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Lately I’ve had a few friends ask me about the Web’s favorite new buzzword – The Cloud. Like a lot of internet words – meme, blogosphere, ect – it doesn’t have any set definition or criteria for inclusion. But let me assure you, even though you might not be familiar with what the cloud is, you use it every day of your life.

Wikipedia defines The Cloud as Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on-demand, like a public utility. The perfect example of this is Google docs vs. Microsoft Office. With Microsoft Office you buy the program, take it out of its packaging, insert the disks to install, and keep the programs on your personal computer. With Google Docs all you need is a Web browser to access documents, furthermore you can access them from any computer. Did you forget your paper on your home pc? With MS office you need to run home to get it, or have a friend email it to you. With Google Docs all you need to do is get to the nearest computer. Oh, and Google docs is free.

So hopefully you see the advantages of cloud computing. I personally store all sorts of information in the cloud. Once a upload my YouTube videos I never worry about holding on to the original .mov, because I can download the file from Google’s servers anytime I want. Barring that Google’s servers never collapse in on themselves (and if they do, we have much more to worry about than our YouTube videos), my videos as safe and accessible at any time. Forever.

How does this affect education?

It’s pretty safe to say that large amounts of the world’s information is stored in the cloud. Even things that wouldn’t seem to be naturally digitized seem to find a way online, such as Google’s efforts to scan books. Why do they do this? Because Google wants to organize the world’s information.

Let’s say you want to know something. Let’s say you want to know how to calculate escape velocity from a star or planet. Before, you would have to learn this from a physics professor, probably in a classroom setting, and you would probably only be in the classroom setting if you were a physics major. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve had the pleasure on knowing a few physics professors in my time here at Texas State and I’m confident that they would be more than happy to talk to you all day about escape velocity or anything else you want to know about physics no matter what your major is. But the simple fact of the matter is most people don’t ask physics professors about escape velocity. Even if they wanted to look it up in a book, they would have to know which book to find, which part of the book covers escape velocity, and the people writing the book probably assumed the reader had some sort of background in physics, so it might be filled with jargon that had been covered in previous chapters.

So our society reflected these barriers. You went to school to be a physicist, or a doctor, or a teacher, or an accountant, or, if you had very poor judgement, a journalist.

But now that information is freely available to anyone who can perform a simple Google search. Doesn’t that raise the question, what good are universities anymore?

Recently a couple of much smarter people than myself asked this at SXSWi, and I had the pleasure of attending that panel. They make a lot of excellent points about universities in this brave new digital world we live in, which I recapped in the blog post linked above. But the one point I do want to make that perhaps wasn’t covered extensively in the panel (they did have a lot to cover) is I see future college graduates’ most vital skill being the ability to adapt rather than have a whole head full of knowledge on one particular subject.

I can talk to you all day about journalism, videography, Web development and more that I’ve learned in university classrooms. But there’s nothing that I know that couldn’t be found online. In fact, more and more university professors are pulling teaching material from the Web to hand out in class.

Professors should be less focused on what’s printed in books and more focused on giving students the skills to adapt to new changes. I’m not saying that someone with a teaching degree is going to start building rockets for NASA. But, I could see someone who isn’t a physicist, who is self-taught, playing a crucial role in helping in the development of new technology and practices in unrelated fields. If anything, their outsider perspective mixed with an understanding of the material at hand will give new insights into the field and help avoid group-think.

In this day and age academia can only be, at best, a good head start into a field. It’s up to each of us to always continue our education outside the classroom. Most people won’t, however. They’ll be perfectly content to graduate, work a job that they don’t get input or or satisfaction from, and watch TV at night. But for those people who, in the evening after work, are reading about escape velocity, I’ll have you on my rocket-building team any day.

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Awwww Bullshit!

