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

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

The trial begins Tuesday, January 13.

A must-read: Siddhartha

I’m a firm believer in the power of fiction in our lives. Want to know how to tell a good story as a journalist? Read good stories.

Below is an excerpt from Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha, a masterful work that has translated the struggle for nirvana for generations of readers. It’s an easy, cheap and enlightening read, so pick it up today. This one is $2.25 on Amazon. Change your life for less than five bucks.

Siddhartha speaks to his old friend Govinda as they sit by the river.

“And here is a doctrine at which you will laugh. It seems to me, Govinda, that love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.”

Picture by Trey Radcliff, Flickr.

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.

Why Every Journalist Should Go See Rosewater

In case you poor souls don’t watch The Daily Show, TV comedian Jon Stewart wrote and directed a just-released film titled Rosewater.

Right to left: Gael Garcia, Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari.
Left to right: Gael Garcia, Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari.

Rosewater is the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was imprisioned by the Iranian government for 118 days in 2009. After pressure from human rights activists and international leaders, Bahari was released just days before the birth of his first daughter.

I’ll leave criticism to the critics. Rosewater is emotionally powerful, wildly hyped and sometimes utterly hilarious. Star actor Gael Garcia Bernal is pretty convincing.

It’s also the most important movie you, as a journalist, could watch this year. Why? Let me count the ways:

1. Because you probably cover tons of utterly boring stories each week, probably some against your will, and there’s probably been some points where you felt like a glorified press release writer. This movie will remind you that journalism isn’t just a job – it’s a life choice that gets people kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered, all because they tried to tell the truth.

2. Because in 2013, 211 journalists were incarcerated worldwide, the second worst year on record. For many, this is just a number on paper. You need to watch Rosewater to be reminded of how your fellow journalists around the world suffer, to see what they experience firsthand. Unlike Bahari, many of these journalists will die in prison, getting life sentences for something as simple as a letter.

3. Because journalism is the vassal of democracy, and at some point while writing a story about a goat running wild in small town Missouri, you might have forgotten your job is a sacred one. Witness firsthand how totalitarian governments, losing control of the flow of information in our modern age, become terrible, desperate entities.

4. Because Rosewater is a single anecdote in a wave of happenings around the world. From the Arab Spring to the Umbrella Protests in Hong Kong and most recently the uprising in Mexico, the free flow of information empowers the people. Cellphones are becoming the ultimate tool of democracy, making every citizen a witness. The internet makes it impossible to conceal the truth. The youth of the world, aware of the oppression around them, are finally standing in revolution. Free information and the chokehold of regimes cannot coexist, and we can tell who is winning.

5. Because you need to see Jon Stewart’s first movie so that he’ll make more. He’s an advocate of powerful, intelligent journalism, and Rosewater is advocacy embodied. Go see the movie and support relevant journalism.

And while you’re at it, every episode of The Daily Show is posted on Hulu the day after it airs. Get watching.

Vox Visits: David Wilson, founder of the True/False Film Festival

Vox Magazine’s staff hosted renowned filmmaker and Columbia native David Wilson, co-founder of the True/False Film Festival, for the weekly critique of the magazine.

Although Wilson isn’t a magazine journalist, he understands quality when he sees it, a side effect of his critical director’s eye.

He also understands the challenge the Vox staff faces as both students and editors. He talked a bit about his experience as a student in film school.

“When you leave film school, there’s a moment where you stop having excuses,” he says. “When you’re putting something out into the public, you don’t have excuses anymore.”

“You just have to let your work stand.”

Even though the Vox staff has other responsibilities as students (Lord knows I do) we compete with full-time journalists at large local magazines like Feast and Inside Columbia.

“That’s the kind of high bar that’s set for you all,” he says. “And generally, pretty impressively, Vox pulls it off.”

After the short pep talk, Wilson dove into some critical review of the issue, bringing new perspectives to certain stories. He focused heavily on the questions reporters asked through the stories, imploring reporters and editors to pose deeper, more insightful questions to the interview subjects.

“If I’m being interviewed, I’m totally down to answer some hard questions,” he said. Are your questions hardball enough?

“Really good interviews take me out of my comfort zone,” he said. Wilson is often interviewed about True/False, and sometimes the interviews fall below par.

“I can almost always predict 75 percent of the questions,” he said. “If I can do that, I don’t need to be thinking. If I’m not thinking, I’m not going to say anything profound.”

Posing harder questions will generate better stories, but with a city magazine that covers lots of local arts and culture, simply grilling interview subjects or writing more critical reviews won’t create good content.

“There’s an idea that art coverage promotes the things that are going on,” Wilson said. “One is rightfully hesitant to level harsh criticism to give a bad review of something, to call someone out on something.”

The intimate nature of local coverage gives these criticisms more weight.

“If it’s gonna be a negative review, [the author] better have a sense of what they’re saying,” he said. “I don’t need to see positive reviews, but I need to see smart reviews.”

He pulled an example of a film critique done for a class that, while negative, wasn’t intellectually driven. The critique was the only English-language review of the film online for five months.

This is an example of how local reporting, due to the relationships between reporters and local sources, is highly sensitive.

“I would welcome a careful criticism of my films, but it’s gotta be smart and you gotta be ready to stand behind it,” Wilson said.

Take these insights and apply them to your work going forward. Good luck!

Why you should learn Dataviz now

The other weekend I sat in on a Data Visualization introductory class taught over three days by three professionals in the business: Chris Canipe of The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Garcia Phillips of, and Leah Becerra of the Omaha World-Herald.

In a quick and dirty 16-hour sprint, we were introduced to programming a variety of tools, including HighCharts, D3, and various text editing software.

Using these tools, we built a basic interactive graph using raw sports data. Numbers go in, beautiful pictures come out. This stuff is cutting edge – peep some gorgeous examples here. One of Mizzou’s own used these kinds of data visualizations to win a Pulitzer, and these graphics are common at the New York Times and The WSJ.

The weekend was crazy. Basically, a whole bunch of journalism nerds got together and did nerdy journalism stuff. And it was exceedingly awesome, and you should feel bad that you missed it.

But fret not – you can learn these highly demanded skills on your own with a little determination. Here’s why (and how) you should.

1. Because it’s part of the future of journalism. Take a look at journalism’s history and you’ll notice the people on the cutting edge are always the most successful, whether it’s Ben Franklin and his printing presses or ABC and color television. Take a lesson from the greats and secure your spot in journalism’s shining future, or something like that.

2. Because it’s a wild storytelling tool that helps audiences process the internet’s infinite stores of data. Journalists are no longer “gatekeepers” – if people want to know something, they can find any information they want on the internet. The flipside? There’s so much data, so many websites, that people get turned off by the gushing stream. Data visualizations help people process and explore vast amounts of data. All you do is hold their hand through it.

3. BECAUSE YOU CAN LEARN IT ON YOUR OWN FOR FREE. Like, seriously. Programming is becoming an easy skill to learn on your own, and all the journalists who taught this course taught themselves first. Explore sites like CodeAcademy, TreeHouse, Github, and W3 schools and you could know as much as anyone with a computer science degree. For D3 specifically, start here.

4. Because if you’re a Mizzou student, we just started a data visualization club, and there might potentially be a class in the spring. Jump on it.

Observations on data science, life, journalism and sometimes other stuff.