Monthly Archives: September 2008

Word clouds made easy

Thanks to @ericasmith, I learned about http://wordle.net, which creates word clouds in super-easy format. It takes all the words of any text you put into it and spits out something like what you see below. The bigger the font for a word, the more often it was mentioned in a text.

Once you create one, you can change the font, color, layout, and much more. Cool tool!

From FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech:

And here’s John Lennon’s Imagine

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Op-Ed: How the Statesman uses Twitter

Just hours after Hurricane Ike roared ashore over Galveston Island, American-Statesman journalists Tony Plohetski, Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon and Jay Janner sat in their rental car on the north side of the I-45 causeway looking at a scene they will likely never forget.

12 p.m. Sept. 13: We’re at the Causeway at Galveston Island. It’s a MESS. The southbound side is completely under water.

The short dispatch was from Plohetski, who was tapping away on his laptop keyboard. Thanks to a wireless signal, everything he typed was transmitted and published almost instantly onto Twitter, a funny-sounding Internet tool that has the power to change the way journalists — and everyone else — communicate.

Within minutes, Plohetski told me (and thousands of readers following us at twitter.com/trackingike) that his crew was going to be allowed to cross the causeway to Galveston by following a convoy of law-enforcement vehicles.

12:07 p.m.: Highway littered with refrigerators, boats, jetskis, coolers, you name it.

12:10 p.m.: Smoke billowing from fires all over Galveston.

12:10 p.m.: The bay side of the island is completely under water. It looks like an absolute war zone.

Plohetski gave several other reports of what he was seeing. Then, he typed this:

12:18 p.m.: Hoping we don’t lose wireless connection. Causeway is just littered. We are literally driving around boats. Seriously.

Six minutes later, Plohetski typed:

We’re at Broadway at 55th Street. The smell of smoke is everywhere. Galveston is burning.

Notice how short the dispatches are. Twitter is a free Web-based service that allows anyone to type short comments (maximum 140 characters per “Tweet”). You broadcast these to anyone who chooses to follow you, and you follow anyone who you think is interesting. The service has caught fire among early adopters and is starting to hit the mainstream.

So, who was seeing what Plohetski was writing? The Twitter account I set up for Hurricane Ike coverage had 1,280 “followers” at the time. The majority of them were Houston-area residents. Many had told me in messages through the service that our dispatches, which are easily viewable on mobile phones as well as on computers, were the only way they were getting news once the power went out. Many of these people were “retweeting” his posts — copying Plohetski’s words and sending them out to their followers, allowing his reports to reach thousands more.

The New York Times was quoting Plohetski’s dispatches on its Web site. The Los Angeles Times was also linking to our Twitter dispatches.

However, the real power of Twitter is the interaction it allows. Readers asked questions and got answers. Readers told us of areas of destruction through Twitter, and our reporters checked out those areas. And when we saw a good dispatch from a non-journalist Twitter user, we retweeted their posts so our followers could get the most comprehensive news possible.

Plohetski wasn’t the only journalist with the Statesman using Twitter during Ike. Sanhueza-Lyon, Marty Toohey and Patrick George also posted their observations in near real-time from the field throughout the weekend. I ran ground support here in Austin. Before the hurricane hit, I posted updates every three hours as the National Hurricane Center updated. I also posted links to our journalists’ blogs, videos and photos and retweeted others’ interesting posts.

By newspaper Web site standards, this was a success. We received a little more than 300,000 page views over the weekend directly from Twitter. And we received nearly 60 positive feedback comments from our followers.

Twitter, which is popular in Austin partly because it was introduced during the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive Festival, is growing quickly. Nielsen Online says Twitter had 2.3 million unique users in August, a 422 percent growth rate over the previous August.

I started using Twitter in June to get the news out in a new way. Using an official Statesman account (twitter.com/statesman), I send out a dozen or so daily dispatches, delivering the news with a personal voice. Our account has more than 1,400 followers, making it the fourth-most followed newspaper Twitter account in the nation. Our entertainment site also has an account (twitter.com/austin360) that Austin360.com editor Gary Dinges uses. It has nearly 900 followers.

The Statesman Twitter account has been well-received by an audience made up of people who most likely would never have read the paper, online or in print.

This weekend, we’re going to attack the Austin City Limits Music Festival by Twittering from the festival (and listening to your Tweets and posting them on our Web sites) using twitter.com/360acl. Come join us!
—-
Robert Quigley is Internet editor for statesman.com and Austin360.com. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/statesman and twitter.com/robquig.

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Evangelizing Twitter

Here are excerpts from an e-mail I wrote to another online editor last night who is going through a hard time convincing her staff to embrace Twitter (and the Web in general). I hope my advice works for her.

