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Teaching Online Journalism

Computer code that writes stories

It’s about the power of code, and it’s also about a UF J-school alum, Ken Schwencke (JM – 2009), who works on the Data Desk at the Los Angeles Times.

Whenever there’s an earthquake, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) sends out email alerts. Schwencke set up an email account to receive those emails. This past Monday, an email landed in that inbox. Automatically, because the email had arrived, a program (written by Schwencke) parsed the text of the email to find answers to these three questions:

  • Is the quake in LA, with greater than 2.5-magnitude?
  • Is the quake in California, with greater than 3.0-magnitude?
  • Is the quake in the U.S., with greater than a 4.5-magnitude?

If only the last question is answered affirmatively, the bot emails the paper’s national reporters and editors — a kind of early alert to a developing story. If either of the first two questions are affirmative, though, it both alerts the metro desk to the quake and writes a simple post.

The Atlantic published a first-rate story about it: How a California Earthquake Becomes the News: An Extremely Precise Timeline. The quote above comes from that story.

Slate published the shorter, more hip-sounding The First News Report on the L.A. Earthquake Was Written by a Robot. This one reproduces the complete text of the very first report (written by the program) — this was later expanded and updated by humans at the same URL.

Schwencke was interviewed on NPR’s morning Weekend Edition news program on March 22 (2 min. 59 sec.).

Not every journalism story lends itself to this kind of treatment. Most don’t. I like it as an example of what a journalist can do if — like Schwencke — he or she can think algorithmically. Learning how to write programs in a computer programming language (any language, with some popular examples being JavaScript, Python, and Ruby) benefits journalists because it opens up new ways to solve problems. This earthquake case is only one example.

A version of this post also appeared on the course website for MMC 4341 Advanced Online Media Production.


Smarter(9): A list for journalism students

Each week, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Graphic from freepress.net

The Net Neutrality Court Case Decoded. I fear that most students know far too little about this. A Jan. 14 decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals means U.S. broadband service providers — the companies that you pay for your Internet access — are not limited by certain FCC rules that essentially require(d) those companies to offer equal access to all sites and all types of online content. This article plainly lays out the issues and explains why they matter.

Takeaways: What could change about the Internet if “Net neutrality” is, in fact, dead? Look at what might happen to video streaming. Price structures for Internet service could change. The most serious concern, however, is about free speech itself. If you’ve learned about the gatekeeper role of journalism, you probably understand that on the open Internet, there are no gatekeepers. The gates are wide open, and you can get anything. The new ruling changes this, allowing U.S. broadband service providers to become powerful gatekeepers.

Image from Twitter @AdamsLisa

Social Media Is a Conversation, Not a Press Release. Debate erupted over a pair of columns written by a journalist (in The Guardian) and her husband (in The New York Times) about the social media communications of Lisa Adams, who writes about her experiences with metastatic breast cancer. The matter exploded so messily that The Guardian took down Emma G. Keller’s column (see commentary on that decision) and The New York Times‘s public editor wrote about the NYT column, suggesting that perhaps “[Bill] Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about.”

Takeaways: Writer and professor Zeynep Tufekci zeros in on the journalistic failing of misunderstanding. In this case the subject, Adams, is able to speak for herself (largely on Twitter, where she has more than 14,000 followers). The assertions and assumptions of the two journalists who wrote about her can be fact-checked against Adams’s own social media record (Tufekci points out some fact errors). Big lesson: A superficial skim of a person’s blog and tweets is not sufficient for credible journalism. Tufekci says both Kellers failed to understand “how social media works as a conversation and as a community.”

Photo: KBME studios, by Flickr user tmat1075

Is This Thing On? Actually focused on viral content, this well-written article meanders enjoyably around ideas about audio stories, why we love them, why reporters make them, and why they so rarely go viral. There’s a great case concerning a Vimeo hit video titled “The Scared is Scared.” There’s the uber-case of  viral audio — “Two Little Girls Explain the Worst Haircut Ever” — in which MetaFilter played a role. There are also some interesting thoughts about podcasting, which hardly anyone talks about anymore.

