Blogs > 37th Frame

Photography, notes, commentary and much more from former Reporter Online Editor Chris Stanley.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Seeing metrics by the dashboard light

This month I have been working on something that will hopefully be of interest to my fellow JRC employees and probably of very little interest to the rest of the world. So I apologize to my non-JRC friends, but there is plenty of material on the Royal Wedding out there so you better get to it.

My current IdeaLab project is to spread the gospel of site metrics - useful not only to see how we are doing but also to guide how we position our stories and coverage to maximize the audience. Unlike the old days where we could publish our stories and photos and throw them out there hoping that lots of people would look at them, now we have the ability to analyze how many are reading each story, for how long, where they came from, how they got there, how they navigate ours sites and where they go when they leave. And many other useful facts.

The purpose of using this information isn't just to guide what we cover (yes, we know fire and crime stories always rise to the top), but also how to draw readers into stories they might not know about, even if they visit our sites. We have many ways to do this - social media, cross-linking, updates, SMS alerts - but what actually works, and when should we use these tools? Using metrics, we can see spikes in traffic at certain times of the day. These spikes are good opportunities to reach our audience with new material - either fresh or re-organized on our home pages to bring different stories to their attention.

We can see what search terms are bringing readers to ours sites - useful for writing headlines that will grab their attention and that of the search engines.

By looking at article view numbers from other sites in the chain, an editor might find a good story that would be of interest to their own readers with or without localization.

We can measure how effective our social media efforts are - posting a few links on Twitter or Facebook is good, but watch how the hits multiply when we engage our audience in a discussion about a topic or an unfolding news story. And posting to social media at strategic times could bring readers back to our sites when they might otherwise not do so.

Does paginating our web pages cost us readers? Did a recent contest really bring them in? Are a lot of hits coming from a local corporate domain? The answers to these questions can all be found in site metrics and used to guide our online efforts.

This isn't just a popularity contest - it is a way to bring extra content to our readers that they might actually want to read. It is not a substitute for good news judgement or local knowledge, but a way to KNOW our audience even better and reach out to them more effectively.

For this project I created a 'dashboard' in Omniture for each of our daily sites that do not have them yet. Dashboards are a quick and easy way to share site metrics via email on a regular basis with the staffs at all our sites. They are customizable reports that can be automatically generated and emailed, so recipients do not have to log into the Omniture system to view them. I will be sending written and video instructions to publishers and editors on how to use and customize their dashboards via email (I'd post them, but they contain some proprietary information not good for a public forum).

These videos will also be made available to weekly editors, and I would be happy to assist them in creating dashboards if needed. If anybody else in JRC would like to view the videos, please email me for a link.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Something really new at the car show

When I was a kid, my father would often take me to the NY car show. There I would join thousands of other fathers and sons (it really is mostly a male scene) climbing in and out of the latest that Detroit, Japan and Germany (among others) had to offer.

I have continued this tradition with my own sons - we alternate between the Philadelphia and New York car shows most years. This year we took a ride to Yankee territory to wander the vast Jacob Javitz Convention Center, which was filled with hundreds of shiny new cars, some on rotating platforms, some suspended in the air, and almost all surrounded by huge LED video screens displaying the best Adobe After Effects and video shot from multiple low-angle cameras can offer (remember that Eminem Chrysler Superbowl ad? Imagine it playing over and over and over on a 30-foot screen all day long).

The last time we went to the NY show, a couple of years ago, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I didn't find any of the new styles very different from what was already clogging the streets a few blocks away, and with the exception of a few hybrid cars, most still were all about the gasoline engine - basically the same technology Henry Ford was peddling back in the 1920's, with some more bells and whistles.

This year was different.

Front and center were the electric cars, the zero-emissions vehicles, concepts for luxury 'smart cars' designed to whisk you around the city in style without adding to the carbon footprint.

Almost every car maker, from Ford to Saab, had some alternative-energy vehicle in concept, or in the case of Chevrolet and Nissan actual electric cars you could go out and buy today. Unlike failed electric cars of the past, these actually are not under-powered, can be partially charged as fast as a 1/2 hour, and (in the case of the Chevrolet Volt) have a back-up gas engine so you will never be caught without any juice.

Due to the high efficiency of these new electric engines, they require much less energy to power than a gas engine - so even though they still draw some carbon footprint from electric suppliers, it is much less than a gas engine.

