Stop whining! Lisa Williams on journalists learning to code

Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams is a media person who taught herself to code. That does not make her a magical unicorn. You can do this too -- and you probably should.

Why should journalists and other news/media professionals learn to code? More importantly: HOW can they learn to code?

Today my good friend, mentor, and fellow ass-kicker Lisa Williams (founder of Placeblogger.com) gave a great presentation on this theme at TEDXPoynter, a one-day event at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. I watched the livestream, and I’m sure Poynter will post the video online later. (I’ll embed that when it’s up.)

Lisa is a media professional who took the initiative to learn how to code — in part so that she wouldn’t be totally dependent on other people to realize her ideas, and also because “Corruption sucks!” Having basic coding skills gives you the power to visualize data and create other resources which make it harder for the powers that be to claim that the problems you’re spotlighting are mere “isolated incidents.”

(More from Lisa about this and other reasons why media pros (or anyone) should learn to code: Code to make a point; code to make change; on newshacking. Plus her learn to code resources guide.)

Lisa observed that when she talks to journalists about learning to code, they often ask her, “But isn’t storytelling important? Do we really have to learn how to code?”

Her response: Stop whining!

I’m totally with Lisa on this. Which is why this summer, after I move back to Boulder, CO, I’ll be devoting regular time most days to learn how to code. And you can do it, too…

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PR fail: World’s dumbest news embargo

I cover technology for CNN.com and elsewhere, so I get a lot of pitch e-mails from PR folks. Some of these are very useful and well targeted. Most are rather “meh.”

…And a few are utterly stupid.

Here’s one such e-mail I received today, in its entirety. Name of the PR person, PR firm, and client are removed to protect the guilty:

I’m writing today on behalf of [LINK TO CLIENT] a leader and innovative provider of device-centric, [TECHNOLOGY] solutions. They wanted to offer you the opportunity to receive some news which is under embargo until 9 a.m. CET on Monday, Feb. 27. If you are open to receiving news under embargo and agree to this embargo time, I would be happy to provide you with the news.

Seriously: I never heard of the company, I don’t know what this might be about, and I have no way to gauge whether their news is important or interesting enough for me to check out at all — yet THEY want ME to agree to an embargo in advance, before I have any idea whether they’re potentially relevant?

Folks, you always have to prove your information or news is worth somebody’s time. Just tell me why I should care, why this is relevant to me or my work. Always. There is no point in being coy.

And no, I’m not going to click the link in your e-mail to find out more about the company. I don’t know you. This looks like spam.

So I flagged this message as spam.

Associated Press opens North Korea news bureau, they’ll fit right in!

No, really:

Associated Press opens news bureau in North Korea | World news | guardian.co.uk.

…As if the news business wasn’t already Kafkaesque. Well, AP is an appropriate choice for this. 

Having done some critical coverage of several boneheaded AP strategies in digital media over the last few years, I think they see eye to eye with NK regarding the dangers of criticism, and how to respond to it.

I’m not kidding: See the response from Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations, to a 2010 KDMC story I wrote about the controversial AP News Registry program

Input needed: HOW could a news site be a truth vigilante?

I’ve been following, with interest, the recent flap sparked by this Jan. 12 column by New York Times public editor (ombudsman), Arthur Brisbane: Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

Brisbane asked NYT readers: “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

This led to consternation from many Times readers, who believed this kind of revelation is part of the basic job of any news organization. GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram offered a good roundup of the flap, and at The Guardian Clay Shirky wrote an eloquent deeper exploration of the mindset disconnect between the Times and its readers.

Many people are debating the ethical implications of this issue. However, I’m wondering about the practicalities and possible opportunities.

If the NYT (or any news organization) does decide to point out when sources offer inaccurate “facts,” HOW might they accomplish that? Might there be good options, especially online, that could serve this purpose in addition to inserting relevant text into stories?… Continue reading

Occupy Wall Street is not “Birth of Venus”

Probably like most people, I’ve been hearing about the Occupy movement through media, both news coverage and social media. I won’t pretend to understand it, I haven’t been following closely. But it has bugged me how I keep hearing that the movement lacks clarity and focus.