Hi!

I’ve been reading your blog, so I know pretty much what you’ve been going through.

Here’s how it worked for me:
I was on Twitter with my own personal account for a little while, and I quickly got addicted (as everyone does who uses it for a while, haha). So one morning, I went in to work and told my boss I was going to Tweet the news from a Statesman account. We had reserved the “@statesman” name a
year earlier (one of our tech guys did, just in case), but we were doing nothing with it.

Before I started, I did one night of research. I found Erica Smith’s tally blog of Newspapers that Twitter. I noticed the odd “ColonelTribune” on there, listed separately from the Chicago Tribune’s main account. Reading his Tweets made perfect sense to me – we (newspapers) are using Twitter the WRONG way. We should not be using Twitter as an RSS feed (Twitterfeed). We should be personal with it. Personable. ColonelTribune (besides being a brilliant persona) was using Twitter the right way.

I told my boss that next morning that I was on Twitter and knew the software and that i just wanted to play around with it by sending out headlines using our account. He OK’d it (without knowing Twitter himself), and I started right out.

Check out what we do on there now (http://twitter.com/statesman). I haven’t changed my formula much – I pick which headlines I think readers will want to see. I Tweet with a personal voice. I sometimes Tweet about things that aren’t even from our site – even pointing to the competition on occasion. And I respond to readers and ask them questions. The way I think about it is a morning news radio show. I say good morning, I say goodbye at the end of my shift. I thank them for contributions, etc.

So my suggestions for you:
1. Since you already have control of your Twitter account, turn off Twitterfeed. You might not have as much time as I do to Tweet, but every Tweet you send should be with personality. Quality over quantity.
2. Tell all your followers about the change.
3. Don’t worry about the reporters for now (as far as Twitter goes). It’s a hard sell until they see it really working.
4. Ask for story tips of your followers. Pass them to reporters. I’ve had many, many reporters say they can’t believe the tips they are getting.
5. Keep control over the account. Don’t turn the feed back on!
6. Ask me if you have any questions. I’d be glad to help!

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Databases don’t have to be boring

Let me start this by saying I don’t know how to build a database, but I’m the Statesman’s database guy.

Instead of building databases the old-fashioned way (with language I don’t understand and mind-bending logic questions that  hurt my head to think about), we use Caspio.

I learned it on the fly, with the help of my colleague Christian McDonald, who was Caspio-ing before me and with the help of Caspio’s helpful support.

Although there’s still a learning curve, anyone can do it if he or she has enough time to get familiar with the software. The trick is figuring out interesting things to build.

In the past 18 months or so, I’ve tried a lot of things, from a parks database to a spas database to one that shows how the City Council members spent their extra expense money.

Caspio has built-in Google (or Yahoo) map mashup capabilities. Well, it’s sort of built-in. I still struggle with that each time I build a database that has a map mashup.

So, what are the non-boring things you can do with this?

You can ask users to submit their salaries (anonymously) and then make that database searchable. I came up with that idea when Parade issued its annual “What we earn” issue. I figured people would share if they knew they were anonymous, and boy did they! We received nearly 12,000 entries. You could also search through the results by category or by business. This is voyeurism at its best. Everyone wants to know what their neighbors earn. Although there were some glitches, such as poeple accidentally saying they earned $5,000 (I regrettably made that the default, so you had to be careful), it went pretty well. Very few people seemed to mess with the database, either. Usually, people love messing up user-generated content with silly or obscene material. Didn’t get that much on this one.

Another thing you can try is to ask government agencies for large databases, or just look for large amounts of official data online, and then make it manageable and work the way you want it to. Before the primaries, I took the FEC data on campaign contributions and put it into database form. The fun with this one is not only seeing to whom your neighbors gave money, but also seeing what celebrities did. You can spend a lot of time playing around on this one.

Those databases took a while to build. But now that I’ve gotten used to the software, I can build simple databases quite a bit quicker. I built one before Hurricane Ike hit that allowed people to post their cancellations and volunteer/donation opportunities related to the storm. After the storm rolled through, I built one that allows people to give their own reports on what’s going on in Southeast Texas.

Although Caspio correctly bills itself as the “No More Programming” database solution, it does take a lot of patience and the willingness to get frustrated on occassion. But these databases do work, and they can be fun.

And if you care about page views, these things really can bring them in. The salaries database received 217,000+ page views. You’re all a bunch of voyeurs!

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Tracking Ike on Twitter with @TrackingIke

It has been 48 hours since we made our first post on @TrackingIke. It feels like 48 days.

I’m working as mission control here in Austin for the Twitter count that I set up to serve as a vehicle for our Hurricane Ike coverage. I’m worn out; but I think it has all been worth it.

