How have humble newsletters become so friggin' awesome again?

I subscribe to some excellent newsletters (see my list below). I love their chatty tone, I love that I'm guaranteed of discovering something incredible, inspiring, funny or strange. I love that they help me to make sense of the tangled web out there. Most of all I love that I am receiving the newsletter because I asked for it. 

Here's my list:

  • 5 Intriguing ThingsAlexis Madrigal (senior editor at The Atlantic) sends out his newsletter every day. Included are links to 5 always-awesome things. It's great. Sign up.
  • The Best of Journalism: Conor Friedersdorf (staff writer at The Atlantic) sends 2 emails a week with recommendations for truly excellent long form reads. It costs $1.99 per month but it's absolutely worth it.
  • Robin Sloan. Irregularly sent out but worth the wait when it arrives. Hard to describe this one - Sloan himself describes it as a 'note from a friend'. 
  • Brain Pickings. Maria Popova = awesome. 
  • The Ed's Up. Award-winning British science writer Ed Yong curates a bunch of brilliant sciencey type stories and links. 
  • Quartz Daily Brief.  This news briefing starts my day. I love that it's structured into categories: 'what to watch for today', 'over the weekend', 'obsessions,' 'matters of debate', 'surprising discoveries'. Links take you to Quartz stories as well as external ones. 

If it's easy, it's not for you.

Seth Godin is an entrepreneur, marketer, author, TED talker. He also blogs at a neat, unpretentious little spot over here.

And if you sign up to his updates, little nuggets of digi-marketing/businessy wisdom will be delivered daily into your inbox - no images or interactive fizz bang wizardry - just a few words on your screen to digest. Some might not resonate but others will feel like just what you needed to hear at precisely the moment you need to hear them.

Like this one about how to add value to your job, company, project...

"Do extremely difficult work.

That seems obvious, right? If you do something that's valued but scarce because it's difficult, you're more likely to be in demand and to be compensated fairly for what you do.

The implication is stunning, though: When designing a project or developing a skill, seek out the most difficult parts to master and contribute. If it's easy, it's not for you."

Hello Noisli. I like you.

Noisli is a background noise generator.

It's a supremely simple idea: a web app* that plays high-quality sounds that help you work, relax or sleep.

It looks like this:

Just click on the little icon and listen. 

Does a downpour outside your window help you get all droopy-eyed and lazy-limbed? Or perhaps the distant rumbling of thunder clouds? Wind whistling across desolate moors? The busy-body tweeting of a bird-filled forest? The cosy cracking of a warm fire? There's even a bustling coffee shop (this one makes me feel a little strung out though!).

You can double sound up too - or even play all sounds simultaneously (an interesting experiment if a little anxiety-inducing).

Personally, I prefer silence when I work, but I really do like this little guy's elegant and efficient design. 

*a mobile app is set to be released on 8 May 2014

Why do you exist?

"What happens because you exist?"

This compelling question is posed by brand strategist and best-selling author Bernadette Jiwa, founder of the blog The Story of Telling (great name), in which she champions the power of the story - something she thinks has been lost in modern day branding.

"Why is it that as soon as we put a logo on something we lose the ability to tell a story about it?" she asks.

In this simple post Jiwa lists 20 great mission statements from big name companies as proof that when it comes to distilling your brand's purpose into words, "often a single sentence is enough to say what you need to say." 

Some statements are straightforward and descriptive, other's, like Virgin's are more emotive. I particularly like the Patagonia and Amazon ones...

TED.COM

Spread ideas.

INSTAGRAM
To capture and share the world’s moments.

PATAGONIA
Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

TWITTER
Instantly connect people everywhere to what’s most important to them.

UBER
Evolving the way the world moves.

GOOGLE
Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

GO PRO
To help people capture and share their lives’ most meaningful experiences with others—to celebrate them together.

AMAZON
To be Earth’s most customer-centric company.

NIKE
To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.

VIRGIN ATLANTIC
To embrace the human spirit and let it fly.

OCADO
To establish the first new supermarket in a generation.

AIRBNB
To build a community-driven hospitality company.

LEGO
Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.

FACEBOOK
To make the world more open and connected.

JAMIE OLIVER
Help as many people as possible eat better food and live a better life.

The most popular New York Times story of 2013 may not be what you expect.

Here's an interesting piece from The Atlantic on the New York Times' 10 most visited stories of 2013

At No.1 was an interactive quiz on dialect inspired by a North Carolina State University quiz. The interactive won't have taken long to whip into shape - no reams of research, just a simple idea, easy to execute and incredibly effective. 

