Holland Tunnel

A few shots from some afternoon walks around the office neighborhood, not far from the Manhattan side of the Holland Tunnel.

There’s something about the tunnel that feels very Old New York to me. It hails from an age of great public works and industrial ambitions, now strained by the city that keeps rising around it. Still, it remains stitched into the fabric of daily life in the city—subsumed into the bones of New York, nearly overrun but not outgrown.

Meet Column Setter

ProPublica Design & Production team member Rob Weychert has created a handy tool for building responsive, grid-based layouts in Sass. We’re calling it Column Setter.

There are a couple things that set Column Setter apart. First, you can use any grid proportions you want. Unlike some other tools, it doesn’t rely on a set of predefined grids you have to cram your content into. You get to pick what works best for your design. Even better, it’s not a framework, so you don’t have to junk up your page with lots of krufty markup. Lastly, layouts built with Column Setter work in older browsers. While the future of advanced layout on the web is clearly CSS Grid, Column Setter’s got you covered if you need to support the broadest possible audience without resorting to lots of hacks or workarounds.

We’ve been using Column Setter on the new ProPublica.org for several months. It’s internal code name was “Josef” (as in Josef Müller-Brockmann, naturally). If you’ve browsed our site or read one of our feature stories recently, you’ve already seen Column Setter layouts in action.

Dig into the code on GitHub, and check out Rob’s writeup over on the ProPublica Nerd Blog.

Facebook’s News Feed Update Relies on Unreliable Signals

Like pretty much everyone else in journalism I’ve been thinking a lot about Facebook’s big News Feed announcement.

In case you missed it, content posted by publishers and institutional players will now be downplayed in the News Feed in favor of stuff your friends and family share and comment on. The result will be fewer articles from newsrooms and (shudder) brands, and more stuff from actual people like your Aunt Susie. Fair enough. It’s named after a face book for a reason, right?

Facebook says they’re doing this to address the “well-being” of their users. Mark Zuckerberg uses the word multiple times in his post about the announcement. What they don’t say is “fake news” or address how these changes might stop bad guys from manipulating their network like they did during the U.S. Presidential election and Brexit (and likely elsewhere, too). Which is odd because those are clearly the precipitating events that led to these changes. And there’s good reason for concern, because this update may do little to stop it all from happening again.

Under this new arrangement “engagement” becomes the key factor in determining what users see. Publishers will still be able to post their stories, but it will take comments, shares, and “likes” from friends and family on those posts for them to rise to the top. In Facebook’s own words, “Posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to.” That means Facebook will be basing their revamped feed on a process that responds to emotional reactions.

That’s a setup that talks straight to the lizard brain. Moreover, it has a weak correlation with value. I’m talking about the good-for-people-and-society kind of value, not good-for-Facebook’s-bottom-line value. Josh Benton nails it in his post on NiemanLab:

[A]t a more practical level, it seems to encourage precisely the sort of news (and “news”) that drives an emotional response in its readers — the same path to audience that hyperpartisan Facebook pages have used for the past couple of years to distribute misinformation. Those pages will no doubt take a hit with this new Facebook policy, but their methods are getting a boost.

Content that “starts conversation” isn’t automatically good content. Just because live videos “get six times as many interactions as regular videos” doesn’t mean they’re any better for us. It just means we’re reacting to them more. Facebook needs to know why we’re reacting, and incorporate more objective elements into their algorithms instead of relying on subjective emotional ones. Otherwise they’re leaving the door wide open to still more social poison.

Building those sorts of objective filters is precisely where Facebook has struggled in the past. Efforts to halt “engagement bait” have focused on cursory signals that have proved ineffective against more calculated efforts from troll farms and the like.

And then there are the unintended consequences. For that I’ll cite a very recent personal example.

Last week a member of my wife’s extended family passed away. She had been active on Facebook, and when she died someone updated her page to let us know what happened and when and where the funeral services would be. Because this post keeps getting “reactions” and comments it keeps appearing at the top of my feed, helpfully reminding me of her death over and over again, days after the fact.

Keep in mind this is a company that knows how often I log in, if I’ve seen this post and—yes—if I’ve “engaged” with it. Even with that information they aren’t getting it right. Why? Because engagement alone is too brittle a determining factor, and responds too easily to the wrong signals.

As for publishers, they’ll still be right in the thick of it, hunting for new ways to make their content popular under this latest set of conditions. It’s naive to think they’ll simply walk away. Even a reduced slice of billions of users is too rich a prize for them to ignore.

