ICYMI: Worried about bias at Facebook? Then worry about this, too.

I wrote a column for USA Today last week exploring why Facebook’s political leanings should be one small part of a broader conversation about the demographics of the people building the social web.  Here’s an excerpt:

Anyone troubled by the notion of bias at Facebook …  should also be upset by its lack of diversity and the homogeneous workforces of many tech companies. These cornerstones of the social web play significant roles in determining what is and isn’t news. If the default worker is white, male, straight and liberal, that increases the risk that journalism’s future will repeat the mistakes of its past.

Read the whole thing here.

Meerkat for President!

Here’s where I confess that I first thought Meerkat was somehow related to Mammal March Madness*. It’s not. It’s an app that makes streaming video almost as simple as tapping out a tweet, and yesterday it collided with the world of political journalism. Hard.

A screen grab from yesterday’s live stream of Trump’s interview with the UL.

The Union Leader has long been a force in Republican politics, something that’s especially apparent during the early months of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Potential candidates stop by the Manchester newsroom for meetings with the UL’s editorial board – the first step towards winning the paper’s coveted endorsement.

Yesterday, that potential candidate was Donald Trump. And the editorial board decided to use Meerkat to live stream the whole thing. I watched for a few minutes, and it looked like at least 50 other people did, too. It wasn’t long before other local news organizations had opened accounts of their own. NECN streamed one of Trump’s campaign stops later in the day, and my iPhone buzzed all night with alerts that other political journalists had opened accounts on the app.

The technology is pretty cool and becoming more common. Meerkat was a huge hit at SxSW, and Twitter recently acquired similar software. There’s also an app called Stre.am that’s gaining traction, although I don’t know much about how it works.

If you want to try it yourself, remember that this is video so all related tips apply: Use an external mic to get the best sound, avoid vertical frames and, as one local reporter suggested to me on Facebook, consider getting a tripod if you’ll be streaming for long periods of time.

I suspect Meerkat and similar tools will become standard fare on the campaign trail – a new window into real-time politicking and a reminder of how fast the practice of journalism is changing.

*If you don’t know about Mammal March Madness, stop reading this blog immediately and click here for deets.

A really great trip to Chicago

Photo/Meg Heckman
Photo/Meg Heckma

I spent last weekend in Chicago at the inaugural conference of the Local Independent Online News Publishers, aka “LION.” (That’s the group mascot, Boot Strapper, in the picture.)  As I wrote about in this piece for NetNewsCheck, these publishers work long, solo hours covering communities across the country, but they remain optimistic about the future of local — and locally-owned — news organizations.

Also notable: Nearly half the publishers on LION’s membership roster are women. Throughout history, women have found small (and, often, rural) news organizations more welcoming than large, urban newsrooms. Are we seeing this trend repeating itself online? Or are these female publishers on their way to restructuring the demographics of the American press in a way that will help it better reflect the communities it covers?

What video games can teach us about women in online news

Take a few minutes to listen to this recent segment from New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth. It’s about the troubling trend of digital misogyny.

The web is both intimate and impersonal, two factors that make it easy for jerks to harass, threaten and bully women who speak their minds online. Such was the experience of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger who produced a series of web videos questioning gender stereotypes in video games. Sarkeesian, who was a guest on the show, received death threats and emails containing images of her being raped by video game characters.

Any kind of violence towards women — real or virtual — is troubling. As I listened to the segment, though, I found myself thinking about what this aspect of web culture means for the women who are building the future of digital journalism. Although Sarkeesian focused on the portrayal of women in video games, her experiences can tell us something about gender roles and online news.

Technology is fueling the rapid evolution of both video games and journalism, making them more social and more interactive. It’s nice to think that these new arenas for interpersonal communication will develop free of the biases that exist in the flesh-and-blood world, but that’s often not the case. Threats of violence or bullying are especially troubling for female  journalists trying to build professional brands online. When women are forced to quiet their voices, even subconsciously, it can have lasting negative repercussions on their careers and the quality of discussion around current events.

There is, however, hope that shimmers like those little gold coins in Mario Brothers. The social nature of the web is allowing women to challenge misogyny and stereotypes in new ways, like this campaign that forced Facebook to crack down on sexist hate speech.

Another solution, as one Word of Mouth guest pointed out, is to include women in the creation of emerging online communities. That, too, is true for video games and journalism.

Good thoughts on a bad decision

Steve Buttry has written the best take on why eliminating an entire photo department is a dreadful idea. Buttry makes his case based not on sentiment but on the role professional photographers will play in the future of digital storytelling.

This part is especially useful to those of us imagining how this everyone-has-a-camera world should work:

amateur or professional-multi-tasker photographs add to the volume and variety in a medium where visual content engages more effectively than words. We should use that content to free professional photojournalists from doing routine assignments and spend their time heavily, if not exclusively, in chronicling major breaking news stories and producing photo galleries, videos and interactive multimedia projects.

I’d love to hear about some newsrooms where a model like this is already working. If you know of any, please post in the comments below.

Tips on technical collaboration from the Globe Lab

It’s wall-to-wall technology at the Globe Lab. Click the photo for a gallery of more images of the lab. Photo/Meg Heckman

Modern journalism is both thrilling and terrifying, a mix of civic duty, technological experimentation and fierce hope that today’s innovation will somehow support meaningful storytelling for years to come.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more apparent than inside the Globe Lab, where technologists work with Boston Globe  journalists to strike the right balance between experimentation and practical application. The lab –with its concerts, its startup incubator and its new drone — would be hard to replicate, but something that more news organizations should copy is its spirit of collaboration.

