Megan Taylor

web developer, hack-n-slasher, freelancer, 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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College media needs CMS options

A few days ago I got an email from Daniel Bachhuber, who is working with the Oregon Daily Emerald.

He wanted to know if I was interested in discussion content management system options for college media. After my time as online managing editor at The Independent Florida Alligator, struggling with a CMS that liked to fight dirty, I’ve daydreamed of building a modular open-source system myself.

The problem:

College Publisher is an inappropriate platform for student newspapers
but most newspapers don’t have the resources to custom roll their own
CMS.

The Alligator uses TownNews, but the idea is the same.

Daniel started a wiki, College News Press, as well as a mailing group to keep track of ideas and coordinate discussion. The wiki includes tasks, benchmarks and platform comparisons.

His vision:

  • To create an easy to deploy, simple to use (open source?) content management system (CMS) with varying levels of sophistication that is specifically geared towards the student newspaper and local news market.
  • To provide abundant knowledge resources to student newspapers interested in switching platforms that have minimal IT manpower.

Daniel is even submitting an application for the Knight News Challenge!

I’m really excited to work on this, even though I’m no longer a member of the college media sector. The two biggest problems with newspaper Web sites are site design and CMS limitations. Hacking a CMS should not be among the things we have to do to be innovative.

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The Alligator rockin’ at 10,000 Words

Mark Luckie at 10,000 Words isn’t “just a blogger,” he’s a print journalist gone online. Luckie has been looking at college journalism this week, and The Independent Florida Alligator got some awesome mentions:

Online Student Journalism: Best of the Best

1. The Independent Florida Alligator, University of Florida
The Alligator is hands down the best online student newspaper and rivals the pros in its news coverage and use of multimedia elements. Just listing the stellar components that make up the site warrant its own individual post. The Alligator’s standout features are the Gainesville
Explorer , a look at the surrounding city using video and audio slideshows, the use of Google Maps mashups to illustrate problems like apartment overcrowding and rising gas prices, and its 11 blogsthat cover pretty much every spectrum of news. Admittedly The Alligator works on a larger scale than most student newspapers, but it is nevertheless an exceptional example of the possibility of online student journalism.

What a payoff for all the hard work we’ve done!

Online Student Journalism: Outstanding Use of Multimedia or Social Networking

7. Twitter, The Independent Florida Alligator, University of Florida

It seems everyone is Twitteringthese days, but The Alligator is one of very few student newspapers doing so. The site uses twitterfeed to broadcast news stories and links, almost 2,500 of which have been sent since The Alligator began using the service.

Personally, I think we should have gotten more mention of our amazing multimedia, but at least my Twitter obsession has been justified.

Online Student Journalism: Best Site Design

4. The Independent Florida Alligator, University of Florida

The Alligator is an incredible example of the potential greatness of an online student newspaper. Its black and white design makes the fine journalism happening on the site look even better. Sections and stories are easily scannable and the site’s headlines are large enough to catch the eye. The Alligator also makes great use of its footer — a contrasting black to
the rest of the page — something that is rare in online student paper design.

That’s so totally what we were going for!

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Twitter update

Well, my obsession with Twitter has been pretty well satisfied by now.

I’ve gotten the feed printed onto my desktop with Geektool, set up keyword tracking, followed a bunch of super cool journalism people, then meticulously tracked down every Twitter user in Gainesville and followed them as well. (Now that I’m leaving, should I un-follow them?) My tweets automagically go through to my Facebook status and I even set up my calendar and to do list on Twitter.

I use a combination of Twhirl, Google Talk and mobile updates to keep track of everything. And no, I’m not paying attention ALL the time.

I made a Twitter account for The Independent Florida Alligator and then made a page on the Web site where the “tweets” of those that follow the newspaper’s account will show up. The Alligator’s Twitter feed also includes weather conditions and updates from the University Police Department’s crime log (scraped with Dapper).

My initial obsession has been tempered by productivity problems and information overload. But I won’t stop using it. I’ll just have to be a little more judicious.

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Convergence and Newsroom Structure

So for the first session of the day, I ended up at a discussion on operating a converged student media newsroom. I can’t really relate; The Independent Florida Alligator, being separate from the university, can’t take advantage of all the available tools and skills at UF. But the ideas from the converged model applied to our print and web publications could make things work much more smoothly and allow us to go farther.

Greg Linch and I got video, using UStream.tv

Now I’m at a discussion of newsroom structure, facilitated by Bryan Murley. We’ve been talking about who takes responsibility for what and how work is distributed through roles in the newsroom.

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Florida Democratic Party decides not to hold revote

Even though my journalistic experience leans toward the Web, I still got into this for the writing. As happens far too often to those with a feel for the online side of things, I got shuttled away from writing.

But today, after almost a year without writing anything more than a blog post or project proposal, I got to see my words in print. It’s a good feeling.

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Even a match is better than whistling in the dark

A lot of people tell me I’m really good at this Web stuff. Yea, I’m a geek. I love to program and play and diddle around with technology, especially if it can be made useful.

But I’ve really only had 2 years of this. I fell in love with journalism late in my sophomore year. I’m the managing editor for the Web site of a student-run paper and I’m making it all up as I go along.

OK, I spend hours every day scanning blogs, newspapers, Twitter and other Web sites learning as much as I can about this thing called online journalism. For me, there is no ivory.

