Sunday, December 5, 2010

conclude

This is it: The final post of my class about public affairs reporting. It's been fun.

So I don't have a product to show. But I've learned a lot, they say that's what counts.

I've learned a lot about Washington. I've learned a lot about spreadsheets and data compiling.
I've gained. I hope the news does too.

I wonder if what I'm doing would even make a difference.

After all, what's the point of information being open if no one goes looking for it?

What I've discovered is that journalists get special treatment. When the public go looking for crime records, they're denied access. But then, why would the general public do that often?

But it's a horrid thought that they couldn't if they would. The public law was made for everyone, regardless of its use.

But it's sort of like a tree falling in the forest. If no one can hear it, does it make a sound?

I don't know.

And if there's not someone frequently beating on their door, I'm not sure why they would loosen their records restrictions. But I hope they will.

I think what might be better than publishing records would be to show residents why they should demand access to the things the law allows them.

But it's a little late for that, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This paint has been tasting of lead!

So I'm actually really kind of looking forward to taking media law.

I'll likely be biting my words junior year when I'm taking the course that's known for its difficulty, but for right now anyway, it's really interesting.

And all of this coming with the fight for public records in Eastern North Carolina will give me some context.

Over Thanksgiving break, a young family friend informed me she was moving to Washington.

My response: Why? Do you know how badly public records laws are violated there??

She says, "I'm a teacher. I don't care."

I looked at N.C. G.S. 162 6.1 today — public records law regarding electronic communication.

All databases a government entity has, we have a right to as much we do public documents. They have to provide a list of what data they have, including all fields, and we have just as much right to them as paper documents.

In light of this, I have revised my letter. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Dear Washington Police Department:

Pursuant to the North Carolina General Statute 132‑1.4 I would like the ability to obtain a copy of each indecent and arrest report within 24 hours after the report is made. I am requesting that they include all information the law requires.

I requested this data in person at the Washington Police Department on Oct. 21. The original reports the department gave me took out the information of the nature of the crime when it covered the "status" codes on top of the property section of the report.

When it was deleted, it was written on top "Deleted in accordance with N.C. G.S. 132 1.4-j". That statute reads:

"(j) When information that is not a public record under the provisions of this section is deleted from a document, tape recording, or other record, the law enforcement agency shall make clear that a deletion has been made. Nothing in this subsection shall authorize the destruction of the original record."

First, on the copy, there is clearly a staple — yet I received no second page. It is not made clear that a deletion has been made. Second, this statute does not allow any and all information to be sensored. N.C. G.S. 134.1.4-c lists the following as things that cannot be censored:

1) The time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency.

I did not receive on this report the nature of the violation.

I am attaching a copy of the police report I received for reference.

N.C. G.S. 132‑6.2 explicitly states each exception where a government may charge more than the explicit fee of making the copy. Crime reports are not included. I know the Department normally charges $5 per report. The normal costs for the police report range from $.05 to $.25. $5 is excessive. "Actual cost" is limited to direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles and does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a public record had not been made.

I understand that if I seek a copy of this record, there may be a reasonable copying fee. Please inform me of that cost prior to making the copy. I can be reached at 919.455.7739.

In addition to the physical copies of these records, I am requesting access to any and all electronic forms of this information that the department has, including but not limited to spreadsheets, PDF files, word processing documents, databases, digital and image copies. N.C. G.S. 6.1 states:

"Every public agency shall create an index of computer databases compiled or created by that public agency.

The index shall be a public record and shall include, at a minimum, the following information with respect to each database listed therein: a list of the data fields; a description of the format or record layout; information as to the frequency with which the database is updated; a list of any data fields to which public access is restricted; a description of each form in which the database can be copied or reproduced using the agency's computer facilities; and a schedule of fees for the production of copies in each available form."

According to the statute, this request should be acted upon as soon as possible. Please feel free to contact me so we can work out a reasonable date.

If you choose to deny the request, then you are required to respond in writing and state the statutory exception authorizing the withholding of all or part of the public record and the name and title or position of the person responsible for the denial.

Thank you for your assistance on this matter.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

drafting

Writing public records requests, when you're not looking for a specific record, is awkward.

I drafted the requests to send to the police department this week. And trying to follow the typical request is difficult when you're not looking for one document. what I'm looking for is access.

The part about the fee is a little awkward to write as well.

Here's the draft of the letter. I'd appreciate feedback.

Dear Washington Police Department:

Pursuant to the North Carolina General Statute 132‑1.4 I would like the ability to obtain copies of police reports with all information the law requires. The original reports the department gave me took out the information of the nature of the crime when it covered the "status" codes on top of the property section of the report.

When it was deleted, it was written on top "Deleted in accordance with N.C. G.S. 132 1.4-j". That statute reads:

"(j) When information that is not a public record under the provisions of this section is deleted from a document, tape recording, or other record, the law enforcement agency shall make clear that a deletion has been made. Nothing in this subsection shall authorize the destruction of the original record."

First, on the copy, there is clearly a staple — yet I received no second page. It is not made clear that a deletion has been made. Second, this statute does not allow any and all information to be sensored. 134.1.4-c lists the following as things that cannot be censored:

1) The time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency.

I did not receive on this report the nature of the violation.

I am attaching a copy of the police report I received for reference.

North Carolina General Statute 132‑6.2 explicitly states each exception where a government may charge more than the explicit fee of making the copy. Crime reports are not included. I know the Department normally charges $5 per report. The normal costs for the police report range from $.5 to $.25. $5 is excessive.

I understand that if I seek a copy of this record, there may be a copying fee. Please inform me of that cost prior to making the copy. I can be reached at 919.455.7739.

According to the statute, this request should be acted upon as soon as possible, but in no event later than the third business day following receipt of this letter. If access to the records I requested is going to take longer, please contact me so we can work out a reasonable date.

If you choose to deny the request, then you are required to respond in writing and state the statutory exception authorizing the withholding of all or part of the public record and the name and title or position of the person responsible for the denial.

Thank you for your assistance on this matter.

Respectfully,
Kelly Poe


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Now now now

I'm sad to announce, I won't have a finished prototype by the end of the semester.

Although I learned a lot this semester about data sharing and organization, I don't have a real product to show for it. Because the actual data is harder to find than expected.

It's sad, because I expected to have a real product that would give the Washington Daily News a hand in the transition to online journalism.

But this class isn't about helping one small-town newspaper. It's about getting information to the public.

And what I've found is serious violations with to North Carolina public records law.

I hope whoever takes on this project after me is able to use what I've done and continue.

I've attempted to get my hands on public records, and I've found that they aren't really public. I asked the local journalists, they don't have any problem getting their hands on them. But going in as a citizen, they aren't public at all. And I've talked to the lawyers for the North Carolina Press Association, and they agree with me that I've got a case.

It's not okay to charge $5 for one sheet of paper that's a police report. It's not okay to censor the manner in which a crime was committed. It's not okay to hide the blotter or let us look through reports.

I'm creating a memo for the next person to continue the project. Right now, I'm in the midst of writing letters and requesting records.

I hope this product gets created. But more than anything, I just hope I make Washington, N.C., a more transparent place for everyone.

So now I'm going to put together everything I know. I know I can make a prototype if I really wanted. I'd have to write an SQL, and I could at least get address and incident type to make some sort of crime map for Washington.

But this has become something much bigger. If there's one thing I know I believe in, it's open government.

So that's my goal from here on out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

sailing on

Google has so many random functions.

I never realized how many way there were to organize information until I took this class. And, dear God, I'm actually starting to use spreadsheets for my personal life.

I have a goal to go somewhere I wouldn't otherwise get to go to this Summer. For whatever reason, one of the areas I've taken an interest in is Alaska.

So I found a list of all newspapers in Alaska. With a little research I can make a database of addresses, phone numbers, circulation, whether they're daily or weekly, etc.

I'm excited about learning these new ways to organize data.

But I'm concerned with finding that data to organize.

The last time I attempted to get police reports from Washington, NC, I had to drive there. They also told me to get a weeks worth I'd have to wait at least four days because it would take them so long to manually censor them (AKA, violate public records law).