This cat knows what's going on

I like to think of myself as a pretty skeptical guy (you should be skeptical of that claim). I think being a journalist has increased my BS meter to levels greater than the average person. One thing some people like to say is “You should be skeptical of everything.” But that’s a dumb thing to say, you can’t be skeptical of every single thing. Sometimes you have to trust someone. However, you should keep an open mind because often times well established knowledge is sufficiently debunked. Anyway, I’ve noticed a few warning signs that should send your BS detector flying into the atmosphere.

Things used to be better back in the day

Anytime someone, anyone starts talking how things are getting worse for the society merely by the passage of time, raise a skeptical eyebrow. There’s this common belief that things are getting worse, and every generation feels like this for some reason. It really is quite inexplicable. A belief that things were right and good before, but we’ve messed things up through hubris or vanity. I bet especially right now a lot of people are thinking we’ve messed up the good old days, considering the economic conditions aren’t too great (in fact, they’re kinda shitty). But what time period do we really want to go back to? The 70s? Think waiting in line to get gas, the cold war, Vietnam and Watergate. You could say the same for the 60s (minus watergate). How about the 50s? Times were simple, the economy was booming, we were on a moral high from kicking a little Nazi ass. Who wouldn’t want to go back to the 50s?

I don't think they would be smiling so much if they lived in the 50s

Oh, right, there was also lynching and civil unrest and injustice, and this was mostly just accepted.

You’ll also see this nostalgia when it comes to the economy. People will say “We used to have good jobs. Jobs where Americans made things.” This is mostly in reference to industrial jobs or outdated industries like mining. Well here’s a little secret about industrial jobs – They suck. I don’t want an industrial job. And I don’t mind them going to abroad, where they don’t mind having crappy industrial jobs.

Do you really miss coal mining?

It causes cancer

I have no idea why so many people have latched onto the idea that cancer is some sort of side effect of a product we use in our every day life. There are definitely carcinogens out there, some of which we do come into contact with on a regular basis. But they aren’t well kept-secrets. They’re a multi-billion dollar industry.

I bet this guy doesn't use a cell phone because he's afraid of the effects

Cancer has been blamed on a whole list of things. Sometimes there’s some shaky evidence to back up the claim, though there’s rarely consensus. Microwaves, cell phones and deodorant have all been blamed. I think the reason people think these harmless objects cause cancer is because, secretely, they want to believe cancer is an outside threat. And that on the inside, we’re pure until contaminated. But the real truth is that our genetic makeup is just as flawed and imperfect as anything else. And it will turn on us, without reason or cause. One day healthy cells will become unhealthy cells. And there’s absolutely no reason for it.

It’s all natural

There’s nothing bad about something being all-natural, there’s also nothing especially good about. I guess, what really make me angry is when people say “It’s all natural, so you know it’s not bad for you.” If someone says this then they are either trying to con you or they just aren’t that bright. Why do we think that just because something is natural it’s good for you? There are some highly effective poisons that are also all natural. A lion pouncing on you while you’re clumsily stumbling through the jungle after getting lost on a safari is pretty natural. Do you know what isn’t natural? Vaccines and medications that have saved billions of lives from diseases, which mind you, are all natural.

And don’t even get me started on the vaccine debate.

All these things kind of tie together. Most of these beliefs are left over baggage from our old primal days when we were still dancing around the fire to appease the moon gods. They aren’t based on facts or reason, but blind fear. The thing people need to do is calm down and realize how great the modern world is. We’re more connected and better off than ever. Modern medicines have conquered plagues that once killed millions. You can sit down on your couch and play videogames with kids in Japan (who will school you). But for some reason we have this belief that things are continually getting worse for some reason. Sure, not everything is perfect. In fact, some things are really messed up. But we work on those problems to improve them. Not just sit around and lament and wish for a bygone era. Nostalgia is a sin. Wake up and see look for what tomorrow brings. Only be, you know, skeptical of it as well.

