Category Archives: Digital Journalism

Digital journalism

I Can Has Cheezburger: Ben Huh

This is the second post in a series about a class trip to visit various newsrooms in Seattle. 

On our first day in Seattle, we arrive at the hotel jet lagged and wired on coffee.

We’re scheduled to meet with Ben Huh, digital entrepreneur and CEO of Cheezburger, the network of websites (single-handedly?) responsible for the internet’s infatuation with cats.

Cheezburger is the meme center of the internet. Huh helped start Circa, voted the best app of 2013 on both Android and iOS. He’s a legend, the kind of journalism entrepreneur we idolize.

So imagine our surprise when we cruise into Cheezburger’s headquarters and discover a half-empty office, well decorated but lightly staffed. We’re led into a conference room.

And imagine our surprise when Huh, about to go on vacation, comes into the room and gives us a frank explanation of his company and his industry. He’s wearing his standard circular glasses and speaks like a West-Coast techie.

One expects a man who runs a company called Cheezburger to be cheerful. However, his demeanor is grave, in stark contrast to the hand-painted memes hung throughout the office.

We do introductions and he launches into a short history of his career, from founding a tech company to his biggest break as a journalist. Soon the conversation turns to entrepreneurship.

“The best part about being an entrepreneur,” he says, “Is that somebody else pays you to learn how to start a business.”

At first his speech is inspiring, but soon he starts dumping realities. Journalism entrepreneurs – somebody asked a question about them – face a harsh and brutal reality.

“There’s a race in journalism and media to find the next hot thing,” Huh says. “By the time something gets big, nobody cares.”

Posed with a question about the newspaper industry, Huh speaks boldly.

Joint Operating Agreements were the worst thing to ever happen to news,” he says. “They were essentially monopolies that propped up voices. Now we’re seeing the natural defenses of a regional monopoly falling apart.”

He’s of course referencing The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer, two more locations we’ll visit later on the tour.

Even though it took a while to get profitable, and he had to lay off 24 employees, Huh doesn’t advise us to avoid entrepreneurship.

“People often talk about the ‘serial entrepreneur.’ It’s not about having ideas, it’s about a mindset. There’s no real value in an idea – ideas are worthless. The challenge is building something real. Don’t hold on to an idea like it’s a secret: the more people you tell about your idea, the better it will get.”

We leave Cheezburger disoriented. Was that a newsroom? Was the morbidly realistic Ben Huh the kind of journalist we’d all end up being? Is Cheezburger a success story or not? Why did we even visit?

Our professor Marty Steffens, in what I would call extreme wisdom, offers no opinions on Cheezburger or any other newsroom. She instead cheerfully offers the name of a good seafood restaurant downtown. We wander through the afternoon rain.

What is this trip about, exactly?

Vox Digital: Organizing talent and fostering creativity

I’m a Teaching Assistant for Magazines Across Platforms, a class run by Sara Shipley Hiles, Digital Director of Vox Magazine. These students, known as Digital Editors, make up the majority of the Digital Team, the web-based half of Vox.

As Digital Managing Editor, I’m basically the quarterback of the Digital Team, making sure we’re successfully producing digital content, maintaining our brand across social platforms and constantly exploring new storytelling mediums.

Last semester we only had 6 students, meaning our brand and production power was shoestring. This semester we have 16. I like to say the Digital Team’s accomplishments last semester attracted more students, but who knows?

Either way, this growth presents challenges for our organization. How do we engage these students each week while also hitting our production goals? Can we make this pedagogical, considering improving their skills will improve our content?

Here’s my major goals as a Digital Managing Editor for this semester:

Don’t let the organization descend into chaos. Our strength lies in our ability to organize, making sure everybody knows what they have to do and when. We’ve built a huge color coded spreadsheet with various shifts for each job we’ve defined, and each job has a perfectly clear statement of responsibilities and associated “How-To” documentation. Organization allows for forward planning and less on-the-spot attempts to produce content.

Discover, master and share digital storytelling tools with the entire Vox Magazine staff. The key to improving our digital content is showing people what we can create. If we show the staff all the interactive quiz, graphic design, and social aggregating tools we have, they’re more likely to implement them. Pair this with clear and concise how-to documents and innovation will spread.