So I'm very concerned about how to get this data I'd need to play with in such a short time span.

I'm not sure where to go from here. But I'll make some calls in the morning and try my best.

Where I'm going next, I'm not sure.

Anyone got some spare police reports from Washington lying around?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Make a story out of all that we see

Only a few classes left.

I went to a meeting on Thursday where the class working with Whiteville presented their strategies to the Whiteville officials. I only wish our professor would have warned us not to wear jeans. I felt like a fish out of water and very disrespectful, but I had no idea what to expect out of the meeting. Also, the food was really really good.

It's sad that we won't finish this product by the end of the semester. I've become a lot more attached to Washington than I anticipated.

But the presentation on potential markets in Whiteville got me thinking about the potential customers in Washington. A lot of the ones that were presented seem applicable.

There's the "home for the holidays" group, consisting of those who use the news only when they come home from college, or wherever they've established a life elsewhere. There's not much reason to come to the small Pamlico town if you don't have family there.

The "Texting Teens" are different than the "Front-Porch Neighbors", and the way we need to deliver news is totally different. The Neighbors are the people who've been reading the paper for years, and as such, we don't have to worry about them losing interest in the print version of the paper. We know the best way to deliver the news.

The teens are, in fact, all about texting. They're about wireless laptops in Internet cafes and iPhones and 3G. They want news sent to them such that they don't have to actively seek it out, and they want it as soon as it happens.

I hope our project is continued into next semester. Seeing the students speak with the Whiteville folks, I was a bit envious of the relationships they've established. I wish I could have gotten to know some people in Washington a bit better.

I didn't anticipate all the obstacles I've encountered, though.

I do hope at the very least, some of the "Public" records actually earn that title by the time we leave.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

By morning light, the cinnamon's on her cheeks.

Today I tried out using mappable data.

In mapping crime, it's obvious why this is a useful tool. People want to know what the most dangerous spots are. People want to know where not to move.

For real estate transactions, it makes a lot of sense. You want to know where the land is so that you have context to go with the address, it actually means something to you.

Births and deaths I could see how it could be useful, although it's less obvious.

It's a much more complicated process than I expected though, to be honest. After playing around with ZeeMaps and MapAList a bit, I realized coding is not going away in this class. Before this class, I didn't even know what a CSV file was. Now, I'm learning excel in an entirely new way.

Once you figured out how to correctly arrange the data you needed, the sites were incredibly customizable. Even finding what data you needed wasn't as hard as it sounds. As a rule of thumb: delete stuff you don't need until you're left with what makes sense.

And considering most of them are easy to embed as well, I'm feeling optimistic about the web building portion of this class for the first time in a long time.

Now, with crime, it's a matter of deciding how to sort all the data we have yet again. How to group things? There's a difference between larceny and felonious larceny, but do those deserve to be different on the map? there's only so many basic colors of pinpoints we have before we start using picture of corns and shoes to mark locations of crimes.

It doesn't help that those looking for crime have so many different things they're looking for, as well.

Choosing how to organize all this data could prove to be the hardest part.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Onward, upward.

I've started the first stages of prototyping my product.

The essential mission of my product is this: if you come to my site looking for information about Washington, N.C. crime, you should be able to find it on my site.

Beyond that, you should be able to find it easily. If you're looking for a particular arrest, how many crimes are near your house, or the frequency of your crime, you should find it on my site.

I haven't quite gotten there yet.

Those are all possible searches, but there are a ridiculous amount more of typical users who would want this product.

But if a person comes to my site and browses through looking for something crime related that my product doesn't offer, it should still lead them to the correct information. For example, it's easy to google "sex offender map" and find a site that will tell you the criminal histories of whosever in your neighborhood. But someone could very easily come to my site looking for that. That's why the News & Observer links to that site on their crime data page, just as I would for mine.

It's hard to think of every possible use.

I'm trying think of all the possible fields people could search by. Here's just a few:
  • how many crimes on my street
  • how many larcenies, vehicle break ins, etc
  • all the crimes of a certain type, location etc. in a certain location
  • how many arrests made on violent crimes
  • search by name (i.e., see if that babysitter of yours has a Washington record)
  • how many crimes in a short time period
etc, etc.
So it's hard to make one product that will be user-friendly for all these different goals.

But I'll keep drafting products. I'll get there.

It's a matter of trial an error.

Onward, upward.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

City in a snow globe

Follow up on my last post: my professor, my editor and everyone I've talked to agrees with me in that Washington, N.C. is blatantly violating state public records law.

In recieving my first police report, there were several items taken out, with no explanation except that they were "Deleted in compliance with N.C. G.S. 1.4 (j)"

Well, upon looking up that law, this is my explanation:
"When information that is not a public record under the provisions of this section is deleted from a document, tape recording, or other record, the law enforcement agency shall make clear that a deletion has been made. Nothing in this subsection shall authorize the destruction of the original record."

So it's fine to delete certain things as long as it's made clear that a deletion has been made.

but, let's look at the provisions of this section:
"(1) The time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency."

The police report withheld the nature of the crime. The department deleted the codes that explain what the "d" means on a status report, but as someone who has a fair amount of experience with police reports, I know personally that it means damaged. So not only is this deletion illegal, it's ineffective.

And, they only gave me one of two pages of the incident report, and it was not made clear

So while these reports may be possible for journalists to understand, they appear to be a different story for the general public. This is not okay. Public records law was not made for journalists. It was made for the public.

Also, they don't charge the press for their $5 police reports. But again — this is still a violation of the law. The law was not made for journalists.

I'll look forward to seeing how this ends up. I tried contacting Washington's paper today, to see if they were facing the same problems. Unfortunately the one man everyone told me I needed to talk to was out at the polls.

But what the managing editor told me is that while he has not been around that long, he has not heard of any problems they've had with the police department.

And I guess I could see how that could happen.

Journalists will press for information.

If the journalists get preferential treatment, then maybe they wouldn't pursue the rest of the laws for the non-journalists.

Though this class started out about just creating a WDN product, I'm excited that it could become much more than that.

Happy election day everybody!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

oh hey public records law violation.

I recently took another escapade down to Washington, and this time, I was disenchanted.

I met with the police force and records that should be public and easy to access were so much harder than I anticipated.

I understand that certain information should be withheld from the public. That makes sense.

And maybe I've been spoiled working with the Chapel Hill police.

But I was stunned when I saw on the department walls that a single police report costs $5. That's 50 times more than the cost of a Chapel Hill police department.

And to me, it feels like a public records law violation.

Then beyond that, unlike Chapel Hill police reports, you can't simply look through all the reports. Because they have to manually decide on each report whether or not to release all the details when asked for it, you can only get a police report if you know exactly what you're looking for.

I don't understand how you report on police activity given all these restrictions. I just don't understand how you find any information. If the Washington police had something that for some reason they did not want people to know about, it would be far too easy to hide.

I'm not sure where to go forward from here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let me build you a fortress you can decorate.

Well, It looks like I'll spend my fall break traveling.

I had two things I really wanted to do over my break: go see The Tempered Machine in concert again and go to the mountains with my family and do nothing but relax and sleep.

I'll be going back to Washington to get the crime reports for the week.

In order to create our product, we're putting crimes reports online into a database. In order to do that, we need to put essential information into a database. I'm really hoping the crime reports are put in electronically. Otherwise I don't know how we could keep information up to date without requiring more reporting resources than the data would be worth.

I'm hoping to see the police enter the information on a computer, not a typewriter or otherwise. I feel like a crime database that journalists put together could be just as helpful for the police as the newspaper.

But to keep it up to date, if there's not a way to do it electronically, would be exhausting. To do so, a journalist would have to go to the Washington police station every, buy copies of each and every police report (which would get expensive after a while, at the the cost of likely $.10 a page) then by hand enter every single relevant field (incident, month, date, year, victim, victim's age, OCA, just to name a few) would be a cost far greater than the benefit.

I'm driving all the way down there (by myself. Lots of quality time with my music.), so I'm trying to think of things to do while in the area.