Takeaways: Lots of questions here. What do we mean when we talk about “viral”? How much of it is luck? How much is having a great story that people want to share? And how much of it is the medium? Why is video more viral than audio? Pay attention to what the article says about SoundCloud at the end. That might be the key to the next viral audio event.

I’d love to know what you think. Are these three items new to you? Did they make you think? Did you learn something? Tell me via Twitter or Facebook or here, in the comments.


Smarter(8): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. (Oops — this week, it’s Monday.) Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Photo: Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence on set

How David O. Russell Made Me a Journalist. I’ve read a lot of essays about “my first story as a journalist” and “how I wrote my first story.” Usually they do not really wow me. This one is different. (It was published in August, but I found it a week ago, via Explore.)

Takeaways: You won’t get a blueprint for how to become a journalist from this story, but you will get some strong hints: “people can surprise you in the most unexpected ways”; “life-changing moments are within reach .” You might say this essay is not so much about the future in journalism, but for me it is about the courage and good luck that make a start for many young journalists.

Photo: Writer, by Flickr user Alan Weir

The Intrinsic Value of Blogging. In this short blog post, Matthew Mullenweg (a founding developer of WordPress) writes about the frustrations of knowing who is reading what you’ve written. Or rather, we don’t know. We have loads of statistics about how many people viewed a page and what they clicked and where they came from, but we don’t know who these people are — not really.

Takeaways: Writing “just for yourself” is not sufficient. Writing for a faceless mass audience will not push you to do your best — and neither will writing for massive pageviews and retweets. Decide whom you’re writing for, in addition to yourself. This is a tool that can help you improve.

Graphic: Twitter bird

You don’t tip competitors on Twitter; you beat them. Lots of journalists use Twitter for sharing links — especially links to their own published stories. Well, that’s just one of the many ways a really savvy reporter can use Twitter. Steve Buttry, a top editor for Digital First Media, talks about letting go of fear — fear that you are tipping your competition when you are first to tweet. Get over it! You’re there, they’re not, and the way to let everyone know that is to tweet.

Takeaways: Being first does not mean being careless. Accuracy still rules. However, being incomplete is not the same as being wrong. People who follow you on Twitter are not necessarily people who buy your newspaper or watch your newscast — and that’s fine. “Scooping the competition” has a new face nowadays.

I’d love to know what you think. Are these three items new to you? Did they make you think? Did you learn something? Tell me via Twitter or Facebook or here, in the comments.


Top 10 posts of 2013: Teaching online journalism

In case you missed them, here are links to the posts on this blog that were viewed most often in the past year, according to the stats provided by WordPress. Only three on the list are from 2013 (I published only 27 posts this year). The oldest are from 2008 (also three posts), demonstrating the value of the long tail.

If you like these posts, please share the links with others.

1) Timelines in journalism: A closer look – 4,591 views (I’ve studied the stats on this post — people come mostly via search, often with terms including the words history or examples)

2) 10 examples of bespoke article design and scrolling goodness – 3,082 views

3) 10 Rules for Visual Storytelling – 2,964 views

4) Advice to journalism students: Forget grad school! – 2,094 views

5) Recording phone interviews: A solution that works – 1,840 views

6) Best social media tools for journalists – 1,601 views

7) Get started with Web coding. Part 1: HTML and CSS – 1,514 views (there were five posts in this series)

8) How to shoot video interviews – 1,240 views

9) Cheat sheet for multimedia story decisions – 1,120 views

10) Aggregation and curation in journalism – 1,077 views


Smarter(7): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. (Oops — this week, it’s Monday.) Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Screen capture - National Geographic - 2013 Year in Review

National Geographic: Year in Review. Get on your big screen for this lush, photo-filled extravaganza. Each of 12 categories (Adventure, Animals, Cultures, Space, and more) offers 10 or more glimpses into amazement (brain-eating amoebas! Kyrgyz nomads! nano flowers! Eurasian otters! cougars!), and most link out to a full-text story from NatGeo’s famous magazine. Just browsing provides plenty of satisfaction, but it’s nice to know that when your curiosity is truly piqued, you’re one click away from deeper details.

