July 22, 2009

Walkability: 2 local events tonight

There are two events of note this evening for those interested in livable, walkable communities.

In Framingham, there's a Cochituate Rail Trail workshop if you'd like to find out more about trail plans and offer comments of your own.  The design will be ready for preview starting at 6:30 pm, with a formal presentation beginning at 7 followed by comments and Q&A. That's in the Memorial Building (town hall) Blumer Room, 150 Concord St.

Or, attend a talk on "Mode Shift:  moving from driving to transit, biking, and walking" hosted by LivableStreets Alliance in Central Square (100 Sidney St.) from 7-9 pm in Cambridge. Jason Schrieber discusses what factors get people out of their cars. Better mass transit, bike lanes and sidewalks? Financial incentives such as gas tax and parking prices? Better land use patterns?

July 16, 2009

Hands-on look at the Posterous platform

My hands-on review of Posterous posted last Friday on Computerworld.com. In general, I like the service, but I do wonder at the wisdom of single, un-modified broadcasts out to all social networking platforms at once. For instance, if you use the same title for your Posterous post and Twitter tweet, either you're not taking advantage of the specific Twitter culture (@ to refer to people, hashtags when mentioning popular subjects) or you've got an odd looking post title elsewhere.


Posted via web from Sharon Machlis' 'Lifestream'

The triumph of cheap junk

Whether it's food or clothing or electronics, most Americans are being conditioned by advertising to value, well, value. Quality? Not so much.

Unless you''re part of the upper-income "luxury goods" demographic (I'm not), as an American you are bombarded with messages that low price is the ideal. Wal-Mart, one of the nation's most successful retailers, boasts in its slogan: "Save money. Live better." Fast food outlets tout their "value meals."

It was this way even before the recession: Retailers targeting the middle class talked less about quality than quantity. The message has long been "get more stuff for less," not "spend a little more to get something a lot better."

Finally, some are starting to question this meme. The documentary Food Inc spotlights the crappy junk being passed off as food in this country;  the book In Defense of Food laments corporate-created food-like substances that have replaced wholesome, tasty, healthy food in our supermarkets.

And it's the message of  Cheap: The High Cost of discount Culture, which Yvonne Abraham highlighted in the Globe yesterday. In a visit to Target with the book's author, Ellen Ruppel Shell, Abraham notices that some of the best "bargains" are actually shoddy merchandise. It dawns on her that all the signs promoting products brag about low prices. None of the signs mentioned the quality of products; "they barely mentioned the products, period."

Now let's be clear here: I'm not advocating spending ridiculous sums for the latest hot fad, or spending extra money for something that doesn't offer anything extra but a "name." My complaint is that too many of our cultural cues no longer value well-crafted, well-made products that also actually do offer value, if you consider the enjoyment they bring and how long they'll last.

I'm not going to give up all low-cost bargain merchandise. But I think the balance between cheap and quality has gotten a bit out of whack in our pop culture.

If you want to add a few trendy things to your wardrobe that are likely to go out of style soon, low-cost won't-last-forever make sense. Ditto for clothing for kids who grow quickly. Few of us can afford high prices for everything.

But I want to stop following the siren song of manufacturers and retailers enticing us to make impulse purchases of cheap goods that we may or may not actually need. We're much less likely to impulse buy a high quality item with a heftier pricetag.

Visit a place like Italy or France, where citizens still care deeply about quality of food and clothing, and you begin to understand what we've sacrificed in the pursuit of more for less. Simple meals in Italy are often fabulous, not only due to skills of the chef, but also the quality of ingredients -- locally grown and harvested to maximize flavor, not engineered and mass-produced for maximum longevity and minimum cost. I've heard some people complain about prices at local farmers markets, not understanding that it costs more to grow a tomato for flavor than for shelf life.

