New York Times Nails Online News With Its Budget Puzzle

This morning, I closed the 2015 U.S. budget gap before I could finish my Clif Bar.

I did it by eliminating earmarks, cutting 250,000 government contractors, reducing nuclear arsenal and space spending, dramatically reducing the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning estate taxes to Clinton-era levels and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.

This isn’t the start of my presidential campaign. This is courtesy of the New York Times. Think you can balance the budget? Check out Budget Puzzle, where “you’re in charge of the nation’s finances. Some of your options have more short-term savings and some have more long-term savings.” It’s the realest “game” you’ll ever play.

Here’s how my plan stacked up:

As I’ve said before, I’m a Democrat. (That means I love taxes.) Balancing this beast meant making a ton of spending cuts and avoiding tax hikes that would’ve impacted the budget much quicker, but would’ve left most of America begging I be tarred and feathered. My plan generated a $10 billion surplus, but it couldn’t cure the long-term gap which would peak in 2030. I felt immediate results were more important for position in the global economy and national morale.

Really, this shit is hard. I’m glad the New York Times gave me the opportunity, although it’s worth noting the Budget Puzzle is based on a dictatorship, not a democracy. I felt guilty with many of my selections, knowing few would be lucky to sputter through Congress without becoming a hallowed-out shell.

This is a salute to the New York Times, leading the way for interactive news websites.

Part of me wants to be bitter about the distressed newspaper industry. The Internet has murdered ad sales and subscriptions, which has resulted in more job cuts than new hires. I went to college with the intent of becoming a journalist. I, along with many of my classmates, looked on, hopelessly, as the newspaper industry all but shriveled up before our eyes. Some of my classmates found work at community newspapers, where furloughs and layoffs spread their offices like the common cold. Some gave up writing altogether. I started blogging — something which I enjoy more than I ever did news writing — and I found a job where I get to write, as well. I made out fine.

The traditionalist in me died a little this morning, though. The New York Times has proven online news can, in fact, be more informative than its paper-version.

The NYTimes.com is expected to switch over to a paywall system in January, leaving non-subscribers to limited access of the website. This is the pay model news websites should’ve gone by since day one, but I think the New York Times proves its value with interactive graphics like the Budget Puzzle, which can actively teach readers the intricacies of bigger stories and trends. I’d pay for stuff like this. I hope I’m not alone.

This morning, I eliminated tax loopholes and created a carbon tax before my coffee was ready.  I prioritized the 2015 budget over the 2030 budget and pondered raising the Social Security age limit to 68. (Hey, life expectancy keeps increasing!) This puzzle with its accompanying story ran over the weekend, but this morning, I had one of the best newspaper-reading experiences of my life.

And I did it online.

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Election Day 2010: Don’t Overlook the Grey Areas

I have little to offer on Election Day 2010. I won’t implore you to vote, because that’s your decision and I’m sure there’s many real-life reasons you may not. However, if you’re invested in a race or a candidate or you simply feels its your civic duty, go vote. Celebrate democracy.

One thing, though: Be an informed voter. You know you don’t have to fill in every bubble on the ballot. School board, city council, state legislature — those offices often affect our day-to-day life more than congressional elections. Don’t vote based on party alone, and that goes for the whole ballot. Know exactly who and what you’re voting for.

If I vote today, I’m voting for an Independent gubernatorial candidate, Tom Horner. My conservative grandmother always warned I’d turn Republican once I got past college and entered the real world. I’m still a registered Democrat, very much a liberal, but with maturity, I’ve started looking at issues more pragmatically. Maturity makes you respect grey areas. As Democrats and Republicans continue to stretch an already gaping divide, the grey area from issue to issue has become more apparent. Not everything is as simple as conservative or liberal. That’s why we need a third party in our political system. That’s why I’d be happy to vote Independent.

Fat chance politicians will lead the way in ending partisan nonsense, so maybe as voters, we should shy from straight-ticket voting and give each and every race for which we vote a good, honest look. I’m hard-pressed to believe my views align 100 percent with any politician I’ve ever vote for, but in good conscience, I’m willing to overlook some differences in opinion as long as we agree on the right issues.

What are the “right” issues? The issues that truly inform your political beliefs. I believe each of us has a handful of top tier concerns, while the rest of our beliefs often just fall in stride with our party’s. For instance, I support the Second Amendment, but feel their should be a ban on handguns and assault weapons. However, that takes a backseat to my beliefs surrounding education, health care and gay marriage. A candidate’s stance on the Second Amendment wouldn’t necessarily sway my vote one way or the other.