Yea I’ve been thinking about the future of news a lot lately, and what we’ll look like in a few years. Just like everyone else out there, I think I have an idea of where we should go (see below), and last night I was even so kind as to design the home page. I’m going to publish it here, and talk about how I think this will work in the future posts (TEASER!)

What I think the web page will look like

What I think the web page will look like

Now, your first thought is “It’s a blatant rip off of Google.” And yes, yes it is. But think about why we would want to look like Google. More later.

I’d like to start this blog entry by giving a shoutout to David Folkenflik of NPR. Last I mentioned Mr. Folkenflik I was disagreeing with his statement that media outlets can’t survive online through ad sales only. Well proving himself to be a class act, he somehow found my little corner of the Internet and gave it a shout out on his Twitter feed and Facebook. Thank you very much Mr. Folkenflik for guiding some traffic to this blog outside my regular readership (read: my aunt.)

I also might use this opportunity to clarify, I do believe the way we have been doing advertising online is unsustainable (OBAMA WANTS MOMS TO RETURN TO SCHOOL!). What I want to see is smart advertising, ala Google. To do this we’ll have to incorporate engineers, mathematicians and more programmers into the newsroom. It’ll look like a very different place. And there might be robots (please God let there be robots).

Robots

Journalists of the future

So I’ve dedicated my Christmas break to learning Drupal development. Drupal is a free, open source content management system. For the non geeks who read this blog (though pretty much all of my friends are geeks), WordPress is also a content management system. It does exactly what its title implies. It manages content. The cool thing is it does 90 % of the coding for you (all you really need to know getting into it is basic HTML and CSS). The downside is its still complicated, but with that complication comes customization. Because it’s open source it does pretty much anything you could want it to do. But with that comes a whole list of new terms you need to learn — node, taxonomy term, fields, CCK, Views, theming, argument, ect. Furthermore, you need to know how these things interact with each other.

So I’ve been watching some very helpful videos from Lullabot and up until recently I was very sure I was getting it. Then I went into drupal and tried creating new content, then getting a view to present it. But I didn’t see the node reference in the list of available options. Or in non geek, the damn thing isn’t working and it sucks and it’s stupid and I hate everybody (that’s at least what I was thinking at the time).

I’m not the best developer, in fact I’m not even a good or competent developer (yet!).But there are more and more people like me, who treat this as something of a side hobby then a full-time profession. Though I should note I would love nothing more than to integrate what I know about development into a job in journalism.

I’ve learned a few things about getting a Web page online and I’ll share them now.

Don’t throw a fit

I think it’s especially easy to throw a fit at the Internet. The Internet doesn’t have a face or centralized node. It’s as decentralized as it gets. I know I’ve spent some time screaming at my computer screen “Just work the way I need you to work and I won’t have to resort to violence!” But the Internet doesn’t respond to violence. That’s why you need to calm down and move on.

Google is your best friend

Despite what we all sometime believe, the world isn’t out to get you and only you (except you John Michaelson of Clearmont, Az. We are coming for you). Any problems you have probably have happened to someone else. And there’s this great thing called Google to help you track down who those other people are, and how they worked through or around the problem. Once you start fixing a few problems you kind of start seeing a method to fixing a lot of them and you won’t have to resort to the Goog quite as frequently.

KXCD has an excellent flowchart of how to take care of troubleshooting, which I tried to find, but apparently the search box could use a brush up. So I spent the past hour hitting the random button hoping to find it. Basically I used this as an excuse to read XKCD comics for the past hour.

Think through the problem

Start from the beginning. Is your code good? Are there funky bits that you don’t know what they do? Is it working in your text editor? Are you FTPing it properly? Go through every little thing in your mind to try and find what’s wrong and how you can fix it. Don’t rush through this part. In fact, now might be a good time to go for a walk around the neighborhood. Studies show that even when you’re not thinking about something your mind is still plugging away at it.