"Compared to the 9.9 percent of their income Americans spend on food, the Italians spend 14.9 percent, the French 14.9 percent, and the Spanish 17.1 percent," notes In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan. As a result, Pollan argues, people in those societies not only eat better than we do; they're healthier. Pollan readily admits that not everyone has the luxury to spend more on quality food, but argues that some who could spend more for nutritious food do not. He thinks that's a mistake, and here's why. Which does it make sense to spend more on: enjoyable, high-quality, high-flavor food or medical expenses to treat the diseases that come from a fast-food, sugar/corn syrup/salt-laden, nutrient-poor Western diet?

July 14, 2009

Why the Economist is thriving while other weekly news mags aren't

How can the Economist -- expensive, few ads, limited online presence -- be thriving in the digital age when so many other weekly news magazines are in trouble? The Atlantic makes an intriguing point about the value of insight as opposed to simply offering lots of info:

Now that information is infinitely replicable and pervasive, original reporting will never again receive its due. The real value of the Economist lies in its smart analysis of everything it deems worth knowing—and smart packaging, which may be the last truly unique attribute in the digital age.

I'm not sure I'd go that far. Someone still has to go out there and do original reporting. But "original reporting" is not stenography. The task of relating informaiton from a press conference or event has become commodity news, and that field is overcrowded. Now that it's so easy to see reports from so many sources about, say, a presidential press conference or major vendor product announcement, you can find hundreds of similar stories about such things. How many are actually needed? Some, without question. But I doubt we need the number we have now.

Successful publishers must either find less crowded niches or more useful way of serving broader markets. Those who want to play in the breaking news space must also deliver authoritative, useful analysis. That's also "original reporting."

The biggest favor we can do for our audience is to help them deal with information overload. People already have plenty of random acts of information. Ultimately, we need to respond to the same questions I was asking reporters to answer 20 years ago:

So what?

Who cares?

Why does this matter?

Those are the questions the Economist helps its readers answer, and what those of us publishing in any format must address if we expect our audience to invest their time in what we do.


Posted via web from Sharon Machlis' 'Lifestream'

July 1, 2009

Las Vegas Sun online head: 'We now geocode every story on our site'

I'm a big believer in bringing order to the chaos of text. Even if you only bring a smidgen of structure to that information, you add so much more reader value. In fact, it's become a joke around the newsroom how often I use the phrase "structured data." My boss, editor in chief Scot Finnie, keeps urging me to come up with something catchier. I'm thinking "mashup-ready" might work.

The classic case is the old Chicagocrime.org, one of the first mashups. Instead of simply posting a lot of local crimes news as individual plain-text stories ("There was a house break-in at 123 X street Tuesday...."), online journalism pioneer Adrian Holovaty got all the information into a database where site visitors could search and sort by neighborhood, type of crime, day and more. Holovaty has since gone on to work on the grant-funded Everyblock.com.

Rob Curley is another well-known name in the field of onine journalism. One of his biggest areas of expertise is so-called hyper-local coverage online. In a recent interview at Media Bistro, Curley said:

We now geo-code every story on our site, every piece of content. We either add an exact latitude and longitude to it or, if we don't have that, then we try to at least get it down to the zip code. Soon, if you give your zip code you can have all of those stories now on one page. You can have all of the home foreclosures and homes that have been sold on that page; you can have all the crimes. We can show you all the rotary club meetings, all the high school shows that are in your zip code, the movie listings that are closest to you... We've build the page so that it works very much like iGoogle does, so you can move all the boxes around in any order that you want.

That's adding value to your content -- something all of us in the media business need to be doing. At Computerworld, it's why we have our Best Places to Work in IT sortable by a dozen criteria such as training budget and percent of staff promoted, as well as by company size and region. It's why we now our product reviews in a (very simple) database, so site visitors can search and sort by product and product category as well as see story headlines. And it's why so many people are starting to pay attention to the intersection of journalism and technology.

Posted via web from Sharon Machlis' 'Lifestream'