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Tim McGuire coverI wonder if I’ve cited anyone in this blog more frequently (or been cited more frequently by anyone in another blog) than Tim McGuire.

Last week Dean Chris Callahan announced Tim’s plan to retire from the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, and I have to cite Tim again: To wish him well and to thank him for his contributions to journalism and journalism education. And especially to thank him for his friendship, advice and contributions to my blog.

Tim was prominent in journalism when I was still obscure, and I knew of him for years before I actually met him. By the time we became friends, he had moved to the classroom from the newsroom (most notably the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where he was editor). Back in my writing coach days, before we had met, I was citing his advice on tight writing in my first blog, Training Tracks, written for newsroom trainers.

Tim and I met in 2007, when I came to the Cronkite School to lead a Newspaper Next workshop for the American Press Institute. (We might have shaken hands earlier at a convention, but this was my first memorable interaction with Tim.)

He blogged about the workshop, with kind words for my presentation and some of the N2 concepts. He criticized API’s marketing, because of the light turnout at the workshop. I responded saying that API had actually probably saturated the newspaper-industry market by the time I reached the Cronkite School. I personally had done an earlier presentation in Arizona, and my colleagues and I had done several dozen more throughout the country, including others in Utah and Las Vegas.

Whether Tim was right or I was about the marketing, our conversation at the workshop and the ensuing exchange on the blog and by email started a friendship that I cherish. And, as with many close friendships, that wasn’t our last disagreement. I think we agree much more about journalism and the news biz than we disagree. But we likely both enjoy the good-natured give-and-take of our disputes more than we do our agreements (as good friends often do). Continue Reading »

Facebook Game Day art

Facebook greeted me with the stupid drawing and proclamation above.

I presume this is a promotion for the Facebook sports venture that Fortune’s Mathew Ingram described as a “grenade” tossed at ESPN. And Facebook continues to dominate people’s time like no other medium, so maybe this will be successful, too.

But here’s where it won’t succeed with me:

  • I already knew there was a big football game today, so this post didn’t tell me anything useful.
  • Since I already knew it was “Game Day,” the breathless proclamation was annoying.
  • If I didn’t know what the game was, it would have been even more annoying because not knowing would mean I didn’t care (and, since it didn’t use the name of the actual name, not very informative).
  • Action photographs of football interest me. But not amateurish cartoons.
  • Twitter is way better than Facebook for live two-screen enjoyment of sports and other events (until it screws that up by using an algorithm to become more like Facebook).

I use Facebook as much as I do only because so many of my friends and family are there (many more than use Twitter). But I don’t think seeing all their updates about the game will enhance my enjoyment of it. And I’m guessing if I click that link at the bottom, I’m going to see lots of crap about the “Game” from people I don’t even know or care about.

I think I’ll just watch Super Bowl 50 (that’s its name, by the way) on TV.

Today I am leading a webinar for the Society of Professional Journalists, “Leading Change in Your Organization.”

I will repeat points I made in my 2014 posts about Project Unbolt.

I’ll also cover points covered in these posts for the INMA Culture Change Blog:

Here are the slides for the presentation:

Iowa Caucus Game

Iowa Caucus Game, 1983

Before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, I wrote two blog posts about them, one complaining about Iowa hogging first place in our presidential selection process and one recalling my seven election cycles covering the caucuses as a reporter and editor.

Both pieces got more attention than I had anticipated, because The Atlantic republished my piece criticizing Iowa’s sense of entitlement and did a separate post on my 1983 board game (pictured above and mentioned in my post about my caucus experience).

I don’t have much to add this year, except that every critical thing I wrote four years ago is more true than ever this year. The reality-show series of debates, especially on the Republican side, has been a debacle of posturing and sniping that underscores all that is wrong with our system.

I will make no predictions about who will win tonight, but I think there’s a better than 50 percent chance that November’s winner won’t win tonight. And I know we can find a better way to choose a president. But we won’t.

When I was reading a Joe Posnanski post for NBC Sports recently, I wondered whether someone might accuse me of plagiarism.

Posnanski made some of the same points I made on my Hated Yankees blog in October about the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Pre-Integration Era Committee. He even used two of the exact same phrases I used: We both referred to the era as the “Segregation Era” and the “Jim Crow Era.”

Posnanski passage

Screenshot from Posnanski’s NBC column.

On full examination, I think any reasonable journalist would call the use of the same phrases a reasonable coincidence, if the second writer didn’t read the first writer’s piece, inspiration if he did.

