Megan Taylor

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

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Election Afterthoughts

Last night was one of most exciting of my life. I got to watch America do something special.

I got home around 6:30, right after the first polls closed. I stayed hooked to television and computer until just after President-elect Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. It was an amazing experience.

During past elections, information was sought largely from television news. This time, I paid more attention to a large selection of Web sites than to the obnoxious commentary of political analysts. Apparently, so did a lot of other people:

According to Akamai, which is the content delivery network for most major news sites including CNN (which had a record day on its own), NBC, Reuters, and the BBC, global visitors to news sites peaked last night at 11 PM with 8,572,042 visitors per minute.
That is double the normal traffic level, and 18 percent above the previous peak of 7.3 million visitors per minute achieved during the World Cup back in June, 2006. (The third biggest peak to news sites was last March during the first day of the U.S. college basketball playoffs when it hit 7 million visitors per minute).(TechCrunch)

Most of the links below aren’t to news sites, though. These are passionate and creative people who found different ways to reflect on what we all saw last night. A little bit of meta-coverage, if you will.

Mark Luckie put together a time-lapse video of the NYTimes home page from last night. It starts while voters are still at the polls and ends with Obama’s victory. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” was an inspired musical choice.

Mark Newman and his cartogram software showed how skewing the normal red/blue map according to population or electoral votes is a better graphical representation of how America voted.

Daily Kos collected headlines and newspaper front pages in the US and elsewhere. Excellent collection with some really creative designs.

My friend Matthew Gonzalez grabbed some screen shots from news Web sites’ home pages. I really love the NYTimes treatment.

Designer Robb Montgomery collects his best picks of front pages. I have to agree, the Chicago Sun-Times front is amazingly powerful. He also brings us “a video tour and spot critique of top U.S. media Web sites and their election graphics at the moment when Sen. Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election.”

ReadWriteWeb put together a really cool slideshow of election coverage online, showing resources from Twitter to Ustream, news sites and more.

Mindy McAdams put together her own slideshow of voting maps and home pages.

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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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Spot.us FB group and updates

I recently joined the Spot.us group on Facebook. I’ve met David Cohn and heard him talk about Spot.us as well as following his blog for quite some time now. His idea is intriguing, and I’ve been pretty excited to see how things might work out for him.

From his message to the group, here are three successfully funded stories:

The first example of Community Funded Reporting came from a fantastic reporter Alexis Madrigal who examined the infrastructure of ethanol in the state of California. I feel confident that it is the most exhaustive look at the subject to date.

The second example is ongoing: The SF Election Truthiness Campaign. We raised $2,500 from 74 small donations (average $33) to fact-check political advertisements for the upcoming SF Election.
Just today PBS’ MediaShift blog wrote about it.

Our most recent success story is underway right now: Chris Amico will look into the environmental concerns of cement kilns in the Bay Area.

Sounds like things are going really well for David so far, (congrats!) and I hope to see the project grow and even expand to other areas!

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Learning ActionScript 3.0

When I set out to learn a new programming language, I usually take baby steps:

  • Read as much as possible about the language
  • Find the experts online and see what they’re saying/doing
  • Find and work through beginner tutorials
  • Come up with an idea to build something on my own

It usually takes a good 3 months or so before I get to that last step.

I didn’t get that luxury with AS3. A few weeks ago, I started watching the AS3 tutorials at Lynda.com. I had been assigned to rebuild The Miami Herald’s 60 Seconds project.
The current project is written in AS2. All the bits and pieces are internal. My mission was to rebuild it in AS3 and make it load information from an XML file so that it could be updated easily.

I started out with a series of classes: one to load the XML, one to parse it, one to define the thumbnails, etc. These classes were refined and rewritten until I got the thumbnails to load into the screen, much as they do in the original version.

It’s taken me 3 weeks to get that far. Google is my best friend. The next few steps:

  • fix interface so that when more videos are added, the screen will scroll left and right to show the additional videos
  • clicking on a thumbnail will go to large version of video with description etc, pulled from XML
  • add commenting, feedback and rating functionality

Right now, I can’t even begin to figure out how that’s going to get done. But it will, and I’ll learn a lot from the experience.

Check my Del.icio.us bookmarks for AS3 resources.

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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 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.