Monday, September 26, 2005

TimesSelect and 'Free Plus'

I wrote recently on the New York Times’s new TimesSelect program (Aside: why on earth did the Times pick two words that end and start with the same letter for the name?) but after reading Jay Rosen’s thought-provoking and comprehensive post on the matter, I feel more is necessary.

One of the main points in the posting is that charging for opinion columns makes no sense since one non-governmental figure's views on something are worth(less) as much as the next informed person's, thus, no one would be inclined to pay for them.

To me, this idea is based on the theory that most people care more about what one ought to think about the news rather than what it really and truly is. That’s perfectly natural considering that no one has the time to try and find out everything about every story.

At this point, the best way a news medium can deliver on this expectation is through an opinion piece or in a toned down “news analysis,” since like their publics, they, too have limited resources to discover what’s really happening.

This is why the opinion columns in newspapers (whether about sports, news, politics, or the party scene) are what keeps people reading. News consumers come back for more because they expect not only good information but the manner in which it is delivered. It’s also the primary reason why blogs have become so popular so rapidly in this country but not in others with similar internet penetration. (The USA is not even the first in that regard.) People like news delivered with some attitude, especially if done with one they find agreeable. The American press’s absurd pretensions to objectivity saw to it that the public’s desire for their preferred news was being largely ignored.

Talk radio, Fox News Channel, and blogging have been the ways in which this public desire for more zesty news coverage have been met. That isn’t to say that the “new media” are all that profound, though. Most blogs don’t produce much that’s of great value, especially since the plurality of them seem to be written by people under 20 who comment on their daily experiences. Similarly, the missing-white-girl-obsessed Fox News and the johnny-one-notes of talk radio usually don’t provide perspicacious analysis or engage in superb investigative reporting (not to say they can’t).

What the new media do provide is a means to facilitate discussion. Agree or disagree, getting your news from someone who admits to being a human being is far more engaging and entertaining than listening to broom-up-the-ass talking heads who insist that not only do they not have opinions, even if they did, they’d never allow them to intrude into their reporting.

Statistical studies bear this conclusion out. In a survey released last June, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 55 percent of respondents liked it when news outlets presented debates between differing sides, as opposed to 6 percent who said they disliked it. On the question of personality in the news, 53 percent said they liked it when “reporters with present personalities” present the news.

Among people who follow so-called hard news heavily, 43 percent said they like news that shares their viewpoint compared to just 13 percent among those with low interest.

More than likely, the TimesSelect program is based on the above concepts.

This may seem odd at first since the arguments I just mentioned are points used by critics of TS. The commonplace nature of opinion is just the thing that the dominant Times faction seems to be banking on--except in their minds, the expectation is that the public not only wants to know what others think about sports, news, and politics; it also will place a premium on the opinions of the newspaper’s reliable, accurate, and bemusing columnists.

That’s a gamble in my view even though it’s certainly true that a fairly large number of people--the types who believe every word the Times publishes with the exception of 65 percent of every David Brooks column. The trouble for the Times, though, is that this group of people is an ever-shrinking number of people.

This leads me to wonder: What if TimesSelect (especially the part where columnists will interact with subscribers) is actually just a deal sweetener to get people to subscribe to the paper’s archives? A ham-fisted concession to the idea of information communities?

If that’s what TimesSelect is, I think the idea could have some merit if the cost-benefit ratio were a bit more lucrative for the customer and more enticing for the window-shopper.

Not only should the Times allow today’s columns to be available tomorrow, as Doc Searls suggests, the paper should allow subscribers to see tomorrow’s news today (and not just Sunday’s as it is at present). An expansion of the public editor’s office to include a “subscribers’ advocate” might also prove attractive, especially since current public editor Byron Calame is perpetually overwhelmed with queries.

Another valuable asset for TimesSelect subscribers might be the idea of user-controlled blogs, from which the paper might draw during times of breaking news as some media outlets did during the London Underground attacks. TimesSelect may also prove useful as a breeding ground for an NYT foray into internet television.

With some modifications, I think TimesSelect could be made more likely to succeed. In its present form (and present price), I don’t think it’s worth much for the people who are inclined to pay for online news services.