But rarely do I get a chance to sit down with someone more experienced than I and discuss what I’m doing and how I should be doing it differently. (Maybe that’s a new direction to take this blog in?)

Last week, the Journalism Advisory Council sat down for lunch with us budding journos. It was a really cool experience.

I talked to one member about data potential for B2B magazines.

Another responded to my questions about the Web site by listing the things they do and then shoving me into a conversation with someone else.

I discussed eye-tracking studies and the difference between print and Web design, fairly eloquently for someone who can’t…well, I can design my way out of a paper bag, but it’s not one of my strengths.

Another member wanted to look at The Independent Florida Alligator’s Web site. My baby. No sooner had the site loaded than suggestions for improvements were being made.

Yes, we need to label our multimedia so that readers know what’s what. Yes, we should be publishing online as soon as we know something. Yes, I need to make Opinions, Sports and Avenue headlines as Web-friendly as the News heds have become. Yep, that event on the calendar shouldn’t be labeled TBA, it’s an all day event. Must fix the PHP.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

As soon as school is back in session, I’m going to find some unofficial guidance. The print managing editor and the editor go over the paper with one of the professors once a week. The Web site needs similar help. (Mindy, Dave, you up for this?) And I’m going to make sure the guidance continues, because one simple conversation can change so much.

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Project updates

I know I haven’t been posting much lately, but I’ve been completely swamped.

Thanks to Matt Waite’s brilliance and patience, I got Django installed on my MacBook. I haven’t actually done much more than order the book and start reading through the tutorial and documentation, but I’m really excited to start learning. Right now I’m stuck trying to get MySQL onto the laptop. I’m Terminal-retarded, so this is getting frustrating. Once I get that up and running, I’ll be diving into a Django-driven class project.

My independent study project has advanced to the data cleaning stage. I’m still gathering the last bits in, but I started cleaning and organizing and staring blankly at numbers.

Life at The Alligator isn’t particularly impressive lately. We’re still mostly fixing. I slapped this little map of upcoming Gainesville shows together last week. Then I had to spend 3 hours trying to get it to work with the publishing system. It’s still kind of broken. But on the bright side, Ken Schwencke, a journalism student who is several levels beyond my programming abilities, has joined my staff.

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Less talk, more work

There’s a new trend in online journalism these days: Stop talking, and do it.

Stop trying to convert, stop making lists, stop fighting the print bias with words. Start doing things that will make the difference.


David Cohn
wrote:

I think the time for evangelizing is over. At this point if you are in a mainstream news organization and you don’t see the need for change, the battle is lost and I’m not going to spend time trying to convince you to change the culture in your newsroom. I will simply shake your hand, wish you an honest good luck and move on…If you want to see real change – don’t tell news room editors what to do – DO IT YOURSELF.

And Zac Echola, writing about Wired Journalists, wrote:

Something happened early this year in the media blogging world. We suddenly stopped talking about what we should be doing and started talking about what we are doing. We started talking about being the change we wish to see. It was at the same time a jarring change in tone and an exhilarating one.
Now is the time to be that catalyst for change in your news organization. No more talking about it. We’re doing it. And we want you to do it too.

Wired Journalists is a social networking site set up by Ryan Sholin, Howard Owens and Zac Echola after Owen’s post on getting wired.
In a very short amount of time, the site has gained over 300 members. It opens up discussions, not on why online journalism is important, but how to start doing it. Members are both newbies and established “wired” journalists.

I realized today that consciously or not, the “just do it” trend is affecting me, too. I spent a lot of time at The Independent Florida Alligator last semester trying to win over some very print-oriented editors. I spent a lot of time making lists of projects I wanted to start. Not that I didn’t get anything done; we made a lot of progress on getting our content management system working the way WE wanted it to work.

But this semester I’ve spent more time actually ticking projects off that list. I finally got the Gainesville Explorer project running. A multimedia stringer made a map of apartment complexes in Gainesville. Yea, that’s right, I have stringers. (I think we need to change this lingo, minion is a much cooler word.) I met with some of the business staff regarding the missing alumni page. I’ve gotten the editor and managing editor for print writing blog posts. All in just three weeks.

This is a hell of a lot more fun than fighting print bias and trying to get reporters to see the light.

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Things to learn at The Alligator

I’ve been working at The Independent Florida Alligator since the beginning of the summer. And I’ve learned a lot about the Web, news, multimedia, design, and programming.

Perhaps the most important area in which I’ve grown is how I deal with others on a day-to-day basis.

I have a pretty short fuse. I get frustrated easily, I have a big mouth, I love to complain. I curse at the computer regularly and will talk to anyone for hours about how much I despise our content management system. I spend way to much time in front of a computer, so I can be a little socially handicapped.

That’s no excuse. Coming from a manager, the people I work with don’t take all this as just blowing steam. It makes them more reluctant to work online. It keeps them from suggesting new projects because they don’t know how far we can push the limitations of the CMS.

So I’m learning, slowly, about diplomacy and silence and waiting until I’m alone to scream and tear my hair out. It’s really hard. But worth the effort. The less I kvetch, the more people wander past my desk and ask what I’m doing for such-and-such an article.

It’s important for online journalists to be visible and positive about what they do.