Archive for March 2010

Newspaper Nostalgia vs. Social Media Mania

March 14, 2010

In his book, Late Edition: A Love Story, famed Chicago journalist Bob Greene laments the decline of newspapers and the outright death of so many of them. As a longtime reporter and editor for several newspapers, including the now defunct Milwaukee Sentinel, I directly relate to his tales of quirky newsroom characters at the old Columbus Citizen-Journal, and how he developed a deep affection for the days of “extra, extra” and newsprint-stained hands.

Greene has a touching way of reliving the days when reporters would yell “copyboy” to him as a newspaper intern when they needed him to take their hard copy (typed on paper) to the linotype operators or walk a couple blocks to get them coffee and a sandwich. When he mentioned that the guys who operated the presses would fold newspapers into hats, I couldn’t help thinking, “Really? They did that at the Citizen-Journal too!?”

And he – like me – was in absolute awe at the mere idea that he would walk into a newsroom for a day’s work knowing that the next edition of the paper was a clean slate and that the work he and colleagues did that day in the newsroom would become the next morning’s newspaper that would start the day for thousands of people in his city. As you read his book, you can just feel his genuine love of newspapers; Greene has newsprint coursing through his blood.

To Greene, the guys at the Citizen-Journal, where he began his newspaper career, like mid-size newspaper reporters and editors throughout the country, were just regular people doing a days’ work and loving it. And he deeply respected them for their expertise, hard work and dedication.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he projects what these grizzled journalists would have thought if someone told them that someday any old Joe could write a story, or a column of rambling thoughts, and send it out directly and immediately to potentially millions of people using something called a blog. “I think reporters, hearing that, would have deemed the proposition so loony, they would have done pirouettes – they would have placed their fingertips on the tops of their heads and twirled around on their toes like ballerinas. It just would have struck them as deranged – to think that a reporter (not to mention anyone else who owned a computer) would have the ability to reach the world, and without having to wait for an editor’s approval, or for the presses to roll.”

There absolutely is a sadness to watching this bedrock of American democracy and society – the newspaper industry – wither away like a crumbling sheet of newsprint that’s been exposed to the searing sun for days on end. And the thought that we have fewer and fewer highly trained, experienced reporters and editors covering, and uncovering, the news and sorting fact from fiction and putting news in proper perspective is disturbing and worrisome.

But, frankly, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s a new era. It’s a new world. The newspaper industry has had a great run. But today we have so much more. As fascinating as the concept of a daily newspaper once was, it pales in comparison to the depth, the speed and the reach of the Internet. We have millions of Web sites and blogs and social networking sites. News – from a war breaking out to grandma getting her hair done – has never spread faster, and we have far more choices than anyone could ever have imagined. As someone who – like Bob Greene – has always been in awe of newspapers, I am a thousand times more fascinated by new media. It’s more convenient, more extensive, more useful, more interesting, and more exciting.

Yes, we have to be more careful about what we believe and don’t believe when we get our news from sometimes dubious online “reporters.” We have to take the source of our news into account. But having to be on our guard is a small price to pay for what we get in return.

When I started at the Milwaukee Sentinel in the late 1970s, I remember when bells would ring on the AP wire machine as important news came streaming into the newsroom. I would always walk over to see what the big, breaking news was. I loved knowing I was one of the very few people in the country at that moment to know about this news. Most people would have to wait for the next morning when the paper would arrive on their doorstep.

Now, I get an automatic text alert when breaking news occurs. I’m no longer one of just a few who get the news first. I am one of millions, but that’s OK. Even though I no longer work in a newspaper newsroom, I have never had more access to the news than I do today. And I love it.

Adding a kick to YouTube

March 12, 2010

Have you ever wanted to download a YouTube video? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? But, when you tried, you probably discovered it’s just not as easy as you thought it would be.

Although you can usually count on the brainiacs at Google (which owns YouTube) to turn such a task into a breeze, in this case they simply don’t, or won’t. (I imagine they have their reasons, although it seems hypocritical to me that the world’s biggest advocates of online sharing of information – and the world’s biggest privacy disregarders – have concerns about protecting – of all things – YouTube videos.) Yes, there are several third-party tools to help you get-r-done, but I have yet to find one that as convenient and straightforward as KickYouTube.

No software to download, no URL to remember or bookmark, no pop-up ads, no annoying icon blinking away on the top of your menu bar. This is work-around at its best. And all you have to do is remember one word: Kick.