I'm going to place calls tomorrow and I'm hoping to set up a meeting with the police chief. Hopefully we'll both have the same goal — to inform the public. If we share this goal, my job will be much easier. I'm also planning to meet up with a Couchsurfer host or two, since they're open to meeting people, talking, and hopefully getting me a better idea of some interesting edge users and how they get their information.

There are three couchsurfers that I've found so far, I've got a variety. I hope at least one of them will be able to talk to me. Two women in their fifties, one man in his twenties, all in Washington, and I'm sure all with different stories.

What I was told last time I was there was, from a Washington, D.C., native, was that "Washington's a tough little town."

I hope some of these are Washingtonians originally. I'm very interested if all feel this way.

Any ideas on who else to talk to while down there?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What a way.

So as y'all know, I love me some crime stories. I love breaking news. I love courts. I really love cops reporting. People do some crazy stuff in Chapel Hill.

So I'm pretty excited to be finding and compiling crime reports as my public records for Washington, N.C.

So the natural place to start is the department's website. I was greeted by this friendly Eastern-N.C. face as I log on. Oh hey Mick Reed, I think you can I could be friends!
My first question in what I need to get to be used for journalistic data: What's already there?

I don't see any reports, any blotter, any crime maps, nothing fun like that. What's already there? An address (201 West Third St.) and a communications officer. Great. I thought in such a small town, I could at least avoid some public relations specialists. I should be so lucky. Well the PR hotline is 252.946.1444.

Next question: how does one go about getting crime reports? Sure, it's 1:21 a.m. right now, but they advertise that they're open 24 hours a day. So I call.

The only, only way to get them is to drive to Washington between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. A bit problematic from Chapel Hill.

It's a start, at least.

There are so many interesting fields on any given police report, it's hard to know where to start in terms of organizing them for data.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Effect and Cause

People love crime.

It's true. Anything crime-related always gets a ton of hits on the website. I've talked about the popularity of crime databases before.

There are really practical reasons for this. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice's National Sex Offender database gives moms a reason to worry and check up on the history of piano teachers and whatnot before leaving their child alone with them. It also provides a real economic incentive: if you live near sex offenders, you can find that with a few simple clicks, which can potentially scare away buyers from a piece of property you're trying to sell.

And considering just about every police interaction with the public is required by law to be public record, and at least in Chapel Hill they're typed up in a very formulaic way, there's a lot of good data potential.

But they are something that it's important to keep a close eye on.

Just the other day I was typing up crime reports for The Daily Tar Heel and noticed something odd. It was a break in like any other. Under items stolen, it listed $1,000 cash and a $75 Apple laptop.

There seems to be a very logical explanation for this: the police officer switched the two amounts.

But we don't know that. That's something we'd have to confirm.

So I called the Police Department to see if they could explain it, but of course, the only person who could answer my question left at 5 p.m. So I simply had to replace it with a Carrboro police report.

I've been doing these reports since February, and this stuff happens all the time.

This raises the point: when you've got a $75 laptop and $1,000 in cash stolen, you've either got a good story or bad data.

We got some bad data.

Where do we go from here?

This was an easy one to sport. But how often does this happen where it's not so obvious? When we just go by reports, how often do we insert fact errors and never, ever know it?

Well, we won't ever know it. No one's going to send us a correction for switching the values of the two different bicycles when one's $120 and one's $130. But it's still a fact error, even if it seems insignificant.

But there are ways this could seriously confuse people. What if police mix up the location of the incident, saying it's "Smith Street" instead of "Smith Avenue"? If we put that on a crime map, those people on Smith Street could get really scared over something miles away. But it's exactly what the police told us.

If we get something wrong in a police report, as long as it doesn't libel someone, we don't normally get corrections and we never know. It passes onto the next day's reports and people forget about it.

But with things like databases, that's preserved forever. And we use it for trends. Trends that could be false.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The things he carried

I love a good read through The Slammer.

It's hilarious. People take such funny mug shots, right? And it's the best when you see people you know in it. I don't often read it, but I've seen at least 3 people I know inside it on the rare occasions I skim it. I'm friends with very high quality people, I know.

But seriously: these are some of the very useful products that come out of the North Carolina Public Records Law.

The Slammer is the press, in one way or another.

So I'm pretty happy that though mugshots aren't explicitely included in the public records law, they're understood as part of it.

I'm learning about public records right now, and ran across this really helpful (and colorful!) graphic from the Sunlight Foundation:

I like to start with lawmakers and go counterclockwise, but it really works most ways. I've heard it said that if journalists and policy makers truly had the same goal their lives would only get easier, that goal being to inform the public. And I think this graphic shows: journalists are a crucial part of the policy cycle, journalists of all kinds.

Through the public records law, you can usually get information that is two essential things: raw and complete.

But rarely can you get data that is search-able, which is what the organization is striving for.

The issue came up tonight at the DTH office, after we made a recent public records request and literally recieved more than 6,000 pages of data that were completely unsearchable. I made the comment to my editor about how much easier it would be were this data available online.

She said they couldn't be made available online because of the particular nature of the information.

After all the reading and experimentation I've done recently with excel, I'm not certain I agree. All fields she spoke of could be assigned attributes, such as person, means, etc.

This would take a very long time. This is not efficient for our particular need for this data.

But if the agency we requested this from were to just do it itself, it would make its records more readable for their personal uses, for other journalists seeking the same information, and it would make them overall more transparent. Unfortunately, transparency is not often enough a goal of public agencies.

But the efficiency would make such an incredible difference in journalism!

Another editor made the comment tonight: people are tired. people are stressed. people don't have time (But in my opinion, no one ever has time for anything, so this is hardly relevant). But when there's breaking news, we all work together and often produce some incredible stuff. But when it requires things like finding out what kind of information we need, who has it, how to get it, how to organize it, how to sift through what can be 6,000 pages and then find the news in it, we say no. We say it's too hard or don't have time.

But this is the kind of investigative journalism that can make the biggest difference.

Reporting is a dying industry, partially because of this efficiency.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

data data data

I was asked to evaluate the data section of a newspaper I'd love to work for.

Naturally I went for that sentimental value and went to the News and Observer. First problem: took me about 10 full minutes to find the darn thing. I don't know if that's my fault or not, but I feel like the typical user wouldn't spend that much time looking for it. I looked through all the sections before I found Data Central.

But once I found it, I was really impressed.

Mostly because as someone who doesn't know what they're looking for out of data, it was super easy to navigate and really well organized. There were four really easy categories: government, agriculture, crime, and business/unemployment. Through this, I got a really good idea of what the audience for data is and what at least some of the main uses are for it.

So there were two sections (agriculture and business) that are obviously aimed at edge users, such as farmers or entrepreneurs or those looking for a job.

Crime and government though, it seemed to me could be the very useful for the typical reader. The government section, with useful features like various salary and pension information, allow me to look up the salaries of all my professors.

But I don't know how useful this is after all.

It worked searching some of my professors, but I can't find my Spanish professor. Shouldn't this be public record? Shouldn't this be easy to find? I know I've got her name right. Is there another way to find it? probably. Am I realistically going to? No. Because that's not my job. That's the job of the journalists.

there was one database I found particularly interesting: the "Find a strawberry farm" database. Is there this much of a demand for this? How totally random. But, I have to say, if I needed to find a strawberry farm, my needs would completely be met. I guess there must be a lot of Triangle soccer moms out there who are looking for this sort of thing.

I'm also very curious as to why they have an N.C. Inmate search, a Durham County Inmate Search, but no Wake County inmate search — theoretically isn't that their main market? To say that they're not a real market for crime information but Durham is, seems a tiny bit...racist. And I feel like I would know a lot of my high school and middle school classmates who lived there who might be kinda upset toward this, at least without an explanation.

And there's also a price book. Whoever makes dinner and coupon clippers like my mom love that stuff. Interesting, you can also contribute to it. I really like that it has an easy how to use it section with it, too.

This is mad cool. All really useful stuff. All of this really useful tools for journalists, too. Let's get them public records online, y'all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cloud Watch

So I just read a portion of a book about data-driven journalism. And I have to say, it was difficult to follow and stay interested.

Though cute little acronyms were present throughout to help us remember, there were far too many complex acronyms to keep up with. XML? SQL? API? Who has time?

