Category Archives: Technology

The Globe and the Post upgrade their digital offerings

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Two newspapers have dramatically improved their digital offerings. The Boston Globe has unveiled four radically redesigned web pages for the Boston’s professional teams—the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots, and the Bruins. The emphasis is on huge photos and on gathering together in one place everything you want to know about your favorite team. Sports editor Joe Sullivan offers a rundown.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, is testing a new mobile website that it is calling its Progressive Web App, which you can access by clicking here. The PWA uses new technology to load instantly—as fast as Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, or news stories coded for Google’s new Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) standard.

These are both a couple of leaps forward. Even though the Globe‘s online presence is better than that of many newspapers, it needs to communicate to its readers that digital is a superior experience to print. The sports pages could be a prelude of things to come in other parts of the paper. The Post is well-known for its cutting-edge technology, but the speed of PWA is—as chief information officer Shailesh Prakash is quoted as saying in this press release—”a game-changing experience.”

A couple of quibbles. First of all, the Globe needs to focus on speed. Its responsive website is loads quickly enough on my Mac, but it’s slower on my phone and slower still on my aging iPad. That’s as true of the new sports pages as it is of the rest of the site. Second, it would be nice if the Post‘s PWA site loaded on a tablet and not just on a phone.

Finally, I found the type size a bit on the small side in both products with no way to make it bigger.

A digital toolkit for better recording, better transcribing

reel-tape

Photo (cc) 2014 by darkday

Before the emergence of digital tools, recording and (especially) transcribing an interview was a tedious affair. The little micro-cassette tapes were of dubious reliability—and yes, I once had one fail on me during a crucial and contentious encounter. Transcribing was worse, as you’d sit there constantly hitting the “play” and “rewind” buttons, an imprecise process that risked damage to the tape.

I’ve been all-digital for maybe 10 years now. But I didn’t really begin upping my game until I tested my little Olympus recorder in a New Haven hotel room one morning in 2011 only to discover that it was pining for the fjords.

Since then, I have assembled a digital recording toolkit that I hope will be useful for journalists. By now, of course, nearly all of us are recording interviews on our smartphones. But I’ve been surprised by reporters who’ve told me their transcription technique consists of nothing more than playing back the audio on their phones. These tips, I hope, will make it easier for you to record and transcribe.

Read the rest at Storybench, part of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Tweaking comments: Moving away from a real-names policy

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’ve finally decided to implement it. I am taking a tactical step back from requiring real names in the comments section. I will continue to screen every comment before it’s posted, which I’ve come to realize is of much greater value than real names.

Since I first started requiring real names a few years ago, the online conversation has changed quite a bit. Comments at Media Nation and many other websites have dropped precipitously. At the same time, I post links to everything I write on Facebook, which often leads to in-depth, high-quality interactions. As you probably know, Facebook does require real names, and though not everyone goes along, most do. Here is my Facebook profile. We don’t need to be “friends,” since I post blog content to my public feed. In my opinion, the shift to Facebook is far more important than whether I require real names here.

The other reason I’m moving away from real names here is that several of my most regular commenters log in via WordPress under their screen names, forcing me to go in and change it to their real names. It’s a pain in the neck. Then, too, there are the excellent comments from people I don’t know who haven’t used their real names. I’ll often email them and ask them to resubmit under their real names. If I don’t hear from them, their comment goes unpublished.

As with everything in digital media, this is experimental. I may change my mind again or go in a completely different direction. Thank you for reading. If you want to comment here, be my guest, but I strongly recommend looking me up on Facebook.

Talking about blogging at the Kennedy School

Here is the slideshow for a talk I gave earlier today on blogging. And here is the longer post on which it is based.

Many thanks to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Communications Program and the Shorenstein Center for having me.

A polite debate over Apple, the FBI, and encryption

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I had expected fireworks—or at least strong disagreements—when Internet privacy advocate Jonathan Zittrain and former CIA director John Deutsch debated the impasse between Apple and the FBI over a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Instead, the two men offered nuance and a rough if imperfect consensus over how much access we should have to technologies that allow us to encrypt our personal data in ways that place it beyond the government’s reach.

