Megan Taylor

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

post

Independent Study: Story Idea

My first assignment for my CAR independent study was to get some data from the Alachua County Health Department.

Professor Armstrong charged me with getting all current salaries, as of Jan. 1, 2008 for nurse practitioners and physician assistants working in the Alachua County Health Department, both full and part time. It took a couple of tries to get someone on the line. Then they asked me to send an e-mail. But in 3 business days, I had the data. Much easier than I thought.

I know all data requests won’t be so easy, but it’s good practice in asking for it. The experience was similar to what I did to get a gas prices map on The Independent Florida Alligator’s Web site: Figure out who has it, find a contact number or e-mail address, and ask.

My next assignment was to decide on a story I wanted to do the data analysis for. I had a lot of trouble with this, because I had to choose something that was timely, accessible, etc.

After going through a bunch of ideas

  • location trends for car accidents in the gainesville area. are holidays/game days a factor?
  • something about uf sustainability. the website was basically a bunch of press releases, but i bet if i went and asked they could dig me up some data.
  • I looked at http://earmarkwatch.org/ and found that all the earmarks for the state of Florida are for defense bills. UF and some other Florida universities were getting some cash too.
  • go back to crime or poverty :( i’m trying to avoid these because they seem too obvious/easy.

I finally hit on something:
Given that Crist just put out the budget for public universities and UF is apparently not getting any help, I think that would be a good direction to take. I can compare funding for public universities in Florida and maybe other states, compare growth in attendance, that sort of thing. Look at how funding for UF has changed now that we have fewer people in legislature and other schools are building strength. (UCF, SFU) Is UF still the “flagship” university? I’ll also be looking at tuition.

So the next step is to figure out how far back to look. I’ll start at 10 years, hit up Lexis and see what I can dig up.

I’m much more confident now that the topic is locked down.

post

First week of the last semester

I survived. Again.

As usual, the first week of school was accompanied by lack of sleep and an increase in Mountain Dew purchases.

I find myself in a position to look forward to a time beyond school; I will graduate at the end of this semester. As I said to several people during the week: “I look forward to a time when I’m only doing one job.” Juggling the roles of student and employee, especially with multiple points of employment, is more tiring than spending the same amount of time on one area.

This semester I am taking an independent study on Computer-Assisted Reporting. I blogged about this last week, but to recap briefly: I will be learning how to find, clean and analyze data. At the end of the semester I will produce a data-driven story package.

I’m also taking the online capstone for the journalism program at UF. This class will focus on interaction with a CMS and producing video, as well as an independent project (I am hoping to start working with Django here). And just to get past the part-time student level, I am also taking a professional practice class (a.k.a. how to get a job, negotiate salary, etc.)

While I am continuing as Managing Editor at The Independent Florida Alligator, my title is not the only difference from last semester. (We changed New Media to Online.) Many people this semester are new either to The Alligator or to their positions. Although we got off to a rocky start, I think everyone is becoming acclimated and it can only get better. As for the online staff, two out of the three are back, and a total of nine responded to a call for more staff members. This is the most interest that has been shown in a long time.

I am also continuing to update the Citizen Access Project Web site, as well as preparing a newer incarnation for launch. Over the break I started working at the Admissions office at UF, recoding their Web site.

Just writing about my different responsibilities makes me look forward to May. But I know I’ll enjoy every minute that I’m learning, creating or teaching something.

post

Three days of heels

Though it’s been 6 years since I walked into high school for the first time wearing ragged jeans and my younger brother’s T-shirt, my taste in clothing hasn’t changed. I’m most comfortable in the shirt and jeans that have gone through the washer so many times they hang together by three threads.

Which is one of the explanations for why last weekend was so challenging.

On Thursday, I had job/internship interviews with The Miami Herald and The St. Petersburg Times. An event that requires the full pantsuit and heels. The interviews went very well, in fact, the best I’ve had yet.

Friday evening was the cocktail event for the Alligator’s 2nd Century Celebration. A little less formal, but military boots paired with a skirt: Not cocktail material. I met some really interesting people and I had a great time, but at midnight I was really glad to walk home in my socks.

Then on Saturday, the Celebration was in full swing. As the new media managing editor, I had to sit up on the dais. I know everyone was too busy talking and eating to look at me, but I’m not the most graceful eater…so I kept my mouth shut.

My parents would be delighted to learn that I’ve finally entered the realm of professionalism, I can dress myself without being an embarrassment and I’ll keep the heels on until midnight. (Which is when I assume everyone is too tired or inebriated to look at my feet.)

I understand that appearances matter and that I’ll never get rid of the heels for good. As one of my professors pointed out: I’d hate to lose a good job to a moron who dressed up because I dressed down. But I don’t have to like it.

This week, I ran into a professor who had seen all three versions of “dressed-up me.” “Now, there’s the Megan I recognize.” As much as I look forward to life after college, I’ll enjoy my jeans and t-shirts as long as I can. Mom always did warn me not to grow up too fast.