Practice a clear and transparent style of leadership. Everybody knows what must happen and when they’re failing or succeeding. I want to drive all my students to improve upon themselves and practice loyalty to the organization. They will tell me what they want to learn, what works and what doesn’t, and how they think we can improve.  When they need help, I will be there. Office politics and drama will be at a minimum if everyone knows their role in the machine.

We know this is how to engage millennials in the workplace, so why not try it in class?

Innovate every single week. Digital organizations are in permanent beta, constantly changing and improving with every version of content. This goes hand in hand with technological advancement. We are no different. Each week we should build on the lessons we learned in the previous. As we continue, we set the bottom line for production quality higher and higher.

Teach every single student how to learn. The most important part of digital journalism is teaching yourself brand new tools. Because this industry requires multi-talented and multi-perspective journalists, that’s what we need to create. We need to create young professionals who both know the skills and understand theories. In the end they will adapt just as quickly as their industry changes.

Establish persistent and scaleable digital production methods. I know we don’t really know the best way for legacy print organizations to evolve in response to digital demands, but by God we’re going to try. Already I’ve established some methods that elevate our digital presence – hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have serious, long-term strategies laid in stone.

Here’s to hopefully having the best semester ever for Vox Digital.

Mizzou and bold new frontiers

Interactive data visualizations are all the rage these days, with major news organizations like the WSJ and the New York Times setting up interactive desks that churn out engrossing, compelling visualizations.

Mike Jenner, the Houston Harte Chair in Journalism at Mizzou and data visualization extraordinaire, set up a workshop back in October where dataviz journalists Chris Canipe (WSJ), Andrew Garcia-Phillips (Chartball) and Leah Becerra (Omaha World-Herald) came and taught us all D3, a Javascript library of data visualization, in one speedy weekend.

Check out that last link for some awesome data visualizations that capture the power of D3.

In one hot-and-heavy 16 hour sprint, we got the basics in Data Viz. Nobody left as data experts, but the class exposed lots of students to the future of digital journalism.

This was huge for one reason: while Chris, Andrew and Leah were all self-taught in data viz, they brought what they learned to an academic environment.  

After the class, Madi Alexander and myself organized the Mizzou Data Viz Club, where we met and tried to hang on to the skills we learned. (Madi recently got an internship at the NYT as a digital reporting intern. Hooray!)

In a conversation with Mike, I discovered he wanted to make a longer-term class, he just needed pledges that students would take it.

Our Dataviz club had the students and he had the resources. It was like the planets aligned.

Mike moved swiftly, organizing an 8-week course in D3 with Chris for this spring semester. I helped him design the posters to advertise it and recruited a bunch of students to join the class. Chris drives in occasionally from his home in Saint Louis, where he works remotely for the WSJ.

Our skills levels are all over the board, from accomplished programmers to brand new students. The class is open and modular with each student working at their own pace. It’s pitched together and sometimes challenging, but I want to outline a list why this Data Visualization class is wildly important to the future of Mizzou journalism academics.

1. Data visualization skills are in high demand. The success of Mizzou’s CAR and Data Reporting classes are testament to this. We teach the students how to find the data and how to pull stories from it, but now we’re on the cutting edge of visualizing it.

2. Most people who know this stuff were self taught, and our class is the foundation for rigorous academic improvement of the subject. By turning this into an academic affair, we make it easier for students to learn the basics quickly. Once people are learning it, they can move beyond and improve it, developing new techniques and taking those to industry publications.

3. It’s confusing, challenging and uneven – but it’s happening and we’re moving forward, setting standards for future dataviz classes. After this is over, we’ll know what kind of classes should be required for prerequisites. We’ll understand gaps in the digital knowledge of the journalists we’re training. We’ll know what kind of classes we need to establish a powerful data journalism sequence courses. This is us surging into a new frontier for science, know what I mean?

As we move forward, I’ll inevitably have more to say about this venture, so stay tuned.

Inside Vox: A Revolutionary Restructure

Vox Magazine is a lot like any other magazine.

We have editors, departments, budget meetings and contributors.

We also have a website and a pretty developed digital team.

