Category Archives: Technology

The web is no longer a place we visit. It’s how we live.

Before the web, there was Prodigy. And no, it wasn't much good.

Before the web, there was Prodigy. And no, it wasn’t much good.

The web—or, as we used to call it, the World Wide Web—is 25 years old this month. On August 6, 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who had outlined his idea for the web two years earlier, published the first website. It was, as the Telegraph put it, “a basic text page with hyperlinked words that connected to other pages.”

Those of us who were there at the beginning understood that this was a big deal. Even so, the revolution it launched could not have been imagined. As Virginia Heffernan put it in her recent book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, “The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization.” And the web provides the road map that makes the internet navigable.

Read the rest at

Slides for my AEJMC talk on recording and transcribing

Doing this on my phone. I’ll try to pretty this up later, but for now, just click here.

Virginia Heffernan’s random but rewarding Magic and Loss

Virginia Heffernan. Photo via The Cube.

Virginia Heffernan. Photo via The Cube.

Previously published at

A half-century after Marshall McLuhan warned us that our media tools shape who we are (“The medium is the message”), and a half-dozen years after Nicholas Carr lamented that the Internet was undermining our ability to read and think in a linear, coherent manner, Virginia Heffernan has written a book that proves both of them right.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $26) is an honest-to-God book, with paper, ink, and a binding. (Or so I’ve heard. I downloaded the Kindle version.) Reading it, though, feels more like randomly browsing the web than it does like reading a book.

Look here: An essay on the aesthetics of Instagram and Flickr photography. Click. An argument that closed apps offer a better—yet more elitist—experience than the open web. Click. A discussion of epigrammatic poetry demonstrating that its most influential practitioners would have been right at home on Twitter. (Blaise Pascal’s “Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak,” published in 1669, takes up just 58 characters.) Click. Newton Minow did all of us a favor by calling television “a vast wasteland,” since it imbued the young medium with the transgressive quality that all great art needs. Click.

But if Heffernan offers us a lot of little ideas, she has a big one as well: that the Internet giveth, and it taketh away. At 46, she isn’t quite a digital native, though she’s certainly more of one than I am. Perhaps more relevant is that she’s been around just long enough to experience the digital revolution in its many forms. The good and bad of life online is clearer to her than it would be to someone 20 years younger.

“The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization,” she writes, adding: “As an idea it rivals monotheism.” But even monotheism has its drawbacks. In her chapter on music, for instance, she offers a compelling argument on what has been lost as music was transformed from performers on a stage to tinny, ultracompressed sounds that you listen to on your smartphone. (Click. A diversion into the rise of military headphones in World War II and how returning veterans embraced them as a way to listen to music while tuning out the rest of the family.)

Of course, the assertion that MP3s offer sound quality inferior to the CDs and LPs that preceded them is hardly novel. But Heffernan gives it an unexpected twist, writing that she bought her first iPod around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that she welcomed a mechanical tone untethered from the messy reality of how music is actually supposed to sound. (But Norah Jones? Really?) Only later did she realize that she missed “the echo of the chirp of the bassist’s sneakers on the wooden stage as he nervously kicks his foot or the sound of the backup singer’s lungs still metabolizing pot smoke.”

There is more, much more—on the humanistic orientation of technologists like Steve Jobs versus the cold rationality of scientists; on the aesthetic differences between electricity (“the province of the engineer and the rationalist”) and electronics (“the province of the irrationalist, the deconstructionist, the druggie, and the mystic”).

Heffernan ties these disparate strands together in a closing chapter that starts off as annoyingly self-indulgent but ends with a measure of humility and grace. She traces her development from an Episcopalian-turned-Jew-turned-Episcopalian (with detours into something like atheism); as someone who rejected philosophy in favor of literary criticism (she has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard); and as the author of a widely mocked 2013 essay titled “Why I’m a Creationist,” whose ethos (“They say it works even if you don’t believe in it,” she writes, quoting a physicist Twitter friend) remains a guidepost for her.

I started out reading Magic and Loss hoping to glean some ideas that would be useful for my work as a journalist and academic who writes about journalism. What I encountered was an extended meditation on the nature of art and God, on immortality and death. Heffernan has written a book that is by turns frustrating and insightful—and that always aims high.

Did Verizon pull a fast one on Marty Walsh?

At Universal Hub, cybah analyzes two Huffington Post articles by Bruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, and concludes that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh may have gotten taken for a ride by Verizon.

Let me cut to the chase: Apparently Verizon’s $300 million deal to provide FiOS broadband service to homes and businesses in Boston is a lot less than it seems. Instead, Verizon may be planning to install wireless transmitters on utility poles around the city for two reasons: (1) it costs a whole lot less and (2) it would allow the company to avoid being regulated as a full-fledged cable provider.

I have not delved into this deeply. This is more of an assignment-desk post: well worth following up by local journalists.

More: Additional context from local media and technology activist Saul Tanenbaum, writing for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

The Globe and the Post upgrade their digital offerings

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.11.11 AM

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


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.