Leap and the net will appear


This is Hamilton Smith Hall, home of the University of New Hampshire’s English department and the journalism lab where I wrote my first ledes. Come January, it will also be the site of my new office.

It’s been nearly a year since I quit a perfectly good job at a great local newspaper to pursue a master’s degree — the credential I need to teach journalism at the college level. It was, without doubt, a big gamble. Higher education is grappling with many of the same disruptions that are rocking newsrooms, but I believe that the best way to serve journalism is to support its future practitioners. So I took the risk — and it’s paid off.

In January, I’ll be joining the UNH faculty as a lecturer in the journalism program. Although I don’t start teaching for a few months, I attended an orientation for new employees earlier this week. The picture above is one of several I took while wandering around Durham Monday evening.

Ham-Smith is one of the oldest buildings on campus, so she’s a little rough around the edges. But it was there, nearly 15 years ago, that this kid from the woods of New Hampshire learned how to understand the larger world through writing. So much has changed since I took that introductory news writing class all those lifetimes ago, but I’m excited to help today’s students shape how stories will be told in the decades to come.

And, of course, watch the Wildcats crush Maine. Often.

Study: NYT front page lacks female sources

New research from the University of Nevada has found that women are sorely underrepresented as sources on the front page of the New York Times. You can — and should — read a breakdown of the data here, but the basic numbers are grim. In the 352 stories analyzed, just 19 percent of sources were female.

Ugh. There are, however, two glimmers of hope:

1.) This study was conducted by journalism students. It’s fantastic that young journalists and the faculty supervising their studies are curious about issues of gender in the media. That bodes well for their ability to push for change within the newsrooms of their future employers — or, perhaps, to start news organizations of their own that examine current events through a more diverse lens.

2.) Hiring women matters. The research found that female reporters are slightly more likely to interview female sources. This is similar to the findings from this study about sourcing during the last presidential election.

Welcome to summer tech camp

Source: WikiMedia Commons.
Source: WikiMedia Commons.

For the next couple of months, I’ll be leading digital storytelling workshops at Northeastern University’s journalism school. We’re calling them tech camps because a.) it’s summer; and b.) learning new skills is always easier if it’s fun. (It also leaves open the possibility of commandeering the microwaves in the student union to make s’mores.)

The first workshop, which meets this afternoon, is focused on ThingLink, a web-based tool that allows users to to turn photos into interactive hubs. In a shameless genuflection to Northeastern’s mascot, here’s one for people considering adopting a Husky puppy. The portrait of the dog forms the backdrop, and each button — or “tag” in ThingLink lingo — leads to more information. ThingLink images can be embedded in other websites or shared on social media platforms. (It doesn’t seem to work on WordPress, though, so you’ll have to click here to see my inaugural ThingLink project.)

Puppies and food pictures aside, journalists around the world are already using ThingLink to tell serious stories. Here’s how one German paper used it to give readers more information about the iconic Situation Room photo on the night of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Washington Post turned a static map of Syria into a media rich explainer, and Forbes made an already information-packed graphic even more useful to online readers.

This type of storytelling isn’t new, but ThingLink makes it accessible to newsrooms with limited technical resources. It could be especially useful for web editors tasked with making lovely print graphics suitable for digital readers.

Users can link to any website, but ThinkLink has special display features for YouTube, Instagram, SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and dozens of other sources.

There’s also a social component to ThingLink, which has a community structure similar to Twitter. It looks like some newspapers are using ThingLink accounts to promote their content by creating a quasi e-edition based on an image of the day’s front page. Here’s one example from the Patriot-News and another from USA Today.

ThingLink plans to release a mobile app sometime soon. In April, Washington Post reporters were allowed to test it at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April. How else might journalists use a mobile version of ThingLink?

A first-hand account from the ‘golden hour’

One of the many photos taken by Northeastern University journalism student Taylor Dobbs after the Boston Marathon bombing. Photo/Taylor Dobbs

I was home in New Hampshire on Monday, so when I heard about the Boston Marathon bombing I turned to Twitter to find out what was happening. One of the first things I noticed was a string of tweets from Taylor Dobbs, an undergraduate student I’ve gotten to know through Northeastern University’s journalism program.

Taylor lives fairly close to the marathon course, and he sprinted out the door when he heard the explosions. In the hours that followed, he became a textbook example of how a modern journalist should behave in the hours after a disaster. He got close, but not close enough to jeopardize his safety or block emergency response teams. He shared only what he saw or was able to confirm. No rumors, no speculation. He thrived in what Mark Little calls the “golden hour” — “the time it takes social media to create either an empowering truth or an unstoppable lie.” With photos and 140-character dispatches, Taylor told the truth of the chaos around him.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed his good work. The BBC interviewed him several times Monday afternoon and, by Tuesday, he’d agreed to produce a piece for Medium — a new digital publication led by one of the founders of Blogger. You can see it here. (More photos are available on Taylor’s blog.)

