Remembering a rodeo

This morning I looked through photos from the Maynard Multimedia Editing Program and came across this one from the rodeo my group covered in Reno, Nev. The horse was OK:

Reno Rodeo

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Community journalism, social media and bank robberies

We had news of a bank robbery in downtown Portage on the website right away last week, and it went onto our Facebook page almost as quickly, along with a security camera still taken during the robbery. It is interesting to me that this photograph of the robbery in progress had nearly as many shares from the Daily Register’s Facebook page (about 100, which is high for a small community) as it did from the Portage Police Department’s website.

Both sites served as sources of information. The Daily Register gave incremental updates, an overall narrative and a third-person point of view. The police page gave basic information. Yet the often-shared photo was common and possibly critical: A detective lieutenant said “tips that came in to police after the robbery photo was released via social media.”

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Seattle Police Department admits it broke Public Records Act

The Seattle Police Department admits it shouldn’t have simply withheld a memo about the 2012 May Day demonstrations. Much more detail is in the link below:

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Quick thoughts on Boston

The past week has been busy for a variety of reasons, the events in Boston among them.
There is much to say about the horror, and what happened next. But to set aside humanity for just a moment, here are some impressions of the mechanics of the news:

  • The Thursday night/Friday morning gunbattle and chase was the first major development of a major story that I learned of through an iPhone app. I woke up early — about 6 a.m. for me these days — with thoughts about an upcoming promotional video I’m producing for my company. I checked the Zite app on my phone and immediately saw a Mashable story about what it called developments in the Boston bombing case. A Storify was high in the post. And that’s how I learned what had happened.
  • Much of the early reporting, it has been reported frequently, was wrong. One of the best functions a journalist can fulfull is sorting the true from the false and exercising restraint in service of readers. Several outlets — Reddit, CNN — made serious mistakes. But on the whole it was journalists who were setting the record straight.
  • Journalists also framed the ongoing story. That’s what journalists do, really — take a massive set of data points and weave them into a narrative that ordinary people can understand. Skills is needed to do it; most “citizen journalism,” while valuable, is limited in scope — witness the Tweets from a man who said a shot-out car was in his driveway. Because of mobile devices, though, that limited scope can be compelling — witness the Tweets from the man who said a shot-out car was in his driveway.
  • I’ve written about this before: The big quote of Friday night was this: “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.” Where did that come from? The Boston Police Department’s Twitter feed, directly to anyone who subscribed. Organizations have more power than ever to communicate their stories directly to their constituents.
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I saw a link on Romenesko about a book called “Journalese” that promises to help readers decipher newswriting.

I don’t have a copy yet, but it promises amusement and insight. The book also has a Facebook page, and on it is this gem from Feb. 25:

Journalese of the Day:
How many of America’s 30 Republican governors are “many” who worked to thwart but now shift gears?

The post goes on to quote an AP story with the offending word. “Many” is meaningless. Worse, it implies a majority, and it that way it’s similar to stories I’ve seen that talk of “momentum” and “growing interest in” (or “growing opposition to”). What do those words mean? They mean the reporter hasn’t found a way to quantify something that might not be quantifiable.

Other “Journalese” wordings: “Highly inconclusive,” “eye of storm,” “rekindled fears,” “crushing.” I wonder if “weighed in,” in reference to newborn weights, is in the book.

On a lighter note, the book brings to mind a humor chart I was given years ago for “Newspaper Death Totals.” The chart identified regions of the world and assigned the number of deaths necessary in a story from that region to make the newspaper’s front page. Bonus deaths were assigned in the case of natural disasters such as earthquakes. The chart was tasteless, but it was funny because a reasonable journalist could assume it roughly tracked reality: Regions of Western European culture stood a better day-to-day chance of making the front than, say, African nations.

Journalese covers more than language.

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3-D printing, MakerBot, STEM and droids

On Saturday, while helping with the “‘Star Wars’ Extravaganza” at Discovery World in Milwaukee, I saw a $2,000 MakerBot Replicator 3-D printer at work. This is the same model recently installed by the Sauk City Public Library, which might be the first public library in Wisconsin to do so. These printers are expensive, but they are within reach of people who want them and part of the “Maker” revolution.

A teacher from the Appleton area, Matt Duncan, brought it and ran off droid restraining bolts, droid-themed snowflakes and other works. We’re both part of the R2-D2 Builders Club, which also is all about learning and making things, in this case with a target of building a full-sized “Star Wars” droid replica.

Matt Duncan's MakerBot

This is a "Star Wars" droid restraining bolt printed with a MakerBot Replicator. The layers are visible, and some finishing would be required before this could be used.

