Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

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Yet another “What I learned” post – Miami Herald Internship

Friday was the last day of my extended internship with The Miami Herald. I will miss working with such forward-thinking journalists, so many people who, whether they understand the intricacies of the digital world, really want to know how to make things work.

It’s amazing how close people can become in just a few short months. I feel like I have a family at the Herald: the people I worked with were kind, supportive and enthusiastic.

The most important thing I learned has nothing to do with skill set or journalism in particular. It was learning to work with people who believed in me from the start, who saw what I could do and let me do my job. It’s a heady feeling.

I also learned that, no matter where you are, there are always those silly bureaucratic things that get in the way of progress. I ran into these at The Alligator, but the Herald is no different. Another important lesson.

At The Miami Herald I was given the opportunities to work on projects on my own and in a team. I was able to help people tell stories online. I got to write a little bit. I was even given point on a huge project: building a new Flash package for a video project in AS3.

My internship is over, and I’m starting a new life in New York City. It’s exciting and scary, but with my experience and the people who believe in me, I know I can make it all come together.

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Newspaper curmudgeon talking points

This is amazing. Must memorize. Where did I hide my index cards?

• Comments are worthless vitriol and they degrade the work of journalists.

• Never link to your competitors, you’re just giving them traffic!

• Social media is a fad. Investing in it now will be a waste of time and money when it all goes bottom-up.

• A blog is not a tool for journalism, it is for people in robes writing about their cats.

• Citizen journalists suck. They’re biased! They have opinions and everything. Act like they own politics.

From:

The ultimate guide to newspaper curmudgeon talking points — Eat Sleep Publish.

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Bandwagon of the summer: News APIs

In May announced its intention to build an Application Programming Interface for its data. MediaBistro quoted Aron Pilhofer:

The goal, according to Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news, is to “make the NYT programmable. Everything we produce should be organized data.”

More details, if they can be called that:

Once the API is complete, the Times’ internal developers will use it to build platforms to organize all the structured data such as events listings, restaurants reviews, recipes, etc. They will offer a key to programmers, developers and others who are interested in mashing-up various data sets on the site. “The plan is definitely to open [the code] up,” Frons said. “How far we don’t know.”

I haven’t heard anything since then, although the article mentioned that something would be ready “in a matter of weeks.”

Today I spent some time reading the API documentation for National Public Radio.

That’s right, NPR has an API. (mmm, I love my alphabet soup.)

NPR’s API provides a flexible, powerful way to access your favorite NPR content, including audio from most NPR programs dating back to 1995 as well as text, images and other web-only content from NPR and NPR member stations. This archive consists of over 250,000 stories that are grouped into more than 5,000 different aggregations.

You can get results from Topics, Music Genres, Programs, Bios, Music Artists, Columns and Series in XML, RSS, MediaRSS, JSON, and Atom or through HTML and JavaScript widgets.

Now, I’m a bit of an NPR junkie, so I’m thinking of ways to access all this information for my personal use. And I can see how it could be useful as an internal product for NPR.

But how would another news organization use this? Oh wait, they can’t:

The API is for personal, non-commercial use, or for noncommercial online use by a nonprofit corporation which is exempt from federal income taxes under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

This one doesn’t make sense either:

Content from the API must be used for non-promotional, internet-based purposes only. Uses can include desktop gadgets, blog posts and widgets, but must not include e-newsletters.

And way down at the bottom of the page is a huge block of text describing excluded content. Boooo.

Check out these blog posts from Inside NPR.org, where they explain some of their decisions.

I think this was a great first step, but if you’re gonna jump on the bandwagon, make sure you don’t miss and land on the hitch.

cat

Further, really understand what purpose this bandwagon has. If you’re going to free your data, free it! Let people and news organizations use it (always with a link back) for all kinds of crazy things. Remember kids, sharing is caring!

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New project: Borrowers Betrayed

A week ago, I was assigned the task of building the story package for a series on mortgage fraud. This had been in the works at The Miami Herald for quite some time, and the investigative team was finally ready.

When we found out that Congress was working on legislation relevant to the series, the package was fast-tracked. I had one week to build this thing.

It launched yesterday morning and if I do say so myself, it’s wicked cool. We have profiles and documentation for 4 major offenders, a flash graphic, a couple of static graphics, a slide show and a video, in addition to all the stories.

I even got a credit line in the footer!

I learned a lot about coding fast – quick and dirty sounds good, but it pays to take just a few extra minutes to do it right. It was also a good team experience. It’s so much harder to put things together when no one know what anyone else is doing, it almost justifies meetings! (Except that’s why we have instant messenger and Twitter.)

And guys, I forgive you the millions of revisions and changes. Everything turned out great.

Check out how they did the story.

So what’s next? I have a bunch of different projects on my plate, but I’ll give you a few hints: Video, Flash, ActionScript 3, XML, Twitter, database, Django, Python. Not another word! You can’t drag it out of me!

