Archive for March, 2009

Journalists who covered Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 Eastern Iowa floods and the Parkersburg tornado will share their experience at a seminar in Davenport next month.

The Mid-America Press Institute‘s “Covering natural disasters” seminar starts Friday, April 17, at the Radisson Quad City Plaza Hotel in Davenport.

Mizell Stewart III, editor of the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press, who helped the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will be the keynote speaker on April 17. David Purdy, a former Sun Herald photographer, will be one of the speakers on the final day, April 19.

I will be one of three Gazette journalists who will talk on Saturday, April 18, about what we learned in covering last year’s floods. I will lead an exercise on disaster coverage in the digital age. Mary Sharp, who led our breaking coverage and the flood team that cotinues to cover issues relating to disaster coverage, will discuss the continuing watchdog responsibility. Zack Kucharski, leader of the Gazette Communications data team, will discuss IowaFloodStories and other databases we developed in our flood coverage.

James Wilkerson of the Des Moines Register will join Zack to discuss databases, including the Register’s Parkersburg tornado map. Nancy Newhoff of the Waterloo Courier will discuss coverage of both the tornado and the flooding, which hit her coverage area less than three weeks apart.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, will close the seminar April 19 with a discussion of how journalists can deal with the personal toll of disaster coverage.

Other speakers will be The Gazette’s Cecelia Hanley (discussing coverage of a tornado when she was in Evansville), Mark Ridolfi of the Quad City Times, Christine Martin of the Southwest Indiana Disaster Resistant Community Corp., and Dee Bruemmer and Col. Robert Sinkler of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Register by email, phone (217-273-5812) or fax the flier below (217-581-2923). Registration is $50 for members ($40 for the second person from a member paper) and $75 ($65 for the second person) for non-members. Make your hotel reservation at 563-322-2200 by this Friday, April 3.

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When my wife, Mimi, and I moved to Cedar Rapids last June, we were planning to explore and enjoy the fun places of Eastern Iowa.

This photo of the Blackhawk Bridge in Lansing, Iowa, was submitted by Diana Johnson, who explains in her comment on the blog.

This photo of the Blackhawk Bridge in Lansing, Iowa, was submitted by Diana Johnson, who explains in her comment on the blog.

This is my Monday column for The Gazette:



We knew western Iowa well from years living in Shenandoah, Essex and Omaha. We knew central Iowa well from years living in Des Moines. But Eastern Iowa was mostly a place we drove through, long ago a place to visit some relatives and occasionally a place to cover news.

Beyond the well-known attractions (we had been to the Amanas and Field of Dreams and were planning to visit the National Czech and Slovak Museum), we planned on getting to know the quirky cultural attractions, the pretty lakes and the small-town diners of Eastern Iowa. (more…)

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I’m sitting in this morning on a session led by George Stanley, managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as part of the American Press Institute’s seminar, “The New Newsroom,” at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Since I had a glitch on the liveblog in CoverItLive, I will just update this frequently.

George is talking about the value of breaking news online, taking back from broadcast the advantage of immediacy that they used to have. Each participant has a large sheet of paper from an easel pad and some markers. He’s taking a flood story (Wisconsin had bad floods the same week as Cedar Rapids last year) and asking how their organization would cover it today.

Here’s the news scenario: It’s 6:31 a.m. Flood has been building for several days. Dam breaks and lake floods main highway into town. First scanner reports say cops are heading to highway to see what’s going on. Questions for participants: How would you learn about the story, how would you gather information, how would you report it?

About 6:50 a.m., state announces it’s closing the highway. Stanley asks participants how they would respond (if they would know about the story yet).

It’s flood day at API. I’ll talk briefly about the Cedar Rapids flood experience in my afternoon presentation and George is using the Journal Sentinel’s flood experience in his exercise. Meanwhile, Fargo’s trying to hold back the Red River.

Back to the exercise: About 15 minutes later, state announces detour on Interstate highway, adding two hours to a normal trip. Lake has emptied into the river. Three houses were washed away. No known injuries or fatalities yet. Car has been found swamped near the highway. No people visible in the car, but a dog is in the car.

Now photos start coming in. Amateur videographer has video of house being washed downstream.

Now a state transportation official says the flood caused major structural damage to the highway and no one is sure how long it will be closed. Stanley asks with each development what your organization would do, how this would change your workflow.

