popularity in my world in New York, or the popularity two years ago if you'd like to know, or what's interesting to you based on what you like or tweet or reblog? Actions are an indication of what you find interesting. We're thinking around an uncluttered reading experience plus a bunch of other things. Distilling, sorting, ranking to make better use of your time. Flipboard, which I really like, creates that magazine browsing experience. Digg is trying to focus on reading and videos. We're not trying to make a gorgeous experience but a stripped-down one. We're making something more optimized for text."
How are you thinking through the fact that we're getting more and more content to choose from and consume?
"What we need are tools that cut through the thicket and dampen the noise. Our aesthetic choices [in the new Digg Reader] are designed to produce an emotional feeling of calmness. It should be that sort of thing. They reflect a conviction that distilling down and boiling down is the need. If you look at the Digg home page right now, that's 70 things that cycle through that are picked by human editors. There's gotta be math, too."
A screen shot of the new Digg reader.
How good is the math right now?
"We've built one algorithm for popularity, one for popularity within social circles, and we're starting to work on 'interestingness' in a personalized sense. It seems that there's a huge amount of room for improvement. The usual ways of calculating recommended for you kinds of things don't work that great. Betaworks' [the company behind the Digg Reader] expertise is in real data, social data, big data. That will be what we're noodling over — how to make usable, valuable products out of what's available.
"If you watch recommendation projects like Netflix, the trick to that is the only thing they know is what you watch, is what rating you give it. That's not that much. In the Internet world we can look at: What do you save? What do you open to read? How much of it did you read through? What did you do after you read it — delete it or archive it? That's a lot more signals. What did you tweet or send your Facebook friends?"
How concerned are you that the more these algorithms improve to tailor our content to precisely the topics or material we want to see, the more we live in our own "filter bubbles" of media — consuming only content that promotes and preserves our biases and preferences?
"It can. Part of what we're building is informed by what Eli Pariser [author of The Filter Bubble] and many before him wrote. Our sense about that is that the way to break through the bubble is not to have just one algorithm. Facebook has one way to decide what goes in your feed. We want to provide 10 or 15 ways to rank your items or any feed or any given folder. For example, if you go by popularity globally, that won't have a political bias if it really is the world. If you look within your social circles, you'll see things the rest of the world isn't paying attention to, what we are [paying attention to] domestically. We're also thinking about a sort by 'grade level.' You can analyze writing by grade level up to grad school. But I buy the critique. Which is why I don't think Google+ or Facebook is a good substitute for a reader."
Yeah, I feel like my Facebook feed is constantly changing and sending me more and more random stuff.
"Our feeds are getting puzzling — genuinely puzzling. Even if you click on chronological view, you still don't see everything. Even that is selected. It's not all of the things that all of your friends are sharing. That's probably maximizing monetization for Facebook, not your utility."
So readers aren't dead.
"Readers aren't dead because reading isn't dead. We're trying to build a comprehensive reading, viewing, listening experience. Our iPhone app and iPad app has a feature that allows you to play podcasts in your feeds, in order. You can hit that button and it pulls out podcasts and videos and plays them one after another. That's kind of great. We'll have a control panel so you can delete the ones you don't want or reorganize them. That's the kind of thing that Google Reader never did. It's about what you want to read, view and watch. There's no less need for reading. More reading is just happening on devices. So there's a huge amount of demand."
Who else is thinking about these issues in an interesting way?
"ReederFeedlyFlipboard. There's some edgier cases like Zite and Prismatic which are more about topical clustering. They take a different approach. Zite is source-based. Flipboard is that beautiful, visual magazine experience.
"We at Digg are trying to say it's not about just showing you everything you want to see in reverse chron that you scroll through. We're gonna try to give you ways to reorganize and reorder that stuff to get you the most important, longest stuff first and work the way through."
What's your advice for folks as we confront the end of Google Reader?
"Be prepared to sample and shop around; experiment with the different approaches, takes and user experiences. If you find one that you don't like, odds are there is another one that's what you're looking for."