The Atlantic writer points out though, that the NYT missed a crucial opportunity with the piece that clocked in at No.6. The Scientific 7-Minute Workout illustrates 12 exercises, which put the latest fitness research into practice using only body weight, a chair and a wall. 

Wouldn't that make a perfect smartphone app?

Yes, but the NYT didn't think of it - and they missed out on essential ad revenue as a result.

The Atlantic kindly converted the NYT's top 10 list into links:

  1. How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk
  2. Blasts at Boston Marathon Kill 3 and Injure 100
  3. 2nd Bombing Suspect Caught After Frenzied Hunt Paralyzes Boston
  4. My Medical Choice,” by Angelina Jolie
  5. Plea for Caution From Russia,” by Vladimir Putin
  6. The Scientific 7-Minute Workout
  7. Site of the Explosions at the Boston Marathon
  8. Invisible Child
  9. The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
  10. Cardinals Pick Bergoglio, Who Will Be Pope Francis

Problem: how to embed audio into multimedia stories seamlessly and inoffensively?

Solution: SoundCiteJS.

From the clever team of technologists and journalists at the Northwestern University Knight Lab, SoundCite is an excellent tool that lets you add inline audio to a multimedia story in 3 super simple steps:

1. Find a clip on SoundCloud (or create your own) and paste its URL into the box provided.

2. Use the SoundCloud widget to set the start and end points for your clip.

3. Embed the code into your website.

So simple! And it looks neat too. 

The example below - a Tame Impala review  which illustrates the SoundCite team have brains and good taste in music - shows it in action:

 

Tame Impala have never shied away from the sounds of classic rock radio, but "Elephant" is the first time they've gone deep into its mythology and symbolism. ... [It] initially sounds like a pure top-down songwriting exercise- as in, "let's try to sound like the song's badass title." So, thick, one-note guitar riffs shuffle and stomp...

A deep web newsgame and more creative journalism for "pissed off readers".

 Spanish/British journalism startup Acuerdo is using the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to push the boundaries of news journalism by creating: "major journalism for pissed off readers"* 

The idea is to present hard-hitting stories in an easy-to-digest way. Think: visualisations, animated infographics, texts, videos, docuwebs and video games.

With just over a week to go, the startup has raised  £24,463 of it's £45,000 goal thanks to 187 journalistically-minded backers. 

If their work-in-progress Deep Web newsgame, the result of a year of research, interviews with lawyers, hackers, police officers and users, which includes cool things like a virtual elevator called Eleva-Tor ("readers are immersed in our virtual elevator and will have to pass tests to catch fish that contain information and listen to the experts) is an indication of things to come, you can count me in. 

 

 *Idoia Sota, Acuerdo's chief executive and editor explained his "pissed off" ethos to journalism.co.uk:

We are pissed-off readers but we are also pissed-off journalists. It's this sentiment that when you face media you think they are not offering all that it is possible to be offered and you're not finding really good stories.
Maybe you see a good headline but then it's just a press release from an agency or just copy and pasted from somewhere else. Then you're disappointed. That's pissed off, when you're not finding what you're looking for.
 

Want to be successful on the internet? Don't make people think.

I found this Wired piece pretty interesting. Ev Williams is one of the Twitter founders (and more recently Medium), as well as the brains behind Blogger. That means he's been around the internet block for a bit and has been pondering all things digital for longer that most of us. At a recent XOXO conference in the US he revealed his key for internet success. And it's got nothing to do with The Next Big Idea and everything to do with convenience. 

Ryan Tate for Wired writes:

Williams’ philosophy might seem pedestrian. But that’s the point. Twenty years after people began using the web en masse, it’s time, Williams said, to accept that the internet isn’t a magical universe with boundless potential. It’s just another engine for improving quality of life.
 “The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience,” he said. “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease.” In other words, people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to think — and the internet should respond to that. 
Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely. Those who lose sight of basic human needs — who want to give people the next great idea — will have problems.

This dovetails neatly with an email exchange I had recently with the head of interactive at the Guardian. I emailed Seán Clarke asking him for a little career advice. What one skill would he suggest I hone to ensure I stand out from the rest of the digi-pack? 

He said: "Don't accumulate skills which solve for problems you aren't sure exist ... Better to make the obvious beautiful than to make the beautiful obvious."

Yip. Great advice.

 
 

 


 

Playing the social game ftw.

I attended the excellent-as-always News:Rewired conference last Friday where there was a heavy emphasis on the importance of the social web - the primary source of news for the under-35s.

Jay Lauf, publisher of web-only news site Quartz, delivered the keynote address. In just a year since launching, Quartz  averages 3.3million unique visitors a month. These figures are, says Lauf, a result of their approach to and emphasis on social, which accounts for 51% of site traffic.