Institutional content will still get shared on Facebook. Virtuous publishers and ne’er-do-wells alike will still fight like hell for it to be their content that gets shared. Facebook has to get better at telling the good from the bad and incorporate tools that know the difference in order for this to work.

The Road to Zion

Shot from the side of the road about 15 minutes outside Springdale, Utah, on the way to Zion National Park. We spent a couple days hiking there this past summer. Zion is a gem, and a reminder of what a treasure the national parks system is. Seemed only fitting to post after last week’s news cycle.

We’re Not Shutting Up

I get a lot of questions about my gig. Of those, the third most frequently asked is about swag: Have we got any? (No, really. I keep track. We’ll save Numbers One and Two for another time.)

Well, we’ve finally got something to answer that question with, and it’s pretty great:

The back story: Last week, a certain White House official was widely quoted saying the media should “keep its mouth shut.” My boss, editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg, told him (via the New York Times) the diplomatic equivalent of “NOPE.” I was away at a conference when I pulled out my laptop, saw all this, and thought, “Hey, I’ve got an idea…”

Several hours later, with the help of our crack social team, biz dev director Celeste LeCompte, and the fine folks at Cotton Bureau, we had ourselves a damn fine shirt. Roughly $10 from each sale goes towards funding ProPublica’s work, the rest lets Cotton Bureau cover their bills.

If you’re into it, go grab one (or several). And if you’re really into it, give us a shoutout or two on Facebook or Twitter and help spread the word, won’t you?

Morning Commute

Morning commute, West Soho/Hudson Square, New York City. iPhone 7, black and white conversion via Darkroom.

Photojournalists Call on Camera Manufacturers to Add Encryption

The Freedom of the Press Foundation has published an open letter signed by over 150 photojournalists and documentary filmmakers asking manufacturers to build encryption into their cameras.

This is important. Consider what can be easily revealed about a confidential source when a government or hostile party seizes a journalist’s camera, and you begin to understand what’s at stake.

Android, iOS, and macOS all offer system-level encryption for their devices, but there’s nothing to stop someone from pulling the data card out of most any camera, plugging it into a reader, and freely reviewing its contents—and “inspecting” cameras is a favorite tactic of many a government, police force, or criminal antagonist. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes such incidents are so common they can’t “realistically track” all of them.

There are too many places in the world where a single photo can put a source or photographer in lethal danger, and that makes the current lack of hardware-level protection unacceptable. As someone who collaborates with and directs photojournalists’ efforts on a daily basis, I endorse the Foundation’s call.

Lumber and Hardware

Metropolitan Lumber and Hardware mural on Spring Street in West Soho, New York City. Fujifilm X-T1, 23mm f/1.4, in-camera black and white.

Recommended Web Geek Reading: ABA’s ‘Practical SVG’

I just finished Chris Coyier’s Practical SVG, the latest installment in the A Book Apart series, and definitely recommend it if you’re a web designer or developer.

Val Head’s intro pretty much nails it: The more you think you know about SVG, the more you realize there is to discover. An increasingly important and ubiquitous piece of the modern responsive web, SVG is one those seemingly simple technologies that quickly reveals layers of useful—and occasionally maddening—features the more you work with it.

The stuntbox.com SVG sprite set hand-prepped in Sketch, yet another testament to my OCD.

Chris takes a lot of information you might have encountered here and there across various tutorials and distills it into one concise, accessible volume. The result is a lightweight reference of the essential material everyone working with SVG should know. (The clear descriptions of <symbol> and <use> are worth the price alone, and something I’ve already put into use on this site).

Dropbox’s Exodus From (and to) the Cloud

Interesting piece from Wired about Dropbox’s shift away from Amazon’s cloud and onto one of their own devising.

I remember a time when everyone thought it would be Google providing all this distributed infrastructure. But in the intervening years it’s become a lot clearer Google is fundamentally an advertising company, and Amazon is a services and logistics company—and becoming the de facto retailer of distributed storage and processing power becomes a lot more important if you’re the latter.

Amazon’s resulting cloud dominance has been fundamentally unchallenged for close to half a decade now. It’s hard to think of a project I’ve worked on during that time that didn’t involve their infrastructure in some way. It’s only recently that the very biggest consumer companies, like Dropbox and Apple, have undertaken the herculean task of spooling up distributed infrastructure of their own at a similar scale.

If you’re interested in a look at the actual bricks and mortar that make up the “the cloud,” Ingrid Burrington’s post “Why Amazon’s Data Centers Are Hidden in Spy Country” is recommended reading, along with all the other entries in the Atlantic’s “Beneath the Cloud” series.