Much like any magazine, we’re concerned with providing the best content to our readers. This inspired a pretty revolutionary shift in our internal workflows that we’re excited to start this semester.

Given that each semester Vox’s staff rotates, each semester we can reinvent ourselves. Sometimes this poses challenges for advancement or innovation. For spring 2015, every member of the Teaching Assistant Editorial Team, the administrative core of Vox, has already worked at the magazine for at least one semester.

Because of this experience, we’re taking a leap to ensure we’re delivering the best storytelling and content we can.

First, you have to understand where we’re coming from.

The legacy way

For most magazines, including some massively successful ones, their digital presence is a limited one. Sometimes the magazine simply dumps their print content to the web with little differentiation. Sometimes this isn’t the best – sometimes I’ve read an entire month’s issue of GQ before my print version even comes in the mail.

Sometimes organizations have a hybrid version, where print content is shared alongside digital-first content. This is common at Complex, who has built a vibrant internet community, and Scientific American, who has arguably the most-read scientific blogging community on the web.

This hybrid is what Vox does – we have print exclusive content that gets some slight modification for web, and we have consistent blog content.

Few of these magazines mesh their digital and print storytelling, which reveals a secret: nobody really knows the best way for print magazines to provide web content.

The new Vox way

In our first few meetings of the semester, our Editorial Director Heather Lamb proposed a shift in priority. No longer are we a print version and a website and a blog – now we are one being, the Vox brand. Our focus shouldn’t be on producing content for the magazine or writing things only meant for blogs.

We should focus on a multiplatform approach. Instead of pitching specific items for specific platforms, we have a new question:

On what platform can you tell your story the best? 

Some of our most vibrant and visually stimulating graphic designs bring life to our print edition that can’t be translated to web.

And some of our digital content lives so well online it can’t be replicated on paper.

Now we’re asking our students to not consider the simple requirements of pitches for web and print. We’re asking them to consider the quality of their storytelling and how it can be done the best.

To support this shift, we’re restructuring our magazine. Before, there was a separation between the print, digital and design aspects of our magazine. This created dissonance and difficulties in cross-platform production.

To fix this, we’re putting increased emphasis on Departments – Music Arts and Books, The Scene, Food and Drink, and others.

Headed by Editors, each department will have Reporters, Digital Editors and associated designers and Convergence reporters. They will tackle stories as a department, with each member of the multi-platform team considering the best way stories can be told.

You can’t pitch something exclusively for print anymore – if the story can be told better on the web, that’s where the Department will focus.

This opens our Vox brand to tons of different opportunities: linked Web and print content, live digital support of a print topic, social media campaigns to support stories, and increased emphasis on video production.

We aren’t sure if it’s going to work, but we’re super excited about it. Stay tuned for more as the semester goes on.

The most important court case of the century: U.S. vs The Dread Pirate Roberts

Yes, you read that right. The Dread Pirate Roberts, the alleged pseudonym of Ross Ulbricht, the man the U.S. government claims is the mastermind of Silk Road, a black market website trading in drugs, sex, murder and stolen property.

I can’t possibly interfere with the excellent, well-composed coverage by Forbes magazine, but I can tell you why you should care. Read the linked article after I’ve convinced you.

This is literally the most important court case the internet has ever ever experienced. In the indictment of Ulbricht, the U.S. government has revealed it’s cards – how it collected information on the suspect in ways that may be illegal, precedents they’d like to set on internet commerce, and the true limits of digital privacy.

This indictment, if successful, will set the precedent for how the U.S. will approach and treat “deep-web” internet sites. 

This is the Plessy vs. Ferguson of the internet. If the prosecution is successful, the U.S. government will pave the way for swift and painful execution of websites deemed illegal all over the web.

Bye bye torrented copies of Game of Thrones, hello surveillance and police drug stings on Craigslist.

And they’re probably going to win. Your future on the web is at stake here, so please, read this writeup and enjoy continued coverage of the end of internet freedom at Forbes.com.

All we can hope is that the precedent protects what we do like about the internet.

The trial begins Tuesday, January 13.

New Year’s Resolutions for Digital Journalists

New Year, new you. If you’re a digital journalist, some of the resolutions below will help you bring in the new year on a positive note. Here’s to actually keeping them!

