Megan Taylor

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

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PBS MediaShift Spotlight series

MediaShift Spotlight Innovation illustration by Omar Lee for MediaShift.A few weeks ago, MediaShift‘s Mark Glaser approached me (via e-mail) about doing a series for MediaShift on innovation in journalism.

I instantly replied with a list of possible projects to highlight. I’m really excited to be working on this.

After two weeks of interviews and back-and-forthing, my first post went live yesterday: Neighborhood Watch Puts Florida Home Sales on the Map.

I talked to the creator of Neighborhood Watch, Matt Waite, about how the project was conceived and built, and what the response has been like. Although we had some technical difficulties on Skype, I was able to get some audio and also did a screencast for the site.

I’ll be spotlighting a different project every two weeks. It doesn’t have to be from a mainstream media outlet, just a unique mashup of technology and journalism. (Please, if you know of or are working on something new and different, let me know in the comments or e-mail me at mtaylor(at)megantaylor(dot)org.

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I’m in the gray, working with public relations

I’ve been wanting to write a bit about what I’m doing and where I’m working, but had trouble figuring out how to approach the subject.

You see, I work for a PR company.

I can hear you all gasping. No, I have NOT crossed over to the “dark side.”

PR companies are scrambling like most other institutional businesses to figure out this whole “Internet thing.” My job as “Digital Media Intern” is to move Quinn & Co. forward by teaching how social media works. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, the whole kit and caboodle.

So I’ve been doing lots of research: what’s the best blogging platform for their purposes, how can the company and their clients build loyalty through Twitter and Facebook, how to monitor brands with Google Alerts, optimizing press releases and websites for search engines, and building lists of bloggers and micro-bloggers for Real Estate, Travel and Food, Wine & Spirits.

I’ve also been doing some multimedia work: a video from a media panel, working on an interactive email design.

All of which is very helpful in getting to my goal.

I want to work in news. No question. I don’t care if it’s a newspaper, magazine, radio station, because when you get to the website, it’s all the same.

Ultimately, news outlets have to learn the kinds of things I’m learning now. How do you build niche audiences online? How do you manage an online community? And so on.

While my true love is reporting through multimedia (including data), this is fun, too. I’ve never liked the black hat/white hat metaphor, so I’m working in shades of gray.

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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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Florida journo living in NYC

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. My first reaction to being up north was “Holy crap, I can walk outside and not instantly have to take a shower!”

Two weeks after moving into our apartment, it finally feels like home. Took a while to get the couch, bookshelves, refrigerator, desk chair…we’re still waiting on the mailbox keys. These things take time.

There are a lot of new things to take in:

I’ve been doing a lot of job interviews in Lower Manhattan. We live in Kings Bridge Heights, which is almost as far north as you can get and still be in the City. So it takes me about 45 mins to get where I’m going. Then, since I’m already in the area, I spend some time getting lost, taking the wrong trains, window shopping and just taking in the local scenery. I’ve spent hours wandering around Broadway and Canal St. in the last few days.

Our first couple of days here I got really excited every time we had to walk up or down a hill. Gimme a break, we don’t have hills in Miami. (Unless you count Mt. Trashmore.) I’ve learned the truth about hills: walking uphill sucks.

There is also the delightful surprise!-this-is-a-deadend-actually-it’s-a-flight-of-stairs-in-the-middle-of-a-street phenomenon. A street will literally turn into several flights of stairs before turning back into a street. Wha?!

Straws. How come every bottle of Mountain Dew or Becks has to come with a straw? I don’t want a straw. The bottles are too tall for the straws. Since my beverage was sealed until I opened it, I’m really not THAT concerned about touching my mouth to the rim. Straws are just another thing I have to find a garbage can for, along the with the bag and the receipt.

The subway system itself is a magical world filled with the possibilities of getting lost. Really, really lost. Never mind that I’m not familiar with the city, stick me underground and the only directions I’m sure of are up and down. Emerging into the sunlit world once more, it’s only Google Maps Mobile that keeps me from spending even more time wandering aimlessly around.

New York is the dirtiest, meanest and simultaneously most wonderful place I’ve ever been.

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Journalism is about adventure – NYC edition

This weekend a friend and I will be moving to New York City.

Though the truck and hotels are reserved, we have no place to live and no permanent jobs. (We do have appointments in both areas immediately following our arrival to the city.)

We’ve both lived in Florida for most of our lives. We are, as all other journos, negatively affected by the sucking wound in the journalism industry.

The obvious solution was to pool our resources and head to journalism mecca.

Risky, stupid, ballsy, whatever.

To my mind, this is what journalism is all about. One thing isn’t working, go balls to the wall and try something new. It’s the perfect way to force both of us to strengthen our weaknesses, branch out, and gain that all-important experience.

We’ll be blogging about our trip at an as yet unknown location. I’ll post that as soon as we get it together.

Meanwhile, freelance writing and web work, New York and northern New Jersey papers, beware the onslaught of cover letters!

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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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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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Miami Herald’s updated Health section

Well, my first project is live! The Health section of the Miami Herald’s Web site has been redesigned.

My contribution is that slick-looking sidebar on the right. I had some help from Stephanie Rosenblatt for the graphics, and of course she put together the Doctor Sleuth. (They are using Caspio and I have been too busy for training!) The tabs on the results pages are mine though.

There’s some more projects on the table for the Health section, so hopefully I’ll get to be more involved over the next few weeks.

I finished working on a little PHP script today, with Rob Barry’s help, that queries, parses and geocodes some data. Hopefully we’ll have that into the DataSleuth system soon.