What am I saying, albeit poorly? Be open-minded. Be pragmatic. Acknowledge the grey area. Don’t let voting be as simple as finding the “D” or “R” next to a candidate’s name and don’t be afraid to leave bubbles unchecked. The only thing worse than not voting is casting an uninformed vote.

Now is not the time for voting blindly.

If WAFF-TV Had Ethics, You Wouldn’t Know Antoine Dodson

A heinous attack in Huntsville, Ala. has turned into a multimillion dollar empire for Antoine Dodson. But is it right?

I wonder if anyone dressed as Kelly Dodson for Halloween.

You know, Kelly Dodson? The Huntsville, Ala. woman who was saved by her brother, Antoine, after a man broke into her home in the middle of the night and attempted to rape her. Of course, Antoine Dodson has become famous since WAFF-TV reported the story earlier this year:

Dodson’s “career” as a budding viral-video star really took off when the Gregory Brothers and their Auto-Tune The News clip for barelypolitical.com got ahold of the WAFF story, which has received over 37 million views:

The auto-tuned version of Dodson’s interview has since become one of the best-selling singles on iTunes, generating enough revenue for Antoine and Kelly Dodson to move out of the projects. Antoine and the Gregory Brothers even performed at this year’s BET Awards. His viral fame has also led to an endorsement deal with a mobile app called Sex Offender Tracker:

Over the weekend, I saw dozens of people dressed as Antoine Dodson for Halloween. (Antoine even endorsed www.bedintrudercostume.com — the official Antoine Dodson Halloween costume.) His overwhelming popularity makes me only more concerned about WAFF-TV’s sensational editing of the original story, which included Antoine’s hyperbolic, over-the-top rant not because it was informative, but because it was entertaining.

I raised this point to someone at a party the other night.

“These stories are reported all the time,” she said. “Trust me — I’m a journalist. I would’ve included his rant, too.”

No matter how many times I go back and look at the original story, I can’t help but think Antoine’s comments should’ve been edited. If I was in the editing room, I would’ve kept the following (in bold) from the original:

“Well, obviously we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbing in your windows. He’s snatching your people up, trying to rape them, so you need to hide your kids, hide your wife and your husband, because they’re raping everyone out here.

“We got your T-shirt, you done left fingerprints and all. You are so dumb. You are really dumb. For real.

“You don’t have to come and confess that you did it. We’re looking for you. We gonna find you. I’m going to letting you know now. So you can run and tell that, homeboy.”

Really, that’s it. We already know the story concerns an attempted rapist who got away. “Raping everyone out here” is factually wrong and could incite unnecessary panic. The threat at the end isn’t really news (nor advisable by legal counsel). The only bit of information Antoine adds to the story concerns the evidence left behind.

But the WAFF-TV editors knew they had something. We live in a viral culture and I doubt anyone from WAFF-TV is surprised Antoine Dodson has become famous overnight. (Although he’s taken viral fame to whole new level.)

Look, it’s easy to feel warm and fuzzy about the story, because in the end, the Dodsons moved away from the projects and (probably) continue to make a living wage of one interview. However, how’s Kelly Dodson? Has she recovered from her traumatic experience, or is she reminded of it everytime she hears her brother’s auto-tuned interview or sees him on the BET Awards or hears “run and tell that, homeboy” or sees kids dressed as Antoine for Halloween? This all stemmed from Kelly being violated, an experience so damaging, some women never fully recover.

It’s good to see that some positives have resulted from the attack. But, I can’t help but feel WAFF-TV got a free pass for showing little in the way of ethics.

Social Media: The Next Great Storytelling Platform

Could Kevin Durant's fake neighbor be to Twitter what Orson Welles' War of the Worlds was to radio?

Recently, I’ve been looking back on old Facebook photos, messages and wall posts, using social media sort of like a diary or journal. Turns out all of my social media activity, be it Twitter, Foursquare or YouTube, makes for one hell of a time capsule. Bad haircuts, regrettable outfits, old friends — it’s a trip.

I imagine social media will be used as a primary storytelling platform before long. This is something Facebook has acknowledged with yesterday’s announced plans to create Friendship Pages, which, according to Mashable.com, “pull together the public wall posts, comments, photos (based on tags) and events that two friends have in common.”