1. Start considering new definitions for the roles of journalists. The age of journalists as “gatekeepers” are over. Anybody can find anything thanks to Google. These days, many journalists are more like “tour guides,” aggregating the best parts of the web for their users, while still providing original content. Journalists have become thought leaders, commentators, live bloggers, and conversation starters. How does your audience view you?

2. Talk about your audience as “users” not “readers.” Your audience does more than just read things on your website – they click links, scroll around, watch videos, use search bars, comment and share socially. Calling them “readers” boxes our focus only on content. How are your users interacting with your site? Do you want them to do more (or less) of something? Look at your UI and UX. 

3. Learn how to talk with developers, programmers, graphic designers and photographers. Digital journalists often need unique elements for their content, whether it’s special photography or additional graphic designs. This is especially true for programming. Learn their languages. Understand the Rule of Thirds. Dabble in network administration. Know the difference between Ruby and Python. Better communication, better collaboration.

4. Start using Reddit. Reddit is the model for successful internet forums, and the communities here are influential across the web. Find where you belong, whether it’s /r/TheWalkingDead or /r/cumberbitches. There’s a lot to learn about commenting, moderation, and building an internet community, all valuable lessons for digital journalists. And don’t forget to install the Reddit Enhancement Suite.

5. Plan ahead. It’s a lot easier to finish projects when you aren’t scrambling for content at the last second. If you’re uploading somebody else’s content, do you know where to find it? Save yourself some deadline grief, man.

6. Don’t forget journalism is a business. It’s a never-ending cycle: good stories bring more users, more users bring more ad revenue, more ad revenue means better stories. Once again, communicate. Have conversations with the advertising department. They’re probably in your own building – stop in and visit. I bet they like coffee.

7. Uploading a story doesn’t mean it’s finished. If an error runs in print, retractions are noted in the following issue. Online, the fix must happen instantly. Once a story goes live, be prepared to continually update it.  Sometimes code doesn’t work. The more you prepare, the less you have to do later.

9. Be a part of the community. You’ll find Voxers at Ragtag Cinema every Friday night, all seeing the latest movies. By the time you’ve heard it, restaurant gossip is old news in the Vox office. Because our journalists are out there as active members of the community, we know what’s happening and when. This is the true nature of journalism, isn’t it? By the people for the people?

10. ????? Whats a best practice for digital journalists I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments.

Photo by Crowd Expedition, Flickr. 

 

Mobile Reporting at Roots ‘n’ Blues ‘n’ BBQ

This is a long time coming.

See this press release from Mizzou detailing how Vox Magazine Digital Editors and reporters used a whole handful of new digital reporting tools in our coverage of the Roots ‘n’ Blues ‘n’ BBQ Festival in Columbia. 

We kicked ass at the festival. Here’s some quick notes on our strategies for mobile first live coverage.

1. Show, don’t tell. We are visual creatures, and when you’re doing mobile journalism, it’s best enjoyed by other mobile users. Keeping both these in mind, focus your efforts on visual content.

Rosanne Cash performs “Modern Blue” alongside guitarist John Leventhal on the Missouri Lottery Stage. #RNBNBBQ

A video posted by Tess Marie♡ (@tmcatlett) on

2. When doing live coverage, show people what’s happening and where. Your audience is both people at the live thing and people watching from home. Give people context when you show them what’s happening, like describing what stage you’re near, or what cross streets you’re on.

3. Do a service for people. People are more satisfied with your work if you add value to their experience. Show them where the free water can be found, where the best bands are playing, or the best food deals.

4. Use your natural digital publishing instincts. We’re all digital publishers, whether we’re posting on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. You know what works best with your social network, or what your followers like the best from you. Stay true to those instincts and embrace the #foodstagram.

I couldn’t agree more. #rnbnbbq @voxmagazine

A photo posted by Ciera Velarde (@ciera93) on

5. Prepare your equipment. Take charging sticks, extra batteries, extra pens, water, business cards, anything you’ll need. The Boy Scouts have a great motto – be prepared.

6. Don’t just do mobile reporting. While you’re on scene, you’ll discover stories and sources. Take that nice DSLR with you and do extra reporting on top of your mobile coverage. This way you can pair in-depth coverage later with your live insight.