Have nerdy friends

I’m blessed with an abundance of nerdy, nerdy friends who love to do this type of thing as much as I do. Plus they’re always just a tweet away. If nothing else it always helps to have a sounding board (this goes back to the previous step). In fact, a lot of the big Web 2.0 sites will often times work together on large issues. Kevin Rose, founder of Digg.com, said on an episode of This Week in Tech that they’re all working on the same problems and the same issues, so to them it only makes sense to have a meeting of the minds. It’s hard to envision Ford and GM having that same philosophy. If you don’t have nerdy friends then make some, especially if you’re serious about this. Go to SXSWi (yes it’s more than a drunken booze fest), get on the right message boards and follow the right people on twitter.

If you’re interested in this type of thing, or just like hearing stories of adventure in development, then there are better blogs to follow than mine. One of my personal favorites is aronpilhofer.com, run by Ny Times interactive editor Aron Pilhofer. He came to speak at Texas State last year and he too is a total class act. My favorite post of his is probably How not to choose a framework (and Django sucks!). Also Gina Trapani’s Smarterware blog, which I linked to above about giving your brain a rest, is always a fantastic source for development and just weird little bits she finds across the net.

Now that most people are acknowledging the fact that physical newspapers are on their way out it’s time to stop lamenting what was and look at the plus sides of not having to spend energy and money on the print edition. Sure we should keep them around for as long as we can make money off them, but once that’s no longer a feasible business model we should cut it loose to go into medium heaven.

I should also note that while I don’t lament the end of the physical newspaper, I, by no means, want established papers to fold. What happened to the Rocky Mountain News was a crime, bad business decisions made by people with short-term views. What I want to see is these legacy media make as smooth of a transition as possible into the digital age.

Let’s start telling stories the way they need to be told

Trying to force or shoe-horn a story into print can produce some awkward results. Sometimes when it’s just a small character-driven piece it can lead to thoughts of “why am I reading this?” But letting the video play out and letting the story develop can turn that piece into a nice one or two minute break from your day. Take for instance this piece shot by Fabian Juarez,

I think this as a text story would be kinda awkward. Lots of “He said he has to run 5 miles every day and it can get strenuous.” Yea, a good writer can get the most out of any story, but let that writer focus on the pieces that call for text.

The way we currently have it is a lot of videos serve as companion pieces to the story in the paper. That can work as well. But once again, only if it’s what the story calls for.

It should also be noted that this is true across all mediums. How many times have you seen the nightly news try to come up with Broll for a story that isn’t visual, like electric bills going up. There are only so many shots of meter men out there. Stories like this are best served as small updates that people can quickly scan through, which brings me to my next point.

No more gray space between the ads

I think a kinda dirty secret about our industry is a lot of it is based off of filling the space between the ads. “Uh oh, we have a big issue coming up. Send the reporters out to cover kids playing in the park [or something equally inane].” “But is that really news?” “Who cares? We can’t have a big empty space in the paper next week.” Or more importantly, if there’s no room for content then it’s going to get cut.

But online, there’s absolutely no limitations to space. Want to write a 3,000 word-long expos? Go for it. Not much going on at city council? No need to try to squeeze 13 inches out of committee reorganization, just write up a brief. Basically, we only need to put what’s actually news. No need for anything more, no need for anything less.

Break it up

Generally, people arrive at a Web page in one of two or three ways. Either they arrive at it through a Google search, it’s promoted on the front page of a site they visit, or, increasingly, a friend gives them a link through Twitter or Facebook. But the point is people typically don’t dig through a Web site like they dig through a newspaper.

So basically, news organizations have been paying reporters to create content that’s not getting clicked on much. The solution for this should be that every section should be a site in itself. Take the NY Times for example. You rarely see their technology reporting highlighted. And it’s burried in its own tab. So why not give it its own URL, branding, design and everything? Especially these days when people expect the news to be tailored to what they like? These sites shouldn’t all be independent of each other, certainly they should link to each other. Think of them as a family of Web sites.

