Monthly Archives: August 2007

Cheeseburgers and political satire

Next time you hear some executive talk about cross-platform distribution, you might want to fire up this Senator Craig item, from Doug Clark at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. That’s putting the multi in multi-media. Production credit is to Joe Barrentine, who shows up in one search as an intern in the paper’s photo department. I guess that he put the slide show together to go with the lyrics by Clark, a Spokesman-Review columnist, The Spokesman-Review has a pretty lively blog report from the morning news meeting. Here’s what they said about the Craig song parody:

But the really big deal this morning was Doug Clark’s new song. Some callers called it Doug’s "best perv song ever," although Smith "thought Barista was pretty good," he said.

On
the other hand, managing editor Gary Graham and senior editor Carla
Savalli brought up the point that by producing media to go with Clark’s
column about Craig, it’s…

• an extra step in poking fun of a
public figure that involves not just Doug Clark, but the time and
energy of Spokesman-Review staff if the multimedia team were to
blockade the men’s room for music video production.
• Poking fun of a public figure in a way that can make us ask, Is this something a newspaper should be doing?

"That’s one step further than I’m comfortable with," Savalli said about taking columnist views to a new media platform.

Smith and others argued that ridicule of public figures is a standard tone in Doug Clark work, although they agree that "It is Spokesman-Review content."

Is "Cheesbuger, I hold" by Craig LaBan, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, doing the same thing?  A columnist who grew up devoted to print turns to the music video format to get across an important point. Political scandal, cheeseburgers — universal topics, important messages, cross-platforms.

In Spokane, Tony Orlando and Dawn provided the inspiration. In Philadelphia, it was the writer’s composition. In both cities, online audiences found newsrooms working to make the most of the web.

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Filed under Music, Video

Demand for data

Web designer. Information architect. Developer. User experience editor. Whatever the title, the need is growing for talented people who understand the presentation and collection of data. Some journalism background helps — newsrooms have their own pacing, vocabularies and personality. We are doing
decent work on homicides and shootings and this weekend we went live with a
new analysis of bridge safety data (do you really want to drive over the
bridge rated 3 out of 100?). For 10 years we’ve been doing a school report card for the region.

As good as these are, each project could be much
better. (A significant point on the bridge data is that this is the information the State of Pennsylvania did not want to release. Officials still haven’t released it, but the Inquirer was able to obtain it and we wasted no time getting it to the public.) We are already talking about ways to improve the presentation of the bridge data, by adding 1. a way to save or share the information on a bridge or group of bridges, 2. a way to search by major route, 3. a way to search for the structurally deficient bridges that we did not include on the first list, either because they are in the parts of PA and NJ outside our
eight counties or because they carry fewer vehicles than the cutoff level we used.

We are about to redesign and
rework the entire school report card, to make it much easier for our audience and to include more information. The Loudon Extra schools
guide
is one inspiration. I am thinking about using an outside designer to get us started on the conceptual work. We
have people who will build a better web experience once we give them the specs,
but we need help with the process of developing and mapping out the
specs. We’ve started with Dylan Purcell, our data editor who also handled the bridge data; Rose Ciotta, who is our education editor, and Connie Langland, a reporter now working as a free-lance writer who originated the report card more than 10 years ago. In addition to the Loudon Extra, we studied the SFUSD School Info Google Map Hack (great use of the map as an entry point to data), GreatSchools (which has a good school comparison function), and the Star-Ledger school report card (which has some advanced analysis of demographic data, too).

Is there a demand? The Inquirer school report card had about 6,000 page views in the last four weeks, and 53,000 views this year. The map of the bridge safety data had 5,000 page views in three days. Readers want access to this data and they want it clearly presented. That’s an ideal job for a newsroom.

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Filed under DataBank, Web/Tech

Local, local, local: Page views, page views, page views

Watching the numbers: Hyper-local news can mean whatever you think your neighbors will talk about — a house fire on the next block? a new school principal? street closing? It also can mean that readers will visit your web site again and again, increasing traffic by 50 percent or more. The Record in Parsippany, N.J., is edited by Dennis Lyons. He talked to Editor & Publisher about the success of the hyper-local strategy, which includes very frequent web updates:

"It is less of a print-driven approach," Lyons says
while chatting in his office, "being absolutely as local as we can be
and getting readers involved as often as possible." The early jump on
the Web is key, he adds, noting that the paper’s monthly page views
jumped from 3.3 million in March 2006 to 4.9 million in March 2007.

"We started out with baby steps, doing about five
updates each day," he says of his 58-person news staff, which includes
18 reporters. "Now we are up to 35 or 40." The site now covers such
events as school closings, "which we had never done before."

