Mizzou researchers figure out how to rescue the newspaper industry

Murali-Mantrala

Professor Murali Mantrala showed how one newspaper could raise profits through data analysis. (Photo courtesy of the University of Missouri News Bureau)

If you’re wondering whether the newspaper industry can avoid colliding with irrelevance, there may be a way to change course, according to two University of Missouri researchers.

Murali Mantrala, the Sam M. Walton Distinguished Professor of Marketing and chair of the Department of Marketing at MU, and Vamsi Kanuri, a former doctoral student at MU’s Trulaske College of Business, surveyed more than 1,000 readers of a West Coast daily paper to determine not what news they read, but how they got the paper in the first place. The researchers presented the survey participants with a range of purchase options much wider than what the newspaper already offered.

These options ranged from print-only subscriptions to combinations of print, online and mobile subscriptions. The options also varied in price based on the mix of channels, the frequency of distribution, and whether or not they were advertisement-free.

Mantrala and Kanuri combined that information with data on advertiser spending across the variety of channels to create an algorithm that determines what precise menu of subscription options a newspaper should offer to maximize total revenues from subscriptions and advertising.

Given the customizable options for readers and advertisers, the potential benefit of a subscription menu to the West Coast newspaper equaled a 17 percent increase in the publication’s profits.

“Newspapers are in a quandary; they need to find ways to increase revenues without raising prices or creating barriers that will cause them to lose readers,” Kanuri said in an MU news release. “In developing this algorithm, it was important to determine readers’ preferences for how they wanted to receive their news, as well as to determine readers’ willingness to pay for different types of subscription plans. Once we gathered that data, we were able to streamline a process for making decisions about which subscription and advertising plans to offer in order to maximize profits without losing readers.”

And readers will buy news as long as they know the content they receive is unique, convenient, and relevant to their needs. For proof, look at the way members of the Millennial Generation – ages 18 to 34 – consume content. As a group, almost 90 percent of them purchase music, movies, television, and video games. Other research has determined that people willing to pay for entertainment are also willing to pay for news.

Mantrala and Kanuri said their model works for any newspaper or subscription service, including Hulu, Pandora, or Spotify. Publishers and broadcasters must first conduct audience and advertiser surveys, then organize the collected data by audience segment to determine the optimal subscription menu algorithm.

“Any subscription-based service can use this model if they do the requisite research to determine subscriber interest and willingness to pay for various tiers of service,” Mantrala said. “Using this model, as opposed to years of costly trial and error, can help newspapers and other online businesses greatly improve their profits.”

The study by Mantrala and Kanuri is titled, “Optimizing a Menu of Multi-format Subscription Plans for Ad-Supported Media Platforms,” and is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Marketing.

Kanuri is now an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Esther Thorson, a former professor at the MU School of Journalism now at Michigan State University, also coauthored the study.

Dive into the Deep Web (but watch where you swim)

Deep Web Image

If you ever watched the rain fill a hole in the ground, then you can understand where the term Deep Web comes from.

For the past 10,000 days – the approximate age of the World Wide Web – we’ve poured gallon after gallon of content into that vast networking structure known as the Internet and watched as that content seeped into every crevasse of our lives. And the number of sources is as vast as the structure itself; none of us truly knows where all that content originates.

Now, imagine that, instead of overflowing, the hole gets deeper and deeper to contain the content pouring into it. You can see across the surface and maybe a little below it. But other content submerges to where you need special tools for access.

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo! and web browsers such as Firefox merely skim this surface, collecting indexed information from its source. These kinds of tools probe only about 5 percent to 10 percent of the Web’s content.

Deep-Web diving, on the other hand, reveals the immense amount of information not indexed by standard search engines. Much of it is exchanged through peer-to-peer networks and resides on databases, unregistered websites, query-sensitive dynamic pages, limited sites, non-HTML sites, broken or hidden web links and backlinks, scripted content, and web archives, among other sources.

The list of useful deep-diving tools is long, but among the most common tools are Freenet, IceRocket, I2P, SurfWax, the WWW Virtual Library, a series of search applications provided by Deep Web Technologies, and the Tails operating system. There are also customized tools targeting specific caverns nestled in the Deep Web.

A word of warning, however: The deeper you go, the darker the Web gets. This is why in recent years the terms “deep” and “dark” have become conflated regarding the Web. At Deep Web’s bottom layer, there be dragons who dabble in questionable or outright illegal behavior. Using Tor, a free browser designed to protect the user’s anonymity, deep divers can peer into portions of this darker area.