Takeaways: Having perfected this full-screen interface in the brilliant Serengeti Lion multimedia epic, NatGeo applied it to a year-end roundup that features its own best stories. There are two lessons here: (1) Re-use and repurpose code and design when appropriate; and (2) Do not let your past stories, photos, etc., go to waste, forgotten and unviewed. NatGeo plays to its strengths here, showcasing stories and images that other publications do not have.

Photo: tape measure by Flickr user Leo Reynolds (lwr)

Tomorrow’s metric for news is action. Measuring things is important, especially when those things are growing or shrinking and we’re not sure why. Newspapers, magazines, and TV networks always liked to measure (or count) subscribers or viewers. Online, however, that measurement breaks apart into individual stories or segments, and journalists look to the numbers as indicators of what they should produce more of. But wait — does that mean more stupid viral videos? NPR reporter Elise Hu says no — in this article for Nieman Journalism Lab, she suggests we should really be measuring how our journalism influences real outcomes in the world. In other words: Measure the difference your journalism makes.

Takeaways: Students should make themselves familiar with the terms Hu uses in this article, such as “social lift,” “impact,” “engagement,” “time reading” (also called “time spent”). Follow her links to learn about the engagement strategies of ProPublica and Medium, two journalism organizations you definitely should be following. If you don’t know exactly what she means by “agency,” “participation,” and “community,” then get busy. Hu is writing about journalism that has value, and that’s journalism that knows what its purpose is. How do you measure that?

Screen capture from Michael Wolff's column

Even the New York Times can’t resist going lowbrow with native advertising. Writers now inhabit “a flattened world … in which there is only one real measure, traffic,” says Guardian columnist Michael Wolff. He means traffic to stories, which means audience, and sharing, and how many people view (and presumably also read, although that’s up for debate). Native advertising (also known as branded content) “can sometimes blur the distinction between advertising and editorial, especially in the digital space” (Joe Pompeo, writing at Capital), and that’s something most journalists know to be both dangerous and distasteful. For the esteemed New York Times to stoop so low(brow) is, well, a giant flashing confirmation that the business of journalism has changed. The question remains whether the ethics and values of journalism can survive this.

Takeaways: Students who want to be writers might scoff at the idea, but everyone who works in journalism today needs to be looking at the business side. It’s how you get paid, after all! Wolff’s column provides a good introduction to the stakes and the present playing field. If you read it carefully, you’ll understand why he says: “How advertising is handled has always been a key distinction between low and high order publishing,” and “it’s very hard, if not pointless, to separate real content from phony stuff.” Pay attention to what he means by “content disaggregation” and “traffic aggregation” — these are two very important factors in the business of journalism online. Those who aspire to be writers need to understand that even The New York Times has “lost the wherewithal to sell high publishing.”


Smarter(6): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter.

Refuge: Exodus from Syria

Refuge: 18 stories from the Syrian exodus. Many Americans are unaware of what is going on in Syria. The civil war there started almost three years ago. This collection shows — with photographs, videos, text and maps — what happens after Syrians have fled from the fighting. This is “one of the largest forced migrations of people since World War II” — more than 2 million people.

Takeaways: We can scan through these stories in a random, casual way, and stop whenever something catches our attention. It might be a photo. It might be a pullout quote. This is not a traditionally structured “long form” journalism narrative. How does that affect our understanding of the Syrian situation? Does this manner of storytelling have a stronger chance of getting attention in a media-saturated world?

Scraper code by @kleinmatic

Scooped by code. There’s been plenty of discussion among journalists lately about learning to code. Here, Scott Klein of ProPublica (a nonprofit investigative journalism organization) explains how journalists use their code skills to uncover stories that no one else has found.