Renaming the era was kind of a theme of my piece. I also called it the Bigotry Era, Birth of a Nation Era, Back of the Bus Era, Amos ‘n Andy Era, Lynch Mob Era, Jazz Player Era, Plessy vs. Ferguson Era, Separate But Unequal Era, Stepin Fetchit Era, No Coloreds Era, Whites Only Era and Shameful Era.

I might have carried the renaming theme a bit far, but it was a long post and I used the names as a unifying thread. Whether Posnanski read my piece or not, he showed more restraint by using just a couple names. Using a half-dozen or more of the same names would have been plagiarism if he had seen my piece before writing his, but there was hardly anything original by either of us to call that time the Segregation Era and Jim Crow Era.

And if I had seen Posnanski’s piece first, riffing to many more names, that would clearly be inspiration, not plagiarism. Continue Reading »

This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. Many of the tips here came from my World-Herald colleagues, Paul Goodsell, Joe Kolman, Nichole Aksamit and Cindy Gonzalez, with whom I collaborated on the original workshop. Other colleagues, perhaps most notably former Digital First Media colleagues Tom Meagher and MaryJo Webster (who will address my class remotely Thursday), taught me things I used in updating that old handout to use now.

No competent reporter would consider doing the job without knowing how to interview or take notes or to dig for records. In 21st-Century journalism, using data is not a specialized skill. It’s an essential skill.

Even if you haven’t mastered high-level analysis and visualization skills (just as some reporters are better than others at interviewing or working sources), every reporter needs to use data at least at a basic level to find answers and tell stories. Whatever your level of ability, you should seek to learn more about the data sources on your beat and how to access and use them.

Ask for electronic records. When an agency you cover releases a report or some annual statistics, ask for the report in a digital format. We can incur significant expenses when we ask public agencies to sort data for us (though often much less than they might tell you initially). But every report already exists in an electronic file that should be easy and cheap to obtain. Whether you use the data immediately or not, you should have it on hand electronically.

Pursue the data. Ask for data as aggressively as you insist on access to any other public record. You must not be intimidated when it comes to asking for electronic information. When someone cites facts in an interview, you already are used to asking, “How do you know that?” and asking for copies of any reports the source is citing. Ask for an electronic copy as well. Often the source would rather e-mail you the report rather than find an envelope anyway. Don’t ask just for the report itself, but for the raw data on which it was based.

Consider different uses. As you learn about data sources, consider what stories you might pursue based primarily on this data. Consider how you might use this data for information to support other stories you might do. Consider how you might use the data routinely. Consider how the data might be useful to colleagues on other beats.

Use the Internet. Visit the Web sites of public agencies and private organizations on your beat and learn what data sources are available readily online. Learn what reports and statistics are posted online. Learn whether the agencies post searchable databases online or pdf files that are more cumbersome to use online. (Various tools can help you extract data from pdfs, and a pdf can also identify electronic records you could obtain to sort and search yourself). Browse the databases to learn what information they offer and consider how that information might be useful in stories.

Get budgets. Obtain the budgets and spending records of public agencies in electronic form so you can use a spreadsheet to look for trends, changes, irregularities.

Get directories. Learn what sort of basic information the agencies on your beat might have in electronic form: personnel rosters, payroll records, government board rosters.

Get an updated version of the payroll records periodically — say quarterly — and you’ll have a good way of tracking government raises. It’s searchable and, thus, a nice way to double-check a name spelling and job title and salary, a good way to know who’s been with the city the longest and who’s a newbie, an easy way to access a list of the city’s highest and lowest-paid employees. It’s particularly useful when a public employee makes other news — gets arrested or fired or wins an award — or when you are just searching for an employee who might have been around during a particular time period or has experience in a given area.

Listen for data behind statistics. When sources tell you they are tracking or studying something — a certain kind of complaint, the condition of city roads, housing code violations, etc. — chances are they are working from a database or a spreadsheet. Ask “How do you know that noise complaints have risen or that 65 percent of the streets are in good condition?” and then ask to see their work, which may prompt other stories. In most jurisdictions, the data should be public record, and you should ask for it.

Interview the data. Think of data as another source that you interview. Do you want to know how many single mothers of a particular race or age group live in a particular community? You could probably call a number of people and get some vague answers and some anecdotal sense of whether the number is growing or declining, but why not ask the Census Bureau? Think of questions you could ask the data on your beat: What bar has the most liquor-law violations? What school has the best (or worst) test scores? What intersection has the most accidents?