Granted, not everyone at this depth wears a black hat. Good guys dwell down there, too, such as journalists, law enforcement, the military, and whistleblowers. But like anywhere else, trouble can be found if you go looking for it. So, exercise the same caution swimming in the Deep Web as you would in deep water. Keep a lifeline handy like this one (accessible through Tor) and enjoy the voyage.

11 programming languages that will improve your life

11 programming languages you should learn nowNot long ago, I wrote a piece for Perficient describing how learning to write computer code can improve one’s life, no matter who you are or what you do. I explained code writing’s value beyond being a marketable skill – that it promotes technical literacy and instills a sense of community, and that it heightens critical thinking and teaches us how to deal with failure. The piece was well-received, and the feedback suggests readers return to it periodically for review.

Soon after it published though, people asked the inevitable follow-up question: “If I have to invest the time and money into learning a programming language, which one should it be?”

I thought about issuing a quick response, then hesitated – for weeks. What seemed like an easy question lost that quality as I realized no single answer exists; programming benefits each person differently, and at peak effectiveness no one language stands alone. In my early programming days, the languages one learned were created to communicate simple instructions to a computer. Now, programming languages are created to make our lives and the world around us better. How you work or play, or how you mix the two, determines which languages are optimal.

Currently, a dozen programming languages sit atop most should-learn lists. Some are broadly practical; some apply to specific needs. All of them interact with other languages, so learning two or more is wiser – and potentially more profitable – than sticking with one. In alphabetical order, they are:

C – A general-purpose language developed in the early 1970s, C retains market popularity and usefulness due to its small size and robust nature. Numerous other languages borrow from C, which makes it a bedrock language and the first for anyone who plans to develop operating systems or create embedded applications.

C++ – Designed in the 1980s to enhance C, this language now qualifies as a general-purpose language used to build application software, systems software, server and client applications, and video games, and is central to Adobe programs and Firefox, among other software.

C# – This newer language, pronounced “C sharp,” utilizes principles from C and C++ and was developed by Microsoft to build enterprise applications for the company’s .NET initiative, making it essential to Microsoft platforms and services such as Azure.

Java – Developed by Sun Microsystems in the 1990s, this language has gained a huge following because it was designed to work across multiple platforms. Java is considered a standard for games, mobile apps, and web-based content, and it is the main reason programs written for Mac platforms can run on Windows.

JavaScript – Despite the name similarity with Java, this language has C at its core and runs only on browsers, whereas Java can run at the machine level. Every modern website with interactive or animated features uses JavaScript, and it appears in game development and desktop applications.

Objective-C – This popularity of this general-purpose language was waning until it became a key building block for development of Apple systems. It powers not just OS X and iOS, but also is important for creating iPhone apps.

PHP – A server-side scripting language like JavaScript but with general-purpose programming capabilities, PHP (known also as Hypertext Processor) is essential to dynamic websites and content management systems such as WordPress because it can be embedded into website markup language instead of sitting in an external file. PHP appears on most of today’s data-driven websites.

Python – The true beauty of this server-side scripting language is its simplicity; programmers can do more things with fewer lines of code than other programs, making Python a good language for beginners to learn. Google and Yahoo use Python a lot, and it is useful for sifting through giant data sets.

R – This language is important in the statistical computing and graphics environments, and can be found anywhere the need for statistical analysis arises. If you enjoy math and deal with heaps of data, this language ranks high on your should-learn list.

Ruby – No, this does not refer to the gemstone or anyone in Donald Fagen’s playlist. Ruby is a dynamic though simple object-oriented language that lies beneath the Ruby on Rails framework. It has the power necessary for developing websites as well as web apps, and is gaining popularity among tech startups for its versatility and ease of use.

SQL – Called “Structured Query Language,” this special-purpose lingua franca is good for relational database management systems and quite effective at extracting small details from large data sets through its “query” function.

Ted Cruz is wrong about Net neutrality

Net neutrality logoThe last thing any of us need is someone in a position of influence explaining Net neutrality but who doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand Net neutrality.

Yet, Ted Cruz has decided to do it anyway.

The junior Republican senator from Texas trumpeted his mischaracterization of the issue last week in the Washington Post opinion piece, “Regulating the Internet threatens entrepreneurial freedom,” in which he champions the idea that online innovation suffers unless the Internet is devoid of federal oversight.

The term “devoid” is not overstatement. Cruz prefers that Washington leave the Internet entirely in the hands of the legislative process, where service providers, market forces and special interests hold sway. To this end, he urges nullification of all Internet regulation, now framed within Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act.

In Cruz’s mind, Net neutrality “would put the government in charge of Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.”