But to say this kind of information is useless is obviously ignorant, when projects like Matt Waite's PolitiFact have won Pulitzer prizes. Yeah, I wouldn't mind a Pulitzer or two.

But this kind of data collection has the potential for so much. It has news potential like Waite used it, but applications I personally enjoy like Foursquare are really just databases too.

One thing I was confused about was finding outliers within data. Other than using basic sort functions, I have no idea how I would go about finding anything that was out of the ordinary within sets of data.

Some of the databases mentioned in the chapter, such as The Beamer File or GasBuddy are very much niche based. But this is the trend journalism is going in, I've been told. Local news survives in many places entirely because it can't be gotten anywhere else.

Having a product you can't get anywhere else is essential for small-town newspapers to make the transition to online. Creating a tool that is unique and people go to for information will not only attract niche users, but niche advertisers.

Newspapers have a lot of duties. We're expected to be government watchdogs, interpret that which cannot be interpreted without excessive effort, to be the first to know about things, to communicate clearly, to write well, and perhaps the most important: to be dependable and the go-to source for information affecting you.

In order to be the go-to source, we have to give people what they want. Data provides more possibilities to do so.

Friday, September 24, 2010

My first day in Washington!

Oh man. Little Washington and I met. And it was awesome.

I learned a lot, that's for sure. Let's start with the way I was dressed:

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I wasn't sure what to wear, because I wasn't sure of what I would be doing. I was just told I would get my assignment on the way down there. So I decided better safe than sorry, I'd wear a professional dress. I did not fit in in Washington, I looked like I was from New York with my modern business dress and big sunglasses and leather purse.

Anyway, I was prepared for anything. Except maybe the incredible heat I encountered. But when I realized my professor had given me the wrong number to call, I faced my first challenge: finding wireless Internet to find out exactly what I was doing. In downtown Chapel Hill or Raleigh, this would be no problem. In Washington, it totally was.

We stopped first in this adorable little bookstore and asked the clerk if she knew where we could get it. She said the restaurant next door had it but you could sometimes pick it up here. So I sat on this little green chair and tried to pick it up but failed. The clerk told us a coffee shop downtown had wireless so we trekked that direction til we could finally pick something up.

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Then, I finally got my task for the day: if I were to move to Washington this weekend, find a place to live and find something to do.

I thought this would be no problem. So after wandering down and introducing myself at the Washington Daily News, I figured maybe the best place to start would be the classifieds. Sure.

First problem: I didn't have any quarters on me. So that was a fail.

There were some other boxes nearby with free real estate stuff, though, so I picked up the "apartment guide."

second problem: they were all in Greenville. I suppose I could commute from Greenville. But who would want this business as your newspaper? (I kid :P) But really, I thought I should stay in Washington.

So then I wandered into the visitor's center, where they directed me to Chamber of Commerce. While in the visitor's center, I mentioned I would be around this weekend, and asked where I could stay.

They told me about a gallery exhibit premier that sounded kind of cool and a couple of places that would have live music. I love me some live music in Raleigh. This is win. They told me about two places, the Pirates Pub and Notes Cafe.

Well I went over to the Chamber. It was right on the water yesss.

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While I was in there, I asked the roughly 25-year-old girl at the front desk what I could do this weekend. She said "for people our age" Notes Cafe and Pirates Pub were about our only options. Or I could go into Greenville.

Anyway, at the Chamber they gave me a list of apartment complexes with phone numbers. There were about 6 in Washington, 4 elsewhere in the County. Psh, this was too easy.

So I sat down to make some calls. Then I hit problem three: every single one of these apartments listed, even the ones fairly far out in the county, were full.

I was stumped. I figured there just weren't that many complexes in such a small town. so I figured the next place to look was the Internet, so I needed wireless again. Headed on in to Notes Cafe.

It was empty, so the owner called out to me once I walked in. I said awkwardly in an overly southern accent, "So I heard y'all had wireless in here?"

He welcomes me in and starts talking to me, gives me the wireless password, and asks me where I'm from. I say Raleigh. He asks me what I'm doing in Washington.

"I'm looking for an apartment. And I can't really tell you why I'm looking for an apartment. But I'm looking for one as soon as possible."

Then he tells me to check out Pamlico Properties. He tells me they'll give me the lowest prices.

I found so many cute places I'd love to live.

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This one's probably my favorite. It's beautiful, waterfront, middle of downtown, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, pet friendly, and a mere $850/mo. for the entire house. Plus, the interior walls are green! so cute.

So a little word of mouth there goes a long way. This'll be important to keep in mind.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wake up, Mr. West.

This Thursday, I'll be taking my first trip to Washington, N.C., so lovingly referred to as "Little Washington."

It's hard to decide how I should prepare for this trip. My job is going to solve some sort of problem, which I won't know until driving down on Thursday. Judging by the live Washington cam, it looks like a real busy town.

Judgment aside, I'm actually really psyched. I feel fairly attached to this town after I've already done all this thinking about it.

but I'm a little bummed I won't be shadowing the newspaper, to be honest.

I guess part of that's just me wanting to be inside my comfort zone. This is exactly where I shouldn't be if I want to create something truly new and innovative.

Well, here's my anticipations, however far off they may be. I think this could be useful. Here's how a city-slicker sees them, let's see if any of them are accurate
-I expect this to be a small town. Meaning I expect a lot of neighborhoods, not a lot of chain businesses. A few mom and pop stores.
-I expect to see a lot of water, since the town is on the coast.
-I expect to see a lot of gift shops.
-I expect to see a lot of neighbors talking on their front lawns, fostering that community atmosphere.
-I expect to see some white picket fences. This is small town N.C., after all.

Also, I expect their Eastern N.C. barbecue to be delicious and I fully intend to try some while in the area.

But all these stereotypes I have, whether or not they're useful, aren't what I'm looking for. Because the stereotypical Washington citizen is going to be sitting on their rocking chair reading their newspaper cover to cover, and that's not what I'm looking for.

So for everything that seems unusual, that I wouldn't expect, I'm coming for you.

get ready.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The world would never do.

I only regularly read two and only two Chapel Hill blogs, one typically thought of as conservative and one liberal.

So when I looked at all these different sites, databases based on particular areas such as Bluffton Today or Bakotopia, probably what struck me most was their promotion of different blogs.

They're filled with events and other things you might care about, although typically not what I'd consider news. In Bakersfield, I learned about the techno Funalicious show. I was also enlightened about the Bakersfield culture, through this really intelligent post about phat vs. fat.

So what's the news? I can't decide.

But then I look at sites like GasBuddy and my first reaction is OH MY GOD THIS IS SO COOL. and so useful. It may require a little planning ahead, but it's SO COOL. Being able to know the cheapest gas in my area, cheapest gas on my way?! SO COOL.

I don't know. With a site like GasBuddy, there's nothing to sort through. It's so easy to use and organize. But sites like Bakotopia just seem to me like they can't be useful. I think that might be where the journalists come in. Take these blog posts about funotopia and make them organizable. Put them on a calendar or sort them by venue. Sort through the phat vs. fat blogs and put them in a separate section for humor. I don't think I could use Bakotopia for news.

MooCo looked pretty cool too. Unfortunately, though, it had one weakness over the other. MooCo might be amazing if you know what you're looking for — the other sites could be resources for other wishing to learn about the town.

The only thing that concerns me here is that journalists aren't fact checking things people post online. While I don't see people posting false information on things like gas prices, I could see people posting falsities to push agendas or advertise. Maybe that's where we fit in, too. Or at least copy desk.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Time is all we got

My favorite piece of narrative journalism is probably the same as a lot of other people's favorite piece of narrative journalism.

"The girl in the Window" by Lane DeGregory, a St. Petersburg Times writer, won a Pulitzer for her incredible story of a girl who was neglected for years escaping and starting a new, better life, even with all the difficulties she still faced. It's an incredible story. The language, the reporting, everything just cuts the reader to the very core. I watched a video of DeGregory talking about how she found story ideas, and learned she got this amazing story through a public relations expert. They're good for something, huh?

