Election Night Design: Gaming and Planning

ITEM 1: There's a solid writeup of electoral vote scenarios at FiveThirtyEight.com expressing much of what we've been gaming out in our newsroom.

ITEM 2: Several weeks ago we worked to select a few Counties That Count, half-remembering* a prescient article that suggested a few Florida counties could decide the 2000 election.

Andrea Bernstein has counted our counties among her stops for The Takeaway, and points out that in the last few days Barack Obama has been doing the same -- visiting Clark County, Nevada; Pueblo County, Colorado; Prince William County, Virginia; and Palm Beach County, Florida.

This weekend, the journo-programmers at The Takeaway are working to make sure you can track the real-time election results from our Counties That Count on the show's website.

ITEM 3: To get more info in our face, I set an overhead monitor to flip through several websites automatically, for free. Here's how:

-- I put the Firefox 3 browser on a computer attached to the monitor
-- Next I installed the ReloadEvery Firefox add-on, which auto-reloads websites
-- Installed the Tab Slideshow add-on, which cycles through tabs at a set interval
-- Installed the Full Fullscreen add-on, which hides the Firefox toolbars
-- Pulled up several sites in separate tabs
-- Set ReloadEvery to 1 minute, and Tab Slideshow to 5 seconds
-- Turned on the Full Fullscreen feature to hide the toolbars
-- ... and voila!

* Anyone who remembers the specific article, please let me know!

A Recorder in My Pocket

My iPhone is my new flash recorder.

As a manager, I'm not often out collecting sound for air. But I've been carrying a Nagra flash recorder just in case I need to contribute in a crisis, happen upon breaking news, or want to capture an aural moment we might use.

Today, I gave the Nagra back so someone else can use it.

That's because Adam Hirsch, a producer on The Takeaway and a fellow iPhone geek, showed me an impressive, new (and currently free) iPhone app that records fantastic audio using the phone's built-in microphone. It's far better than any apps I've tried for this purpose, and good enough to impress our engineers.

It's called the iTalk Recorder, from Griffin. The recordings really do sound great. At the top setting, it makes CD-strength AIFF files at 44.1k and 16 bits. If you have a Mac, a nifty download allows you to transfer the audio from phone to computer over wifi.

It certainly won't replace our reporters' professional recording equipment. But in a pinch, or as a backup kit, it's fantastic.

For me, that's perfect. And one less thing carry.

Election Night Design: The Virginia Monologue

The state of Virginia is poised to throw an interesting dilemma at newsrooms across the country.

Consider the following:

A) Based on current projections, if Obama wins Virginia he very likely wins the election. Try it yourself: go to this interactive map and turn all the tossup states to red for McCain. (As of this writing, that would be Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida.) Obama still wins. Then change Virginia to red, and McCain wins.

B) Virginia's polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern, just as election night coverage begins.

C) At 7:58 p.m. on election night 2006, 20 percent of Virginia's votes had been counted and reported to news organizations via the Associated Press. By 10:17 p.m., 90 percent of the votes were reported.

Throw exit polling into the mix there's the very real possibility that Virginia is called -- and the presidency known with a pretty good degree of certainty -- as early as 8 or 9 p.m. What's a broadcaster to do?

Ambient Information: The Power of a Gaze

In our old building I had an office with a window onto the newsroom. Above the window, on the newsroom side, three TVs fed a steady stream of cable news to the producers and reporters.

Sitting at my desk, I knew instantly when something big was happening because people would stop what they were doing and gaze intently at the spot over my window. I sensed their alarm before even they could articulate, or know, what was going on.

So in our new newsroom, we intentionally positioned the newsroom TVs over the studio windows. The hope was that hosts working inside the studios would get that same early warning from the body language of producers in the newsroom.

Tonight I was routing cool information onto one of those monitors (more on that soon), and was gazing up to evaluate and adjust the display. David Garland, a music host who was on the air at the time, came out of the studio and into the newsroom.

"Is something going on?" he said. "You keep looking up at the TVs."

Election Night Design: Confounding Factors

There's a lot to consider when designing comprehensive, contextual coverage for the biggest news night of the year:

- Pinpointing the key stories
- Getting early warnings on those stories
- Scheduling hosts and producers all night
- Deciding where to send reporters and producers
- Engaging the audience
- Ensuring strong staffing the day after

As we prototype and plan for Election Night 2008, here are some of the issues that have come into play:

A Foregone Conclusion?

One of our crystal balls is FiveThirtyEight.com, a fantastic, transparent analysis of polling data. The most beautiful part? Nate Silver runs 10,000 simulations of the outcome based on the errors and fluctuations possible in every poll. Ten thousand prototypes daily. Wow. Below is today's chart of how many electoral votes Obama gets in each simulation:

... which is to say, in nearly 1400 simulations, Obama gets 375 electoral votes. The total possible is 538 (hence the name of the site); it takes 270 to win the election.

The other crystal ball is the Intrade prediction market, where real money is bet on each state's electoral vote. Intrade has been shockingly accurate, from predicting each state Bush won in 2000 to the super-secret selection of the Pope.

Both site show a solid Obama electoral win, and have for a month now. They could be wrong, and they will certainly adjust as we get closer to the election. But in September, a landslide was not a part of our equation; it is now.

The Voting Story

Voter turnout could break records, at a moment when voting machines are untested in many states -- such as, surprise, Florida. Any case of voting failure, no matter what your political leaning, is a story in a democracy and an echo to 2000.

But FiveThirtyEight's simulations suggest there's only a 2 percent chance a decisive state will have a vote close enough to trigger a recount. And the chance of that winner of the popular vote will be different from the winner of the electoral vote is between one-tenth of a percent and zero.