In fact, Net neutrality refers to the Internet as it is now: a place where service providers and government agencies treat all online data equally and access is unlimited; a place where the powerless have as much influence as the powerful; a place where startup businesses can grow into corporations without monopolistic interference.

The issue became a big deal in April when the Federal Communications Commission agreed to consider a two-tiered system where Internet providers can set arbitrary rules on access. Then in May, the FCC also agreed to consider reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, which would prevent providers from threatening to reduce access in exchange for fees.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

President Obama supports reclassification. Cruz however believes the providers should be in control because reclassification is just a nice way of saying the government will levy an Internet use tax. He has even gone as far as calling Net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet,” a catchy little phrase that possesses a certain rubbery, pejorative quality certain to help it bounce around the Web for a while.

Never mind that it misrepresents both Net neutrality and Obamacare; Cruz is a Princeton and Harvard grad, a champion debater and a loyal partisan toady. Conservative straw polls rank him high among likely GOP presidential nominees in 2016.

It would tarnish Cruz’s carefully honed image for him to appear on the same side of an issue as the president. So, it makes more sense for him to mangle Net neutrality’s definition than risk political capital.

To be fair, the term “Net neutrality” is sufficiently vague enough that anyone with a flair for drama and self-promotion can abuse it with ease. One could easily argue that the term also means you’re indifferent about what happens to Internet.

If only it had a better name. Comedian John Oliver suggests that maybe Net neutrality’s working title should be more honest: “Preventing Cable Company F**kery.”

But that might be too honest for Ted Cruz.

Mizzou researchers create a tool that makes Twitter more powerful

Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins (left) and doctoral student Ian Graves developed software that measures the context of words in Twitter. (Photo courtesy of the MU News Bureau)

Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins (left) and doctoral student Ian Graves developed software that measures the context of words used in Twitter. (Photo courtesy of the MU News Bureau)

Twitter already is a powerful news aggregator and microblogging platform. Now, two University of Missouri researchers think they know how to improve it.

Their thinking stems from new software the pair developed that they say considers the context of tweets, not just the quantity. At present, a topic is popular or “trending” on Twitter if there are a high number of related keywords and hashtags that are associated with it.

But the software, developed by Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins and doctoral student Ian Graves, can be programmed to pick out words and analyze their placement within tweets.

Goggins and Graves said they tested their concept on a flurry of tweets from the Super Bowl and World Series and assigned tags to words they predicted would be common in the two broad conversations. The software scrutinized where the words were located in each tweet, thus giving the researchers notions on the words’ contextual importance and allowing them to see how conversations evolved.

“When analyzing tweets that are connected to an action or an event, looking for specific words at the beginning of the tweets gives us a better indication of what is occurring, rather than only looking at hashtags,” Goggins said in a Mizzou news release.

In tracking word placement, the researchers were able to determine the nuance attached to each Twitter discussion. They could discern the action on the ball field between pitches and on the gridiron between plays.

“The program uses a computational approach to seek out not only a spike in hashtags or words, but also what’s really happening on a micro-level,” Graves said. “By looking for low-volume, localized tweets, we gleaned intelligence that stood apart from the clutter and noise” associated with each event.

Goggins and Graves believe their software will help make Twitter more effective for monitoring community safety and tracking disaster relief, and improve understanding of cause and effect in major events such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the protests in Ferguson.

Although less than 5 percent of Twitter traffic is actual news, much of the dialog that drives retweets and hashtags relates to newsworthy events.

Goggins teaches in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies at Mizzou. Graves is a student in the Computer Science and IT Department at Mizzou’s College of Engineering. Nora McDonald, a graduate student at Drexel University, contributed to the study, which appears in the journal New Media and Society and was funded by a grant by the National Science Foundation.

Is the Daily Egyptian’s demise a Dunn deal?

Daily Egyptian logoI haven’t seen the man in almost 30 years, yet Bill Harmon still intimidates me.

His sharp-toned advice echoes in my head whenever I try to write or edit a news story. I cringe every time.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Harmon was the faculty adviser of the student-run Daily Egyptian newspaper at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while I lived and breathed journalism there. He served in that role for nearly two decades. He was famous for, among other things, having two tools at the ready. In one hand he clutched a red felt pen that cut through a young reporter’s copy — and ego — like a butcher’s knife. In the other hand was an ever-present cigarette.

The walls of his office and the edges of his moustache were yellowed testaments to his nicotine habit, no doubt aggravated by the likes of cocky young know-it-alls such as myself.

He was gruff, direct, uncompromising, and when he was upset with a journalist for not asking a key question or missing the point of a story even the air in the room escaped to find safety. But when he issued praise, no honor was higher or possessed more value. It was the Pulitzer of my youth.

