A.J. Feather

Journalist, Developer

I'm a Missouri native currently seeking a dual masters in computer science and journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Every week I also host an awesome podcast called "Integrate" with my friend Mikah, which you can find at Integrate.FM.

Before moving to New York, I obtained undergraduate degrees in journalism and economics from the University of Missouri-Columbia. In Columbia, I hosted a weekly show called "Talking Politics" for KBIA, the local NPR member station and produced, wrote and anchored video for Newsy.com way too early in the morning.

There has never been a political column I did not enjoy reading or an Apple product I did not enjoy using.

Design

This week we heard from the Executive Creative Designer of Adweek, Nick Mrozowski, about his methods for picking and implementing designs.   Mrozowski talked about creativity and also doing pieces as a tribute to some famous designs that have appeared previously.  It was great to get a better understanding of how they build the magazine each week, and I was amazed to see how much awesome design is still alive in magazine culture.

Design work is changing.  While everyone used to have a set designer on staff, websites like 99 Designs are trying to change that in some respects.  Although I would imagine most large publications will keep people on staff.  With the internet, there’s no need to have a designer within any proximity, as long as they have a sturdy internet connection.  Of course this is with the exception of magazines and newspapers because the content is built in unison with the design at many publications.

I asked what the best course of action to learn the basics of design was for those of us who don’t have much experience ourselves.  Mrozowski suggested I look at several online resources and blogs that focus on design.  Our instructor said understanding design can be as easy as looking at what the top magazines are doing and trying to grasp their creativity.

I look forward to utilizing these resources and hopefully gaining a more full understanding of design myself.

"I Can Make You Want To Buy A Product" - "Handlebars" by Flobots

The state of the ad industry has changed drastically over the past few years.  Last week, we heard from Lauren Johnson, a digital marketing reporter for AdWeek.  She discussed her job, what she reads day-to-day and how the online ad landscape is changing.  This graph from Gigaom discusses the increase in Google ad sales versus newspaper print ad sales.  

via GigaOm

Then there’s the new invention of ad networks, which place ad buys, taking the specific control over where ads go out of the buyer’s hands.  From what I gather, this works like Google AdSense, and it is generally to the buyer’s benefit.  But no matter who is doing the buying, digital ad sales are skyrocketing.

Adweek does a good job keeping individuals in the industry informed, and I really like what I have seen on the site so far.  They talk about different campaigns and methods of promotion groups and businesses are using.  For example, the two top headlines right now are “Oprah Will Send You a Birthday Card if You Buy a Premium Subscription to O” and “Major League Soccer is Using World Cup Fever to Score New Fans.”

It is neat to see a little bit of what’s going on behind the curtain.  When Johnson was speaking to us, she mentioned she has broken several stories off of tips given by industry insiders.  It’s amazing how much time and money people are willing to spend on a publication that discusses the art of selling stuff.

Newsroom Tours - Day 1

The media landscape is changing.  It’s cliche by now.  Ever since celebrities started tweeting and everyone found out starting blog was free and easy, I’ve heard nothing but “It’s moving to the web,” “No one in your generation watches TV,” and the ever-so-overplayed “Newspapers are dead.”  Except for the fact that they’re not.  Though they no longer make the crazy profit margins they used to.

On Friday, June 27, which also happens to be my birthday (lucky me), our class visited several news outlets.  Every outlet was a little different than the one before, and It was sort of like traveling back in time when we went from The Huffington Post to the Associated Press.

The first stop of the day was at The Huffington Post where we saw probably the largest one-room newsroom I will ever see.  There were rows upon rows of tables where writers and editors sat producing content for the site.  There didn’t seem to be much overhead because, after all, a lot of what they do is aggregation, and they have never actually printed a paper as far as I know.  We also took a quick peek in at HuffPost Live, which our tour guide described as their response to cable news.  The office also featured nap rooms and ping-pong tables reminiscent of Google.

