Archives for category: General Journalism

It’s true what they say: You might graduate school, but you never stop learning.

CAR 2011 logoTomorrow is the start of the annual CAR Conference, where “computer-assisted reporters” (affectionately referred to as data nerds, jounocoders, and “those spreadsheet geeks over there”) get together for deep education. As one attendee puts it, it’s where journalists learn and demonstrate how to do things. And that’s pretty great.

I’ll be in town to attend the NewsCamp data visualization workshop, where luminaries like Amanda Cox, Daniel Lathrop and Martin Wattenberg will teach a gamut of dataviz skills. The unofficial attendee list looks pretty spectacular too.

If you’re attending and we haven’t met (or seen each other in a while), say hi. If you can’t make it, Computerworld’s online managing editor Sharon Machlis will be collecting notable info in the window below. You can also follow along via Twitter by searching on “NICAR.”

In case you haven’t heard or seen, Super Bowl XLV TV coverage begins on Fox Sports at 2 p.m ET today, with the kickoff at 6:29 p.m. ET.

Fans, sponsors, and more are pulling out the stops for what’s being described as a classic matchup between two old-school, cheerleader-less football franchises in an unexpectedly icy stadium.

For a sport that has never failed to capture national attention, it’s interesting to see the size of each team’s respective fan nations are in landmass — and to notice how the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers areas are almost evenly matched.

Here’s graphic designer Jared Fanning‘s take:

The United States of Football by Jared Fanning

A slightly different, visually exciting version was posted on I Love Charts:

The United States of Football, from I Love Charts

National spectacle knows no bounds, however, and Visa, smartly, is taking advantage with dynamic visualizations of Twitter chatter, including a look at football-related trending topics in the days leading up to today’s big game:

Visa Super Bowl Twitter trending topics map

Not everyone will be focused on Super Bowl pre-game coverage, or at least that’s what Animal Planet is counting on.

The Puppy Bowl is back, offering entertainment to those who prefer tumbling fuzzy animals to the charging bulls of the gridiron. Broadcast starts at 3 p.m. ET (tape delayed to 3 p.m. Pacific).

Meanwhile, advertisers have put up big bank to be a part of today’s big game. “Fox was seeking between $2.8 million and $3 million for 30 seconds of time,” writes AdAge, which rounds up facts on all the spots.

In the course of my career, I’ve spent a lot of time asking about the things that appeal most to editors, those gatekeepers of bylines, the masters of purse strings. Every single one has said, in some fashion, that they want a good story.

On the one hand, you’re probably saying, “Duh.” But you might also be asking, “How do I improve?”

Journalism is as much craft as profession. And the only way you get good at craft is to continually practice and polish. For me, that means reading. A lot. Especially at the end of the year, when I turn to anthologies from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Best American” series.

The first time through, I’ll read for the pleasure of reading. But when there’s a particularly striking story, I’ll go over it again and pick out compositional structure, think about the questions that were asked and the author’s angle, listen for turns of phrase, look for holes.

Approaching the collection so deliberately takes time, which is why it takes me until December to get around to reading books that were published in January.

This year, I’ve collected the 22 articles from “The Best American Science Writing 2010” on Delicious and mirrored them on Pinboard. They’re by some of the biggest names in science writing, which, in my opinion, is one of the toughest subjects to cover for a mass audience, and therefore, the most interesting to study.

Read, enjoy, and tell me which are your favorites and why. If you get really ambitious (or nostalgic), have a look at the 2006 collection.

For something completely different, read “Trying Really Hard to Like India,” a really funny article by Seth Stevenson that was part of the 2006 “Best American Travel Writing” anthology.

There will be more to this post, but for the time being, I wanted to share this video about a magician who took a year to develop a magic trick.

If you’re in the journalism world on Twitter, you’ve probably been seeing a lot of tweets with the #newschallenge and #knc hashtags over the last few days. It’s because the Knight News Challenge application deadline is looming. (The drop-deadline is Dec. 2, 7 a.m. EST/UTC -5. In other words, there’s still time to finish your application. Get cracking.)