If you want to see and great implementation of this, check out what the Austin American Statesman has done with Statesman.com, Austin360.com, and Hookem.com. It should be noted Statesman is definitely the main site, and its sports an entertainment news makes appearances on the main page, but their also their own thing. It’s not statesman.com/entertainment.

A complete re-imagining of how we do the news

Newspaper publishers are guilty of breaking Rahm’s law: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” We’re still doing the thing we did before, only online. We have made some improvement, certainly there’s a greater emphasis on multi media, but for the most part we’re still producing articles, packages, ect, only posting them to our Web site. News organizations should re-imagine themselves as community nodes, and they need to do this soon. Because others are catching on (I hope anyone reading this is having flashback to Craigslist taking away all those classified dollars). What I’m envisioning here is like a cross bread between a news site, social network and location specific Wikipedia. Imagine a user logs into a newspaper site, in one column is recommended stories from her friends, by that is sports scores from the teams she follows. Or even better yet, stats her son’s performance in his high-school football game. Or video from it.

After she watches the footage from her son’s interception for the 30th time, she needs to know a place to eat, so she looks up the local restaurant reviews. Also, she wanted to look up the history of the town square redevelopment plans, so she checks the sites topics pages. There’s a comprehensive history of it.

In fact, the concept of topics pages is something all news rooms should be implementing right away, because unlike articles, those accumulate valuable Google juice. Furthermore, they’re much better for doing research on a topic than old articles are. Just look at the success of Wikipedia.

Iranian elections

Women standing up for their rights during the protests following the Iranian election. Courtesy of pbase.com.

I host a sometimes Web cast with my good friend Maira Garcia called The People’s Media. It’s a citizen journalism Web cast and, journalistic objectiveness be damned, we do a lot of stumping for the practice.

A pretty swell validation of our beliefs was last-summer’s Iranian election and the turmoil that followed. The Iranian citizenry tweeted, YouTubed and blogged about their ideals, shattering so many preconceived notions that your typical Americans had about the Iranians.

Furthermore, there’s a Cuban blogger whom I love to read her posts. Named Generation Y, she writes about daily life in Cuba often times with a critical eye pointed to the government and how it hinders normal people to live comfortably. Fear not those who can’t habla the espanol, she writes in English and does so beautifully.

It’s inspiring to see individual’s voices arise from such tightly controlled conditions. But anybody who knows anything about either of those two countries (and it’s sad to see that so few people do know anything about them, yet still manage to have opinions on matters concerning them), knows that Western influence messed things up in both those countries pretty badly. In Iran, it was England and America’s setting up of a puppet government in 1951 so they could buy oil at an unfair price. When the Ayatollah came to power promising to expel the Western influence it was a popular message. What’s ironic is the educated and democratic in the country also fought against the Shah with the fundamentalists. Now these same people are fighting against the ayatollah.

In Cuba, it was most notably the Bay of Pigs Invasion. However, if your read any history about Latin America during the Cold War you’ll see America always had a policy of bullying small Latin American countries. When recently successful revolutionary and former Baltimore Orioles hopeful Fidel Castro came to the U.S. he asked for aid. The U.S. told him to make way for fruit companies and other corporate interests. The man had just won a revolution and felt head strong, so he refused. Needing a big brother, he turned to the Soviets next.

I say this not to sound like an American-hating pinko (it was the cold war, we were scared, and we made a lot of bad decisions). But to illustrate a point — that when we try to topple or control other governments it tends to backfire on us.

After all this rambling, this is what I was getting to. There are people in these countries who want to speak out against their governments, but have been previously unable to. That is changing with the Internet. Dictators can no longer dictate he message their countries hear. The Internet is too decentralized and grows too rapidly. Not only that, but things will go viral before anyone has a chance to realize what is happening.