Reporter has found a database on dams in the state. Would need help from another reporter to find important information in it today. How would this change workflow? Stanley asks people to think about the morning news meeting, how that would work.

Here’s the Journal Sentinel’s gallery of photos and videos from the flood. Pretty dramatic stuff. Stanley is showing some of these clips and shots on the screen.

While looking for the flood visuals, I found this directory to the Journal Sentinel’s special projects. Stanley says they have undertaken these investigations even while cutting the staff, and they are hearing more appreciation from the community than at any time in his career. Here’s the point: Investigative journalism matters. It makes a difference and we can still do quality investigative journalism even in difficult times. And we have to.

People have spent about 15 minutes in teams, discussing how they would cover this flood. They’re about ready to debrief, so I’ll be writing some more.

One group is talking about using ad reps to field all the media calls and providing room for visiting media working the story. (Sounds familiar: We got lots of media calls during our flood, but with power outage, we didn’t have anyone wanting to use our facilities.) George is talking about the value of interacting with the national media, so they can drive traffic to your site.

Alright! This group talks about connecting with the audience through Twitter and Facebook to contact sources. These are invaluable crowdsourcing tools. Cory Powell of Star Tribune notes that going to Twitter and Facebook is not yet an “instinctive move” in his organization. They would be on the story, though, because they have a reporter starting at 5 a.m. and another at 7.

Powell says commute is bad in Twin Cities by 7, so this would be a huge story that they would be all over. (Of course, highway disaster stories aren’t hypothetical for Twin Cities. Remember “13 Seconds in August.”

Now people are talking about getting access to helicopter or airplane for shooting aerials. I’m guessing most companies don’t have their CEO fly the plane, as we did.

Another participant notes that his site couldn’t handle the web traffic.

John Dye of Green Bay says you do say “Web first,” but still think primarily about the next day’s paper. You need to ask, “Are you really focusing on the here and the now?”

Stanley says flow charts look very different. “Editor has to push it and set up the environment. There’s no way you can come up with all the ideas.” That is so true. Newsroom leader’s biggest job is enabling the creativity and talent of the staff.

Now we’re talking about posting directly online. Stanley talks about how important it is to make sure staff understand law and ethics if they are posting directly online. Now a participant is noting that when journalists know they aren’t being edited, they take more responsibility for their copy.

Stanley says 15-16 months ago, when staff was 25 percent bigger than today, “we couldn’t have done this story worth a damn.” They would have done a great job for morning paper, but would have learned about the story on the radio on their way to work.

Stanley notes how radio and TV are tied to their broadcast schedules and larger, swift news staff working online and thinking online can lead the way and “be of greater service to our community.”

With all the competition we have today, “we have to earn our customers,” Stanley says. “We have to be useful. We have to be relevant to their lives.”

Task force helped reshape how the Journal Sentinel newsroom worked. “It wasn’t all coming from the editor or the managing editor. It was coming from the people in the newsroom.”

As the Journal Sentinel changed the way it worked, “the metabolism of the whole newsroom sped up,” Stanley says. Use of the task force, rather than working hierarchically, just “blows away any office politics … You can bust through those walls.”

Stanley explaining how “breaking news hub” works in Journal Sentinel newsroom.

They don’t report directly from scanner, but confirm quickly. They immediately send out tweets and seek people with direct knowledge of breaking event. Asking for photos, video, what people want to know about event. Reporter also scans Twitter for tweets about the flooding.

Stanley: “As soon as the state posted its detour, we realized it was a ridiculous detour.” It was set up for interstate truckers and added 2 hours to commute. So J-S crowdsourced the task of suggesting better detours. “Talk about becoming the place they’re going  to go to … They’re going to love you for it.”

By the time rush hour hit peak, Stanley says, Journal Sentinel was blowing all the competition out of the water. Then shifting to enterprise (databases, interactive maps, etc.).

In current Journal Sentinel newsroom, they can’t afford to spend as many resources as they used to dedicate to preparing the print edition. People have to be generalists now.

Stanley handouts include Jill Geisler’s Poynter piece about task force and breaking news hub.

We’re breaking for lunch now. And I’m the afternoon discussion leader, so I won’t be liveblogging that.