This season, I’ve been helping the Knight Foundation do News Challenge outreach. Almost a year ago, I was sitting in a room with about 20 other people, reviewing approximately 2,300 applications that had come in for the 2009-2010 Knight News Challenge. Our job was to whittle down the applications to 500, and then to 50, which were then passed to a second group of reviewers (the Foundation’s preferred term for judges) before being forwarded to the Knight Foundation board for final cuts and consideration. All the work the reviewers put in was guidance for the board. The board decided who would receive grants, and in what amounts. Ultimately, a dozen projects were funded. You can learn more about them here. The 2009-2010 Knight News Challenge official report by Chris Connell was published June 15, 2010.

For me, the review process was eye-opening and highly educational. Friends and colleagues have not asked about what I learned, but rather what it was like, and obliquely, what we reviewers were looking for. As the 2010-2011 application process comes to a close, now seems like a good time to write this post.

In full disclosure, the Knight Foundation did not ask me to write this. I do so — and this is very important — without knowing anything about how the current application review process will be run. This time, things could be very different. The procedure changes year to year, as do the reviewers, the landscape, the technologies, the applications themselves, and the sense of what’s important and what constitutes innovation when it comes to digitally informing communities.

So take this for what it is: One person’s experience as a reviewer the last time this thing happened.

First, some myth-busting. The reviewers weren’t all journalists. They came from a wide variety of professional backgrounds. Some had worked all their careers in the non-profit world. Others came from journalism academia. Some fell squarely in the technologist/developer camp. Still others came from the startup world as entrepreneurs, often with technical backgrounds. A few were former Knight News Challenge grant-winners. A few had been reviewers the prior year, but in the final round, not the initial rounds. Not all of us were American, or American-born. There was a fairly broad spectrum of ages, from people in their 20s to those whose careers were perhaps twice that. And if I remember correctly, the group was almost evenly split between men and women of varied ethnic backgrounds.

I don’t have a copy of last year’s application, which is different from the current one, but I do remember we were asked to use the application criteria as our guide: The projects had to use open source technology. They had to serve a geographic community. They had to be “innovative,” and we were free to use individual judgement as to its definition. There was one more criterion, but it escapes me right now.

In any case, so long as the application met the criteria, we were free to decide whether it was worth forwarding to the next evaluation rounds.

We worked in teams of three such that each application was read at least once by three people. The Knight Foundation, via random assignment, parceled out the applications. We were encouraged to read other applications too, so long as our assigned batches were finished first. Imagine you’re a high school teacher grading multi-part essays — and last year there was no cap on length. You start to get the picture.

Applications were reviewed, discussed, re-evaluated among teams. In cases where an application referred to something outside one team’s expertise, the group would ask the other reviewers to review and comment. Inevitably, someone with the necessary knowledge stepped in. If any reviewer felt there was a conflict of interest, they’d recuse themselves from the review. Those without conflict would step in. We’d leave notes for each other. If we really liked or disliked something, we’d say so and give our reasons why. If we needed clarification, we were allowed to email the applicant ourselves and ask for it. If an application a reviewer truly loved didn’t make a cut, they could petition others for reconsideration. Sometimes it worked.

Hour by hour, day by day, we started noticing patterns and trends. Some applicants had great ideas but no proof they could actually carry them off. Some applicants had solid ideas but the funding request was out of proportion to the project. Some applications were outlandish, outside the scope of the News Challenge, restatements of already-funded grant winners (there were a number of proposals that were, in essence, Spot.Us), or dull rehashes of ideas whose time had passed.

What we were looking for were proposals that could clearly state a need, meet the geographic requirement, and describe an innovative, plausible, workable solution. The “innovative” hurdle was, and I think still is, the highest. In part, it’s because the standard of innovation is subjective by design. But the proposal doesn’t have to be unicorns and magic, it just has to be a really good idea that hasn’t been approached your way before. To paraphrase Jose Zamora, the Knight Foundation’s journalism associate: There are wheels. There’s luggage. But the Rollaboard? Now that’s innovation.