“Many other paths to data are available. We are exuding data all over the place,” said Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. “The FBI has chosen this case … in large part, I think, because there is so little privacy interest on the other side.”

Deutsch, an emeritus professor at MIT, sought to draw a distinction between law enforcement and terrorism investigations such as the San Bernardino case. Authorities say they need to know what was on the phone used by the late Syed Rizwan Farook because it might reveal the identities of accomplices who are planning future attacks.

“There’s a big difference between law enforcement and national security,” Deutsch said. Law enforcement, he explained, is about “catching bad people,” whereas the aim of national security is “to avoid a catastrophe.” There is a public interest in requiring cooperation from companies such as Apple in a national-security investigation, he said, with the courts setting boundaries for when such cooperation should be compelled.

If that sounds like disagreement, it was so polite and mildly worded as to create barely a stir. Indeed, people in the packed hall at Harvard’s Kennedy School on Monday evening—most of them Apple partisans, I suspect—seemed to appreciate a discussion that focused more on the fine points of technology and the law rather than on broad proclamations about Internet freedom versus the threat of terrorism.

Then, too, technology is changing so rapidly that the points raised during the debate may soon be obsolete.

Apple has been ordered to write software that will enable government investigators to gain access to Farook’s data; the company has filed an appeal seeking to overturn that order. But as Zittrain noted, Apple executives say they will soon offer encryption software to consumers that will make it impossible for anyone—even Apple itself—to break in. Such software, Zittrain added, is already available from various sources, which means that even if it were legally banned, it could still be used.

And that changes the nature of what’s at stake. As the San Bernardino case has played out, I’ve been more sympathetic to the government than to Apple. Why shouldn’t a corporation be required to comply with a court order to provide information in a terrorism investigation? And if it’s extraordinary to demand that Apple to write software so that the phone can be accessed, what of it? That’s simply a consequence of Apple’s engineering decisions.

As Deutsch put it: “That’s not really the essential point. It’s a minor part of the issue.”

On the other hand, I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the idea that Apple and other companies could be forbidden to offer encryption so strong that even they would lack the means to bypass it. Requiring companies to build in a so-called back door would open the way not just to legitimate investigations but to privacy breaches and fraud, and would hand yet another tool to authoritarian governments seeking to repress dissent.

Zittrain and Deutsch talked about what role Congress and the courts might play in finding the proper balance between privacy and security. I asked them whether those institutions could have any role at all in a world in which no one but the end user would be able to bypass the encryption settings.

Zittrain responded that we have never lived in an era when every bit of data is accessible to a government investigator with a warrant. Even so, he said, there will continue to be vast amounts of personal data available to investigators despite the existence of strong encryption. “There’s a whole constellation of data points out there,” he said, calling it “an embarrassment of riches.”

I found Deutsch’s response more intriguing, reflecting as it did his both cloak-and-dagger days at the CIA and his long career in science.

“I don’t believe that phones irrevocably go dark,” he said, explaining that he believes Apple and other companies will retain the ability to unlock encrypted devices regardless of what they publicly proclaim. He also offered what he called “a suspicious paranoid point: all of these phones are made in China.” Would the Chinese government really allow the manufacture of technology that it couldn’t somehow access?

With technology changing so rapidly, Zittrain said, the current dispute between Apple and the FBI is “a bellwether rather than the case of the century.”

This time, in other words, Apple says that it won’t. Next time, it may say that it can’t.

The Globe unveils a new app for tablets and smartphones

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The Globe‘s new iPad app. Click on image for larger view.

Thursday update: Significant second-day glitches. Shortly after 7 a.m., the most recent edition I could get was Wednesday’s. Then the app started telling me I needed an Internet connection, even though WiFi was working fine. Finally, a few minutes before 9, the problems seemed to be fixed.