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I’ll liveblogged briefly today from API’s seminar, “The New Newsroom” from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I encountered a glitch and stopped after a while. I will post a single account of the second morning session, led by George Stanley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here’s what I did live from Mary Glick’s opening session, if you’re interested:

API New Newsroom Seminar

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Updated with BeatBlogging Q&A:

The transformation we are undertaking at Gazette Communications continues to draw attention:

Those are new developments. These are other links I posted recently:

As I wrote in an earlier post, all of this means nothing but ego stroking and eventual embarrassment if we don’t deliver in the executing of our plans. Lots of people in the newspaper industry have been wrong about a lot of things before. You could compile many more links than this of people eloquently making the case that news web sites need to charge for their content. And the fact that you could find a lot of them wouldn’t change the fact that they’re all wrong.

But I am encouraged that a lot of people I respect think we’re on the right track. And I’ll keep sharing those links if they keep writing.

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As the Red River rises in North Dakota, Eastern Iowans are watching closely.

Cedar Rapids has tried to learn lessons in flood recovery and flood control from Grand Forks, N.D., which was devastated by 1997 flooding. Now Fargo and Grand Forks are facing the worst floods up there since 1997.

You can keep tabs on the flooding through a variety of Twitter feeds, hashtags and other searches: (more…)

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I spend a lot of my time involved with digital communication – blogs, tweets and multimedia. But occasionally I have to lose myself in an old-fashioned book.

I recently finished Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas and will start soon on Harper Lee‘s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could read them digitally if I could pry the Kindle away from my wife, Mimi. But sometimes it’s good to just stretch out with a good book and turn some actual pages.

I’m participating in the annual Linn Area Reads program of the Metro Library Network. People are encouraged to read these two books and participate in a series of programs reflecting on them. We started with a March visit from Sandra Dallas, author of Tallgrass, March 1 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. I hadn’t read the book when she visited (wish I had), but I finished it last week.

Related programs continued Saturday at Collins Road Theater with a screening of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the book in years. I look forward to reading the book again. Usually the movie version of a great book disappoints me. But with this one, you marvel at the storytelling skill of either version.

I’m trying to recall whether specific scenes from the movie were even in the book and how the book treated them. I’m trying to recall whether anyone ever nailed a role better than Gregory Peck did the role of Atticus Finch.

Organizers of Linn Area Reads picked the two novels because of their similarities. Each book examines racial prejudice in a small town: Tallgrass is set in southeastern Colorado during World War II outside an internment camp for American citizens of Japanese heritage, relocated from California in one of our nation’s most shameful episodes; Mockingbird examines racial injustice in Alabama in the 1930s.

The books had other parallels: Each is told through the eyes of a young girl (Rennie in Tallgrass, Scout in Mockingbird); each girl’s father is the moral rock of the story, standing strong against bigotry; each book examines other prejudices (against unwed mothers and people with mental disabilities).

Jim Kern of Brucemore will lead a discussion of those similarities Thursday, April 9, at Barnes & Noble. I need to finish Mockingbird by then. Wouldn’t want to comment on parallels between the scenes where the fathers stand up to potential lynch mobs if the Mockingbird scene was in the movie but not the book.

A “Buseum” traveling exhibit of “Held in the Heartland,” about German prisoner-of-war camps in the Midwest, will come to the Westdale Mall parking lot Tuesday, March 31. Linn Area Reads will conclude with a “Stage to Page” discussion with cast members of the Classics at Brucemore production of To Kill a Mockingbird. The discussion will be Friday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at Marion Public Library. The play opens July 9. 

I will moderate and The Gazette will sponsor a “Race in America” panel discussion Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

I’d be interested in hearing how you view racial issues in our country and in our community. In the 1930s era when Mockingbird was set or in 1960, when it was published, it would have been impossible to imagine an African-American president. We have come a long way. But I receive too many emails and letters loaded with overt or subtle racism to think that one election wiped away centuries of bigotry.

Tell me the questions and issues you would like us to address in this panel discussion: If you are a racial or ethnic minority in our community, how do you feel included and excluded? What barriers remain? What opportunities have you had that were denied to your parents? If you are in the majority, how has your understanding of other races grown in recent years? In what matters, if any, do you think that race becomes a false issue?

If we are so fortunate as to have a Harper Lee in our midst today, what issues would she address in a novel that would still touch hearts a half-century later?

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