That's the kind of story we all want to write! It's beautiful. Life changing. Makes you want to cry. Tells a story no one's heard. You feel like you really know this girl. It's wonderful. I'd be so proud if that story was my legacy.

So when I started to read The Washington Post's "The District's Lost Children," (and I'll admit I haven't yet finished, it's quite long), I began to think, "yeah, to be famous for a series like that wouldn't be so bad either."

But this story was written differently. There wasn't as much color or explicit detail (probably a good thing considering so much of it was about kids dying). But it's impact was just as incredible.

But I started reading about this because I was told Sarah Cohen, one of the coauthors, would come speak to my class about data-driven journalism.

Data driven journalism. When we're talking about how it would look for Washington or Whiteville, N.C., we've been talking about gas prices, about parking, movie theatre times. All things people truly want to know. Things that truly do affect our daily lives. But they're not what I see as journalism. They're not what I want my legacy to be.

But it got me thinking: if this many Washington children were dying due to failures in social services, wouldn't people want to know that too?

While I love DeGregory's story, I have to say, it doesn't have the same impact as Cohen's. That's because you grow attached to Dani, but she's only Dani. With DeGregory's story, you have hundreds of dead children.

But Cohen's story was presumably so famous because of her work with databases, records, and a year-long investigation. It's not the same as chatting with a public relations expert.

This product we're creating for Washington N.C. isn't limited to basic information. What do people really want to know? what they don't expect to see.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

There's A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven't Thought Of It Yet

Premise for this blog: In a hypothetical world, I've been given $1 million to start my own news product for a small town.

So. This is hard to say without knowing the specifics of said small town.
It's so hard to define what a town needs without being plugged in.
There's my disclaimer.
Also, I don't know budgeting so I'm just assuming a million is plenty enough for anything.

Hmm. Well what's news? what's necessary for effective news?

It would have to be interactive. Customizable. Personal.

But you also want that news you can't get anywhere else. That news that typically goes into briefs.

What are the bus schedule changes? How is the construction going to affect parking? Where can I get the cheapest gas?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is Wilmington Star-News' Myreporter.

My news outlet would have a component like this.

This would allow readers to get the news they desire — and only the news they desire. This way, people won't have to sort through pages and pages of things they don't care about but go straight to success.

It would also have a print component of some sort. Perhaps it would be smaller, but it would have something to read with your daughter on your lap or at the local general store. It would have to be there to provide the social aspect.

And in a small town, a newspaper has to have some kind of "refrigerator journalism" aspect. You can't get that on a web site. Printing it out and putting it up just isn't the same.

My paper would have extensive, exhaustive local coverage. I probably wouldn't buy an AP wire service. Maybe a cheaper wire service like McLatchy, for briefs and to fill the paper. I would use that money a wire service would cost to employ more local reporters. But also for things like more photojournalists and multimedia journalists. People love slideshows. And multimedia just makes news more fun and interactive.

My paper would also have monthly meetups, so journalists can have a part in the social aspect of in-person sharing the news.

Each one of these would offer a different product.

Now, these are just musings. Apologies for not being more specific.

I think I will be one day though. :)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

bye bye watchdog?

An online news source that's going to tell me exactly where I can buy the cheapest gas on the way to the highway? yes please. One that will inform me about where I can park in Chapel Hill? perf. One that updates me on the newest rock tours in North Carolina? sounds incredible.

It's the kind of product that my JOMC491 class is producing. But this article we're reading for it makes me wonder if that's what I should be wanting from my news source. All that stuff sounds awesome. Sorting through a Carrboro board of alderman agenda about which bank the town will use? psh boring.

News that's chosen by those with trained news judgement rather than the immediacy of what you specifically want can show you so many things you dind't know you cared about but should. I actually found the bank debate a fascinating conflict between local and big businesses once I got into it.

But more than that, they show you what can affect you that you wouldn't even know it.

You might not care about your town council's consent agenda. But you would, if it was passed and they had, without any discussion, given every council member health insurance for life, a story my reporting professor loves to tell.

But Kelly, you might say, that kind of news is what the papers are for. The Internet we can do something new and different.

Well, yeah. but here's my question. and it's a practical one, that I realize another class will probably attempt to answer: how are you going to afford all that?

how are you going to afford a specific news staff for every person's wants and needs?

The article states that a primary fuction of reporting is analysis. Well, if the only news you're getting is about where can you park or what movies are playing in your local theatre, how much analysis can you get?

It even said "Reporting the news means telling citizens what they would not otherwise know." But if we create a product that only gives you what specifically you're looking for, how will you ever find out something you wouldn't otherwise know?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Washington 4 W's

As I stated in an earlier post, I'm taking a look at Washington, N.C. this semester and how their news sources can provide online editorial product that they want. Here's what I've found so far in my research, in classic journalist who-what-when-where format:
What I know
WHO
• Fact: Washington has 9,583 people
o This is important because it gives an idea of how many people are in the immediate population the paper is serving.
• Fact: there are 1,219 more women than men in Washington
o This is important because women are likely a larger audience for our newspaper.
• Fact: As of September 2007, the Daily News had a circulation of 8,736 Monday through Saturday and 8,969 on Sunday
o This is important because it we know the size of the population we hope to serve.
• Fact: Washington is 24.7 percent under 18
o This is important because this percentage is the most likely to benefit from our editorial product.
• The median income according to the 2008 census estimate for Beaufort County is $46,574
o This is important because it is below the national average income
• The racial make up of Washington is: 51.8 percent white, 46 percent African American, 0.5 percent Asian
o This is important because it shows that while the town is diverse in terms of not that many white people, but
WHAT
• Fact: The June unemployment rate for Beaufort County is 11 percent.
o This is important because it is higher than the North Carolina unemployment rate of 10.1 percent
• As of August 31, Beaufort County had 31671 registered voters, 50.8 percent of which were Democrats, 30.3 percent Republican, 18.8 percent unaffiliated, and 16 libertarians.
o This is important because it shows the political persuasions of the county
• At least 60 percent of students at Washington High School are at adequate reading level, making it a “school of progress,” where 35 percent of N.C. high schools are. This is the middle of seven levels.
o This is important because it shows that there are many people, as much as 40 percent, that need catching up to be on adequate levels for their age.

WHEN
WHERE
• Washington is in Beaufort County.
o This is important because it suggests the newspaper will serve the people in the other towns within the county.
• Washington is on the coast
o This is important because it suggests tourism is likely an industry of some kind.
• The closest major city is Greenville, 20 miles west.
o This is important because it shows where people will likely go for services you can’t get in small towns.
What I want to know
WHO
• Where do people work?
o I’ll find this out by: interviewing the Washington Beaufort Chamber of Commerce
WHAT
• What are the big controversial issues in Washington?
o I’ll find this out by: interviewing the mayor, keeping up with the Washington Daily News Web site, talking to residents.
• Are people in Washington large computer users?
o I’ll find this out by talking to the mayor and residents.
WHEN
WHERE


I almost feel disappointed with my list. As a journalist, why am I having so much trouble coming up with "whens"?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nothing's basic enough.

I always get mad at editors when they tell writers their stories are "just" going online.'

Online has tons of advantages to print news. I could rattle them off, but then I'd get off topic. No one's arguing with me here. Just because your article doesn't make it into a print edition certainly doesn't mean it doesn't get read, and it doesn't mean it doesn't have impact. If we can still get sued with a "just online" story, we can certainly make a positive impact as well.

Yes, I talk the talk.

I'd love to have a very strong web presence. But I kind of want someone else to do all the building for me. Unfortunately, web designers are expensive.

So tonight I tried to make my own web page. Unfortunatley I have failed so far.

I activated my hosting space on the school's Web site. I bought a domain. but I couldn't figure out where to go from there.

I feel like if I'm having trouble this early in the process I might should be worriedt.

There are so many steps. I tried it all. Asking for hep. Googling it. I feel like that's a major problem with a lot of site building FAQ's: nothing's basic enough. I was so lost the entire time, and I didn't know which was host and which was domain, all the basic terms that seem so obvious once you hear them are too hard to find to lok to use them.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dream Job

It's always a peculiar question to me when people ask me what my "dream job" is.

