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New tool aims to help journalists get better bang for ‘fluff’ pieces

A new visualization tool developed by a graduate student at New York University aims to help Web journalists — who must produce highly clickable pop stories with hard-hitting news — reduce the time spent on “fluff” stories by pointing them to topics that will garner substantial traffic.

The tool, called Current, cross-references popular search terms with existing news stories to identify editorial sweet spots —  topics with rising interest but not a lot of media attention — that will drive traffic, and thus dollars.

The project’s admirable goal is to free up news organizations’ limited resources for hard news. If reporters can satiate the page-view beast with a smaller number of high-traffic “fluff” pieces, they can devote more time to reporting serious news.

“That way hard news may continue to stay safely alive and funded,” creator Zoe Fraade-Blanar writes in an explanatory paper. She continues:

News relies on soft stories like horoscopes, celebrity gossip and restaurant reviews to subsidize the important but less sensational stories that keep democracy running. At base, any solution to news’s present problems must address the balance between the hard news we need and the soft news that drives advertising dollars. By visually anthropomorphizing the capricious nature of public attention Current can spotlight these missed opportunities in news coverage.

Current’s psychedelic topography plots the lifespan of an Internet meme — any Internet-spread idea — by charting the top 20 search terms that have hits in Google News in real time. Fraade-Blanar calls this “a snapshot of what the entire Internet-using population in America has been thinking for the last 24 hours.”

But more than just charting the ebb and flow of popular interest — which many existing visualizations do — Current’s “memescape” creates new value by illustrating the density of media coverage around popular ideas.

“With this project, I aimed to be as morally neutral as possible,” Fraade-Blanar told Need to Know.

The project, still in the early stages of development, has made a small media splash since its debut, and many have praised its innovative design. But some question whether it’s possible for an amoral tool like Current to achieve its nobler goals.

Its value-neutral approach reminds ReadWriteWeb editor-in-chief Richard MacManus of content farms, whose so-called “evil genius” terrifies many journalists and technologists.

These multimillion-dollar companies, such as Demand Media and Associated Content, use complex search algorithms to determine what people are asking Google, then pay contributors small amounts to create content — thousands of pieces a day — to meet the demand. If you’ve clicked on an search result from Google, you’ve likely tasted the fruit of a content farm.

MacManus notes:

Content farms aim to supply content to meet demand — usually perceived to be what people are searching for on Google. Demand Media, for example, has a sophisticated analytic engine that identifies topics that will be most attractive to Google.

So although Current aims to mediate between a writer’s “need to drive traffic to [their] website and the need to cover important, albeit less sensational topics,” in reality it would most likely be used to identify high traffic topics (the ones that will make money).

“The nice thing about using any kind of trending topics data is that it’s up to the computer programmer,” said Fraade-Blanar. She points out that editorial decisions can be computer assisted but never be fully automated.

And not every topic that interests the masses is fluff. Even though Current recommends covering “Kendra Wilkinson sex tape” right now, it also recommends “cadmium” — certainly related to McDonald’s recall of cadmium-tainted Shrek glasses.

Fraade-Blanar hopes that future iterations of the project will be better targeted so that users can chart interest in a particular city or around a particular topic.

“It should be more pinpointed, more targeted trending,” she said.

You can try it with the free download here.

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