Matt was set up next to my R2-D2 display in Discovery World’s special events tent, and we both had some good traffic from people interested in how to make things. Discovery World is about hands-on, “go out and make something” activity, and Matt’s printer attracted attention. Three-dimensional printing — additive manufacturing — is a big part of the future of industry, and students have tools now that weren’t available 20 years ago. Matt’s high school students are required to print objects in his classes. The process forces them to think about how the objects they want should be designed and requires them to work with the computer programs necessary to meet the goal.

The event was fun. I brought a partially finished full-sized R2-D2 and left the outer skins and panels off, which let visitors look inside and see the electronics and mechanical arrangement. Many of the children played with R2, but a few were enthusiastic about its inner workings. One, who couldn’t have been older than 10, clearly followed along as I answered his questions about the radio control and drive train used to make the droid roll. I talked with a local teacher at some length about the push for STEM career choices; her middle-school-age son is thinking about becoming an engineer, and the Discovery World event gave him a chance to see some working contraptions. The 3-D printer alone would have been worth the trip.

A partially finished droid allowed visitors to see how a "Star Wars" droid replica can be built.

The organizer, Paul Hayden, told me after the show that the museum usually gets 150 to 300 people on a fall weekend but that the early count was for 2,600 visitors. He also took Donna and me into the museum’s workshop and showed us the laser cutters, plastic former and the museum’s industrial-grade 3-D printer:

Discovery World 3-D printer








The children and fans might have been thrilled to see stormtroopers and droids, but for me, the Discovery World workshop was one of the high points of the day.


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With office closing, Eagle reporters going mobile

Several times at work in the past few months, I’ve paraphrased Russell Baker’s story about his first encounter with the concept of a rewrite desk. As a young, newly hired police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, he asked the day city editor where in the newsroom he’d be sitting.

“Sitting?” the editor asked, perplexed.

The editor explained the system to Baker: Police reporters didn’t sit. They didn’t even have desks in the newsroom. Their job was to go out and report. If they had stories, they were to call those in to the rewrite desk.

I included the story in a column today about the impending closure of The Sauk Prairie Eagle’s office on Water Street in Sauk City. The column gives some detail about the mobile devices we’re going to put into reporters’ hands — laptop computers, smart phones and more — that will help them maintain coverage without having a fixed landing spot in town.

I’ve acted as a “rewrite man” several times in my career, including a few months ago when our public safety reporter, Shannon Green, went to the scene of a terrible motorcycle crash on the outer edge of our coverage area. I wanted a story on the website quickly, so I asked her to feed information to me over the phone. She did so, going from her scribbled notes as did reporters of three or four generations ago. At times, I’d be asking her questions: How much traffic is there? Can you see the motorcycle? The tarp on the road — is it covering a victim? That’s “rewrite.”

I like Baker’s story because it shows a separation between reporting and writing. The two skills are connected, but they are not the same. In Baker’s day, it was possible to be a reporter without ever banging out a written piece on a typewriter.

Baker’s story, told in his book “The Good Times,” is from 1947, and too much has changed in journalism to do more with the story than marvel at the then-clear demarcation between the acts of reporting and writing. The line surprised Baker even in 1947; he’d taken the job thinking he’d be writing, which is what he wanted to do. But it’s been on my mind as we’ve been preparing to close the physical office of The Sauk Prairie Eagle.

We’re not closing the newspaper — only the office. As with reporting and writing, there is a difference, though it’s usually blurred, just as “The White House,” “Wall Street” and “Main Street” have multiple meanings.

Sauk staffers won’t have a dedicated rewrite desk, but they’ll have less need for a set of walls on Water Street than before.

I also have been thinking of something a friend of mine, Mark Thompson-Kolar, said about his experience at the University of Michigan, where he recently earned a master’s degree. The university, he told me, isn’t in the buildings. It’s in — I’m paraphrasing from memory here — the phone calls, emails and other conversations among professors and other members of the university community that go on every day around the world. That’s the real university.

The word “newspaper” calls forth images of inky paper, grand buildings and typewriters. But a newspaper is so much more.

Now that the decision has been made to close the grand building — actually a small 1800s house with a living room just large enough for a few desks, file cabinets and a printer, we’ll have an interesting time navigating the next several months and working to keep up our coverage.


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Portage’s ‘truther’

I was tied up with work for much of Monday but took time to see some of the Sept. 11, 2001, anniversary coverage. MSNBC posted a photo of the memorial site on Sunday that could be viewed on an iPhone. By turning and tilting the iPhone, the perspective would change. The presentation was well-done.