Obviously it’s in the U.S.’s interests to see Iran and Cuba’s governments go into the past. Furthermore, anyone invested in human rights would like to see the end of dictatorships worldwide. As we’ve seen, we are no good at toppling these governments ourselves through military means, but you can’t fight against the tide of culture and win. What we’re seeing in these countries is a cultural shift. It’s doesn’t produce immediate effects (just ask anyone who marched for civil rights), but it produces results (just ask anyone who marched for civil rights). To foster and incubate these cultural shift we should give them the means to communicate and organize. The U.S. should look into ensuring that these countries have affordable laptops and cell phones that connect to the internet. Even private companies such as Google, Microsoft or Apple could be sold on the venture with the promise of opening once closed markets. Furthermore, it should set up towers in neighboring countries (or in Cuba’s case, islands in the Caribbean) to provide 3G connectivity to as many people as possible. Then it should just sit back and let the people of those countries do the work.

Of course, for this to happen the trade embargo with Cuba would have to be removed. And with Iran it would help if tensions were cooled as well. But if we started doing this then we might potentially see democratic reforms in these countries within years.

The good news is these technologies are getting cheaper and better every day. And both these countries mentioned already have Internet access, but from what I understand it’s not that good nor is it wide spread. That’s where we could come in. Until that day comes we’ll be relying on outdated and ineffective means of dealing with these dictatorships, and we’ll be less safe for it.

Hey everyone,

I’ve been listening to the Planet Money podcast from NPR. It’s pretty great, and the last two episodes have been about the media. I had a few thoughts about the last one, so I wrote them a letter. It’s about news outlets getting search engines to pay for their content (Yea, right). Seeing as how I doubt it’ll be published anytime soon (maybe in an alternate universe where we all have pencil-thin mustaches), I’ll put it here for my friends and family to ignore as well.

Hello,

My name is Scott Thomas and I am a journalism major at Texas State University in San Marcos, as well as the Web editor at my school paper, The University Star. I just started recently listening to your show and it’s definitely my preferred way to get my economics news. But I want to contend points made by David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, on the program.

First of all, Mr. Folkenflik said that online advertising is simply not going to work to pay for journalism. If that’s so, then why are so many other businesses making millions or even billions of dollars in advertising? Is there some reason these results are immune to an online news site? It seems to me that the only thing preventing this from happening is an inability to think outside the parameters old mediums demanded from us.

Google makes the aforementioned billions of dollars in advertising simply be collecting data on its users and knowing who is searching for what. They were able to come up with a new advertising model that could never have been done in print or on a television set. Now granted, simulating these results aren’t going to be an easy task for any media outlet (and it’s doubtful anyone will be making Google money, but when did a news outlet ever?). But it’s worth doing if journalism is as important as journalists keep saying it is (some of whom, sadly, do so looking for some kind of bail out).

It seems to me that news organizations who want money from search engines are simply trying to piggy back off the success of Google, when it would be better for all parties if they simply walked the path that Google helped blaze. Media outlets should be looking for bright, young programmer journalists who have new ideas and aren’t encumbered with the way things used to be, instead of looking for someone to blame. They should look to the future, instead of lament what’s already here to stay.

I believe in journalism. I believe in media outlets’ ability to save themselves even in these scary times. I am literally staking my future on this belief, seeing as how I am graduating this May. However, I dream of working for a media outlet that has several thousand or even millions of advertisers, instead of a select few hundred. And where no one advertiser holds enough sway to dictate content by pulling revenue. These ads will be modeled to what the news organization knows about the reader, what sports teams does she follow? What kind of music does he like? Where does they send their kids to school in the morning?

I also dream of small, efficient news rooms unencumbered by printing costs or $1 million cameras. And web sites that don’t simply tell you what the news is, but interact with you in a give and take relationship. And finally, I believe I’ll be working for an industry that offers free content to anyone who may stumble across it, contributing to a more open, well-informed and democratic society.

-Scott Leighton Thomas
Texas State University — San Marcos
Web editor, The University