Category Archives: Web/Tech

Don’t Be a Fool: Annual Spoof Warning

There is no off season for spoofs. Remember the great video interview with Bono? It was really a Bono impersonator. The episode was an echo of a 2009  adventure when a film team exposed the low standards of a lot of reporting about celebrities.

If the stories seemed far-fetched, it was because they were part of a series of fabrications about celebrities — made up and fed to tabloid newspapers by a documentary team that wanted to prove that journalists don’t check facts.

The Not-Bono interview with Jason Matterra was this year.

Spoofs don’t just happen with small newsrooms and celebrities. Last year, the very large Associated Press tripped up and fell for a spoof involving GE and taxes. Spoofs can happen any time, but they usually spike right around now.

As March 2012 draws to a close, it’s worth repeating this warning, a warning I send around the newsroom every year at this time:

The silly season is upon us. Many publications will be running corrections on April 3 for items they fail to see as pranks on April 1. Don’t let that happen to you – or to your readers.

One editor reminded me about a 1998 prank announcement that fooled the FT:

Guinness brewery issued a press release announcing that it had reached an agreement with the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England to be the official beer sponsor of the Observatory’s millennium celebration.

According to this agreement, Greenwich Mean Time would be renamed Guinness Mean Time until the end of 1999. In addition, the famous observatory would refer to seconds as “pint drips.”

The Financial Times, not realizing that the release was a joke, broke the news in an article in which it discussed how some companies were exploiting the millennium excitement in order to promote their own brand names.

There are sure to be more examples this year. Have you seen any? Comment below.

Each year, the UK starts the day early, and in style. Some top 2010 and 2011 spoofs, from a friend’s list:

*Ferrets to deliver broadband to rural areas, Telegraph

*AA to use rocketman to rescue stranded motorists, Daily Mail

*Google launches translate for animals, Google

Funny to read. Not so funny when they are re-told as real news.

That was two years ago. Every year brings a new type of spoof, and 2012 will be no different. In 2011, it was that hot, newsy Twitter feed. Too good to be true? Think twice, or three times.

A selective guide to fake Twitter feeds:

BPRahm EmanuelBronx Zoo cobraDarth Vader.

Journalists sometimes are on the other side of this, playing their own spoofs on the public. Adam Penenberg reminded me that the history of journalistic spoofs extends back at least to Mark Twain’s account of a petrified man in  1862.

Whether a colleague, activist or prankster, someone has a plan to spoof you, and to do it soon. Enjoy a good laugh, but please do your audience a favor. Don’t publish the material as fact. The reputation you protect may be your own.


Filed under Crowd sourcing, Social networking, User-generated content, Web/Tech

Shining A Light On Government

Anthony Dixon grew up in Montclair, N.J., the town where my wife and I raised our children. Anthony later joined the military and was in a transport vehicle in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded. Shrapnel pierced the floorboards, killing the 20-year-old soldier. When I was deputy managing editor for news at the Philadelphia Inquirer, we published an investigation showing that too little armor protected military vehicles in those years. Our reporters tracked down proof that steel companies in Pennsylvania and vehicle assembly lines in Ohio operated as directed by the military on a normal schedule, with weekends off, even while Pentagon officials were saying they were doing everything they could to safeguard the troops.

One order from Washington, one more shift at the assembly plant, one more armored vehicle in Baghdad, and Anthony would be alive today. Lawmakers, families and military officials read our articles and changed policies. Today, troops in the field are better protected.

Nothing can bring about positive change more quickly than quality journalism. Journalism is also the sector of our economy undergoing the most profound disruption. While others may lament the uncertainty and the erosion of incumbent business models, the same technologies that have been so disruptive also provide new opportunities —  opportunities for more people than ever before to use more powerful tools to create and distribute quality journalism.

A friend and neighbor, Steve Engelberg, spoke recently about his work as managing editor of Pro Publica, the non-profit newsroom based in New York that produces powerful investigations that serve the public. Steve talked about the intense data crunching that produced Dollars for Docs, a single database that lists doctors who received a total of $258 million from drug companies promoting pharmaceutical sales. Is your doctor on the list? Now you can find out with one click

Steve noted a stark example of what happens when news organizations are not providing scrutiny. He discussed the case of city employees in Bell, Calif., who were each paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries. Eventually, two reporters at the Los Angeles Times, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, uncovered the sky-high payments and a web of corruption in the town. No community newspaper revealed the story for the simple reason that there was no community newspaper in Bell.

Terry Francke, an open government consultant, described the long decline in his article, Why the Bell Scandal Happened and What Can Be Done:

These multi-community publications attempted to be the same watchdogs over local councils and school boards that their individual predecessors had been but were spread far more thin.

The former Industrial Post (last known as the Community News) went through several chain companies' hands until disappearing as even an independent name. And whatever close coverage of local news it had into the 1990s has been gone for the past decade.