There’s potential across other social networks, as well. Nike’s realized this with its latest campaign featuring Kevin Durant. I follow the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar on Twitter. Yesterday morning, he posted this curious tweet:

Like others, I clicked to find out who Durant’s new neighbor was and why he was “trippin’.”@kd35sneighbor is Mathias Murphy, a fictional teenager who claims Kevin Durant has moved in next door to him. His Twitter profile links to a YouTube channel with a series of videos meant to appear as though Murphy is spying on Durant:

Not everyone on Twitter has caught on to the ruse, but as of this morning, @kd35sneighbor is up to 1,123 follows (up from 200 when I started following yesterday morning) and “his” YouTube videos have received nearly 93,000 views. In the latest video, Murphy answers Durant’s invitation via Twitter to come next door and meet him. It should be interesting to see a) how Nike incorporates itself into the story and b) where the story goes.

I work for a consumer marketing agency that prides itself on social media know-how. We’ve recently been honored for a global campaign based almost entirely on social media. Still, my co-workers were abuzz with this awesome stunt. Whoever’s responsible for brainstorming Kevin Durant’s “neighbor” — likely Weiden + Kennedy — has a serious grasp of social media’s storytelling potential. (And if that’s the case, W+K has had the best year ever with the most recent LeBron James commercial and Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign.)

There’s already rumbling about both of these storytelling techniques. Facebook Friendship Pages are running into some privacy issues, per usual. Mike Melanson of ReadWriteWeb wrote, “In the end, the feature is just one more reminder that we live in the open with our souls – our friendships, our thoughts, our embarrassing moments – bared to the world unless we are extremely cautious.” And with Durant’s fictional neighbor, some folks on Twitter seem genuinely concerned:

Fiction or nonfiction, I’m excited for recent developments involving storytelling and social media. Like it or not, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and YouTube keep a more accurate history than a journal or diary could. And just like Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds, the Durant campaign shows how an audience new to a storytelling platform can struggle to separate truth from reality.

Storytellers, run wild.

Newspaper Endorsements No Longer Matter. Or Do They?

History has given us a plenty of reason to question the newspaper industry's clairvoyance.

I served as editor-in-chief of my college newspaper during the 2005-06 school year. The following year, my successor decided he’d had enough after the fall term, so I was brought back for the Spring 2007 semester. I spent some 18 months as the editor of a newspaper and not once was my paper forced to make a political endorsement.

Not that any newspaper really is. Still, it’s a strange tradition that carries on; the editorial board, hardly representative of any newsroom’s entire staff, gathers to decide which candidate their newspaper supports. It’s a process happening now and in the coming weeks in Minnesota. In fact, many of the state’s biggest publications have already endorsed Independent gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner.

I love everything about newspapers, even though I’m a Twitter-checking, iPad-toting, RSS Feed-reading information consumer. I started reading the Argus Leader (of Sioux Falls, SD) when I was around six years old. The Argus is notoriously conservative, as is most of South Dakota. If newspapers are influential, how is it someone who became a daily reader at such a young age would go on to become a big, stupid liberal like myself?

Because I didn’t care about the political leanings of the Argus Leader’s editorial board. I suspect very few people did or do. For all the good a newspaper provides a community, I think readers maintain an intellectual detachment, a blanket of skepticism and a take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt resolve. Endorsements aren’t influential. Endorsements are fodder for political ads and debates. The Duluth News Tribune will not persuade my vote this year. Will it persuade yours?

A few years ago, Froma Harrop penned a rather snide commentary for Rasmussen Reports, roundly supporting newspaper endorsements. Harrop argued — with a fair amount of evidence — that newspaper endorsements are most effective when they support candidates outside their perceived political affiliation. For example, when the staunchly conservative Chicago Tribune endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, it was a big deal. Readers took notice. Readers were (probably) influenced.

“For newspapers, there’s something gratifying about these studies and surveys and even the arrows shot their way by bloggers and cable partisans,” Harrop wrote. “Go ahead and ‘diss’ the print journalists as pterodactyls of the ‘Mainstream Media’ … People still get hopped up over what they think.”

Apparently, he’s partially right, because here’s another blogger shooting arrows at the construct.

This year, selecting from the three Minnesota gubernatorial candidates is like choosing from an in-flight menu — go with whatever seems most palatable. I’m voting Horner and it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the newspaper endorsements. I’m happy he’s garnered the support of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Duluth News Tribune, the Fargo-Moorhead Forum, the Bemidji Pioneer and, seemingly, the Mankato Free Press, but that has nothing to do with my vote.

Do newspaper endorsements still matter? That all depends on how impressionable a voter is, I guess. Personally, I refuse to be influenced politically by something that prints comic strips, crossword puzzles and horoscopes.

Zuckerberg Resilient the Week Before Social Network Opens

If Jesse Eisenberg was paid $5 million to play Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he would need 1,379 sequels to match Zuckerberg's net worth.