The next stop was Entertainment Weekly.  This was probably the most “traditional” newsroom we looked at in the sense that they print a publication once a week.  The print staff worked on one side of the hallway.  On the other side, you could find the web staff.  There is also an iPad staff.  (Maybe they sit in the middle.)  It was great to hear from some University of Missouri alums while we were there.

The final newsroom we dropped into was the Associated Press.  It is amazing how much content flows through that building every day.  We heard from several MU alums, along with a member of the product development staff who discussed AP’s movement over the last few years to mobile, an arena that has generated them direct revenue from ads.  Since AP is a non-profit and works to help its member newspapers, it has to be careful not to compete with its members.  The AP phone application is one of the first areas they felt they could effectively help themselves without hurting their members.

We also had a broader conversation about disruptive technologies from Seth Harris.  It was probably the most enlightening discussion I heard all day.  I had no idea VOX Media’s big pull was their platform, not necessarily their content and Buzzfeed is blowing away everyone with traffic and growth.

We finished the day at an alumni event here in the city.  It’s insane how many media professionals here graduated from MU.

Bite-Size News on Mobile

Building a news service for mobile can be hard.  Customers commonly don’t pay for content, and if you try to make them, they will go elsewhere - elsewhere in this context means either The Huffington Post or The Drudge Report.  Mobile content is a tricky math equation where the content provider tries to find the most efficient method of content production while  generating enough revenue to support his business.

In class this week, we heard from Circa’s Editor-in-Chief Anthony DeRosa.  He talked about content creation for the web and how Circa is building a reading experience that couldn’t exist pre-smartphone generation.  Circa takes bits of information and compacts them into single-page viewing experiences on their mobile app.  This allows them to update information as the story develops, post maps, post videos and deliver information to the reader efficiently.

They currently don’t have a website, but their app delivers on its motto of “Save time. Stay informed.”  Efficient information is popular among bite-size news organizations.  Newsy delivers information from multiple sources on a broad range of topics through one or two minute videos.  SourceFed puts together short informational videos with comedic hosts.

But to date, it seems no one has found the perfect combination.  While Circa has been receiving substantial funding, according to DeRosa, and Newsy was purchased by E.W. Scripps Company, none of these services have turned into household names yet.  (Note: The way I judge this is by asking my grandmother where she gets her news.)

Open Source Everything

Online development is a fickle thing.  You think you know what to do.  You just learned HTML, Javascript and CSS.  You’re going to build your website from scratch.  Then a new platform is introduced.  Wordpress is common, but can it provide the type of scalability you need?  The type of customization you need?  Is Squarespace worth the money?  It eliminates the worry of scalability, but it also takes more work to customize. These are all questions that don’t have a clear answer.

In class Monday, Jay Tuten of NBC Universal spoke to us about modern website development.  He suggested the open-source platform Drupal was a great option he and the team at NBC Universal used.  I was sort of taken aback that a giant corporation like NBC would use an open source platform for web development.  It seemed risky at best.  What if a developer created an application that could be exploited and NBC embedded it into a site?  Though Tuten says it is very secure and he has used it for dozens of web projects.

Personally, I use Squarespace for this site.  I’ve used Wordpress in the past, but it just seems to put the user in a small box - a box everyone at my university very much likes to be in.  And that’s great.  I don’t have any issue with everyone using similar models when they are models that work.  There’s a reason so many people prefer to shop at Walmart across the country.  They know what they’re getting and it works for them.  (I pride myself on shopping at Walmart.  Sadly I haven’t seen one in New York.)

I’ve done some minor web development.  I put together a small website for a class project last semester, and I prided myself in middle school on the always awesome Myspace and Xanga layouts I could build by replacing links and changing colors.  (“oOOOo aAAAah”)

Tuten pointed out that several very large corporations have built their own Drupal platforms.  It’s amazing what open source software can do.  Though Firefox seems to have fallen behind, there are still countless examples of open source software taking the lead.  These examples of people working (generally without profit motive) can make an economist’s head explode.

So we’ll see.  Apple, Microsoft and Google seem to have a stranglehold on most software creation and distribution, but that could change.  Though it seems more likely open source will challenge these companies to become better rather than take over the companies’ market share anytime soon.