The staff of the DE strived daily to hear him utter that praise, however mild.

I mention him now because Mr. Harmon’s legacy, and perhaps that of the DE itself, may vanish this summer. Last week, SIU’s Board of Trustees, the principal governing body for the entire Southern Illinois University system, tabled further discussion of a proposed $9 student media fee that, in part, would deliver the DE from rough financial straits by covering an estimated $200,000 operating deficit.

The 98-year-old newspaper relies on advertising to pay the bills yet still struggles, as does every other university newspaper in the United States, to remain solvent. Most of those other student newspapers, however, already receive fee support, including the twice-weekly student paper published at SIU’s campus in Edwardsville.

SIU-Carbondale students endorsed the $9 fee when it was first proposed last summer. Then-SIU Present Glenn Poshard buttressed that endorsement by digging $55,000 out of his own budget to lend short-term assistance.

SIU President Randy Dunn

SIU President Randy Dunn

But on May 1, a new president, Randy Dunn, took over and brought with him a different perspective. He said last week at the trustees’ meeting that he preferred to reexamine the fee proposal and the DE’s finances, and suggested he might take a year to do it. As if the DE had not considered pinching pennies before now.

Despite its name, the DE publishes only four days a week, down from five a year ago. Staff salaries and student work hours have been slashed over and over. The salaries are paid out of advertising revenue, not out of the university’s pocket.

Current DE Managing Editor Eric Fiedler told the Chicago Tribune that he doubts the newspaper can last even a few months, let alone a year, without the university’s commitment. SIU-Carbondale School of Journalism Director William Freivogel said he intends to have the trustees revisit the fee when they meet again in July.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the DE editorial advisory board, and Bill Frievogel was a colleague of mine for several years in the editorial office of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

The easy thing to do now is voice frustration with President Dunn and the trustees for displaying what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward a teaching tool that just won 17 Illinois College Press Association awards and was key to the School of Journalism receiving reaccreditation this year.

But I can understand the president’s reticence, to a degree, and it may have less to do with money than with, well, discomfort.

When I was a student reporter for the DE, one of my assignments was to cover the university administration — the president, the chancellor, the vice chancellors, the provost, the deans, etc. The role required attending meetings, analyzing budgets, sifting through sundry official documents, and upholding Mr. Harmon’s insistence that “Titles don’t matter, damn it! Only the facts matter.”

Southern Illinois University logoOften, these administrators begged off from answering my questions, resented them, even ran away from them. Once, I learned through a couple of dependable sources that a handful of SIU officials planned to fly together to Chicago for a conference and discuss university business along the way. I met them on the tarmac at Carbondale’s tiny airport and insisted on going along, arguing that the context of their discussion was required to be public, not private.

At that, all but a couple of the passengers stepped away from the plane, fetched their luggage and left the airport. On his way out, one particularly vexed administrator stormed up to me, pushed his nose to within an inch of mine, and grumbled, “You just ruined my vacation.”

When I returned to the DE newsroom, Mr. Harmon asked, “Were they pissed?”

I replied that they were.

He smiled broadly, snorted and said, “Ha! Good.”

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian are, first and foremost, public servants both mindful of and responsible to their university communities. Their staffs should be as tough and as diligent as the staffs at small-town weeklies or big-city dailies, because how else do student journalists grow to become professional ones?

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian should insist on honesty and integrity, and demonstrate the same, no matter the issue or the authority. The least we can do is lend them our support.

They are not obligated to make anyone feel comfortable. Bill Harmon was keenly aware of that.

Perhaps President Dunn is not.

Knight Center offers free training in investigative journalism

ReporterWhat about the word “free” don’t you understand?

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas will offer a five-week open online training course covering the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism, without charge. The course, “Investigative Journalism for the Digital Age,” begins May 12, and concludes June 14.

Instruction will cover, among other things, general concepts about conducting investigations, finding and cultivating sources, analyzing digital data and databases, sifting through social media for useful information, and presenting stories with attention to fairness and ethics. Four instructors will present multiple videos edited in a college-style classroom format.

The instructors are Brant Houston, who teaches investigative journalism and advanced reporting at the University of Illinois; Michael Berens, an investigative reporter for the Seattle Times and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting; Steve Doig, data journalism specialist at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism; and Lise Olson, senior investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle.

Each week’s work can be completed at the student’s own pace. Quizzes will be given at the conclusion of each instruction module. Students can request a certificate of completion at the course’s conclusion for a small fee.

Anyone who is interested should register now at the Knight Center’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) site. The center is supported by the Knight Foundation.