First off, our staff in the field — Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, Tony Plohetski, Jay Janner, Marty Toohey, Laura Skelding and Patrick George — have been doing an excellent job reporting from the coast. They left Wednesday for Corpus Christi and Victoria (back when we thought it would hit that far south) and have found their way into downtown Houston.

Tony, Jorge and Jay spent a lot of time on Galveston Island, but with monster storm surge coming even early today, we pulled them back to downtown Houston. Along the way, this crew has run into some interesting characters, found some die-hards who ignore evacuation orders, attended a hurricane party, found some massive flooding in Surfside and even streamed video live from their car as they drove around Houston’s nearly empty streets.

But if you’ve been following @TrackingIke, you already know all of this. They’ve been doing a fantastic job keeping everyone updated Twitter and with their other “regular” duties – blogging, contributing to print stories, shooting pictures and great video.

I’ve been spending most of my time retweeting interesting posts, posting links for them (our own and links to other resources) and responding to readers.  As I said, I’m worn out. Who knew Twittering could be so tiring?

In many ways, it’s a scary and uncertain time in journalism. But when you have a group of journalists like this and an organization that’s willing to take some chances (did you see our Twitter link right at the top of statesman.com?), I feel pretty good. And when I get comments like this …

… it’s hard to not feel good.

I hope everyone in the storm’s way is safe. And I hope that our hard work helped some stay that way.

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Blip.fm – for when you must share everything

It’s not enough that we share what we’re doing every minute on Twitter, our party pics on Flickr and even what we ate after every meal: now we also can share what we’re listening to on Blip.fm. What’s next? ListenToMeSingInTheShower.com? (Hmm, anyone have any extra VC?)

I discovered Blip.fm just by seeing people on Twitter posting interesting posts with little musical notes in them, like this:

I set up an account, found a couple of Twitter buddies to invite, and suddenly, I’m sharing even more of my life.

Blip.fm works this way: You find songs that are mysteriously hosted around the Internet (or upload your own at your own copyright peril) and post that song with a little Text. It’s really Twitter with music. Blip does a few things really well – such as integrating with Twitter. You can tell Blip to share every new song that you select on Twitter. It posts just like you see above. If you don’t want to flood your Twitter account, you can type an exclamation point before your text. For example, if I had typed “! Was listening to this, one of my favorite Stones songs …” then it would have posted on Blip, but NOT on Twitter. Handy.

What I don’t like: Commenting on others’ choice of songs is cumbersome. You actually have to post the song yourself in order to even comment. Is there really a social networking site out there that does not have an easy way to comment on others’ messages? Lame. Also, their “help” section could use a lot of help. There is no explanation for much of anything on there if you’re a newbie. It’s hard to figure out some of the most basic things, such as “What is a ‘listener?”

What I do like: Sharing songs is something we naturally do. When a good song comes on the radio, don’t you turn it up so others can hear it sometimes? Isn’t it fun to see what’s on your friends’ iPods? Also, the interface is pretty clean, and once you figure out the basics, it isn’t difficult to master.

So, here I am, sharing my taste in music. Of course, I stopped listening to new music around 1994, so I’m dating myself with each post. But it is a lot of fun.

Want to share your music? Join me here.

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Yes, I am ready for some football

This is my time of year.

It was in the 60s this morning when I woke up (it’s still going to be 96 today, though). In a few minutes, a boring college football game is on TV. Don’t misunderstand me: A boring college football game is like pizza – even when it’s bad, it’s good.

Tomorrow, the Cowboys open the season at Cleveland. It just doesn’t get any better. I’ve had Cowboys season tickets since 1992. Well, my Dad had the tickets until about 2001, and then I purchased them from him. I went to a lot of great games in those years, including the famous “Lett it be” ice bowl on Thanksgiving. I also saw some Cowboys highlights, including the prime years for Emmitt, Aikman and Irvin.

Alas, this is my last year of having season tickets. Jerry Jones’ (and the taxpayers’) beautiful new stadium has outpriced me. Every year, I scraped up about $2k to buy the tickets (4 seats in lower end zone, shady side). I’d sell most of the tickets on eBay, go to a few of the games and break even (in good years). This year, tickets are waaaaa-aaaay more than $2k, when you throw in the “franchise fee” that Jerry want me to pay on each seat.

Oh well, it was a good run. Hopefully, the Cowboys dominate this year and make it to at least the NFC championship (with home-field advantage). That way, I can get at least a few more games in (and playoff games, no less) before my tickets go away.

Being outpriced will not stop me from being a Cowboys fan. I’ll still watch them. Thank God for high-definition TV, pizza (bad or good) and football.

Now if we can just get the high temperatures down into the 70s …

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