Reporters say they are getting used to providing
online updates throughout the day, rather than saving a story for the
print edition. Vidya Padmanabhan recalls a February fire in nearby
Washington Township, which she heard about at 6 a.m. through a tip.
Once confirmed, she posted a story, then made more calls to get
comment. She then learned a 5-year-old girl in the home had awoken her
parents to the blaze and helped them escape, and that detail was added
at 9 a.m.

Later in the day, a second reporter arranged for an
interview with the family, which was shot by a staff videographer and
posted online by the afternoon. The second reporter then wrote it up
for the next day’s paper.

Do the math: that’s a 48 percent increase in page views over one year. All that’s required: New assignments, new hours but most of all a new attitude in the newsroom. (Do the other math: 40 posts a day, from 18 reporters, means three posts per working reporter per day.) One step is to use pre-qualified community news providers. At The Inquirer, we took one small step last week, posting text and a photo  submitted by the Cherry Hill Fire Department. Over the course of a few days, it received a couple of hundred page views, about what a similar staff story would receive.

 

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LinkedIn, Facebook as reporting tool

I see three questions on LinkedIn from journalists trying to cast a wide net for stories: this about mortgages, this one about Michael Moore and this one about using LinkedIn. I know of many examples of reporters using Facebook to quickly gather information, including reporters gathering information about a young man injured in Spain and separately about high school students protesting a "transparent backpack" rule. What guidelines can you think of that will help reporters successfully navigate the world of social networks?

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Free seminar for student journalists

How often do top college journalists get to spend the day with their peers and leaders from the profession discussing our craft, their ideas, and the big issues facing newsrooms? One opportunity is coming up next month in Harrisburg, supported by the Pennsylvania Society of Newspaper Editors and other professional associations in the state. I’m on the board of the PSNE and I never miss an opportunity to help students. Right now I’m helping spread the word about this seminar:

when Sept. 18, 9 AM to 4 PM

where Pennsylvania Newspaper Association office, 3899 North Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17110

agenda Best practices, legal issues, FOIC, covering controversy on campus, moving to the web, getting your career started and more.

more information and registration Janet Bevan (717) 703-3004, janetb@pa-news.org

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We the people

The House hearing on Tuesday addded momentum to the campaign for a stronger right-to-know law in Pennsylvania, a law starting with the presumption that public information belongs to the public. Rep. Tim Mahoney of Uniontown is the author of the House bill. Sen. Dominic Pileggi is the author of a similar Senate bill. The good news is that the historical competitiveness between the two houses may turn this into a race to get a bill passed. Informally or formally, a conference will sort out any differences.

The Inquirer piece on A1 this morning, Bridge ratings to be released, notes that the goal of open records is "expected to be a key legislative issue this fall." Pileggi has said it is his top priority.  My prepared testimony is on the Inquirer website. I summarized the results of a 2005 open records audit:

In 2005, 50 newspapers in the state along with The Associated Press conducted a survey of 700 agencies. Of 217 police agencies, 40 percent denied access to logs or incident reports. Of 130 school districts, half denied access to the employment contract for the superintendent.

The solid attendance at the hearing showed a high level of interest in the topic. The Post-Gazette highlighted the debate over 911 call information:

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence wants to prevent disclosure of 911 call recordings. But Carl Lavin, deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said such access would allow residents to evaluate how well and how quickly emergency workers respond.

The Beaver County Times, which has spearheaded the effort to obtain the bridge data, emphasized Rendell’s role in the decision:

PennDOT stood firmly behind its policy of not releasing the ratings as late as Monday afternoon.

Biehler said he changed his mind again Tuesday morning after consulting with Gregory Fajt, Rendell’s chief of staff.

Rendell has been quiet in public though, making only general comments in favor of public disclosure. Despite the general sense among officials at the hearing that disclosure is a public good, the debates over particulars showed that many officials have lost track of their role. They are not in charge, they work for the public. Have they forgotten "We the people"?Take the discussion over email, for example. Anyone with a job in the private sector knows that an email account on the job is the property not of the individual, but of the employer. The boss has full access to that email account and all emails sent or received are available to the head of the company.

Government employees work for us, the public. There should not be any debate about the use of a government email account. Anyone reading a message sent from a government account realizes it is sent under the color of official authority. There should not be any question about making that email available to the employee’s boss — the public.

Advice to public sector employees: if you don’t want something disclosed, don’t do it.

