Megan Taylor

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

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2 Journalism Projects About People

One of the many reasons I use Twitter: finding out about what projects journalists are developing and launching.

Yesterday I saw two such posts:

and

1. Tampa Bay Mug Shots, also known to some as “Facebook for underachievers” is a simple and fun glance at booking data in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. A carousel of mug shots is accompanied by some basic crime data and arrest records.

The information presented here as a public service is gathered from open county sheriff’s Web sites in the Tampa Bay area. The booking mug shots and related information are from arrest records in the order and at the time the data was collected. Those appearing here have not been convicted of the arrest charge and are presumed innocent. Do not rely on this site to determine any person’s actual criminal record.

2. The Miami Herald’s 60 Seconds is actually a relaunch/update of an older project, and I worked with Stephanie Rosenblatt on the Flash video player during my internship at The Herald. There are 10 new videos in this series about South Florida characters.

I know that in some circles, this type of journalism may be looked down upon. No evils or corruptions exposed, no event described, no protesters sprayed with pepper spray.

But I see it as an example of what journalism should do more of: exposing a community to itself. In both cases, the profiles are of people who live or work in these communities. Just because it’s also entertaining (’cause I firmly believe that the funniest thing about any person is their mugshot) doesn’t mean it’s not useful and informative. Stories are still being told.

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Mobile News: Problems, Examples, & Real World Use

(Note: I wrote this a few months ago and forgot about it. I found it while cleaning off my hard drive today. Oops!)

I got a Blackberry Pearl about a year ago, and while I have access to Google Reader and Twitter, (my main sources of news) I just haven’t gotten out of the habit of reading off the larger screen of my laptop.

Many media outlets are pursuing the possibilities of mobile news, having learned from their mistake with the Internet. As mobile phones get more advanced and more people use them, there is an opportunity to capture an audience.

Problems

One issue to address when setting out to get news on mobile phones is the variation in technologies used by different phones. Many phones can play video or view websites. All phones can receive text messages, but that can be costly to the user.

Viewing websites on a non-iPhone is a ghastly business. Tiny screens, poor rendering of CSS, graphic-heavy or Flash-based websites, they all make information harder to get at. One solution here is to create a mobile stylesheet that the phone browser will detect.

Another problem is content. Just as people don’t read off a computer screen the way they read a print product, no one wants to read a lengthy feature article on a 2-inch screen.

What kind of content might one want to see on a phone?

Weather and traffic alerts, events, and big, huge, breaking news. Seriously, the feature article can wait till I get home. But if a criminal is running around my neighborhood with a gun, I’d like to know, ASAP.

What about multimedia? I don’t see myself using my phone to go through a complex multimedia package. A video or slideshow, maybe, if I’m really interested. But phones are about “right now” communication. That should be reflected in how news companies approach them.

It may be that the only real solution for phones is better phone software. It doesn’t have to be iPhone quality, but the ability to add “news” to your basic menu would change everything. You could do any kind of feed you want then, while not having to go three steps in just to open a browser.

Examples

The Associated Press launched the Mobile News Network. The view on a phone is pretty nice, with a top news home screen, categorized story feeds (you can pick the general topics, and a “saved” category for custom searches). You can set preferences for location and the types of news you want to see. They also do video pretty well, providing various formats. They have applications for Blackberry/iPhone/iPod Touch users.

CNN’s mobile offerings include a Java application, SMS alerts, live TV (for certain providers), and downloadable videos.


The BBC actually explains
how they set up several different versions of their mobile site and let your browser choose the best one.

The New York Times offers a mobile site where you can read the NYT blogs, see most e-mailed articles, get alerts for topics or keywords, and browse real estate listings, stocks and weather forecasts. You can also choose to have news sent to your phone via text message. Customers of certain providers can also get access to crossword puzzles.

Fox News provides live video, streaming video clips, the requisite mobile site, and text alerts. Something a little different: they also offer an audio version of FNC, for a monthly fee.

Real World Use

The people most likely to have a compulsion to check the news every few hours, no matter where they are, are journalists. So I rounded up a few and asked about their mobile news habits.

Greg Linch sent me an e-mail after I asked for responses on Twitter.