In Newsrooms, Some Immigration Terms Are Going Out Of Style

Journalists make choices all the time that influence our understanding of the news — the choice of what stories to cover, which people to interview, which words to use. And major news organizations have been reconsidering how best to describe a group of people whose very presence in this country breaks immigration law.
News organizations as institutions often decide which terms to use in describing contentious subjects, then codify them in what are called stylebooks. They are subject to change just as society's views change. Just consider terms used to describe race in this country.
"It goes back to the Garden of Eden," says former New York Times and Washington Postreporter Roberto Suro. "Naming is the first power that humans got and it's still the most powerful that the human intellect received from its creator."
Now a scholar at the University of Southern California, Suro says that when it comes to describing people who are in this country illegally, the media are reflecting the times.
"News organizations are kind of struggling. I believe they are reflecting what's happening in society, where what we see in the political arena is a society that's trying to sort out how to think about these people and where they belong in our society."
Protesters demonstrate in downtown Orlando, Fla., on May 1, 2006. 
Most news outlets have long abandoned the use of the term "illegals."
Moving Toward A Fuller Description
As Congress debates the merits of creating a quicker means for people here illegally to obtain citizenship, several major news outlets have shifted their policies. In April, the Associated Press decided the word "illegal" should only be used to describe actions, not people — the issue of illegal immigration, rather than illegal immigrants.
At the Los Angeles Times, Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann noticed reporters were writing articles where they did not use the term "illegal immigrant" even though it was preferred.
Fuhrmann oversees standards as well as the paper's copy editing desk, which enforces those standards.
"I thought we either had to affirm our style and try to apply it more regularly or in fact listen to the voice of the newsroom as we're listening to the voices outside the newsroom and say maybe it was time for a fresh start."
Fuhrmann himself is the son of an American father and a Japanese mother. He was born in Japan while his father served in the Navy, and years after moving to the U.S. his mother became a naturalized citizen. He recalls asking one reporter which terms he used in his coverage.
"He found, to his surprise, that he would use 'illegal immigrant' if he was talking to, say, advocates of, say, stricter border control and he would use 'undocumented immigrant' if he was talking more to those being described."
The Los Angeles Times changed its policy, dropping both "illegal immigrants" and "undocumented immigrants" for a fuller description of those people. The New York Times has not abandoned "illegal immigrant" but encourages deeper characterization — a position shared by NPR.
A Politically Loaded Decision
Mickey Kaus of the right-of-center website The Daily Caller has been critical of pushes to relax immigration restrictions. He says journalists are bending to ideological pressure.
"It's heavily politically loaded," he says. "I think 'illegal immigrants' is really quite a clear phrase. It's so clear that President Obama used it when he was trying to make himself clear in a speech. He later apologized, but the fact that he used it implies that it is a very useful shorthand, as are all words, for what you're talking about."
Kaus says news organizations are tying themselves in knots to not offend Latino activists, Latino consumers and the advertisers who hope to reach them.
"Now we have this theory that no one word can possibly describe the inevitable state of being, whatever it is. Maybe it should be an unpronounceable symbol like Prince, 'cause we don't dare give it a name. Language is supposed to give things names and I don't think 'illegal immigrant' is that offensive a name."
Failing To Sidestep The Debate
The Fox News Channel has some particularly interesting contortions on the subject. In late April, while filling in for Sean Hannity, Monica Crowley went old-school and used the term "illegals." Fox News' preferred term is "illegal immigrant," though anchor Shepard Smith will sometimes use the phrase "undocumented immigrant." In March of last year, Bryan Llenas, a reporter for Fox News' sister website, Fox News Latino, told Fox viewers why the issue is charged for Hispanics.
"Nine in 10 support the DREAM Act; 85 percent support undocumented workers working in this country. And if you ask them whether they prefer the word 'illegal' versus 'undocumented,' a majority of them believe that the word 'illegal,' the term 'illegal immigrant,' is offensive."
That's why Fox News Latino doesn't use it. USC's Suro says journalists are attempting to sidestep the raging political debate — but they can't avoid getting swept up in it.

How Fox Pioneered A Formula For Latino News

First published 5/1/2013

SAG-AFTRA National Co-President Roberta Reardon Running for NY Local President

UP: Roberta Reardon
Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Roberta Reardon

She’ll top the ticket of an opposing group of New York candidates.

 Hollywood Reporter (click here)

SAG-AFTRA co-president Roberta Reardon is running for president of the union’s New York Local, the union leader told The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview. Reardon will run as part of a new group, NYC4U.
“I’m thrilled to announce that I’m running for New York Local president with a terrific coalition of New York leaders from both of the former unions,” she said, referring to SAG-AFTRA’s pre-merger predecessor organizations. “We’ll be announcing the full list (of NYC4U candidates) soon.”

Reardon was national president of AFTRA and is co-president of SAG-AFTRA along with fellow co-president Ken Howard, former president of SAG. He’s running for re-election, this time as sole SAG-AFTRA president.

Howard has endorsed incumbent NY Local president Mike Hodge for reelection. According to a source, Reardon previously attempted to get Hodge to step aside and not run for reelection, so that she could run unopposed. That didn’t happen: Hodge is topping the ticket for an established slate called USAN, as THR reported on Thursday.

USAN has been allied in the past with Unite for Strength (UFS), the Los Angeles based group that is led by several of the union’s current officers, including Howard, SAG-AFTRA executive vice president Ned Vaughn and union secretary-treasurer Amy Aquino.
However, UFS is not endorsing either group this time around.

“Unite for Strength recognizes that elected members and candidates from both of New York's recently announced slates have contributed remarkably to the prosperity of SAG, AFTRA and now SAG-AFTRA,” says a statement on UFS’s Facebook page.

 “UFS representatives have developed friendships and excellent working relationships with members from both groups. In recognition of the above and the fact that Unite for Strength is a Los Angeles based organization, we will not be officially endorsing either NY slate.”

The statement adds, “Individual UFS members are, of course, free to endorse anyone in any local, but Unite for Strength as a group will only endorse candidates for the directly elected National officers and our own candidates here in Los Angeles.”

UFS’s Vaughn is not running for reelection as executive vice president. Sources say that Reardon will run for that office, albeit without Howard’s endorsement. Reardon declined to comment on any evp plans she may have.

The evp is elected at the union’s convention, which will be held at the end of September, whereas most other positions, such as president, secretary-treasurer, local president, and board seats, are elected by direct balloting in a process that runs from mid-July to mid-August.

Bookmark The Hollywood Reporter’s Labor Page for the most in-depth coverage of entertainment unions and guilds.

Email: jhandel99 at gmail dot com
Twitter: @jhandel