Tag Archives: journalism

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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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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Twittering the news the right way

When I started Twittering as @statesman, I immediately looked around to see how this is being done. Surely, I wasn’t reinventing the wheel, right?

After a quick Google search, I found this blog by Erica Smith that keeps track of newspapers that Twitter. I was surprised to see that many newspapers had a Twitter account. What I didn’t realize right away was how many of them were doing it wrong. And, trust me, there is a wrong way.

I had been on Twitter for a few weeks before coming up with the idea of Twittering the news. I was just doing what nearly everyone else does on Twitter – chatting with a few friends using a personal account. Like most who use it, I became addicted. I enjoyed those tidbits from people’s lives. And I especially enjoyed the personal interaction that comes so naturally on Twitter.

So, I was amazed at how many newspapers were using Twitter as an RSS dump. They were — and are — taking all of their headlines and just dropping them onto a soul-less Twitter account. They don’t follow anyone — and they don’t get many followers, either. How boring is that? Who would follow a news site that just force-feeds all of its headlines onto Twitter en masse? Isn’t that missing the whole “social” part of social media? For example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune feeds apparently all of its headlines onto its Twitter account. It has posted more than 34,000 updates. Not to be too hard on the Star Tribune, but this has resulted in only a little over 130 followers (most of those must be bots and spammers, right?)

Instead, I aimed to be personal and friendly. The journalists at our paper do care about this community, and I wanted our readers to know that. I wanted readers to think of us as not only a news provider, but as a neighbor (which we are). I start every morning with a Tweet saying “Good morning” and I end every work day saying “cheers.” I respond to people when they ask me a question. I listen to feedback and adjust what I’m doing. Basically, I just act like myself. And it’s working.

In just a few months, we have gained more than 1,000 followers. Check out this positive feedback. These are not the type of comments we in the media are used to hearing these days.

I’m still learning. There are times when I think I overdo something (and I hear about it from my followers). The good thing is, there are some friends out there who are willing to offer advice. That brings me to one of my new friends …

Introducing Colonel Tribune

The guy knows Chicago

The guy knows Chicago

A few days into the @statesman Twittering, I checked back on Erica’s list of Twittering newspapers to see if there were any others out there that were doing it the way I was doing it. One stuck out –  @coloneltribune. The Chicago Tribune has a main Twitter account that pushes it’s headlines out there using Twitterfeed. But it also has Colonel Tribune. I noticed that Colonel Tribune uses Twitter the right way — he’s personal and responsive (and he happens to have a bigger following than the main Tribune feed).  The Colonel hand-picks stories that he thinks his readers will find interesting, and he is very conversational. The Colonel uses Twitter the right way.

The Colonel’s “good friend,” a Tribune employee named Daniel Honigman, recently wrote this guest column for Poynter about using Twitter for breaking news in Chicago. That’s great stuff that really shows the power of the medium.

I’ve also seen that power. My readers trust me and know I’m not some automated machine spitting out headlines. Therefore, they send me news. They let me know when it’s raining (big news here in Austin these days). They tell me when there’s a wreck. They even send me photos and videos from news events.

Established media no longer are the faceless corporations that tell you what is going on without listening. We can now hear your voices, too. This is the way citizen journalism is supposed to work. I can guarantee you that the next time big news happens in Central Texas, I’ll get a lot of help from my followers.

Despite the bad economic news in journalism, this is exciting. Social media is the life raft; we just have to grab it and hold on.

The Colonel has agreed to be a member of our panel at SXSW Interactive (if it is chosen) on Twittering the news. I’ve also invited Erica Smith. I’ve already mentioned Erica in two blog entries, so you can see why I think she’d be a great speaker. A few of us Statesman folks will also be there, including @broylesa (food writer Addie Broyles) and @omarg (tech writer Omar Gallaga).

Please vote for our panel and comment on it if you are interested.

The deadline to vote on our panel proposal is Aug. 29.

If you’re following us on Twitter, thank you! Come on by and say “hi!”

Cheers!

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Starting to blog again

It has been a long time since I have blogged regularly, but I think the time has come. I Twitter all the time, but it’s time to say some things in >140 characters.

I won’t post things unless they’re useful. I’ll focus mostly on my trade (journalism) but I’ll also post whatever I find amusing.

To catch everyone up:

* I’m the Internet editor at the Austin American Statesman, which is for sale (anyone interested in buying?)

* I am the chief architect, I guess, of our Twitter strategy. I started with @statesman, but we have dozens of accounts now, counting all of our reporters.

* I’m hoping it rains in the next few days.

*  I’m waiting for the football season to fully begin.

There, that should do it 🙂

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