Change isn’t always a disaster for The Boston Globe. This morning I clicked on the Globe‘s iPad app, which is based on a replica of the print edition. And the app was automatically overwritten by an entirely new version that looks much more like the ePaper available on BostonGlobe.com. It also seems to be a welcome improvement.

With the new app you can download the entire day’s paper (the only option with the previous version) or read it online. You can share articles on Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks, which represents a substantial upgrade. Tap on a story and it loads in a computer-friendly reading format. One refinement I’d like to see: when you click to make the type bigger, it should stay that way so that you don’t have to do it with each story.

The improvements aren’t dramatic, but overall the app feels more solid and complete.

The new version is also available for iPhone and, I suppose, those Android things as well. The previous version carried the miLibris brand; the new one is unbranded, though I see the company is still touting its relationship with the Globe. So maybe this is an improved miLibris product. (Or not; see update.)

The replica edition is not my favorite way of reading a newspaper. But BostonGlobe.com loads slowly on my iPad, and every so often I like to see what the paper looks like in print. Given the Globe‘s ongoing problems with home delivery, if you like print and have an iPad, you might want to give the new app a try.

Update: Former Globe digital guy Damon Kiesow reports that the new vendor is PageSuite:

Twitter’s slide and newspaper apps that don’t quite work

Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Twitter, long a laggard behind Facebook, may be reaching a crisis point. Despite the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey, the stock price is sliding, its user base is stagnant and journalists — many of whom have long been enamored of Twitter because of its flexibility — are beginning to realize that far more of their audience is on Facebook.

Recently Umair Haque wrote a post for Medium headlined “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)” in which he argued that the platform has become the leading outlet for a certain type of nasty incivility — a place where “little violences that permeate the social web” get their more extravagant airing.

The post degenerates into overwrought handwringing. But before Haque gets to the part where he starts critiquing the meaning of life, he raises some important questions about Twitter. Why is Facebook (usually) a more civil place that fosters better conversations than Twitter?

Some of the answers seem obvious. On Facebook, you’re not bound by the 140-character restriction, which makes it more congenial for a conversation to develop. Facebook also makes it easier (though not as easy as it should) to define your community, whereas Twitter assumes you want everything to be open to everyone. Yes, you can fiddle with the settings, but it makes the service feel less useful.

A couple of years ago, I vastly preferred Twitter to Facebook. Now I find Facebook to be much more satisfying. I’m not sure whether Twitter has changed or if, instead, what I’m looking for in a social platform has evolved. Maybe it’s just that the novelty of Twitter has worn off.

Twitter recently unveiled curated stories called Moments, which might help in attracting those who were put off by the sheer labor you have to put into assembling a worthwhile list of feeds. If users started thinking about it differently — say, as more of a broadcast medium, a more flexible form of RSS, rather than as a place to have a conversation — that might help, too.

Or Twitter might curl up and die. Technologies come and go. There is no guarantee that Twitter will be one of the survivors, or that it should be.

The trouble with apps. Like many newspapers, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have bet the farm on online distribution. Each has tablet apps (the Post has two!) that create a reading experience somewhat similar to the print newspaper. As a regular reader of both papers, I want to point out a bug in each. (Caveat: I could be doing something wrong.)

First, the Globe app, which is based upon a replica of the print edition, has a feature that supposedly lets you share an article on Twitter or Facebook. But the link it produces does not take you to the article. Instead, it takes you to the App Store, where you are invited to download the Globe’s iPad app. Which, of course, you already have.

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The app, designed by miLibris, has improved greatly since a buggy version was released some months back. But this particular bug has prevailed. Time to fix it, eh?

My issue with The Washington Post involves its “classic” app, which is older than the sexy new magazine-like app that’s included with Amazon Prime — but which is also more comprehensive. (An overview of the Post’s various digital products can be found here.)  It’s simple: the audio in videos does not play on my iPad, even though they are preceded by video ads that work just fine. The same videos also work fine when I try them on the newer app.

I would love to know whether the Globe and the Post are going to fix the bugs I’ve described — or if, as is always possible, I’m doing something boneheaded to create problems that don’t actually exist.