I found this checklist in my archives somewhere, but have no idea where it originated (Bryan, is this you again?). A lot of these things we aren’t doing or are just starting at The Alligator with our three-week-old CMS, but I thought a run-through the list now will make it that much more impressive when I check again in a few months.

Is your web team able to flex work hours, responsibilities and skills?

My team rocks! We have been putting in all kinds of crazy hours to get our new CMS running smoothly and get new articles up each day. We are an assorted bunch with varying skill sets, so we can handle just about anything that gets thrown our way.

Do you need freelancers or others in the newsroom that can sit in and help publish the massive stream of content you’ll have?
(I really shouldn’t need to say this in August 2007 but…) Is your newsroom logistically ready to file and edit for the web before print?

I really wish we had some more hands around the office. The Web site is up before the papers hit the streets each morning, but only just. I wish we could be updating all day, but as a student-run paper, it is difficult to work around classes and other schedules. This is an area we need to work really hard in.

Do you have some sort of tools (forums, message boards or databases) for family/friend contacts if people are missing, databasing opening/closings or any other searchable, community information opportunities?

Nothing yet. There’s only three of us working full-time, hopefully we can get started on some really cool projects soon.

Do you have a breaking news blog ready at the flick of a switch?

Our new blogs should be up next week, and will include a breaking news section.

Does your site have an ‘armageddon’ design? (So that you can drop a package above the fold for massive news with huge images and headline fonts?)

The top story on our front page always has a big headline and a photo, so this doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Is all of your reporting staff skilled in editing and filing remotely for stories, photos, audio and video? Do they regularly do it? (Believe me, working tech support remotely can sometimes be more frustrating that not having any extra multimedia content from the scene.)

Nope. We can do it, but reporters have not been trained yet.

Is your workflow streamlined and standardized so that turning multimedia content quickly is easy?

I’ve been really excited when a reporter or photographer takes the initiative to grab video, audio, or photos. But then my team has to go in early to edit and put things together.

Have you explored the social media tools already available out there so that you can use to connect people with information?

We are working on a Facebook application as well as a Google gadget, but these are not available yet. We do have article tools for sharing with Facebook, Digg, etc.

What about social contributions to maps? What about social sharing of news tips? What about social sharing of photos, video, audio? How are you going to solicit, retain and manage all that social stuff? (An email account and one body probably won’t cut it.)

No, no, no, and I have no idea. But someday…

Even tech issues like, do you have the bandwidth available to handle getting slammed? What can you jettison in times of emergency to make your site move faster? (For instance, Roanoke, cut some of their ad serving during the Virginia Tech shootings to keep the site trudging on.) Have you talked among department leaders about this plan? Who’s mission control? Who’s below that? Is this plan written down somewhere and reviewed occasionally among all the staff?

I’ve never seen the site go down due to bandwidth, though we have been having some other problems with the servers. But minimizing if a rush occurred should be pretty easy. We don’t have any formal plan, my staff and I would make a judgment call and implement it.

So, this checklist makes us seem kinda pathetic. I wish I could give long, glowing, positive answers to every question. I hope that when I go back through at the end of this semester, I can at least stop saying, “Well, no, but we’re working on it.”

Early this week I wrote about the progress of The Independent Florida Alligator as an online media site.

I left out something very important: Although our writers are not writing specifically for the Web, (and I’m not sure how this would work at other papers, are they writing two versions of the same article?) our Copy Desk Chiefs spend some time each night writing different headlines for online articles. Instead of being cute or clever, they try to get at what each article is about. And they try to apply some SEO principles. It’s very cool.

On another note, I just opened Google Reader. And oh, my god, it can count past 100. And it has a search box. I’m so happy!

I love lists. They give me direction, options, and when completed, a sense of accomplishment.

Bryan Murley recently reposted his checklist of things college media sites should consider. Of course my first thought was to see how my own college media outlet is doing:

* Have you got your news org. online?

The Alligator has been online for a while, although until recently the site left much to be desired.

* Do you have a content management system?

We just launched the new Alligator site with a content management system and a new design. Yay!

* Have you posted any videos online?

Yes we have. In fact, on Thursday two reporters handed me video – a first!

* Have you included any audio soundbites in a story?

I have the soundbites on my computer…they just haven’t made it to the correct format for the Web site yet.

* Have you done a photo slideshow?

Yes, several.

* Have you put up an audio slideshow (perhaps using Soundslides)?

Yes.

* Have you done a map?

Yes.

* Have you used weblogs on your site?

Like the soundbites, this is in the works.

* Have you uploaded source documents (PDFs, excel spreadsheets, etc.) to accompany a big story?

YES! Even on the old site, documents were often uploaded when provided by the reporters.

* Have you used social media (Facebook, MySpace, YouTube) to market your stories?

There is an Alligator Facebook group, and individual articles on the new site now feature sharing tools.

* Have you tracked what others are saying about you via Technorati or Google Blogsearch?

Nope.

* Have you used the web site to post breaking news online FIRST?