In the digital age, the life of a story starts when it's posted online said Lauf. Here are his 3 tips for getting content shared and developing an audience from zero:

1. BE VISUAL. The web is a visual medium - use that to your advantage by creating visual content when and where you can. Infographics for example travel well on the web. 

2. FOCUS ON THE ATOMIC. Ask: what is the nugget? What's new, different, interesting about this content? Quartz get their writers to write their headlines in 140 characters before they begin work on the story itself. This helps the writer find the 'nugget' which in turn makes it shareable, says Lauf.

3. TELL STORIES THAT MAKE PEOPLE FEEL. Outrage, nostalgia, whatever it is, get your audience to feel something. 

A story about cake is still just a story about cake.

These are the words of Bobbie Johnson, co-founder of long-form journalism site, Matter. He’s referring to Wrappers Delight, a multi-media piece about a Scottish confectionary company called Tunnock’s, published online by the Telegraph earlier this year.    

Johnson believes that with Wrappers Delight, the Telegraph have fallen into a freshly laid journalistic trap: that of creating a “whopping great story online that’s stuffed full of integrated multimedia elements – in the manner of the New York Times’ Snow Fall” - just because they can. They have he says, “Snowfallen”.

In a digitised world in which we’re Buzzfed bite-sized chunks of information, telling long-form stories, which keep us engaged through to the end, is a mighty challenge for publishing companies intent on keeping that tradition alive. Snow Fall kick-started a trend. But actually it's one that began way before.

Music site Pitchfork has been playing in the parallax scrolling sandpit for a while. It started with this Bat for Lashes cover story. They did it again with Daft Punk then this exquisitely designed piece on R&B popstrell Janelle Monae. And now we've got this - a frothy psych-pastel feature on what MGMT did next.

Some might argue that they're Snow Falling all over the show but I disagree. We're tactile and sensory by nature. I believe that people want to engage with content visually as well as with the words themselves. Of course there's a fine line between creating an immersive storytelling experience just because it looks pretty or because technology allows us to and creating a more rewarding experience for the reader. Sometimes, leaving an element out could be the most important decision an editor makes. 

But I'm liking the fun Pitchfork are having with their cover stories. It's all about big beautiful images and quirkily integrated code. Are they entirely necessary? In this case, I don't think they need to be.

 

Clever new ways to tell stories online.

People who are finding innovative ways to tell digital stories inspire me greatly.

Like the clever people over at Atavist in Brooklyn whose Creatavist app allows users to easily add multimedia - text, audio, video, animation, interactive elements - to their longform nonfiction stories and publish them across the web and mobile devices. The Wall Street Journal used the technology for this  piece on rising addiction to prescription pain killers in the US. 

Then there's Shorthand, a Brisbane-based digital tech company.

Shorthand launched in March this year to target a specific publishing problem: how to create immersive 'epic' pieces of journalism in the tradition of the New York Times' Snow Fall in less time, with fewer people and on a tighter budget.

England vs Australia  is their first baby - a longform interactive produced with the Guardian Australia. You can read its 'making of' story here.

One of the things that stood out for me was the agile production process involved:

“The way we work is always iterative,” says product manager Marcus Callon. “We took the story text, sketched the story layout and designed it in Photoshop the first time around, to give the Guardian an indication of what it could look like.” This iterative approach allows the small development team of four full-time staff to “start somewhere on a project and make changes until we run out of time,” says Callon, “Or until there are diminishing returns.”

Ben Fogarty, executive manager of Shorthand will be speaking at News:Rewired on 20 September.  

 

 

Tools for the code curious journo.

The ability to code is fast becoming a non-negotiable in the field of journalism. But having just finished my MA in digital journalism at Goldsmiths, I know how daunting the thought of programming can be - especially, if like me, you come from a print background. 

Here are a few things I've learnt during the past year: 

  • Learning to code is scary. It's a fact. But don't let that stop you. 
  • Always try to figure out the solution yourself (when in doubt Google it).
  • If you're still stuck, head over to Stack Overflow where a heap of accomplished coders are on hand to help you with your problem.
  • Learning to code is empowering. Just do it.

 This is a handy resource of online tutorials for anyone looking to dip their toes in the coding waters.

Takeaway tip:  have a project in mind

“I think one thing I realized after doing a lot of online tutorials and not really getting it, is that it takes actually making something, even if its small, to really learn anything about coding [... ] struggling with a real project is when you really learn.” - Lena Groeger, a self-taught designer and science journalist at ProPublica