In most of the analysis on the subject that I’ve seen, the discussion seems to assume that a news source should either be fully free or entirely subscriber based and not a free/pay hybrid. I disagree. A hybrid site which is “free plus extras” can succeed as and have shown. Limbaugh’s site has been profitable from day one while the Journal’s has been profitable for the past few years.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Eight Years of Spam

I've sometimes thought about starting a spam blog, a place where people can read some of the more creative spams, solicitations or viruses that come along. Since I've moved over to Google's GMail service, though, the amount of spam I receive has declined quite a bit so that hasn't been feasible (plus who needs more work?)

Fortunately, Paul Wouter has this interesting collection of spam which he maintained for eight years, complete with lots of statistics and graphs. It's worth checking out if only to see the summaries.


Friday, September 23, 2005

Pennywit Gets Cold-called

Pennywit recounts his experience being called up and asked to join an anti-Sheehan protest.

Yet another reason I'm glad I don't have a land line.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Evaluating NYT, WSJ's Latest Efforts

Alan Mutter has two worthwhile posts up assessing the Wall Street Journal's new "Weekend Journal" and the NYT's new subscription service I wrote about recently.

Opera Browser Becomes Free

Opera Software, makers of my preferred web browser, announced yesterday that its signature product is now totally free for users. Great news.

Via Andrew Cory at Dean's World.


David Hasslehoff to Record Rap Album

Via Ace, I learned today that David Hasslehoff of "Baywatch" and "Knight Rider" (my favorite childhood TV show) fame is set to record a rap album under the name Hassle the Hoff. Supposedly washed up rapper Ice-T will be producing.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Bush Admin Attempts to Pursue Porn Purveyors

I really don't know why people think that this congressionally funded campaign to target people who create and distribute porn depicting "bestiality, urination, defecation, as well as sadistic and masochistic behavior" will do any better than federal government's CANSPAM Act did to reduce junk email.

CANSPAM has basically been a total failure. It failed primarily because trying to regulate the internet is a fool's errand--the more a country manages to suppress domestic violators, the more profitable the prohibited enterprise becomes outside its borders. Users will always be able to find a way around the restrictions as well. The CANSPAM restrictions have only made things more difficult for organizations who do bother to comply with the law.

It's basically axiomatic. Legislation trying to ban a socieotechnological behavior must rely on superior technology, which eventually will be circumvented. Without destroying free society by instituting controls on the client end, regulating the internet is like trying to draw water with a sieve.

In essense, this is the governmental conundrum. No one likes the fact that sick people do sick things. But unless those wrong actions are of such magnitude ipso facto (such as murder) or are common enough (tax evasion, drug use) that they are problems in the aggregate to the civic majority, no action will be taken. In this case, none should.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

Easy Categories for Blogger Users

Probably the most annoying things about using Blogger to run your blog is its lack of categories for your postings. As usual with technology, a big company's failures (Google in this case) means users need to create workarounds.

After getting asked this question a number of times, I decided to develop a solution which is easy to use once set up and requires less time or knowledge than other solutions out there which rely on Technorati, Delicious, or both.

All of these solutions work but to me they weren't complete. If you wanted the categories not to turn up results from other blogs when readers clicked on their links, you had to sign up for a Delicious account and manually bookmark your postings. If you avoid Delicious (many do), then you're stuck with generic Technorati tags. Plus if either of those sites go down, your categories are useless.

To solve this dilema, I decided to rely on Blogger's built-in search engine to create the categories. That way, if people can read your blog, they can use your categories. Plus, you can have as many as you like without worrying about organization.