I have a few prepared answers.

Some days I say, "The Miami Herald." I'm obsessed with McLatchy papers, and I'd kill to live in Miami. I was born there and I just think it's the most incredible place.

Other days, I say "A war reporter." War has always fascinated me, and I'd love to live where the action is. To live, breathe, get so absorbed in it, tell all the different stories associated with war.

But my last prepared response is probably the most accurate.

"I want to be Woodward and Bernstein."

Netflix describes "All the President's Men" as "The film that launched a thousand J-school students." Now, I didn't see it until about a month ago. But I read about these men in my history books, and knew they were my heroes.

I want to change the world with something I write.

Now, the reason this is the most accurate is because it's the most versatile. It's not medium specific. I can't plan to be a Herald journalist, because who knows what the Herald will be by the time I graduate. But obviously, the demand for good investigative journalism will be around.

In Ryan Thornburg's book "Producing Online News: Digital Skills, Stronger Stories," he details the newer forms of media and the many, many media available. It can seem a little overwhelming.

I've seen some great examples in my time in North Carolina.

A reporter on The Daily Tar Heel, Eliza Kern, produced an independent blog about the New Hampshire primaries this summer called "Primary Wire." She might have single-handedly ended one candidates campaign. The power of blogging is huge.

And my hometown newspaper, The News and Observer of Raleigh, recently produced an incredible series of investigative pieces about tampered practices in the State Bureau of Investigation. And the multimedia for them is just incredible.

It's all there. The story told straight from the victim's mouth. I can hear their own expression. I can see the actual photographs that prove the lies. I can read the full, fictional confession. I can experience so much that never would have made it into the print edition.

I would love to be the old-fashioned journalist who writes those hard-hitting stories for the front package. But I'd be missing out on so many wonderful ways to reach audiences.

Blogs are best for niches. I mean, my blog is about the future of media. Journalists will hopefully find it interesting. If you're a medical researcher, you probably won't read it. I'm okay with that.

Eliza's blog wasn't really interesting to me. I never really read it until she made a huge difference, to be honest, because national politics have never really been my thing, but especially not in New Hampshire specifically.

Blogs make it so you don't have to work for the Washington Post to make history.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Electricityscape

At 10 p.m. tonight when my Carrboro Board of Alderman story was being read for the Daily Tar Heel, my managing editor said "Classes were kind of a slap in the face" (or something like that, this admittedly might be a misquote.)

I said classes totally rejuvenated me. I had three classes today, and honestly couldn't be more looking forward to this semester. Today I had three journalism classes though, and I can't promise I'll be saying this tomorrow after Spanish.

I'm beginning a new class titled "Public Affairs Reporting for the New Media."

It's an alternative style class, and I'm not sure what's going in it to be perfectly honest, but it's going to be the subject of the majority of my blog updates for the next semester.

I'll be working with a few classmates to develop a new online editorial product for the small newspapers in Whiteville and Washington, N.C.

I'll specifically be looking at (Little) Washington. After Google Maps-ing it and realizing this town is about two blocks from the beach, I decided I made the right decision.

But to be serious, I couldn't be more excited about this. As my reporting professor told me this morning, local news is the bread and butter of newspapers. Local news is what makes these papers necessary and it's what makes them niche publications.

And after a year on the DTH City Desk, I love me some local news. Local politics, school board, business, whatever. I've become so absorbed in Chapel Hill. In just a year I feel like a citizen of Orange County so much more than I ever was in my 17 years as a citizen of Raleigh.

I've also realized the importance of being plugged in — and I mean really plugged in — to report comprehensively.

And while I don't think I'll be doing too much reporting or coverage directing in these unfamiliar towns, it'll be a challenge to get the sense of Washington and what kind of news they need without spending a decent amount time there, developing strong source relationships and getting knee-deep in stories.

But I'll be tracking that journey here. Every step of learning about these towns that I literally know nothing about besides their proximity to ocean and designing their news resources. It'll likely be a lot of trial and failure. But I'm excited for the trying.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Coffee and journalism: friends or foes?

It's no secret that I love coffee.

I used to go to the Daily Grind or the Pit Stop nearly every day, after my two cups of coffee I need to wake up in the morning. Now that the Daily Tar Heel has moved downtown, I'm broadening my horizons to Jack Sprat or Caribou.

And I'm not unusual. Most journalists drink as much or more coffee than I.

So when I read this interesting blog post by journalism.co.uk that asserted that the local coffee shop could become the new newsroom, I was thrilled. I love to work in a coffee shop, have since high school. Coffee shops are somewhat a hobby of mine.

The post made valid points. By being in the city, working in the place of your article, it's easy to make new connections you wouldn't make in a newsroom. You get more plugged into your community. I've actually done some reporting in coffee shops in the past. And they're a great place to look at bulletin boards for story ideas.

But what I don't think it's accounting for is all the benefits of working in a newsroom.

As assistant city editor, part of my job is to oversee and be a resource for my staffers.

If you don't have much reporting experience, it is so, so, so much more useful to work inside a newsroom than to make your calls and write from your local Starbucks.

When learning to write an article, there are so many questions you won't even realize you have. And one of the best strategies you can have is to ask questions.

Working in the same room as your editors is the best thing you can do. Realistically, you're not going to call your editor 6 times in one morning with questions. But if you're in the same room, it's so much easier.

But after you've learned how to write a basic article, there's still so many resources in a newsroom. Probably the most valuable of these is my coworkers.

When I'm lost for sources, I talk to my fellow writers and editors. It doesn't matter if they're on city desk or know the subject at all, they can often see angles you can't because you're so absorbed. This also works for finding new angles. The people that I work with tend to have great news judgement, and between several of you just talking you can perfect the perfect angle.

My point is this: there should be a balance. You should be out in your community as a city journalist, whether it be in the form of a coffee shop, community center, park or anything else. You should be working as hard as you can to be plugged in in your community.

But that doesn't mean making the community your newsroom. At least not for my work in journalism thus far. Take advantage of all the resources at your disposal. And never underestimate your fellow college journalists.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Social media: Rules, Rumors and Romances.

Social media never, ever gets dull.

It's amazing, the capabilities of it. I've written before about its capabilities for news a few times already. I've already addressed its weaknesses. But I've never really talked about it as a social tool.
second non-newspaper post of the blog! WHOO!

Again--the capabilities are amazing. We make friends via social media. We hurt people via social media.

There's decorum, rules to be followed. There are so many examples I could look at in college life. But I'd like to focus on romantic life, because let's face it, people are freakin' nosy about relationships, and everyone wants to read about it.
  • Boy and girl date. It goes on Facebook. Boy and girl break up. It goes on Facebook. Girl has at least 4 comments, 3 messages, and 10 texts before the next day asking if she's okay or wants to talk. Many of these are from people she's met about twice, or who she has never even spoken to about anything non-work related.
  • Boy meets girl. Boy and girl kiss that same night. Girl comes home, gets either very excited because he adds her as a friend, or gets very upset because he never does. The latter says to girl: "I don't want to talk to you again, so I'm not even going to bother." Girl never sends the request. That's the boy's job. Like asking someone out for the first time.
  • Girl and boy Facebook chat frequently. Girl has a question for boy about an event they will both attend, but she is not near a computer. Girl has to agonize over whether or not to call him. This is a new medium. Is it weird to call him? Would a text message be better? Is that too friendly for the boy and girl? Are they on that level?
  • Girl and boy talk a lot. Boy and girl flirt a lot. They see each other a couple of times, never anything serious. Girl changes her privacy settings. He can't see her pictures anymore. Says to boy: I don't even want you thinking about me.
It could go on and on. There are rules. There are things you do. And things you don't do. There are very predictable responses and very readable signals.

I've personally experienced the first one. As if ending a long relationship wasn't enough on your emotions. You have to deal with people you barely know asking overly personal questions, most of which I just ignored. But then that one person who saw it on her news feed texted you asking if you want to talk about it--and you told her no--goes and tells the whole office, and then you're the subject of all kinds of "you okay?" headnods. And I've seen all the others by good friends. Social media is a separate language.