Just over a week from the opening of The Social Network, it seems Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are doing anything and everything to earn some positive press. Can you blame them? The movie is getting rave reviews, and those I’ve talked to who’ve seen advanced screenings say it colors Zuckerberg a world-class douche bag, whether right or wrong.

So, what’s Team Zuckerberg been up to?

  • Donating $100 million to Newark (NJ) public schools. According to the Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg will announce “a donation of up to $100 million to the Newark schools this week, in a bold bid to improve one of the country’s worst performing public school systems.” And with grand Zuckerberg flair, the announcement will be made on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
  • Working on a Facebook phone. Maybe. After previously dismissing a report from TechCrunch regarding a possible Facebook phone, Bloomberg reported Facebook is working with INQ Mobile Ltd. on a pair of smartphones which could be carried by AT&T in the U.S. in the second half of 2011.
  • Climbing the list of Forbes’ 400 richest Americans. How do you get past being depicted by B-list actor Jesse Eisenberg? Try increasing your value $4.9 billion in just a year. Zuckerberg’s $6.9 billion puts him at No. 35 on the list of America’s 400 richest people. For perspective, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is worth just $6.1 billion. Chump change. Why does this matter? A) Should Facebook go public, investors can equate Zuckerberg’s financial success with still more growth potential and B) Zuckerberg’s now surpassing some of the greatest luminaries in our country in terms of value and influence.

Expect more educational philanthropy from Facebook, as Zuckerberg has long been a proponent for increasing salaries for public school teachers. His timing — with the donation and the announcement on Oprah — is perfect, considering Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary Waiting for “Superman” opens Oct. 1, the same day as The Social Network. (Guggenheim appeared on Oprah Monday to promote the doc alongside Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system.)

About a year ago, I read Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, the book upon which The Social Network is based. While reading it, I was aware the movie was being developed, but I imagine you’ll get the same impression from the movie as I got from the book — a sense of incompletion. Simply, the Facebook story is still in its early chapters, and to pen a book and movie before we truly understand what Facebook means seems … I don’t know … rushed? Opportunistic? Impatient?

You don’t net $6.9 billion without pissing someone off along the way. And more importantly, I don’t think Facebook users care about Zuckerberg’s dealings. Facebook has woven itself into our lives in such a way that we’re no longer concerned with how it came to be, but more importantly, that it exists.

Who can name the inventor of the Internet? (Not Al Gore.) E-mail? Wireless Internet? Online bill pay? Facebook has become a tool, a utility, something we’ve come to need. Ever talk to a friend who’s decided to quit Facebook? They don’t miss the poking and the walls and the photo albums. They miss the communication. They miss the feeling of being connected. It’s the same feeling you’d have if you up and removed your mailbox, gave up on the postal service.

I digress.

Anyone plan on seeing The Social Network? Do you believe a movie that negatively depicts Mark Zuckerberg will affect the way you interact with Facebook?

Stewart, Colbert Rally for Sanity, Fear

The folks over at Comedy Central have offered some of the most compelling coverage the past few elections. While CNN integrated holograms into their broadcast for no apparent reason and FOX News participated in typical over-the-top doomsday rhetoric, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report actually provided some of the best coverage of the 2008 election.

Comedy Central seems to rise to the occasion every election season. This year, Jon Stewart is leading the way with The Rally to Restore Sanity, which not-so-subtly knocks Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally, which took place just last month.

The rally’s home page asks, “Who among us has not wanted to open their window and shout that at the top of their lungs?” The site also says the rally is intended for “the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence… we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.”

Of course, Stephen Colbert can’t sit this one out. He’ll simultaneously host The March to Keep Fear Alive. From the march’s home page: “America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty.”

Essentially, these events should turn out to be a sketch comedy on a grand scale — not unlike Beck’s meant-to-be-serious Restoring Honor rally.

I can’t help but think massive political protests/rallies/marches/shindigs/soirees have become arbitrary. We’ve got social media now, and sadly, a hashtag on Twitter goes a lot farther than 1,000,000 people standing united at the Lincoln Memorial. I admire the dedication, but the whole process is kind of antiquated.

I imagine that’s the point of Stewart’s and Colbert’s rallies. Two rallies on the same day at the same place with completely opposed agendas. I wish I could go. Are you going? If so, send me an e-mail (atmiller14@gmail.com) and we can coordinate a guest post.

Here’s a question: If you were going to one of the rallies and you were going to make a sign, what would it say? Post it on Twitter with the hashtag #sanitysign. (That’s an ongoing hashtag right now – not my invention.)