Help! What’s a great news problem to solve?

Rich Gordon’s got programmers but no project:

Between now and when the [next Medill innovation project] starts (Sept. 23), we have to decide what the focus of the project will be. In my experience with previous projects, the key is to come up with an interesting challenge or question for the students to explore.

Right now there are two competing ideas, neither of them yet specific enough to organize the class around:

  • Civic engagement through online conversations
  • Mobile content and services

This project will be my primary focus for the next three months. We’ve got a great team, but we’re still hunting for a killer idea. What’s a great news problem to solve?

As for the platform, I’m leaning towards Android. (Admittedly, I’m putting the cart waaay in front of the horse here. The platform should always follow the idea, buuut…) The new gear from Google’s phone project is coming soon, and I agree with John Biggs at TechCrunch:

An open, powerful platform backed by a major, web-focused corporation is better than a useless accretion of outdated functions owned by a Borg-like conglomerate [Microsoft] or an OS created by a gnomic, arbitrarily pissy design company [Apple] in my book.

What do you think six budding new media journalists, two of whom code, should do for a quarter? Ryan and I could hack something pretty substantial in three months!

Any ideas?

New York Times reader out for Mac, still a bad idea

From Gizmodo:

Not so hot on the heels of its Microsoft-built Windows-based counterpart, the Times Reader beta has been made available for all members of Although a Silverlight install is required, it’s relatively painless and a small price to pay for Reader’s efficient news presentation and olde timey typefaces. There are no subscription fees for now, but Mac users can expect to join the $14.95 a month party when the software goes final.

New York Times reader for Mac

I’m not sold. People are going to pay fifteen bucks a month for this? Are they planning on taking away the normal web site? Also, it’s built in Silverlight??? Seriously? The only thing worse than Flash is a Microsoft clone of Flash.

NYT: please, just make the web experience better. Don’t be tempted by proprietary interfaces that give you more control over your users. You seem to understand that net neutrality is about transparency. The technologies you use should be transparent too. Support open source. Support open standards. This is a step in the wrong direction.

(Thanks to Adam for the tip.)

UPDATE: Fixed a tiny typo.

Remixing the web: users taking back control of their media

Lifehacker just posted a bit about a new Firefox extension that changes how Craigslist works. There are a mess of extensions for Firefox that do stuff like this. (My personal favorite blocks annoying flash and banner ads.)

Craigslist Image Preview adds a thumbnail of the image(s) within a listing on Craigslist without requiring you to click through to the actual page. Since most Craigslist ads live or die by the included image of what’s actually being sold, this extension saves a ton of time and is a must-have for any Craigslist shopper.

Craigslist image preview plugin

In my mind, this fits in the same category as RSS feeds, podcasts and Tivo. Users are gaining the ability to absorb media at their own pace and in the format they prefer.

What made it possible? Open standards, like HTML and RSS, and open systems like Firefox’s add-on framework. This would never have happened on a proprietary system. You can’t do this to Microsoft Office.

Craigslist just got more useful, and it didn’t cost Craig, or you, a dime.

AP, Microsoft to share member videos in tiny, useless web interface

The Associated Press announced it will allow AP members to post videos to their Online Video Network for sharing with others. Previously, the content supply was one-way, from the AP only. Microsoft and the AP are partners in the OVN, and will share ad revenues with members that supply the videos.

Unfortunately, it seems that by working with Microsoft, the AP has hobbled their efforts. The video is streamed in the increasingly abandoned Windows Media format, instead of the ubiquitous Flash Video, presumably by Microsoft’s choice.

Adding insult to injury, the widget that AP members put on their web sites to host the videos does not appear to work in Firefox on Mac, Windows, or Linux. It does seem to work in Safari on Mac, and of course it works in Internet Explorer.

Actual size:

Associated Press video widget

The AP justifies this choice on their Browser and Platform Compatibility page, saying that “If a user attempts to access the OVN while using Mozilla’s Firefox (8 percent share), Apple’s Safari (2 percent), AOL’s Netscape (2 percent), or Opera (<1 percent) they will likely be unable to launch and/or properly view the video player. The primary reason for this incompatibility is that the Microsoft’s video player (on which the OVN is built) requires the use of ActiveX controls – a technology that these browsers don’t support.”

By their numbers, 13 percent of web users don’t matter. By better numbers, 22 percent don’t matter. How many people they are dismissing varies by who you ask, but it’s undeniably a lot of folks.

But it doesn’t really matter because the text is so tiny, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the title of a video and clicking on it before it scrolls away. And if that was not enough to deter viewers: If you’re lucky to be an Internet Explorer user with a magnifying glass and fast hands, you still have to wait through a 30-second commercial before you can watch the video.

Try it for yourself. I hope that the member sites are ready for the deluge of ad revenue.