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After the staff cuts…Miami Herald edition

Miami Herald ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos asked readers “what content the paper should emphasize in an era of staff cuts.”

Yesterday the Herald published selected responses.

Some of my favorites:

The Miami Herald has almost no local content. The paper gets my highest marks for its recent excellent coverage of housing, public transportation and other major issues. I continue to subscribe because of The Herald’s investigative journalism. But there has been almost no coverage of Hallandale where I live and work, nor of many other cities in South Florida.

I realize that my website, Business Buzz, is all about covering an old-fashioned beat — in this case, chambers of commerce meetings. But I actually get out of the office and go to meetings, and talk to a lot of people. The Herald should be covering these meetings — they are your advertisers and potential advertisers.

I’d love to see the company save all the fluff, like that awful People Page or the 5-Minute Herald, for its online version. Just give us the news.

In a community as diverse as the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area, there are many ethnic groups, but The Herald continues to be too Cuba-centric. If you want to develop a future readership, then start appealing more to the other groups. These include Jamaicans, Haitians, Central Americans, Colombians, Venezuelans, other South Americans and the white middle class that continues to move into the area.

These are things I’ve been hearing about the Herald since before I cared about journalism or the news.

One of the good things is that a lot of the responses mentioned in-depth investigative stories. These can be the hardest to do under budget and staff cuts, but they are also the best stories.

I should also note that only 2 or 3 of the published responses mentioned the Web site. What does that mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe the sample is bad. Maybe I should go find Mr. Schumacher-Matos and ask to dig through all ~175 responses.

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Journalism job trends

Ever since I made my relationship with journalism official – I finally committed on paper as a junior in college – I’ve been trolling JournalismJobs.com. That obsession only grew when I graduated 2 months ago.

I keep an eye out for opportunities for myself and people I know, but also for trends: what skills are wanted, what kinds of jobs are open, where papers are hiring.

The first two things I noticed were that the average years of experience desired had gone up, and there were more upper-echelon jobs open. Years of experience went from 2-3 to 5-and-up over the past year or so. Just out of college, that’s not good news for me. I also see a lot more ____ Editor jobs – not counting the ubiquitous “Web” or “online” editor position (usually a cut-and-paste job!) – and sports writing positions. Why are there so many sports positions open when that’s one of the most popular beats in the newsroom?

More interesting than the job titles are the job descriptions. Lists of skills and vague descriptions of expected duties tell us almost as much about the state of journalism as the recent spate of layoffs.

My favorite job description is the search for “computer jesus”. These are the job descriptions that list 100 programming languages plus multimedia skills. Yea, right. Am I running the entire news site and producing content all by myself?

Then there’s the “we don’t know what we want you to do but we’re supposed to hire an online person” job description. This one, from The Times-News in Idaho, actually made me want to cry:

Must have visual design skills and be knowledgeable on Internet concepts and the latest developments on the Web. Must be proficient in PHP, HTML, Javascript, XML, Macromedia Flash, Dreamweaver and Photoshop. Writing skills are a plus. (emphasis added)

Writing skills are a plus? Are you serious? Hiring a journalist – you’re doing it wrong.

I realize that a lot of these are written by people who really don’t know enough to narrow down what they want. And I’m not trying to put those people down. But between this post on putting together a Web team and this one on journalism job salaries, I thought there was a place for a little something on the chaotic state of journalism job descriptions.

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IRE Conference – Day 2

This morning I met with my IRE mentor, Steve Doig, who is a CAR teacher at the University of Arizona. We talked about some of the work I’d done, people in the industry to learn from, and ways to stay on top of projects at different newspapers.

I love mentorship programs because I get a basically captive audience for my pro-online and data visualization ranting. I guess it’s also a networking shortcut.

I spent a frustrating hour and a half tracking down an internet connection so I could clear out the ::gasp:: 1000+ items that have accumulated in Google Reader after 3 days of neglect.

Then I went to a session called Cutting Edge Digital Journalism from Around the World.

The session was led by Rosental Alves, University of Texas; Sandra Crucianelli, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas; and Fernando Rodriguez, Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism.

One of the things that surprised me was the idea that in Central/South America, CAR/investigative reporting/databases are viewed as “as a gringo thing.”

Rodriguez showed off a database he worked on of politicians in Brazil, called “25,000 politicians and their personal assets.” Politicians have to submit a certain amount of information in order to run for office, including a listing of assets. It took 2 years to track down all this information because the records were not organized and were available only in hard format. Eventually, the database could provide a view of who the politicians were.

The database was published online and stories were written for the newspaper (Folha) as well. Readers started to call in and report inconsistencies. Other newspapers started to use the database for their own stories.

Crucianelli presented a way to monitor government documents online in 4 different countries. (El Salvador, Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua) All 4 countries had recently changed their access laws for public information.

She found that Panama had the best online access to government documents. El Salvador had the worst access.

At noon, Matt Waite presented PolitiFact. Sexy, sexy Politifact. He gave a tour of all the features of the site as well as showing us a little of the back-end: the Django admin setup.