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Filed under Current Affairs, DataBank

Your bridge safety data

In the end, the Secretary of Transportation did show up to talk about bridge safety data. The official, Allen D. Biehler, said that although his department had a legal basis to keep the bridge information secret, he has now made a "judgment call" to release the information. He’s changed his mind. I testified afterward, and made the point that our citizens need a law that makes it clear: public information belongs to the public. One official’s judgment should not be a factor. The AP had this report:

The seeming capriciousness of PennDOT’s decision to withhold, then release the bridge safety reports was not lost on Carl Lavin, a deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lavin, who testified after Biehler, said the Philadelphia School District had refused to release a consultant’s report on student violence against teachers – until a teacher was seriously injured by a student and the Inquirer planned a story about the district’s refusal to release the report.

"Miraculously, that report became available," Lavin told legislators. "A judgment call, just as you saw today."

Biehler made no promise about when this would be available, by the way, and none of the legislators asked him for a deadline.

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It’s your right to know

I am testifying on Tuesday to a state legislative committee, headed by Rep. Babette Josephs, that is considering strengthening the Pennsylvania right-to-know legislation, widely considered the weakest in the country. An editorial in The Inquirer this morning hit the right tone:

A state House panel will review a bill that would give residents more clout
when seeking information on everything from zoning decisions to expense reports
of public officials.

Current state law has the issue backwards. It places the burden on citizens
to prove why any government record should be open for public inspection.

A bill from Rep. Tim Mahoney (D., Fayette) would shift the burden onto state
and local agencies to explain why certain records should be kept secret.

The measure contains other important features. It would cover the
legislature, which is currently exempt. It would create an independent office to
handle requests for state records and appeals of denials. It would increase the
fines for willful violations from $300 to $1,000.

I will post more from the hearing when I return. Here’s a taste of my testimony:

 

Officials say no so often because they can say no with
impunity. Substantial penalties, including legal fees, must be part of any
right-to-know law that will be taken seriously. We have seen that there is a
human tendency to keep information out of the public’s hands. A strong law will
mandate penalties when that happens.

These public records belong to the public. For a
democracy to function smoothly, citizens need access to public information – to
their information. That is why the First Amendment was written. That is why you
are working so hard to write better right-to-know legislation.

I do know that Rep. Josephs has asked for a PennDot representative to talk about that agency’s refusal to release bridge safety data. As of Monday afternoon, the agency was not going to be represented.

The Beaver County Times has been very pointed on the importance of this information:

PennDOT has denied two requests from The Times to disclose specific rankings
for structurally deficient bridges in western Pennsylvania. The most recent
denial came Thursday – just hours after a bridge spanning the Mississippi River
collapsed in Minnesota.

Releasing the bridge rankings could pose a security risk and panic the
public, PennDOT officials have said.

Kirkpatrick said Monday that the agency is reviewing its policy on disclosing
bridge ratings.

"In general, we have held that bridge inspection information is
confidential," Kirkpatrick said.

Take a look at Iowa. The Department of Transportation in that state makes all the information available. Can Pennsylvania do the same?

 

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Dancing with Drudge, flirting with Fark

A link from Matt Drudge’s drudgereport.com or from Drew Curtis’ fark.com can bring 100,000 or more page views to a news organization’s web site. Marketing people, editors and some reporters send links to Drudge or submit them to Fark, hoping for a green light. Each site is selective, although big breaking news, snarky headlines, goofy antics  — or all three in the same story — will often move an article to one of the popular sites’ homepages. Newsrooms still debate the benefits. With time on site replacing page views as the dominant metric for web audiences, online editors will no longer lust for a tidal wave of 100,000 or 200,000 readers who click and quickly disappear. Mackenzie Warren, who oversees the News-Press website in Fort Myers, Fla., is one of those who has cooled on Drudge, according to this LATimes report, Hot links served up daily:

But Warren says he’s no longer secretly seeking Drudge’s attention. Among other things, links from Drudge skew readership numbers — up one day, down the next — making it difficult to determine ad rates, Warren and his counterparts in smaller markets say. Their advertisers want local readers, not the national audience Drudge delivers, which is more attractive to bigger news sites.

"You’re always flattered when you get linked, but from a business and community standpoint, it doesn’t help," says Barry Cooper, online managing editor for Pilot Online in Hampton Roads, Va.

I still have a fark signon, and I’ve submitted news — and received a green light — as recently as late July (35,000 page views). Once traffic is flowing, there are related links that editors can use to entice some of that fickle audience to stay for at least a short while. Sure, we’re here for loyal readers and our core market. That doesn’t stop an editor’s heart from beating faster to the clicks of a six-figure stat counter.

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