Few of the digital projects taking place at the Globe are solo endeavors. Each involves teams of developers, reporters, photographers and, in some cases, representatives from the advertising department. The working usually starts with a question or an idea and, when things go as planned, end with something like this – story that melds traditional reporting with photos culled from Instagram.

“It’s totally different way of thinking, it’s some magical hybrid of maintaining your critical mind at the same time you’re open to something that you may not fully understand,” said Chris Marstall, the creative technologist at the lab. “The best projects have both.”

Journalists looking for high-tech help have no shortage of options. In addition to the developers already working in the newsroom and the lab, the Globe has for the last two years hosted fellows from the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Project. According to its website, the project’s goal is to build “an ecosystem to help journalism thrive on the open web” and produce “next-generation web solutions that solve real problems in news.”

The first fellow, Dan Schultz, wrapped up his time at the Globe last month. While at the paper, he collaborated with several departments at the Globe, working on projects that solved immediate needs as well as more abstract experiments.

“There were frustrating experiences, and there were very exciting experiences,” he said. ”The best part was that, as a developer, you have a chance to make an impact and have an immediate audience.”

Over the winter, he worked with the Spotlight Team. Last month, his mapping work was published as part of an extensive investigation into Boston’s cab industry. The map illustrates an eight-hour cab shift in a matter of minutes, showing information about routes, fares and passengers. And, as Schultz explained on the OpenNews website, he wanted the map to convey a central narrative tension:

“My goal was to give the reader the experience of being down $120 and needing to earn that money back, not knowing exactly when or how that might happen.”

Schultz also tested Opened Caption, a tool that will allow programmers to create real-time television transcripts and help readers make sense of the information by providing contextual information, fact checking and compare what’s being said on TV with the conversation on Twitter. (A fuller explanation and technical specs for Opened Captions is available on Schultz’s blog.)

The Globe’s second fellow, Sonya Song, arrived a few months ago. Song worked as a computer programmer, designer and tech journalist in China before moving to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D in the communications department at Michigan State University.

During her year in Boston, she’ll work on many projects, but she’s currently focused on making web traffic data more useful to journalists and news organization managers. Two others fellows, who are posted at the New York Times and ProPublica, are working on the same project using Web traffic from those two websites.

Song is also fascinated by how journalists might make sense of the information shared through social media. One German study, for instance, found a correlation between the number of times a political candidate was mentioned on Twitter and that candidates chances of winning. Could lifestyle reporters, Song wonders, use a similar technique to identify a hot new eatery?

“We need to validate the data, further our research and find out if this is real, if this is meaningful,” she said. “We want to try out different things before we say if it works or not.”

Journalists needn’t become computer whizzes to work with developers, but Song and Schultz say a little preparation can help make a project successful. Learn the basic terminology of digital publishing. Find examples of similar projects and be ready to articulate what you like (and don’t like) about them. Communicate your deadlines from the beginning — that information will be important as developers determine how to proceed. And come to the table with a specific question to answer or problem to solve

“The juicier the better,” Schultz said. “Developers tend to like to be developers because they like solving problems.”

Collaborations like these take time, something that’s precious in an age of endless news holes and limited resources, but Marstell says it’s well worth the effort.

“Journalist are busy,” he said. “But they’re more and more aware that this is something that could help them tell a story, and their editors are more willing to make them do it.”



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.

Building civic engagement online

Nicest conference room I've ever used. Photo/Meg Heckman
Nicest conference room I’ve ever used.

I spent the weekend at a lovely hotel in Saratoga Springs where the New York Press Association held its annual convention. Hundreds of staffers from papers all over the Empire State were there to receive awards, eat great food and listen to speakers like me.

My lecture explored how local newspapers can use digital tools to foster civic engagement. It’s a talk I’ve given before and was happy to repeat because it allows me to challenge something I hear too often from newspaper journalists. The web, they say, is best suited for fluffy features and photos of kittens, not the kind of stories that support democracy.

That’s just not true. This handout includes some examples of meaningful online journalism, as does the presentation below:

The crowd that attended my lecture was full of young, smart journalists starting their careers at New York’s many weekly papers. They asked great questions and shared how they had used digital tools to engage readers in civic life. Like this election night blog from the Riverhead News-Review. Using CoverItLive, the staff mixed strong reporting and a bit of humor with fantastic results.

564515_10151392314772913_662473472_nAnother example of online civic engagement came from the Home Reporter, a Brooklyn paper with a very active Facebook account. The staff told me how they routinely receive news tips and reader questions through the page.

What other ways are local papers using the web to foster civic engagement? Tell me in the comment section below.

Vine for journalism (or time travel)

Last night I got a tour of the Globe Lab, where researchers, journalists and programmers are developing tools for tomorrow’s newsroom. One of the lab’s newest projects aggregates Vine posts from the Boston area and plays them on a giant TV screen. The results were interesting to watch, but I found myself wondering if Vine — which allows users to post six second, looping videos — had any real journalistic use.

The answer is yes, as proved by Concord Monitor reporter Kathleen Ronayne, who spent her morning watching some local kids reenact life in the 1800s:

What do you think of Vine as a tool for journalism?

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.