Taylor calls this style of story a “photo/essay” — a term I hope will catch on.  The idea is simple: large photos, a few tight sentences and white space. Think of it as a more elegant, more serious and more structured version of those “15 faces your cat makes” features on BuzzFeed. It’s the perfect use of the web really, one that capitalizes on its visual strengths while remaining clean, tight and readable.

It’s not unusual for major news events to bring new storytelling tools to the forefront.  If they’re used with the same care and professionalism Taylor applied to his photo/essay, I think that’s a good thing for the evolution of journalism.

High tech help wanted

Anyone who doubts that technology skills matter in modern newsrooms should check out this job ad for a position in McClatchy’s Washington bureau:

If you are a visual storyteller, someone who sees the narrative in numbers, and thinks in code, this is your opportunity to make a mark. Expect your journalism skills to be as important as your programming skills.  This editorial position will ask you to tell stories differently and inspire others to do the same.

The work will require advanced experience with HTML5, CSS, JavaScript (jQuery); an understanding of responsive design and proficiency with interaction design and user interfaces; familiarity with mining and manipulating data and Web scraping. Light Ruby or Python helpful.  Responsibilities include producing daily and project-based digital journalism that will appear on the bureau’s McClatchyDC.com website and be integrated into other McClatchy desktop and mobile publishing products.

The laundry list of required programming languages and tech skills is eyeopening, but the most significant aspect of this ad is its edict to ” to tell stories differently and inspire others to do the same.” That should be a goal for all modern journalists, regardless of their job description.

My (virtual) trip to France

Students at a middle school outside of Paris crowd in front of the camera. Photo/Meg Heckman
Students at a middle school outside of Paris crowd in front of the camera. Photo/Meg Heckman

Earlier this year, I published a video that explores the gender gap between j-school classrooms and newsrooms. My goal was to start a conversation about why women make up the majority of journalism students but are still the minority of working journalists. It wasn’t long before that conversation became international.

A week after I posted the video to YouTube, I received an email from Anne Belieres Chupot, an English teacher at a middle school outside of Paris. Anne had showed my video to her students and wanted them to hear more about life as a journalist in the United States.

For about an hour yesterday morning, I talked to the class by Skype. The students were in their early teens, so they were amused by the running coffee gag in the video — but they also asked great questions about the role of women in American media. We talked about digital storytelling and compared the New York Time’s Jill Abramson to Natalie Nougayrède, the new editor of Le Monde

Skype, we decided, was just one of the ways technology is changing how we communicate, which is why it’s important that students — and journalists — of both genders are technically literate.

Merci, gang, for a wonderful conversation.

Vizzies I have loved

Matt Carroll, the Boston Globe’s data guru,  gave one of my classes a tutorial on Google Fusion last week. It was pretty awesome.

Carroll called data visualization an “exploding field” with a shortage of qualified  journalists. (Hear that, student journos? If you want a job you should learn a bit about data or at least spreadsheets.) I had hoped to post a vizzy of my own, but I’ve been bogged down in other projects these last few days. Instead, here’s a roundup of some impressive data visualizations I’ve seen lately:

Drone warfare graphic from The Guardian's website.
In this interactive graphic, The Guardian breaks down drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. Photo/guardian.co.uk

The Guardian’s Datablog is always amazing, but this animated, interactive look at drone warfare in Pakistan is in a class by itself. The designers used data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to illustrate the demographics of the more than 3,000 people killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. The information is complex, but the design remains simple. A quick look shows how strikes became more frequent — and more deadly — after President Obama took office in 2009. Closer inspection reveals details about each attack.

Like the drone project, this graphic from the Associated Press is structured around a timeline. It uses colored circles the cost in terms of money and life of wars throughout American history. The AP published it today to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War. It’s simple, timely and contextualizes historic events.

ProPublica is packed with vizzies, including a few sophisticated enough to be reporting tools in their own right. One of my current favorites is this graph of where members of Congress stand on gun regulation. It’s a calm, clear look at an emotional topic. At first, I found all the little pictures distracting, but I came to appreciate them after playing with the graphic for a few minutes.

Why I love Zotero and you should too

Source: Zotero
Source: Zotero.org

Career adjustments are almost always laced with stress, especially when they’re made within the context of modern journalism. So when I started grad school last fall, my list of worries was long: figuring out the T, finding enough freelance clients to pay the bills, taking tests and — when it’s all over — finding a job in journalism education.

The one thing I didn’t have to fret over, though, was remembering how to cite research papers. My brother-in-law’s partner is a philosophy professor, and he introduced me to a digital citation tool called Zotero.  It won’t, alas, keep track of which professors like the Oxford comma and which consider it an affront to the English language, but Zotero is a great way to organize the many books and journal articles I’m reading these days.

What sets Zotero apart from other citation managers are its social features, including one that allows users to create shared libraries. Here’s one I’m putting together about women, journalism and digital news.  You should be able to see a list of publications — it’s short now, but there are more titles to comes — add comments, and download documents. It’s also compatible with most RSS readers.

What other publications should I include?