Takeaways: ”Scraping websites, cleaning data, and querying Excel-breaking data sets are enormously useful ways to get great stories.” If you don’t know what “scraping” means, get busy with Google. If you think code is only used for making apps, check out the three story examples Klein links to in his essay. If you want to be the journalist who gets stories that others don’t, learn how learning code can help you.

Map showing homophobic tweets

Data and visualization year in review, 2013. Do you like seeing cool charts that explain things clearly? This roundup of examples and links highlights a wide range of information graphics that help us understand things better. Some of them come from journalists, and some come from scientists and statisticians. This was published on the excellent blog Flowing Data, by Nathan Yau.

Takeaways: Maybe you’re not an artist, and maybe you lack love for statistics, but most of us comprehend numeric data more quickly when we see it represented in graphic form. Notice how many of these examples use a map. Have you played with Google Maps Engine? How much do you know about making accurate charts and graphics to communicate about money, people, and amounts of things? Did you ever use Excel to make a chart (say, in high school)? If data visualization is a good tool for explaining, then more journalists should be able to do it.


Smarter(5): A list for journalism students

Each Sunday, I post links to three (and only three) recent articles that are informative about, or pointing the way to, the future in journalism. Previous posts can be found here. There is also a Tumblr for this series, named Smarter. (I missed posting the past two weeks.)

Planet Money T-shirt

Planet Money Makes a T-shirt. This is one of the most effective uses of multimedia storytelling I’ve seen. It started with a cool question: How do T-shirts (ubiquitous and usually taken for granted) get made? In April 2013, the Planet Money team of journalists launched a Kickstarter campaign  to fund a reporting project about the global garment industry. People could pledge $25 to get a T-shirt, and Planet Money would report every step of that T-shirt’s production, starting in the cotton fields of Mississippi. Backers put up $590,807. Ten reporters covered the story, some of them traveling to Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Colombia along with the cotton as it became cloth and, finally, 25,000 T-shirts.

Takeaways: Tight integration of video, text, and information graphics makes this a seamless (pun!) story from the reader/viewer’s perspective. You can choose among five chapters, but you never have to click and leave the main story. It’s easy to follow. Ruthless editing kept each part of the story short and snappy. The videos take us to places we’ve never seen before in a whirlwind tour — no time to feel bored. Charts are clean and clear. The text is straightforward and engaging. This is a great example of how to make a story interesting and use all media types to their very best advantage.

Facebook drives traffic

Why Are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere? Don’t let the headline fool you — this article from The Atlantic is not all about Upworthy OR headlines! It’s actually about how Facebook and Twitter drive traffic to news sites, which in turn drives editors to try anything they can think of to get people to click what they post on Facebook and Twitter. The power of these sites was illustrated in October when Facebook changed the algorithm that controls its News Feed, and traffic to news sites from Facebook increased even more.

Takeaways: It used to be that people bought a newspaper or tuned in to their favorite nightly news show on TV. That’s not how most people get news today. The phrase “drives traffic” obscures a larger truth: Facebook is responsible for what a lot of people find out about what’s happening in the world. This affects how they think about issues and maybe even how they vote. Find out how Facebook determines what appears in your News Feed.

Home page - The Wire

Do mobile-friendly redesigns run the risk of frustrating desktop users? Recent redesigns of news sites favor mobile visitors over people who view the site on a larger screen (whether desktop or laptop). Writer Sam Kirkland argues that “millions of us still sit at a desk in front of a computer at work all day” and “sometimes prefer the larger screen.”

Takeaways: Mobile design advocates, including Miranda Mulligan and Damon Kiesow (quoted in the article), mostly dismiss Kirkland’s concerns. Mobile viewing of news sites is the present and the future, and the number of people who browse a big, crowded “home page” or “landing page” is expected to continue its decline. Therefore, resources invested in those large-screen formats are (largely) wasted.