Still trying to figure this one out. We have put a couple f breaking sports stories up before they went to print though.

* Have you moved the online editor out of the back office and into a position of authority?

Well, I guess we kind of moved ourselves out of the back office.

* Have you allowed comments on your stories?

Yes. I have been pleasantly surprised with the intelligence of many of the comments posted to the site. We decided not to review comments and to remove them only if a complaint was lodged, or if we saw a “flame war” starting up.

* Have you encouraged writers to write for the Web and include hyperlinks in their stories?

I’m hoping this will go hand-in-hand with blogging. Right now, when we are putting up new stories, if we see an opportunity for a link, it goes in.

* Have you tried something experimental?

We’ve got a few projects in the works, but right now energy is tied up in making the workflow efficient and working the kinks out of the new site.

So far, I think we’re doing pretty good! Of course, in this case, the “checklist” is never really completed. But I’ll be happy if I can get out of the office by 1:30 a.m. every night instead of 3 a.m.

In the last week, I started a new semester, launched a website with a new CMS and design, stayed awake for 48 hours, got sick, got well, spent an unjustifiable amount of money on books, cleaned my apartment twice, turned 21, interviewed three people, and caught up on the summer backlog.

But thus far, I have met with success on all fronts.

This semester is really exciting for me because I am the New Media Managing Editor at The Independent Florida Alligator, 9 months away from graduation, and my various connections and activities are going places and getting results. Awesome. It’s also very stressful, for the same reasons. Trying to sync up schedules at three different jobs during the first week of classes results in a lot of mayhem, but that should be settled now. All I have to do is not fall behind.

My responsibilities for this semester include:

  • · Bringing more people, news and multimedia to The Independent Florida Alligator web site
  • · 4 classes: Photographic Journalism, Problems and Ethics in Journalism, Reporting and Writing for the Web, and Advanced Interactive Reporting
  • Advanced Interactive Reporting is a brand new class governed by self-directed learning in which we will be designing a converged newsroom. At least, that’s what the syllabus says. So far, I’m still not sure what we’re doing, except that it will involve multimedia and teamwork. Fun.

  • · Consulting at the UF Computing Help Desk
  • · Updating and upgrading the Citizen Access Project Web site
  • · Writing a weekly post for Angela Grant’s News Videographer blog
  • · and of course, keeping up my own blog!

I know that looks like a lot of work, but I’m confident that I can get it all done with my usual determination and of course, endless bottles of Mountain Dew.

The beginning has passed, and I just have to keep going.

Last night, while uploading the new student edition articles to the Alligator Web site, Brett Roegiers and I tossed together a Google map of all the locations mentioned in various articles, complete with driving directions. Ahhh, last minute media.

To create the map, I used the method described in Matt Waite’s post, “Why (some) journalists should learn (some) code.”

The most aggravating part was getting the latitude and longitude for each address, especially for places on campus that don’t really have addresses. I used a combination of GeoCoder and this Lat/Long Bookmarklet for Google Maps.

There has got to be a better way to grab lat/long. I know that it is possible to generate the locations through a Google Spreadsheet, and even generate the entire map this way, as well.

Does anyone know any other tricks?

Edit: Matt can’t seem to keep his site up and running, so you’ll have to search archives.org for his post.

I’m no good at taking vacations. Relaxation is a foreign state. I need to be working, thinking, producing. But for the last two weeks I’ve found myself to be either immensely frustrated with my work or forced into vacation mode by visitors who just will not let me be productive.

On the other hand, last week I won a promotion at The Independent Florida Alligator to New Media Managing Editor. While I am confident that I can do the job, our web-workflow is changing, and I have to figure out how to maximize the time that will no longer be spent cutting and pasting Word documents into PHP templates. This is both worrisome and exciting.

I’ll continue the Classes in Review series next week, and probably mix it up with some M.E.-type thoughts. Until then, the links will keep coming.

(post title comes from a song by Against Me!)

post

Of maps, classifieds and social media

Facebook recently released free local classifieds, also known as Facebook Marketplace. The interface could be a little cleaner, but it’s no worse than Craigslist…no telling how this will effect the classifieds industry. I use a combination of Craigslist and LiveJournal to get things for free or cheap. Facebook is extremely popular among college students as a social networking site, but will they post ads? Depending on the reaction, I’ll have to add Facebook to my “I hate being broke” browsing.

A Craigslist and Google Maps mashup called Mapskrieg shows exactly where Craigslist housing listings are located. In some cases, you could probably get a great satellite view of the area. I poked around Gainesville and Miami (my hometown), and sent the link to some friends who are looking for a change of residence. Looks like a really useful tool.

I know the Gainesville Sun and the Independent Florida Alligator both carry classifieds online. The Sun’s are a searchable database, while the Alligator provides a .pdf due to limited resources. It doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to grab data from Craigslist and other popular online ad sites and create a ginormous pile of ads. Mix it with Google Maps. Make it easy to search. Give it a feed. Give it to us for free, we’re gonna get it anyway, we might as well be spending time on your site.