There are a lot of good ideas for the News Challenge out there, and a lot of talented people capable of making them real. Maybe this time it will be you. Good luck.

There are many, many things in this world to be interested in, and one of the major challenges is how to keep up with them all.

Every day, I bookmark and Instapaper lots of things that I mean to deeply explore when I get the time. But as I’ve told many people — journalism students full of fire, ambition and a limited ability to unitask especially — time is our most precious asset, one we all tend to manage badly.

Instead of flailing and failing to keep up, sometimes the best strategy is to sit back and wait for someone who’ll make our lives a little easier.

Today, one of those people was Andy Baio, a.k.a. Waxpancake. He pulled together a solid roundup of WikiLeaks Cablegate reportage, data sensemaking and commentary.

I jumped to two links right away: Dan Gillmor taking everyone to task with “A few questions about the Wikileaks release” and Blake Estrin of The New Yorker’s thoughtful essay about data, privacy and trust.

Should you desire further critical analysis, spend some time with “Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; ‘To destroy this invisible government’” by Aaron Bady, which I was led to via a discussion on Hacker News.

It’s all worth reading if you have the time.

Additional links:

Here’s something fun and educational: Feather, an embeddable, lightweight HTML5 photo editor by Aviary. For user instructions, see the Goodle doc.

Want your own? Get the APIkey and auto-generated code from

polka dotsSee those dots? They’re not drawn. I programmed them using a 2D and 3D development environment called Processing.

It may not look like much, but it’s a start, thanks to a workshop taught by artist and instructor Jer Thorp, who’s currently Data Artist in Residence at The New York Times.

Sounds like a very cool job to me.

Meanwhile, this week’s assignment is to build on some of the workshop exercises — and to figure out how to export the files to my server so you can interact with them.

growing boxes

The annual Online News Association conference is just a few days away. I’m told this year we’ll have more attendees than ever, making this one huge event in our nation’s capital. (If you see #ONA10 trending on Twitter from Wednesday through Sunday, you now know why.)
2010 Online News Association conference
If you’ve registered, be sure to fill out the 30-second survey to help us organizers figure out the menu. (Check your email.) In exchange, you’ll get the complete list of attendees. (Networking! Get-togethers! See virtual and long-time but distant friends!)

I’ve been a conference organizer since 2007. In that time, things have changed a lot, thanks to free tools, simple-to-use platforms, and the resulting adoption into online culture. What I’m encouraged most by is the growth and expansion of our online community. It’s nice to see the hard work of dozens validated by the proliferation of other related events that’ll be happening because we’re in town.

If this is your first ONA conference, welcome. If you’ve been to one before, welcome back. The official ONA10 conference website (and booklet, which you’ll get when you register in Washington) will be your guide to conference coverage. This year, we’ll be livestreaming all keynotes and sessions for free. My team and I will be curating session discussion, back-chatter, related blog posts and photos. You’ll be able to find that content on the ONA10 website.

For those who like check-in apps, we’ve populated Foursquare with session rooms, and we’ll be launching trips and tips on Gowalla. (Our official account there is

As for practical matters, pack a light umbrella and jacket or coat. The current weather forecast calls for light showers Thursday during the pre-conference workshops and job fair (high: 78 °F/25.5 °C; low: 65 °F/18 °C), and mostly sunny skies Friday and Saturday. (Friday high: 62 °F/16.6 °C; low: 45 °F/7.2 °C | Saturday high: 60 °F/15.5 °C; low: 47 °F/8.3 °C).

There’s no official dress code, but business casual is the norm. In years past, the Online Journalism Awards dinner has been a fancier affair. People have brought tuxedos and gowns. While you don’t have to get that swanky, you will not go wrong dressing up, however you choose to interpret that — especially if you’re a finalist. (Good luck everybody!)

OK. I’ve got more work to do before Oct. 28, so I’m gonna go now. I hope to see you in DC. You can follow me on Twitter @MacDivaONA.