Here’s what you do:

  • Go to YouTube.
  • Open the page with the video you want to download.
  • Add the word Kick in front of YouTube in the URL (so, for example, it reads http://www.kickyoutube.com/watch?v=k33DEEI-15c&feature=popular)
  • Hit enter, and that gives you a new KickYouTube frame around the video.
  • Select the type of file you want to create (options include AVI, MP4, HD and iPhone).
  • Click the green Go button to the right, which changes to Down (I know, this is a little weird).
  • Right click on the Down button and click “save target as …” or “save link as …”
  • Give it a name and save it on your hard drive or external drive.
  • Share and play.

It’s a great way for anyone to save these videos, but it can be especially useful to teachers who maybe want to show an educational YouTube video (seriously, not all YouTube videos are sleazy and the weird – just, it seems, the most popular ones). Often, teachers can’t access YouTube from their school computers. But with this tool they can download the video at home, save it to a jump drive and take it to school where they can do something that budget cuts and administrative roadblocks often prevent them from doing – use technology to help educate the masses.

This is not your father’s classroom

March 8, 2010

I really didn’t expect to see this at the conference of educators I attended over the weekend – about 25 participants gathering in a darkened meeting room … dissecting a frog.

But this wasn’t the kind of sometimes-disturbing frog dissection I remember from middle school. No, this time there was absolutely no mess. In fact, there was no frog.

This very clean, very humane, very un-queasy dissection took place on a Smartboard, the leading brand of interactive whiteboards that are replacing chalkboards in classrooms throughout America (other brands include the Promethean ActivBoard, Luidia’s eBeam, Mimio, and PolyVision). Using a whiteboard, a computer and a projector, this class of teachers sliced and diced the virtual frog wide open, revealing the amphibian’s anatomy as well as one of the many awe-inspiring features of this new marvel of classroom technology.

Trainer Naomi Harm demonstrated the SmartBoard, and the participants were as captivated as, well, a pinned down frog.

For me, this was nothing short of amazing. I caught myself with my jaw hanging slightly open, like a kid watching a puppet show. I am somewhat of a tech gadget geek, and I work for an education association, so it surprises even me that I have never before seen a SmartBoard in action. I have heard and seen enough about them to instinctively know they are cool and useful but I had no idea about the incredible extent of their abilities to enhance learning, raise student interest, help teachers manage their curriculum – and their students – and make education so much more insightful and fun.

And while I knew they were becoming increasingly common in classrooms, I didn’t realize the extent to which they are permeating schools until Naomi told me that 74% to 88% of classrooms in her area at least have access to one. (In many cases, that means more than one classroom share an interactive whiteboard on wheels.)

I don’t have space here to go into all the things a Whiteboard can do – and I couldn’t possibly do it justice anyway – but you can get an idea by watching this YouTube video.

One thing I learned that I didn’t know before is that the image on the whiteboard is projected from a regular old computer or laptop equipped with special software. I guess I thought the whiteboard had a computer inside of it. Not the one I saw Naomi demonstrate. Another cool application of an interactive whiteboard, I learned, is that the teacher can record a lesson so students can review it later – maybe because they were absent, either physically or mentally.

According to Naomi and some of the teachers I talked with, many of the interactive white boards in use were purchased with grant money, including recent federal “stimulus funds.” Others were bought with targeted money included in school district referendums. But, of course, many school districts don’t win the grants and just can’t afford them.

As you can imagine, the things are not cheap, although they are not quite as much as I thought they might be. Naomi gave me some general figures which I calculate as suggesting you can get an entire package – the board, cart (wheels), computer, and projector – for around $3,000. But we all know that school district budgets are going the other direction. And whiteboards, unlike the old fashioned chalk boards, require a lot of professional development in addition to the hardware and software. Yes, the software accomplishes amazing things, but that means that teachers have a lot to learn about it to make good use of it. And, as with any software, the training is ongoing. And, as with any technology, I suspect there are ongoing maintenance issues and costs.

So that all leads to this growing dilemma: If classrooms are going to teach students in ways they can best understand, and in ways that they find interesting, and in ways that will truly prepare them for our technology-dominated world, they are going to have to keep up with technology, and interactive whiteboards are in many ways the epitome of that technology in the classroom. Yet, the demand is growing for this expansive – and expensive – technology at a time when schools can least afford it.

How is this all going to play out? Educators, students and parents are anxious to find out. And so are a lot of very nervous frogs.

The magic of hashtags

March 4, 2010

If you still think Twitter is just a nonsensical collection of people’s inane ramblings about trivia … well you just might be right. There certainly is that side to Twitter. But if you want to see the other side … if you want to turn this 140-character chaotic community center from an annoying prattle of drivel into a social and educational goldmine, I have just the tip for you to get started – hashtags.