These are not (yet) long-distance touring cars - but for commuters and those making short runs around town - the technology, consumer interest and the political will has finally caught up with the electric dream. Many of the SUV's that were the centerpiece of the show a few years ago were relegated to the basement show area this year, and I overheard many visitors talking about MPG and emissions even over the luxury brands.

In this country we can talk a lot about mass transit, but we are still basically a country of automobiles. New auto technology won't cure every problem associated with private transit - overcrowded highways, suburban sprawl, safety and environmental issues - but at least we are starting to look ahead to the next big thing. And that thing is not more chrome or GPS or a built-in entertainment system.

It's bigger and far more exciting than that.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rock On (with Garage Band for the iPad)

Last month I wrote about some low-cost / low-talent options for getting background music for videos. One of the suggestions was to learn and use Garage Band, great if you have an Apple computer.

With the introduction of the iPad2, Apple has also released an iPad version of Garage Band. Happily for early adopters, this is also completely compatible with the oh-so-2010 iPad1. The cost is $4.99, a major bargain when you consider some of the powerful features it brings from the full-size version.

Musicians and non-musicians (like myself) will both find something to love. Creating a quick beat, a simple chord progression with some percussion, or even a full-blown composition is fast and easy. What sets the newer versions of Garage Band from the original is the smart instruments, which allow for one-touch chords on guitars and keyboards and time-grid drum composing in a multi-track setting. Real musicians can hook up an electric guitar to the iPad and play through several simulated classic and modern virtual amps, adding their tracks to other instruments.

The interface is similar to the full-size Garage Band. You can toggle between instrument mode:

and track mode:

when creating compositions. After I first downloaded the app, I created a drum track using the 'smart drum' option, then used the 'smart guitar' and 'smart keyboard' to lay down some more tracks (dig the music lingo, man).

Every time you start a new track, you can play it while listening to previous tracks. Garage Band iPad allows up to eight tracks, but percussion can include many instruments in one track, so in reality you are getting more. If you record a track and don't like it, just go back to the beginning and re-record. You can also toggle to the track view and 'cut' a track by double-tapping on it. Tracks can be moved, duplicated, and looped in track view mode.

After playing around for about 20 minutes, here is the first thing I created. Please be kind, I'm not a musician and I JUST got the app:

I explored for another half-hour or so, and created another Grammy-winner (not). This time I threw in some electric piano and screaming electric guitar:

And as the clock ticked toward midnight, I created one final piece - this time I set out to prove that you can never have enough cow bell and Hammond organ in a song:

I was able to add reverb and echo to each track, or these can be applied to the entire composition upon output. Each instrument in 'smart' mode offers several 'autoplay' settings, which can be switched on-the-fly while recording. This is how I varied the Hammond organ chords - I only switched between a 'C' chord and an 'F' chord, but also varied the autoplay to add variety.

To get a composition out of Garage Band iPad, you can email it to yourself or add it to your iTunes library. It creates a .M4A file, which is playable on any device with new versions of QuickTime on them. These can also be converted to MP3 or AIFF files with a freebie app such a MPEG Streamclip.

Another useful feature is the ability to record vocals and work them into a composition. If you want to create a podcast with a little background music, this would be a good way to do that.

This is a great app for creating quick compositions, and the implications for music education and composition are enormous. No, it won't replace expensive music software and hardware. But for a third of the price of an average album, it's probably the best bargain in music.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

International Spring Festival

The 20th annual International Spring Festival at North Penn HS Saturday was packed, as usual. The heavy rain outside helped, but this event has grown almost every year. Here's a few images:

First, a panorama photo of the action in the main gym:

Get Adobe Flash player

Music from Native American drummers and dancing:

And a couple more photos:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is your NYT story 20-worthy?

A few weeks ago, the New York Times stunned nobody (this had been discussed for years) by invoking a 'pay wall' on their web site. Hoping that readers will happily fork over money to read stories that have been free (and available in many places on the Internet) for many years, they came up with this compromise: We'll give you twenty free stories a month, then you have to pay.

In theory this sounds like a great way to make everybody happy - they get some revenue, readers still get some free content.

The real question is whether the loss of advertising revenue from the decreased number of page views (currently estimated between 5 and 15 percent) will be made up in subscription fees. That number might not sound like a lot, but when you're dealing in millions of hits, it can really add up (sorry for the pun).