And while I believe in social media, it's just getting more and more hurtful.

Formspring. Ohh, Formspring. Subject to so much controversy, it is.

I've had one for a while but rarely use it. People used to ask me questions. Some of which were overly personal but whatever, I dealt with it. It's all the rage in high schools. I just have it linked to my Facebook page. The hate questions though--I haven't experienced those until this week.

It's hard to see what people really think of you sometimes. Even if you already know that you're the subject of gossip, it's hard to have it reinforced.

I expected some questions I didn't want to answer. I even expected some hate. What I was not expecting, however, was all the hate I got about my hair.
Fun samples:
  • "Dying your hair doesn't make you interesting, just as going to UNC-CH doesn't make you intelligent."
  • "I suppose it's mildly clever, trying to hide an eating disorder with that horrifying color."
  • "Bleach blonde is neither unique nor different (redundant, by the way); it's potentially the most overused, underwhelming, vomit-inducing excuse for decency that nearly every delusional, ignorant monstrosity uses in the pitiful attempt to become accepted and deemed beautiful."
All of this anonymous, of course. I asked for this when I set it up. I just couldn't figure it out: why my hair?

I showed one of my roommates. She suggested it was an ex-boyfriend. I thought it might have been a girl I work with. Or it could have been someone indirectly involved with an untrue rumor I've had the misfortune of learning is floating around about me.

But I'll never know. All I know is, somebody really hates me. And I would never know how much if I hadn't created a Formspring.

The story never changes. Girl kills herself because of Myspace harassment. Girl kills herself when someone talks to her mean on Facebook. Now, Formspring is the new excuse to go kill yourself.

It's a changing world that's driving us further apart in a lot of ways. But driving us together in others.

We can get our news sent to our phones. We can get our friends Tweets sent to our phones so that we never even have to talk to them. We can catch up with our friends by looking through their pictures and they never even have to know.

There's a false sense of closeness there, it seems like. but who says that's false?

Sometimes my world feels so small. Sometimes it feels so big I drown in it. Social media has the power to personalize everything, but completely overwhelm you at the same time.

ps: complete tangent: I've always taken it as a complement when someone tell me I look like I have an eating disorder. Is that a bad thing?

!!!UPDATE!!!
figured out who the formspringer was. And I WON. I feel like I had such a victory. THIS is why I stay on Web sites like this.

Now that I've said who she is, she is no longer harassing me. Because she feels so embarrassed, probably. haha.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Contrast in governments' accessibility

Working for the city section of The Daily Tar Heel, I've talked to a lot of local politicians.

In writing daily stories, I'm frequently on deadline, and only rarely do I need one specific council member as a source. So I'll place calls in the morning, and by afternoon I've usually had at least one person call me back.

I'm doing a project for my Citizens and Media class where I'm researching the Greensboro government and the local media's coverage of it. It was my job to speak to community officials and find out their opinions on the local media.

I called the only number available on the Greensboro's city council Web site, asked to be connected to the mayor, and was directed to his e-mail. Each to speak to the city council members led to the same result.

It's been several weeks since these nine attempts, and I've received two replies.

One from the mayor, William Knight, only to tell me that he would not be speaking to me, and only one reply from one council member who was willing to talk to me.

Quite frankly, I'm appalled by the inaccessibility and lack of transparency in the city's government. For seven members of their council to ignore me completely and the mayor to decline just shows a complete disconnect from listening to people.

What? Are they afraid I'm going to expose some big secret of theirs? Afraid my questions will be too probing? I explained the purposes and intentions of the project in the e-mail. I think it was pretty clear what I was looking for.

This makes me appreciate the government of Chapel Hill so much more. Members are always willing to speak with me and always call me back. I really feel like I know what's going on with local government and members usually try their best to make government accessible.

In my experience, people who are used to talking to media personnel are less afraid to talk to me and will more frequently call me back much sooner than those we are not. When I call the mayor, he'll speak with me. When I called Orange County Social Services for a story last semester repeatedly over the course of a week, no one ever called me back.

Councils should know how to talk to media. It's a necessary part of an informed citizenry. How are the media supposed to effectively report on government actions if they cannot speak to the government?

Granted, they may have given me more attention if I were calling from a more official news source rather than as a student. But the fact that they would deny me from learning more about their city and their government is enforcing the same principle.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Say anything (else)

I'm not really supposed to have opinions on things.

This bothers a lot of people. I mean, obviously, I have them. I'll share them in a one-on-one setting probably, but I really shouldn't be a member of the UNC Young Democrats or the College Republicans. To be in those organizations doesn't technically violate the conflict of interest policy of The Daily Tar Heel, but a conflict is present, especially when I'm covering local politics.

The other day, a friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall asking me what my opinion was on the DTH's stance on gender-neutral language. I do have a definite opinion, but I had to ignore her question. Student election season, I can't support a candidate who I truly believe could do the school well. I can't protest something I think is wrong and I can't sign just about any petition.

Journalists don't make news, they report on it.

But all these rules, all these restrictions which limit our political participation--what are they're actually doing? It's clear that they make us appear less biased as a paper. But all that does is limit an appearance. The biases of each individual are still there. And we can try, try, try in editing and writing to make our stories as neutral as possible. But bias is impossible to eliminate 100 percent.

I could join a student political organization if I really wanted to, but all I could really do is buy a T-shirt. I couldn't participate in most activities. So I've never joined any of them.

I was speaking to a friend about this the other day, and he asked me what was the point of all that. He said all these rules do is hide the bias from the readers; but, if the readers knew the bias of the writer, couldn't that help them be more informed when reading the article?

This question is especially pertinent in today's age of political blogs. Everyone disregards them because they're biased. But if we know the bias of them going into reading them, and we read a variety of viewpoints, we could disregard the stuff that is clearly a product of pure bias and become informed on issues from all viewpoints.

But it's a complicated question. Maybe on some things, reporters don't know their own bias. I've always felt like I don't really have a political leaning that's clearly right or left. To label myself as having a single political stance could be totally misleading.

So journalists do their best to present an issue and interview those who are on the winning and losing sides, the positives and the negatives. Biases may interfere.

While political, opinion blogs are good for some things, a news source with no blatant bias is still extremely important. Sure, we can't really eliminate all bias in the newspapers, but we can get close if we want to and try to.

The reason is this: the first thing you read is going to shape your opinion.

If you read a news account of an event, that's going to impact your bias the least. If you read an opinion piece on an event and it's the first thing you've heard about it, you're going to be impacted by that opinion. And you might not then read any other posts or articles. Articles that at least appear unbiased are incredibly important, as long as we fight to combat that bias.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I ♥ City. (It's actually a town)

I can tell you the name of my hometown's mayor. I can tell you who ran against him in the last local election.

However, I can't name every member of Raleigh's city council. I don't think anyone in my high school could.

I followed local government a bit in high school. Before I could vote, I sort of held the opinion that specific names didn't matter as much as knowing activity. So occasionally I'd look for write ups in the local paper. But even those were far behind.

Now I work on the city desk of The Daily Tar Heel, and I'd venture to say I'm incredibly informed. I also believe that if any person in Chapel Hill read most city articles in the paper, they would also be incredibly informed.

Of course, that's never going to happen. That's just dreaming. If people did that, newspapers wouldn't be in trouble.

A recent poll by the Civitas Institute revealed that less than half of polled likely voters knew which political party was in charge of the North Carolina House of Representatives or Senate.

At least among young voters, I think a lot of it has to do with habit. I succumbed, as I know many did, to this idea that if I couldn't vote, it didn't matter. Then you turn 18, and if you haven't been following politics, it's quite hard to start.

Writing a story about young voter turnout in local elections last October, I heard a lot of different excuses for students not voting. Here are some of my favorite excuses for not voting, that unfortunately didn't make it into the published version of the article:
  • I feel like I'm voting into a hole here. Everyone here thinks the same. If I vote back in Asheville I feel like I can actually make a difference.
  • I go home every weekend, so I don't feel like I really live here or there, so I don't really feel like I should vote.
  • I just don't know enough about any of the candidates to feel informed enough to vote.
So, the first one made me laugh. It was hard not to burst out laughing during that interview. The second excuse is completely illegitimate; just pick a place to vote and at least get your voice heard half the time. And as for the third one: that's what we're trying to combat, isn't it?