Yes, hashtags will revolutionize your Twitter experience. And they are as easy to use as a keyboard. Anyone can add a hashtag (such as #reading) to any Tweet. On the day I am writing this, the most popular hashtag is #amitheonlyone, as in Am I the only one? A quick look produces this … amitheonlyone:

  • Who thinks they should legalize marijuana?
  • That is not obsessed with Justin Bieber?
  • Who randomly gets extremely irritated over nothing?
  • Has been on a blind date with something they already met?

OK, yes, this particular hashtag produces more drivel, but at least you get the idea how it works. The amitheonlyone hashtag is so popular right now it is hard to keep up with the flow of Tweets. (#justinbieber, by the way, is another very popular hashtag. If you’re like me and didn’t know who this teen pop star is, you can find out all about him on Wikipedia.)

This word cloud from tweetstats.com shows the top 50 Twitter hashtags and search words of all time.

Now here’s the thing … hashtagging isn’t all just silly fun and games. The hashtag organizes and targets conversations to subjects – and people – that matter to you.You can tag your own Tweet simply by adding a hashtag to it – such as #education (I work with educators). Then you can click on a #education hashtag from any Tweet or do a search within Twitter for that hashtag. That will bring up all the Tweets that contain that particular hashtag. Wella. You just became part of a targeted conversation. Want to talk about social studies? Yes, you can talk about it with others interested in the same topic by hashtagging #socialstudies. Algebra? Yes, there is an active #algebra hashtag. Heck there’s even a hashtag for people who want to talk about #hashtags. Or you can start your own hashtag.

Last week, I “attended” the Ragan Social Media Conference in Atlanta via Webcast and joined in many conversations by using the hashtag #ragancoke (the conference was at the Coca-Cola headquarters). Over the weekend, I kept up to date with breaking news – and joined in spurts of conversation – by using hashtags #tsunami, #hitsunami, #hawaiitsunami, #chile and #chileearthquake. People from all over the world were sharing their thoughts – and news – about these breaking events on Twitter. At times, as I observed, Twitter was spitting out more than a dozen Tweets per second on #hitsunami.

Hashtags.org keeps track of hashtag trends. This chart shows the huge volume of activity on Saturday for #chile.

Now, what interests you? Go to Twitter and create or search for a hashtag of your own making. Hash it out, and have some fun!

Tsunami generates huge wave of social media activity

March 1, 2010

Thankfully, Saturday’s great Hawaiian tsunami scare turned out to be little more than a splash of excitement. But the online wave of activity leading up to the 11 a.m. (Hawaiian time) anti-climax left news hounds and social media aficionados awash with options for staying informed. You could monitor the tsunami build-up through the eyes of experts (the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center) or through the 140-word thought-spurts of sometimes-insightful, sometimes-lame keyboard observers (Twitter hashtags #tsunami, #hitsunami or #hawaiitsunami), or through streaming video of media outlets in affected areas.

On real TV, I was toggling between CNN and MSNBC (no Fox for me) and had a tab open to two online Hawaiian media outlets. Hawaiinewsnow.com, apparently a joint venture of the local CBS and NBC affiliate (anyone know how that works?), had, by far, the best coverage of what was happening in Hawaii, including a live shot of Hilo Bay, with expert analysis, as the waters receded and filled back in several times over. CNN had the best analysis of how the waves were spreading from Chile across the Pacific (although the CNN host bordered on obnoxious).

Overall, the extensive media and social media build-up almost led me to expect I would see a huge wave form and wipe out buildings along Waikiki Beach. Although the small wave action was a letdown from a strictly news-hound point of view, I was certainly glad to see the event resolve itself without any damage or injuries.

Two of the best social media comments I read online were from the same person (who I do not know), Erick Straghalis, on Mashable:

  • “There have been these events for centuries… we’re so connected that we hear about everything instantly. It feels like things are getting worse, but really, it’s the constant availability and instant technology that gives us so much information! 20 years ago, we would have heard about this briefly on the evening news — a side note to the Olympics.”
  • “Have family and friends in Hawaii, Chile and Central America — it’s been great to get information straight from the source, streaming, twitter, facebook, etc… instead of waiting for CNN to pick up feeds or general information. I can hone in on the information that’s important to me, not just what CNN picks and chooses.”

A few other quick thoughts about the role of social media on Saturday:

  • Mashable came through again, putting together a great package of streaming video, Twitter feeds and other live online coverage of the tsunami scare.
  • As the event unfolded, I discovered through Facebook that two of my friends were vacationing in Hawaii. One was keeping us informed of what she could see from the 15th floor of a hotel on Waikiki. I was very happy to hear that she, like everyone in Hawaii, was safe.
  • It’s now time to turn our attention to Saturday’s real tragedy, and organize to help the victims of the tragic Chilean earthquake. Mashable already has come through again with a comprehensive page on How to Donate to Chile Earthquake Relief Online, including options for texting donations.