Live Election Companion

We had a smashing success running our live debate companion during the candidate face-offs. People were able to participate in real time and get insights from our public radio luminaries.

On election night, what's the right way to have people involved? Set aside a key hour for a similar chat? When would that be? Have it open all night? Would that be a valuable experience? Better to have a running blog of updates?

On this, we're open to input. Comment below if you have any thoughts.

[WNYC's election night coverage begins at 7 p.m. and runs through the following morning -- online at wnyc.org and in New York at 93.9FM and AM820.]

UPDATE ... Our digital election team met today and decided to run the Live Election Companion, with participation from our on-air hosts, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on the WNYC and The Takeaway websites.

Design Bites: Time Sink

Confronted with this faucet, how do you turn it on?

If you said, "push the handle," you'd be right ... according to me. But, as you can see here, your hands would remain dry.

I was moments away from calling the front desk of the hotel where I was staying when I tried the shower, which worked fine. After another 3 minutes at the sink, I finally figured out how to turn on the faucet.

But I never got used to it, and incorrectly pushed and pulled the handle several times more during my stay.

Adjusting the flow and temperature was a whole other voyage into three-dimensional space ...

Design Bites: Where Can We Talk?

To speak correctly into the microphone below, where do you aim your voice?

Many of our guests clearly believe the answer is "toward it." Which, unfortunately, is only partially true.

You must speak into the blue foam at a point indicated by the small arrow taped on the metal cylinder. Here, it's below the "Y" in WNYC. This a) you must be told and b) is easy to forget in the stress of being on the air. (The manufacturer's logo is another landmark, but it is blocked by the mount.)

Speak toward any other point around the cylinder and you'll sound hollow and distant.

This week, in our main studio, we switched to microphones such as the one in the photograph below, which have a different sweet spot.

Suddenly, our guests stay "on mic" during entire interviews!

The shape tells them how to use it. No signs required.

Nobody Move!

Our newsroom works. Which is news.

For three years, we tried to design, from scratch, the best radio and online news facility possible. We moved in this summer, and the recent debates and breaking financial news suggest we got pretty darn close.

The key, I believe, was our central point of view:
In a breaking news situation, nobody should need to move.
A simple concept, with several implications:

-- During the most confused, stressful, and destabilizing moments, everyone is grounded in the familiar -- logins, phone lists, audio systems, etc. This allows the staff to sort out the fast-moving story, not rarely-used protocols

-- Routine, hourly news is produced with the benefit of communications and production systems robust enough for breaking news

-- Training people in daily news production automatically prepares them to handle the unexpected

-- On-air producers work amid the reporters and editors, not in a separate control room, so they are closer to the facts

-- On-air hosts can look look left to see the producer (and the rest of the newsroom), and right to see the audio engineer

-- Those sightlines allow for peripheral visual cues, such as concern on a reporter's face, or people intensely watching TV monitors

-- The News Hub is a technical extension of the studio complex, and has the intercom system used to talk directly with hosts and engineers; conversely, the hosts can address the entire newsroom through the News Hub monitor speakers to request facts, pronouncers, even water.

-- A web producer seated at the News Hub is integrated into the editorial system and instantly privy to all plans and decisions

It's not perfect. We produce two news shows on two different frequencies in the morning, and have trouble monitoring both at the News Hub. And our beautiful sightlines become tough brightlines as the sun sets beyond our western windows.

But those panes do provide an unexpected feature for hosts and the entire newsroom: ambient warning of approaching storms.

Design Bites: Buttons Behaving Badly

Rented a Honda CR-V yesterday, and when I went to the left side of the steering wheel to adjust the mirror I was startled by:

The dreaded "VSA OFF" button!

Which does what, exactly?* Must be important, since it's the largest button on the dashboard.

And while we're at it, does the icon in the circular switch say "mirror" to you? How about when you're doing 60?


* Turns out it shuts down the Vehicle Stability Assist system. Sounds like something you don't wanna press by accident.

Prototyping Debate Companionship

Back when a dozen people were vying for the presidency, I watched one of the debates at home alone, wishing I was in the company of people I respect to hear their thoughts.

Quick searches found the live blogging to be either slower or noisier than I wanted.

So as the presidential debates approached, I asked a tiger team at the station to come up a "live debate companion" fed by our top thinkers.

For the first McCain/Obama debate, we had John Hockenberry, Brooke Gladstone, Brian Lehrer and Andrea Bernstein tweet into their own accounts, which were presented in a self-updating Twitter/Web solution called Monittor. In a separate window, we fed a steady update of any tweet worldwide that included the word "debate" or the candidates' names -- offering a living, breathing experience, with a nice feel. It was also easy to share across our websites and other stations.

It turns out that the Twitterverse gets reeeeeallly slow during the debates, and that made the end result less interesting than we had hoped. Also -- hard to provide the trademark public-radio context in 140 characters.

For the Palen/Biden debate, we switched to CoverItLive, which provided a rockin', real-time experience. We hit some (yet unknown) room capacity, but for those able to join, it really flowed well. We copy-pasted some analysis into tweets, too.

Two strong signs we're on the right track:

1) The next day, the critiques at the station, including a chunk of a Takeaway planning meeting, centered on the content of the event, not the technology.

2) This:
[Comment From Chris, NYC]
This was a great experience. Thanks for your company.
"Company." Bingo.

We'll do it again Tuesday.

UPDATED OCTOBER 14: We learned today that there 1026 people participated in the Live Debate Companion for the 2nd presidential candidates' debate. That's exciting.