Some newsrooms are taking an important step and developing ambitious goals for local coverage, with rollouts planned nationally by Patch and MainStreetConnect, state efforts from Oregon to Texas, and more focused efforts dotted across the nation, from Philadelphia to San Diego

Then there are the tools, new software that citizens can use to pinpoint problems in their own communities. Companies that offer such tools include CitySourced and SeeClickFix. Outside the United States, I Paid A Bribe is just one website that puts similar tools in the hands of people who want better government. President Obama praised that site during his trip to India this month. 

Even the most ordinary acts of government have an extraordinary impact on the lives of ordinary people. With the right vision and tools, journalists can continue to shine a light on these actions. One way to pay tribute to Anthony Dixon is to make sure that light shines brightly.



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Filed under Business models, Crowd sourcing, Hyper-local, Web/Tech

Engage Readers, Distract Drivers

Any editor wants to create compelling content. On the highway between Newark, N.J., and Manhattan recently, we had a good indication that our friends at the Financial Times have reached a new level of reader engagement. While I drove, my wife, Lauren Shay, shot some photos. This driver mostly kept his minivan in his lane as he used two hands to hold the weekend section of the FT.

Newspapers are not the only distractions for drivers. Below, on the same trip, are Lauren's photos of other drivers who used the time to talk, eat anad text. Please note that texting takes two hands, too.

Freeway driving

(Photos by Lauren Shay Lavin)

This year, Matt Richtel of The New York TImes won a Pulitzer Prize for his carefully reported series Driven to Distraction. Texting while driving had been an issue from Texas to Michigan and from coast to coast. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Bloomberg he wanted to reduce temptations that would distract drivers:

“I don’t want people talking on phones, having them up to their ear or texting while they’re driving,” LaHood said in an interview this week. “We need a lot better research on other distractions,” including Bluetooth-enabled hands-free calls and the in-car systems, he said.

What will LaHood do when he finds out drivers are reading newspapers, too? Right, he'll tell them to get Google cars, that drive themselves. 


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Filed under Current Affairs, Web/Tech

Taking On The Big Event: The Debate in Austin

The Austin Amercan-Statesman had a big challenge and a big opportunity last week, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came to town for a debate in advance of the March 4 Texas primary.
Online, the newsroom found new ways to cover the event and to uncover what goes on behind the scenes. I noted one feature in a Trailwatch post:

Cool newsroom offering: check out the interactive seating chart from The Austin American-Statesman to see where Chelsea Clinton and the Obama family were sitting in the audience.

The multimedia coverage offered so much more:
A range of video reports.
A very active group live blog. Notice there are more than 30 entries, from debate-watching parties, from the debate, from post-debate gatherings. Writers include interns, staffers, managers. Here’s one entry, with about ten comments. The entire newsroom was involved and that helped the entire community get involved.
Several slideshows, including photos of this debate party.
Oh, and there were articles, too, on the debate itself on the rallies and on plenty of other topics.

Maybe I missed it, but I did have trouble finding a good table of contents to all this great material. Navigation that allows readers to easily go from any one of these pieces of content to all the related links can be an engineering challenge, but also a great service.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Video, Web/Tech, Weblogs

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
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

Raising a newsroom’s digital IQ

I’m collecting some learning tools that have helped me. This video, The Machine is Us/ing Us, is a hit. Other suggestions welcome.

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Filed under Crowd sourcing, Social networking, User-generated content, Web/Tech

Panoramic photos, spreading the view

     Distinctive visuals grab readers and hold their attention. For decades, Art Shay and other sophisticated photographers with a technical bent have used panoramic cameras including the Widelux for terrific shots. Newspaper web sites are starting to experiment with full 360-degree photography. Check out this stunning audio and visual of a memorial on the Drillfield to the Virginia Tech victims (from The Roanoke Times). Other companies, including VRWay, are posting their own versions. collects more examples and information on the story behind the photos. Now, Rob Curley is planning on using panoramas for very local, and very functional, compelling visuals on the new Loudon County hyper-local site on (emphasis added):

The site will also have several new features that the printed paper can’t match. Rob Curley, WPNI’s vice president of product development, takes on a nearly evangelical fervor as he talks up what he’s got in store. Whipping out his ever-present Apple laptop and clicking frantically, he shows off a database that includes panoramic photos of every high school football field in the county; click on sections of the grandstands and you can see the sight lines to the field. There will be podcasts of some local church sermons, real-time accounts of high-school games and highly detailed restaurant guides, too. "You want to know which [county] restaurants are open after 11 p.m. on a Thursday? Boom! There you go!" he says, triumphantly displaying such a list.

— from AJR

Those sitelines might help more news organizations see their way clearly into a future where visuals play an even more valuable part — both for utility and for grand, eye-catching statements.

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Filed under Hyper-local, Web/Tech