Yesterday I listened to an excellent Radio Open Source podcast episode. Christopher Lydon interviewed Mark Blyth, a political economist at Brown University, about what he’s been learning about the Occupy movement by talking to protestors in Boston — and putting it into a global economic, social, and historic context that I found sobering.

So give it a listen:

Mark Blyth (6): Going to school on “Occupy Wall St.”

One point Blyth made that particularly struck me — and that I especially wish every journalist would take to heart — is this: The labor movement didn’t come out of nowhere. It didn’t spring into being fully formed with collective bargaining and arbitration procedures. It coalesced gradually, in fits and starts, from a society struggling with the “volatility constraint” that comes with rampant inequality.

Birth is messy. Infants aren’t born talking in complete sentences. So don’t look at the Occupy movement expecting this:

Boticelli's "Birth of Venus"

After listening to all the context Blyth offered, I suspect we’re watching the earliest phases of a different kind of labor movement: the labor pangs that precedes the birth of something that might eventually walk and talk. Something that probably won’t go by the name “Occupy.”

I only hope the world can collectively raise this baby right.

ONAcamp Denver, June 23: Resources for my mobile journalism session

I’m back in Colorado for a few days, and in a few minutes I’m heading over to ONAcamp Denver — a daylong event with training and workshops in digital journalism. My session runs 9-10am MT. Here’s the info, if you’re going:

Adirondacks (Tivoli 440/540): Mobile Reporting
As more and more users turn to mobile devices for news and information, journalists should be including the platform in their news gathering and delivery. But how? This session will take a big-picture look at trends in the mobile industry, the differences between mobile and the web, the significance of having a mobile presence and the best tools to use in the mobile space.

Here are some things I’ll be mentioning…
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Why facts will never be enough to make people believe; and why journalists should learn to roll with that

Right now I’m reading Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus — a book about the bad science, bad science media coverage, and quirks of human psychology that fostered the anti-vaccine movement (by parents concerned that vaccines cause autism, despite the wealth of peer-reviewed science to the contrary).

I’m reading it because I’m fascinated and concerned why people (sometimes in large numbers) tend to cling to beliefs/positions fiercely long after they’ve been factually debunked/disproven, whether by science or by journalistic, legal, or other systematic investigation. (WMD, anyone?)

This kind of anti-fact, anti-science backlash tends to really confuse and frustrate journalists and scientists.

It sucks when you work really hard to do the fairest, most systematic investigation of a topic that deeply affects many people’s lives — but the very people who are suffering most from the topic of your research refuse to believe what you have to say, or accuse you of being part of some conspiracy to hoodwink them. And meanwhile, your less skilled or less ethical colleagues are producing their own research and reports designed to foster fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

That generates considerable friction, controversy, and conflict. And worse, it delays the discovery and implementation of real solutions.

Why does this happen — and what can journalists and scientists do about it?…

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Mea culpa: I can’t be an off-duty journalist

Is a journalist ever off-duty? I tend to think not — and yesterday I feel like I neglected my duty. It’s bugging me.

It was Memorial Day, I decided to go for a long bike ride to see the beach at Alameda. I needed the exercise, and the weather was perfect. I was enjoying myself greatly — but as I was biking back along Crown Beach in Alameda, I saw police, firefighters, and onlookers gathered. I asked what was happening, and they told me that a man was stranded offshore. A firefighter pointed out into the water, and I could see a head bobbing above the waves, about 150 feet out.

“It’s shallow out there, he’s standing,” said the firefighter. And indeed, the man didn’t seem to be struggling. But he wasn’t waving or shouting for help, either.

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Local, mobile, paywalls, Google, more: My latest KDMC news for digital journalists posts

Over the last month I’ve fallen behind on noting here what I’ve been writing at the News for Digital Journalists blog on the web site of the Knight Digital Media Center. Here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve covered there since late February…

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The mobile landscape: 10 things media pros should know

What’s the current state of mobile media, what might the future hold, and what should media and communications professionals know about it? This week I’m speaking at a boatload of sessions on these topics at the Annenberg school for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Their event is Mobile News Week 2011.

Many of these sessions involve me explaining important trends and context likely to affect how people use phones as media tools. Here are 10 key points I think are worth noting…

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