Journalism often involves meeting and talking with people whose views are well out of mainstream thinking, and there sometimes is a question about how much exposure their attitudes should be given. Often the answer comes from visibility. We don’t like to report bomb threats and suicides, but if they happen in public environments, then they have secondary effects on the public on which we do report. People should know why a hundred people were standing outside a courthouse and why a bomb squad was present. People will wonder why the county dive team was searching the canal. And so forth.

If a person shows up repeatedly at 9/11 memorials with signs that claim the attacks were an “inside job,” then it’s fair to think people will be wondering “Who IS he?” Here is a story I wrote last year about a local 9/11 “truther.” For me, the story wasn’t about the “truther” ideas; it was about one local man who subscribes to those ideas and has made himself vocal and visible in the community. From the lead:

Ray Gramza carries his evidence in his head, on his computer and on DVDs that he freely hands out.

He carries his message in a sticker on his car, on a T-shirt and on an oversized foam stop sign:

“9 – 11 = Inside Job”

People in the Portage area have been seeing Gramza’s message for the past several years. In 2006, he took it to Pauquette Park for the fifth-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. He said he hasn’t decided whether to go to this year’s event: When he talks, he tends to get negative feedback.

“I’ve been punched,” Gramza said, by a co-worker. “He called me an idiot. I called him a fool, and he punched me.”

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Organizations find their own voices

The Richmond Times-Dispatch on Monday had a story about police departments learning how to use social media to put forth their own messages to the public.

What’s happening in Richmond is part of a trend. The Milwaukee Police Department, which has a terrible relationship with the local newspaper (lead of a recent police press release: “You may have read yet another ‘news story’ regarding Milwaukee Police response times in today’s paper.”), has been using Facebook and other means to talk directly with residents who only a few years ago would have had to read the newspaper or go to a police station to read crime reports. Most big organizations now have their own Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as their own websites. These might have been set up at first because it was “expected” that a legitimate organization would have a Web presence, but they are now able, if they put enough resources into the effort, to talk directly with their customers and constituents. One advertising company, Campbell Ewald, puts it this way: “There’s a conversation buzzing around your brand — whether you recognize it or not.”

It’s as though someone had devised not only a cheap printing press but a cheap means of distribution and offered it to sale for all. After the cost of a computer — though websites can be managed from tablets or smart phones — a simple owned website can be had for about a hundred dollars a year. Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, are free.

For traditional media, these cheap communications tools have meant conversations can and have taken place outside of traditional media forums. The opinion page and advertisements used to be two of the few public ways in which residents of a city could talk to each other, sometimes in unusual ways. No longer. Now one can build up contacts through Twitter and Facebook and talk all day about the morning’s breakfast, local weather conditions, breaking crime news, traffic delays — or an Arab Spring.

What are traditional media to do? Companies and other organizations can conceivably bypass traditional media altogether, and some prominent national political candidates such as Sarah Palin have tried to do so. But intelligent readers of online material understand that any organization’s message comes with an agenda behind it. A soap company might be chatty with customers, but the company exists to sell soap. The agenda coming from a newsroom, on the other hand, is to find good, truthful stories that concern people and how they can live to their fullest potentials and to get those stories published.

Meanwhile, smaller businesses might not have the resources to put much effort into social media communications. (Disclaimer: My own company’s advertising department has a program to help them do so.) It’s a big job, and it takes time and expertise to communicate effectively through the Web.

Regardless, the cheap printing press is here. It’s been here for about two decades. And more and more organizations have gone to press.


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Tech is only a tool

For the second time in two months, I was working an odd Sunday night shift when word of a house fire came in. The family of five escaped unharmed, and they have relatives close by.

Again, the array of tools available to journalists and nonjournalists for a news story such as this is impressive. I put together the story from the newsroom, using a modern telephone system, Google searches to locate people and places, other Web searches to find people, a CMS to post the story to the Web, an email system that allowed an eyewitness to send several photos to the paper, and a computer and various software to write the story, tone the photos for print and lay out the next day’s pages.

All of these tools were useful and made it possible to piece together a story, but there were more fundamental factors at work: Once I heard the address of the house that had burned, I knew roughly where it was, because I had been there over the course of covering the area and simply living in the wider community. Furthermore, I knew someone who lived on the street and from him was able to get names of neighbors next door to the fire. We have a good relationship with the fire department, so it was easy to talk with the fire chief and an assistant fire chief who had been profiled in the newspaper years ago; it was the assistant chief’s wife, in fact, who sent us photos from the scene. I recognized the name of another person with whom I spoke for the story. Finally, because this newspaper has a good reputation in the community, people were willing to speak.

All of the above is basic to community journalism; there’s no news here, really. But it’s good every now and then to reflect that technological toys — video cameras, audio cameras, smart phones and so forth — are not journalism. They are only tools that can be used to enhance journalism.

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