7. Be a human being. The worst thing I’ve seen is people who make “professional” social media accounts and post super boring things to a tiny audience. Embrace the fact you’re a real person and do this reporting from your personal account – just make sure that personal account is an accurate representation of who you are.

Graycie Gregory, the 3-year-old selfie queen, wanted to take my picture, too. #RNBNBBQ #kidsofRNBNBBQ #precious

A photo posted by Tess Marie♡ (@tmcatlett) on

8. Join already established discussions and communities. Our plan wasn’t to launch a new hashtag, but rather join the one already existing. As a result, our content and coverage was injected into an already shared and populated discussion, and in no time our work dominated the stream. Our brand and reporters were plastered on live billboards and shared all over the internet. Unless you have the brand power of somebody like Coca-Cola, you can’t start a hashtag and expect people to communicate on it.

9. Make it about the people. Connect with people you talk with. Social is the platform, so make sure we’re not leaving people we’re reporting on out of the discussion.

10. Have fun! Be creative. Mobile reporting isn’t a clearly defined art – make it your own and you’ll discover new ways to tell stories.

Featured Photo: Jeff Lautenberger, Flickr.

A Fairy Tale for the Internet Age

Saving the internet isn’t about protests or petitions – it’s about weaving our values about the internet into enduring cultural standards.

Imagine, if you will, a futuristic world:

A world where people built buildings, and businesses set up inside those buildings, and customers came inside and purchased things,

Some people don’t sell things, they just build places where people can talk or share things they’ve created,

In some of these buildings people come together and share knowledge, help each other, or give each other love,

In some of these buildings people find hope, inspiration or education,

A universe of information is available to anyone and everyone,

In some of these buildings people can see things they have never seen before, and lots of lives are changed forever.

And there are magical roads that connect all these buildings, roads that can move people instantly to whatever building they want to visit anywhere in the world,

And the people who built these magical roads charge a tiny fee for you to use their infinite power.

And there are rules in this amazing world, simple ones like our own,

It’s frowned upon to be mean to other people in public,

You can’t steal something that somebody else created,

It’s not okay to shoplift from any business, even the immensely successful ones,

Police can’t barge into anybody’s home without a warrant,

You can’t spy on people in the privacy of their own homes,

And everyone is equal.

But this world had a problem – it was super easy to break the rules.

Everybody stole everything they could get their hands on,

Everybody spied on one another and stole from one another,

Everybody carried tons of stuff on the magical roads and caused horrible traffic without paying extra,

Everybody shared stuff they weren’t allowed to have,

Everybody kept information about other people and used it for nefarious purposes,

Nobody paid for anything,

And the people who built the magical roads started charging whatever they wanted for passage because people abused the magic roads.

Soon the perfect world was falling apart.

The police stormed into any business or house they want and took whatever they want, whenever they wanted, without a warrant,

Big businesses spied on everyone who came into their businesses, keeping little files of information about every single person,

Governments broke into any business or home they wanted and took anything they wanted, just like the police,

The people in charge of the magic roads started charging whatever they wanted, and soon some people couldn’t afford to go certain places,

Or customers couldn’t afford to visit their businesses.

Suddenly, everything that made this world perfect was gone.

There was no free information, nobody could get to it.

There was no privacy, powerful people took it all.

There was no protection, the police don’t help.

There were no small businesses, they couldn’t afford to stay open.

The magic roads were too expensive for some people to use,

And the perfect world fell apart until there was nothing left.

The perfect world died because the people in that world forgot some important things:

That if you love something, you shouldn’t take advantage of it,

And that the government can protect the things you love and value if you tell them to,

And sometimes it’s important to pay for things because you respect them,

And rules exist because they help life go smoothly,

And that it’s not okay to prey on weak people,

And when you’re inside somebody else’s building or on the magic roads, you are, in fact, in public where people can see you,

And that this world was wonderful not because it kept people apart,

But because it brought people together,

It made people better, smarter, more connected,

It gave them infinite knowledge.

But their greed ruined it all,

And before those people could even stand up and say “Hey!

We think this stuff is important and we want to protect it,”

It was all gone forever.