Learning about politics isn't sexy. It's not fun. Because of that, it's frequently not front page news.

It's not necessarily a fault on the part of the media. It's a lot easier for fires to be front page news.

It's sometimes hard for me to think about how to improve awareness about local government because it's something I love to learn about now. This time last year, however, I was completely unaware at how it worked and about the government in my own city. All that it took for me to become interested was to become, well, part of it.

Local politics affects so much more of your everyday life than national. National politics aren't going to tell you about local EMS funding. They aren't going to tell you about your local library's possible expansion.

We need a way to make people a part of city government. I bet you'll be hooked once you are.

So how can news organizations do that? Here's just a few ideas:
  1. Pictures. News media needs a way to come up with more entertaining photos for the front page. Part of the reason local politics never make it to the front page is that no one wants a picture of a bunch of people sitting around a desk as the main graphic. What is the city council going to be talking about? Is a photo possible of that?
  2. Focus on the personal aspect of a story. Even if the action doesn't personally affect you, it might affect others in a way that you would care. When Chapel Hill's government approved a second Walgreen's, it didn't affect most people, but it still made front page because everyone could relate to that poor old man who lost his livelihood because of the decision.
  3. How does it affect the average reader? Most things do, in one way or another.
Following local government is really worth the effort.
Get involved and see.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sports>Politics. :(

A group of students and I recently conducted a study of six major newspapers: The Winston-Salem Journal, The Greensboro News & Record, The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer in Raleigh, The Wilmington StarNews, and The Fayetteville Observer. These are six major papers in major North Carolina cities all over the state, and as far as I know, fairly well respected.

The goal in the analysis was to look at the numerical distribution of government and politics articles against other kinds of articles. We looked at the numbers of different types of articles in nearly every edition over the course of two weeks.

Before I begin, here are the results of the overall study:

84 newspaper editions total

Local politics/govt stories: 336 (6.4%)

State politics/govt: 272 (5.1%)

National politics/govt: 569 (10.8%)

Sports: 1,432 (27.1%)

Other: 2,674 (50.6%)

Total articles: 5,283


Upon first glance: oh em gee, more than a fourth of our newspapers are about GAMES?! What a waste of our time! No wonder we're such an uninformed society! Less than a fourth of our information is about politics???

Except, I think there's a lot more to these numbers than is implied.

First, the sports thing: yes, there's a lot of about sports published every day. But keep in mind: there are simply a lot of sports that happen every single day. There's undoubtedly still many games that do not make it in to the paper because there's not enough room. There are simply a lot of things in sports that happen every single day, many of which are unexpected (precisely what makes something news), so it's natural that there are so many more sports stories.

Yes. They're games. Yes. That's silly. I personally have never followed sports, and have thus never honestly read sports stories unless it was required for a journalism class. But a lot of people do care about sports. They ARE news. They are a huge part of American culture. So it's really not that shameful that there are so many more sports stories than political stories. There's just a lot in sports that happens each day.

And true, maybe these papers only contain 22 percent political news. But there's a lot more to be being an informed citizen than knowing the latest political American government news. Take business journalism for instance--there were several articles on economy and businesses and other things related. I doubt anyone would say that this is not a legitimate part of society that would not be important to being informed. But all these articles went into "other."

International politics, which can have a lot to do with and sometimes greatly affect American politics, also went into "other," but are greatly important to being informed.

In fact, I would venture a guess to say that if a newspaper distribution study was done on "things important to being an informed citizen" and "things not important to being an informed citizen," these results would be a lot less depressing.

There is one great tragedy in these results, though. Only 6.4 percent of news were about local politics. Almost 11 percent were national news. What?

It's not surprising. National news always get the bigger headlines. But it shouldn't be that way. City and county politics will almost always affect you more than national news will. It's quite unfortunate that the local story and national story numbers aren't reversed.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This is a forgery, This is a forgery

Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, and Farrah Fawcett all died within three days of each other.

I honestly can't remember how I got that information. It was everywhere. I probably got it from my mom leaving the TV on with Extra playing while I was eating lunch. Or maybe it interrupted my marathon of "16 and Pregnant" with one of those MTV news bulletins. Man, I always hated those. Forget Michael Jackson, I want my pregnant teenagers who make me feel better about my own life!

When I logged onto Twitter during those few days, one of the Top Tweets along with Jackson's death, was "Britney Spears dead." It was also a trending search on Google. I couldn't find any news site to back it up, but I was legitimately curious as to whether Spears had died as well.

Social media had lied to me. The days passed, Spears was alive. She even sang a tribute in Jackson's memory.

Social media is like Wikipedia. It's a good place to start, terrible place to finish.

I've learned news from Social more times than I can count. I learned about Brittany Murphy's death, Barack Obama winning the Nobel Prize, and as I said in an earlier post, Kanye West's famous "Imma let you finish," blunder, all from either Tweets or Facebook status updates. Of course, I had to verify all of them with actual news sources.

Notice a trend here, though: people don't tweet local news. In fact, in my experience, people rarely tweet news besides entertainment news. I'll be the first to admit I have Lady Gaga's and Nicole Richie's updates sent to my phone. But if I want to get news, I have to check the Twitters of the Daily Tar Heel or something similar.

In logging into Twitter just now to link to the DTH, I have found the perfect example. Trending Topic: "Criminalize miscarriages."

My first reaction: you can go to jail for your own child dying inside you?

So I clicked it. I read the article all the tweets linked to. All the tweets said something to the effect of "Mormon stupidity", or "You can get jailed for falling down the stairs?" or something like that.

People tweeted this without reading the article. The law was submitted in Utah in hopes of preventing an indecent the state had just seen of a 17-year-old girl paying a man $150 to beat her stomach in hopes of inducing a miscarriage. The baby was born anyway, and given up for adoption. The law only forbids intentional miscarriage, and abortion is still completely legal.

The tweets lied to me today, too.

So no, I don't trust my friends for news. Yes, I trust newspapers. But my friends are a great place to start to look for news. But normal people are not dependable because they're not held accountable. Newspapers, on the other hand, are.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I'm gonna shout it from the rooftops, cos I'm tired of being alone.

As I was walking home from the library today, I passed the streetlight with the Farewell sticker on it and smiled.

Every time I see those stickers, I smile. Not really because of Farewell--I mean, I like them a lot--but it reminds me of all the unspoken connections I have to the thousands of Carolina students I've never met.

I remember the first time I saw one of the stickers. I drove up to UNC with Jeremy in an extremely failed attempt to buy my textbooks. After we failed that, we decided not to waste all the time driving to Chapel Hill, so we just walked around the campus and looked at all the pretty buildings.

We walked to Carroll, the building I knew I would be spending so much time in, and we walked to Ehringhaus to see the dump I'd be living in for a year, and we walked to the stadium, the Dean Dome. Then we were hungry. Hello first meal on Franklin Street.

Walking up from South Campus we saw the sticker stuck on a Daily Tar Heel box. Jeremy was the first person I saw them with, so it was only perfect that it was with him on this new frontier that I saw the sticker.

I felt a connection to Carolina in a way I hadn't yet.

I figured there would be some students here who also loved mindless pop-punk, jumping up and down, electronica and silly hats, but it was like I realized all the glory that college could be. It was like, I'm not limited to journalism. There are so many opportunities ahead of me that I never even saw because I was so bummed about going to UNC in the first place. I suddenly felt connected to someone I had never met, I probably never will.

The extra irony, of course, is that the sticker was on a Daily Tar Heel box, where I've already made so many connections and spent so many hours at, much more than Farewell ever could. But forget that.

I smile every time I see the sticker and I still don't know why. I mean, it makes sense that there would be fans here, the band is from Greensboro after all. There's really nothing surprising.

But it still makes me smile every time. I wish I could meet the person who posted that.

And today, on my way home from the journalism library on my day off from DTH, I still felt as refreshed and connected to the UNC campus as I did that day during the summer.

[non journalism post ftw!]