Friday, January 9, 2009

John Mayer: Apparently not the leader of the free world

New York Times has a great article about how Obama is so committed to keeping his Blackberry in office that he's essentially giving the biggest celebrity endorsement in history to Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes Blackberrys.

The article mentions that while RIM has no relationship or contract with Obama, they have managed to get John Mayer to shill for them. But as NYT perceptively points out, John Mayer is "a popular guitarist but hardly the leader of the free world."

So true.

Open for Questions Round 2: The good, the bad, and army of gay soldiers has wrapped up Round 2 of the Open for Questions feature, and the results are...interesting. There are definitely some issues left to be worked out, and some decisions the transition team is making that lead me to be a little skeptical of their commitment to transparency and openness. Still, there are some great highlights as well. The numbers are way up. Round 1 had roughly 20,000 people casting 1 million votes. Round 2 has blown this away with 100k people casting nearly 5 million votes.

I didn't cover it when it went live, but there were also some changes to the way Google Moderator was used to handle all these questions. This time around, there were many categories of questions like education, national security, economy, and the open-ended "Other issues. And the answer format is different as well; we get to hear our answers directly from Robert Gibbs (soon to be the White House press secretary) in video form, rather than getting boilerplate policy notes like we got in round one.

My favorite moment in the response video is when Gibbs answers a citizen's question "Is the new administration going to get rid of the 'don't ask don't tell' policy?" to which Gibbs gives a wonderfully succinct answer: "Yes". This is a well-handled political move by Obama's team. They've taken a lot of flack in the last few weeks over the decision to invite Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration, due to his anti-gay views, and the decision to answer this question so clearly is definitely an attempt to give something to the gay community.

(Incidentally, Obama is also positioning himself ahead of Bill Clinton with this move. Clinton famously promised the gay community equality in the military, but then compromised to settle on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Many in the gay community felt this was a betrayal of sorts, so Obama is trying to send a strong signal here that he will do one better.)

But it's not all roses and gay soldiers in this round of Open for Questions. There are some definite concerns as well.

Unlike after Round 1, it appears that you can't access the submitted questions in their original format anymore for Round 2. This is a major breach of trust and failure of transparency in the implementation of this tool, so I hope I'm wrong and that someone can provide me with a link to the original submitted questions.

Why is this such a big deal? Because now we can't see the questions that Gibbs didn't answer. We also can't see if the team is truly answering the top-voted questions, or if they are picking and choosing.

This all leads to a slightly depressing take on the feature - it's not really open or transparent, it's just using the web to gather comments from the public to create the illusion of public support for the administration's goals. There were plenty of questions in there that were not so supportive of Obama's goals, but we didn't get to hear the answer to those.

On the one hand, this is fair and reasonable, and we can't expect the transition team to seek out antagonistic questions and highlight them in a video. On the other hand, Obama has talked about moving beyond partisan politics and into a new era of elevated discussion. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday that will require engaging people who disagree with the administration's views and giving them a respectful and persuasive response.

But hey, the economy is crashing, inauguration is less than two weeks away, and the Middle East is dealing with a bit of a conflict. I can understand how Round 2 of Open for Questions might not have been the most important item on the transition team's list this week.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Changing with the Times

If I had to name the single industry with the most urgent need to adapt to the rise of the internet, it's definitely print news. Newspapers in particular have been falling apart across the country, and the decline has only accelerated with the economic downturn. The Chicago Tribune company has filed for bankruptcy, the New York Times company's debt has been downgraded to nearly junk bond ratings, and small papers across the country are cutting back staff and relying more on outsourced content.

This is bad news for them, but good news for everyone looking for cues on what it really means to "innovate or die." The movie and TV industries have been able to stay decently ahead of the internet curve by watching the total disaster that the music industry experienced when they failed to adapt.

Here is a great piece that the New York Times is putting together. It's a multimedia composite piece about debt in America. What really stands out to me is how easy and accessible it feels. They could have taken the lazy way, and simply offered a series of articles, perhaps with links to a few photos spread throughout.

This is a different beast entirely. You can browse through it with no effort and no commitment. You can choose the type of media experience you prefer: photo essays, articles, interactive graphs and of course, videos. This venture into new media tools doesn't mean that the level of journalism has dropped off, either - almost every component of the piece includes new information uncovered by Times reporting. And it's so beautifully tied together, it truly goes far beyond what we could have expected from a newspaper even 2 or 3 years ago.

Now take a look at the website for the House of Representatives, or even the White House. These websites are not too bad, and certainly have come a long way in recent years, but don't invite exploring and interactive discovery the way the New York Times piece does. No question, creating that sort of feature took a lot of work from staff dedicated to improving the online experience. The Times is forced to devote that energy to their online experience because they have no other viable path forward. The government doesn't have that kind of pressure, but perhaps they can learn from watching others, and stay ahead of the curve.