So the dilemma for those who read the NYT (which I have since I was a kid) and are not willing to part with cash because, well, we're a NYT story 20-worthy?

A friend caught me reading a NYT story on their computer the other day...oops, that's 19 left. Sorry.

An update on the nuclear mess in Japan? Pass. Available elsewhere (hello BBC, Reuters and many, many others).

An op-ed piece about the deficit? Pass (hello Economist and many, many others).

Yet another story on how great Apple products are? Pass. Tired of this publicity machine.

How about a story on Barry Bonds trouble with steroids? Been there, done that (hello ESPN, Baseball Weekly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, SFGate and many, many others).

Movie reviews? Pass. IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, IndieWire, IFC, and many, many others.

Now don't get me wrong...the New York Times didn't get to be one of the greatest news sources in the world by imitating others with second-rate second-day (or second-hour) coverage. Despite some credibility problems and newsroom cutbacks over the past few years, they still lead the way in quality journalism that matters and are an important part of our American democracy.

The problem isn't their coverage. This story about the economy, this story about the harmful effects of sugar or this story about school reform might be 20-worthy. They are unique and important.

But as I cruise the Internet each day, I'll pass by all those other, less unique NYT stories and seek them out on other sites. Who knows, I might like the coverage on other sites better and find myself going there first. The New York Times on a pay wall is like a Ferrari that only comes with ten gallons of gas - sure, it's fun for a while, but I'd rather take a slower but longer drive.

As to whether people might just get used to paying, some will. But unless every credible news site in the world moves to the same pay wall model, which I don't see happening, it will only be successful for the most specialized information and audience (such as targeted business reports).

My family paid for NYT subscriptions for years, as well as subscriptions to local newspapers. So why should I expect to get the same information for free now? Remember, much of what a subscription fee pays for is the printed product and delivery. The real revenue is in the advertising, which is still delivered on the Internet. The amount of digital revenue still doesn't match that of the printed product, but that is the challenge.

Back when newspapers only had to compete with each other, or maybe TV and radio to an extent, the subscription model made sense. But now the market has changed. I enjoy getting news from many sources, but I couldn't afford to purchase subscriptions to every one of them if they went behind pay walls. I'd simply look elsewhere for the information.

This isn't about what people should do or support, but rather the realities of the Internet and capitalism. Unless newspapers want to start holding beg-a-thons like public radio, they need to find a revenue stream that works in the real world. So far, the numbers on the pay wall experiment are not encouraging.

Good luck, NYT. I hope you find something that works. Until then, I'll keep searching for those 20-worthy stories.

Monday, April 4, 2011

IdeaLab: Metrics on-the-go

Great stories (in all forms) are the foundation of great news web sites.

In a perfect world, our audience would just come to us and eagerly read everything offered every day, perhaps a few times a day.

In the real world, we have to reach out and find the audience, through everything from multi-platform posting and social media to search engine optimization and cross-promotion. And more than that, we need to understand our audience - what they are reading, when do they visit, where do they come from, how can we keep them interested in our content so they stick around a little longer.

That's where metrics comes in. Adobe Site Catalyst (Omniture) is one of the tools we are using to survey information about our site visitors. For my IdeaLab project this month I am creating Site Catalyst dashboard reports for each JRC daily site, which will be customizable and easily distributed via email once a day or several times a day.

Another great tool I am using is the Site Catalyst mobile apps - if you are a metric junkie (and if you are reading this, you should be), these apps provide basic information which you can set up via dashboards on just about every metric available through the service.

On the Droid, the app looks like this:

And the iPad provides a bigger picture for the vision-challenged:

An iPhone version is also available.

The apps are free; the information can be obtained through a normal Site Catalyst login.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Scenes from Lansdale First Fridays

Back outside after a winter indoors

Video of Tom Waits music at Virago Bakery

Mario has an existential moment

Friday, April 1, 2011

Phillies panorama

I've been playing around with a new Android app called Photaf, it can make panoramas like this:

Get Adobe Flash player

It's not perfect yet, but is very easy and fast to use. I made this panorama at the Phillies opening exhibition game on Tuesday. The photos took about 2 minutes to shoot and the app processed the images into a panorama in about 5-7 minutes. The app uses the camera's compass and level to line up the individual photos, then stiches them automatically.

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