I followed Matt and Aron to a session with Knight grant winner David Cohn, talking about Spot.Us.

Spot.Us is supposed to be an answer to the question: How will we fund reporting that keeps communities informed?

The answer is based on the premise of citizen journalism. Writing is not the only means of participation.

On Spot.Us, anyone can create a story idea. Reporters can pitch stories based on contributed ideas to their communities. People in the community commit money for pitches. Then the reporters cover the stories. Some of the money goes to pay editors. The stories can be republished for free or published exclusively if the original donor is refunded.

And that’s it for me today. I’ll be in for some afternoon sessions tomorrow.

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IRE Django Bootcamp

Today through Sunday I’ll be attending the 2008 IRE Conference in Miami. Today I’m locked in a room with about 10 others being sprayed with the firehose of Django.

I’ve played with Django a bit before, but now we’re getting serious. I’ve got my local Django session running and am poking around while Matt Waite, Aron Pilhofer and Chase Davis break us down and rebuild us in the image of Adrian Holovaty or Derek Willis.

This morning we went over the concepts behind Web frameworks and Django, looked at the code behind a homicide database and set up the local administration page. This afternoon we’ll be going over each type of file necessary to build a Web application in Django.

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Berlin is a shit-hot sexy city

Yes, there is a story behind the title.

On Friday I set out down Prenzlauer Allee toward Alexanderplatz to find a subject for my class project. I figured that if I walked all the way the the Brandenburg Gate and couldn’t find a subject somewhere along the way, I need to go back to school.

I’m not sure how Germans view newspapers and journalists, but it can’t be good. There was a guy in Alexanderplatz holding a sign and talking to people about the vegan lifestyle. He got all excited when he found out I was American, because his group gets all their statistics and facts from American vegan groups. After about 30 mins I tried to get him to be my subject, and he sorta freaked out. Time to move on.

My next attempt was down by St. Marienkirsch. A bunch of tough-looking punks were gathered around a black van with their dogs. I walked up and sorta hung around until someone spoke to me in English. Turns out the van is owned by a group that brings food to Berlin’s homeless. The woman in charge didn’t want to do an interview either.

I actually did have to walk all the way to the Gate. The horse-drawn carriage drivers didn’t speak enough English, the performance artists were, well, performing.

bad portraitsThen I saw a bright pink sign. It said “Bad Portraits.” Not even thinking about my project, I started talking to Neb, the man behind the sign. About an hour later, he agreed to let me come back the next day and take photos.

I met up with Michelle and Robyn later to do sunset shots of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

Most of Saturday I spent shooting. Neb was a great subject; acted like I wasn’t there.
Neb Poulton

Yesterday I went to a huge flea market. It looked like 50 people had emptied their attics out onto tables. There was a guy selling only masking tape. Another table was filled with screwdrivers.

Hopefully today will be a shopping day. I still need to find a German army jacket. I finished my project and other work for the class this morning.

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Berlin – Follies and free time

We’ve had a lot more free time lately, which has been nice. I took some time to recover from the past few days of walking and biking to edit photos and think about a subject for my project.

Having just come away from 4 years of sleeping 2-4 hours a night, 8 hours is such a luxury! I crash out around midnight and wake up around 8 a.m. This is great for this trip since I have plenty of good light time.

Andrew PurvisYesterday we went to a meeting with Andrew Purvis of the TIME magazine Berlin bureau. He talked about how to break into international reporting and some of the risks involved in reporting in places like Africa.

Laura Laabs He and intern Laura Laabs also talked about the unique personality of Berlin as a city. It’s certainly like no place I’ve ever been, and is becoming one of my favorite cities.

Next was a trip to Mercedes World. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about this one – I can’t tell one car from another and don’t particularly care for the luxury ideals promoted by brands like Mercedes. I took the opportunity to take a load off and sat around waiting for everyone else.

The last “group activity” was supposed to be a visit to the Helmut Newton museum. But, FAIL, the museum was closed.

Michelle and Robyn and I took off to re-shoot the old and new churches in Potsdamer Platz, visited the ZooBerlin and the Beate Uhse Erotik-Museum nearby. Through Old to New

The zoo was really depressing. I’ve never seen so many bars and cages. In the bird house, a lot of birds were plucking themselves, and the water in most of the tanks looked like lime Kool Aid. Jaguar behind bars

We went to the erotica museum hoping for some giggles, but it seemed pretty tame. Old Asian drawings and sculptures dominated, along with homoerotic sketches, a gold penis the size of a 7-year-old, and a sex store. I was unimpressed. erotica museum

By now our feet were aching and we needed food. We headed to Hackescher-Markt for dinner. A street cafe called Rocco was the nearest source of seating and sustenance. Sadly, the food was bland and the service awful, especially considering the prices!

Today I’m planning to go solo and get my project done, or at least started. I’ve been uploading dozens of photos to my Flickr account, so check ’em out!