I check Gmail on my smart phone (an AT&T Tilt), where I might have a New York Times, Washington Post or Miami Herald breaking news e-mail. After checking Gmail, I look at Twitter for other news and any interesting conversations. I also get Miami Herald breaking news text alerts, which include big national and local news.

If I’m away from the computer for an extended period of time — or if I’m bored somewhere — I’ll check Google Reader on my phone. If I just want a quick peek at the latest headlines, I’ll go to the mobile version of a site such as CNN, NYT or the Herald.

Kyle Mitchell is a music writer. He carries an iPod Touch. In an IM conversation, Kyle told me about his news habits.

NYT is one that keeps going down all the time. AP Mobile News is absolutely fantastic: runs fast as hell and top news never contains any bullshit like celebrity news. I check that a few times a day. Google News has a similar setup, but it’s much more clunky.

Brett Roegiers associate producer at CNN.com said

On my phone, I consume the news via Google Reader and Twitter.

Brett volunteered some advice to media outlets:

I’ll tell you what news organizations should pay attention to: location-based web apps. I click ‘restaurants’ or ‘bars’ and it shows me what’s in my area without me having to input where I am. I guess I’d say try to take advantage of the platform in some way and not just show the latest headlines.


Lyndsey Lewis
has an older Nokia, but checks the news on her iPod Touch.

I don’t use my phone, because I have a shitty Nokia phone and it’s hard to read stuff on it. But, I also own an iPod Touch, which I bring with me everywhere and use for news. I have the New York Times app on it and use that almost every day.

So what applications are you using to get the news on your phone? What do you think media outlets should be doing to get people’s attention? What can manufacturers do to make phones easier to use in this context?

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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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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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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.

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Internship, week 2

So last week I got one of my projects to the “show it to the boss” point. Supposedly it’s going live tomorrow. I will link then.

My story has been postponed until “official action has been taken” whatever that means. Oh, well.

I have 2 other projects to finish this week, plus a couple of long-term data projects, and the grapevine tells me I’m getting a new assignment today. This is good, cause I’m used to high-pressure deadlines and that hasn’t been the case so far.

Over the weekend I purchased Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson by UF’s very own Bill McKeen, as well as The Definitive Guide to Django: Web Development Done Right, by Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss.

I can’t wait for these to come in. I really want to continue to learn different programming languages and frameworks. My internet access at home right now consists of finding an open wireless network on my street and sitting outside with the mosquitoes, so some books will be really helpful.

If anyone wants to recommend other books or online resources, please do!

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Internship: week the first

I gave my impressions from the first day or so of work, but a full (sort of) week has given me more time to get acquainted with my new job.

I’ve worked on several projects, thought none of them are quite ready to go live yet. I’ll link to them when they do. But so far the work has been pretty easy and well within my skills. I was surprised at how much Flash I remember, even though I haven’t touched the program in over a year.

I’m also working on a story for next week! I pitched this one myself, and while its nothing big, I’m happy to be writing. My greatest fear is being pigeonholed into the programming room.

I’m supposed to see about some database work in the next week or so, which will be something new to add to my arsenal. I know how databases work and how to work with them, but I’ve never actually built one.

On the side, I’m continuing to work through Django tutorials and plan on buying some books soon. I’m also in the market for a job after my internship is over.

I’ve got a couple of posts coming up that should be more stimulating, but I’ve been too busy to really organize my thoughts yet. Here’s hoping I can get one or two out next week.

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Small fish, big pond

So I’m a day and a half into my internship at The Miami Herald. I am a “multimedia intern.”

It’s a little gloomy around here, but most of that is rain. People are starting to make jokes about the cuts and motivation still seems high. Then again, I didn’t see much of the newsroom before Monday, so I don’t really have any basis for comparison.

I was afraid of the changes I would face in moving from a managerial position at a small paper to a flunky at a huge paper. I shouldn’t have worried. Even though the newsroom here is enormous, the online group is pretty small. I’m a medium-sized fish in this room.

Yesterday I built a little sidebar for a page on the site and today I’m working on a page for a series of stories. So far I’m being handed assignments and then pretty much left to myself to get them done. Just the way I like to work.