Installing Blogger Categories
  1. Make sure you're using Mozilla Firefox as your web browser. If not, download and install it from
  2. Once you have Firefox, make sure the Bookmarks Toolbar is enabled. Check this on the View > Toolbars menu. If it's enabled, you should see a toolbar right beneath the address bar with some icons. Look at the screen in this picture right underneath the web page address bar. The toolbar with the red dinosaur is the Bookmarks Toolbar.
  3. Next, drag the following link onto a blank space on the toolbar:
    Categories: ';for(var i=0;i 0){a+=', ';}if (checkplus=='-1'){a+='
    '+tr[i]+'';}else {var chat='';var plus=tr[i].split(' ');for(var q=0;q'+tr[i]+'';}}a+='';prompt('Copy this code, press OK, then paste to your blog entry:',a);})()">Blogger Categories
  4. In the code box below, replace my blog's URL with your own. If your address is, look in the box for (it's in there twice way over on the right side of the box). Erase my URL and put yours in the box. Make sure to use no spaces.
  5. Click inside the text box, press Control+A to select all the text. Then copy it to the clipboard with Control+C.
  6. Finally, right-click on the icon you made in step 3, choose Properties. Erase everything in the Location box. Paste in the text you copied in step 5. Press OK.
Using Blogger Categories
  1. Write up your posting. When you're finished, press the "Edit HTML" button.
  2. Click inside the editing box, then move the cursor to the end of the file. Press the "Blogger Categories" button on the Bookmarks Toolbar.
  3. Follow the instructions on the box to assign one or more categories to your posting. Make sure to copy the code you get to the clipboard.
  4. Once the box is gone, press Control+V to paste in your category code. Push the "Compose" button to make sure everything is good. Publish as normal.
Code Box

Technical Info
  1. Blogger doesn't immediately update its search database. Therefore, your most recent postings will take a little while to show up in the categories list.
  2. If you haven't updated your blog for a while, your blog may not be indexed by Google's software.
  3. For best results, make the words you use for categories just a bit different from the words you use in your postings.
  4. My category hack also will make Technorati tags for any categories you create.
  5. Tip of the hat to "A Consuming Experience" for the basis of this code.

UPDATE 2006-07-11: I notice several comments on this post which I didn't see since I don't have time to check it repeatedly. If you want help, drop me an email!


Tracking Buzz with Blog Search Tools

One of the nicest features of two of the blog search engines is their ability to help you keep track of how much usage a particular word or URL is getting. Both Ice Rocket and BlogPulse offer this feature. Since blog search engines are still far away from catching up to the millions of blogs that are out there, the results you'll get when clicking the "trend" link vary quite widely.

At this point, Blogpulse's trend tool is better for three reasons: 1) it allows you to go further back into the past (six months vs. three), 2) by clicking specific points on the graph, you can view blog postings for that particular day, and 3) you can compare up to three different search terms and have them show up on your graph.

This last point is best illustrated by the following graph which shows just how little most people care about political scandals. In my chart, I searched Blogpulse for the last six months for the terms "downing street memo," "cindy sheehan," and "hurricane katrina."

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Friday, September 16, 2005

NYT to Bill Readers for Columnists

Despite the enormous popularization of blogging and other public media, the New York Times bucked the trend yesterday with an announcement that it will start charging readers a fee to read the articles of its opinion columnists.

In all honesty, when I first heard the news, I thought it was some sort of joke. Surely the Times wouldn't do something so stupid, especially after seeing the Wall Street Journal became a virtual nonentity online. The NYT's move is especially bizarre considering that since the Journal became a total subscriber site in the late 90s, it's been gradually moving toward freer content through the creation of, periodic free subscription programs, and a recent campaign to free some articles which may be of interest to bloggers.

Sure, some people will be dumb enough to register for the program. But most people, especially those who have no idea who the likes of Tom Friedman or Paul Krugman are, certainly will not. That's because to most people, an opinion slinger is far less valuable than the stuff he or she writes. People develop relationships with columnists, it's true, but only after they've done so with their writing.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Rice Tops Poll of Iowa GOPers

From the Quad-City Times:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a surprising top choice for president among Iowa Republicans, according to a poll to be released today — more than two years before the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Among 400 Republicans who said they are likely to attend the 2008 caucuses, Rice received the backing of 30.3 percent. U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was second in the survey with 16 percent, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani received support from 15.3 percent. Roughly 20 percent were undecided.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Google Enters Blog Search Sweepstakes

The crowded blog search space may soon contract now that Google has debuted its Blog Search service. Like competing services Technorati, Feedster, Blogpulse, and Ice Rocket, the database relies on site notification rather than crawling. Like Feedster and Ice Rocket, Google's index uses RSS feeds as its data source.

Google's entry is still beta quality but in some informal testing, I found it had picked up a number of blogs which its competitors had ignored. Things are about to get even more interesting as blog searching becomes increasingly sophisticated. I wonder which Google competitor will die first?

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Big News from Oracle

It looks Oracle is feeling the pressure from open source databases.

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