Study the data first. Reporters are at a great advantage when they go into an interview knowing at least something, and sometimes a lot, about the information the source deals with. If you can find some data online or in a database you already have acquired, check that before you interview a source. It helps you ask better questions and helps you catch the source in mistakes or lies.

Organize with spreadsheets. A spreadsheet helps you understand information. You spot relationships, trends, reversals, gaps. You can use a spreadsheet for something as simple as a source list or chronology, or to analyze thousands of pieces of data.

Enter data yourself. Sure, it’s nice to get data e-mailed to you, but don’t forget that you can enter data yourself. Often an afternoon at a courthouse or government office searching through paper records yields a notebook full of information you can analyze and understand better if you take a few hours to enter it in a spreadsheet.

Use Census data. Census data are not just the basis for Census stories, but provide helpful information about families, housing, economics and communities for a wide range of stories. The Quick Facts section of the site provides data about any state, city, parish, county, town or zip code in the country. For instance, you can quickly learn demographic, business, housing, income (and much more) for the city of Baton Rouge.

Census download shot

A download button at the top right of Census search results lets you download the data in various forms for analysis or display.

BLSSeek federal data. If any federal agency has jurisdiction on your beat, it probably has some data available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a “data tools” tab that opens a number of opportunities for information on employment, productivity and other economic topics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics offers similar data sets on crime, courts and prisons. Data.gov gives a guide to federal data on a wide range of topics.Datagov

Seek state and local data. Access to data and quality of data that you can access online or through public records requests varies by state and local jurisdiction, as laws and compliance with laws varies. Sometimes you have to search for data by agency. Other times a government jurisdiction, such as the City of Baton Rouge, will provide a portal to data from all agencies. Sometimes media organizations and public interest groups have already acquired data sets and made them easily accessible online. Louisiana Sunshine, a project of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, makes many state data sets easy to access.  

Think critically about data. Former World-Herald reporter Joe Kolman had this quote from Dick O’Reilly of the LA Times taped to his desk: “The most important lessons in CAR are not which keys to push on the keyboard, but how to think critically about data. People who learn to think that way will learn which keys to push because doing so becomes fundamental to their quests. People who only learn what keys to push really haven’t learned anything.”

Other resources

National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting (lots of databases and how-to instructions for members of Investigative Reporters and Editors).

 

 

As Washington braces for a winter storm (and the metro area’s inability to deal with winter storms), my mind wandered back five years.

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, almost exactly five years ago, Mimi and I drove nine hours to get home from the heart of Washington to our home in the Virginia suburbs. In good traffic, the drive usually took less than 45 minutes. In normal Washington traffic, an hour was not unusual, an hour and a half certainly possible.

But when it snows in Washington …

I am not the only one to remember that evening (or my whining about that evening):

Nine hours, 11 hours. For recalling a nightmare from five years ago, two hours seemed a minor exaggeration.

David Heyman (who will appear more in this tale later) also recalled our shared 2011 Odyssey:

My daughter-in-law, Ashley Douglass, took three hours to get home in some light snow Wednesday evening, prompting her husband, Tom, to ask if I had the link from my account of the 2011 trek to share with her. He thought it was on this blog, but it was on TBD.com, the Washington local news site I helped launch less than six months before that snowy day.

The TBD archives were preserved a few years, but have vanished from the Internet. I couldn’t even find my story of the snowy commute on the Wayback Machine (which preserves snapshots from websites, but not full archives). But I did save the html files.

Some background on that day before I share my five-year-old tale: This was the year after Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse paralyzed Washington for days. But not every winter storm forecast for DC materializes as predicted. At least a couple times earlier in January 2011, weather forecasters had warned of potentially snowpolalyptic storms that either missed Washington entirely or only provided a light dusting. So when we were warned of the Jan. 26 storm, most of Washington shrugged and headed to work as normal. But this time the forecast actually lowballed the storm. By mid-afternoon, huge, wet flakes were falling fast, sticking to the streets, and the federal government (and nearly everyone else) shut down early, sending virtually every vehicle in Washington into the streets at the same time.

I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwestern states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and North Dakota. I know winter storms, and laugh at Washington’s inability to handle light snow. But this was a genuine winter storm, falling fast and hard and wet on a metro area whose drivers and cities don’t know what do with a mild winter snow that wouldn’t cancel school in Iowa.

So here is my account of my commute from hell (on a day off even!) five years ago (with a few updates): Continue Reading »

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