Updates from the Lands of Life & Work

Apologies for the lengthy radio silence. It’s been a busy and complicated couple of months — so busy that I never did write the 2013 year-end wrap I’d planned. Life and work served up some changes from the predictable, and writing fell off the table. A dose of reality.

In the past, each of these nuggets might have been posts of their own, but to get caught up here’s a mix of work and life highlights in the old USA TODAY Newsline format:

Mass killings interactive: After a year-long effort, last December we published an immersive data viz called Behind the Bloodshed: The Untold Story of America’s Mass Killings. Inspired by the events surrounding the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, it lays out the facts about mass killings over the last 8+ years: They happen often and are most often the result of family issues. My team at Gannett Digital collaborated with USA TODAY’s database team, and a post I wrote for Knight-Mozilla OpenNews’ Source blog explains our tech and process. We and our readers were super-happy with the results. We won the journalistic innovation category of the National Headliner Awards and made the short-lists for the Data Journalism Awards and the Online Media Awards.

mk2

 

NICAR 2014: The annual IRE data journalism conference, held in Baltimore this year, was great. About 1,000 attendees made for the largest turnout ever, and a “Getting Started With Python” session I taught was packed (here’s the Github repo). Highlights always include catching up with friends and colleagues, and as usual I focused on sessions with practical takeaways, such as learning more about d3.js and Twitter bots. Chrys Wu, as always, rounds up everything at her site. Next, I’m hoping to catch the IRE conference in San Francisco in June.

Relaunching our platform: For the last four months at work, I’ve taken a detour away from interactives to help our team that’s extending our publishing platform across all our community news and TV station properties. In short, versions of the complete makeover USA TODAY got in 2012 are now appearing on sites ranging from the Indianapolis Star to Denver’s KUSA-TV. It’s more than cosmetic, though, as Gannett Digital’s also moving all the sites to a shared CMS and Django- and Backbone-powered UX. In addition to desktop, there’s all-new mobile web, Android, iPad and iPhone apps. It’s been tiring but rewarding. In the process of personally launching the Wilmington News Journal, Springfield News-Leader, Montgomery Advertiser and several other sites, I’ve gained a better view of the breadth of Gannett’s journalism and found some great opportunities for collaboration.

Other cool work things: While I was relaunching websites, the rest of our interactives team collaborated with USA TODAY’s Brad Heath on his project exploring how felons can escape justice by crossing state lines. I’ve started refactoring the scraper behind our tropical storm tracker to get it ready for the upcoming season. We’ve been bringing Mapbox training to our newsrooms, which has given me the chance to finally dig deeper into TileMill and the Mapbox API. And you might have heard we have some big elections coming up in November. Finally, I recently tried both Google Glass and the Oculus Rift. Check back in five years on whether they’ve changed/saved journalism, but overall the experience reminded me of how I felt when I began using a web browser. Clunky but filled with potential.

Family life: The biggest event of the last while was another detour. At the end of 2013, my wife was hit by a devastating illness that required a lengthy hospital stay and convalescence. In the interests of privacy, I’m not going to post details. But it’s true that these events are life-changers — sitting in the hospital ICU with a first-row seat to a life-and-death drama changes perspectives and priorities quickly. I am sure the lessons we learned from and about people and life will play a big role in how the rest of 2014 plays out for us. (Oh, and before you ask: she’s doing better now.)

Goals for the rest of the year: Between illness and detours, it feels like the year is just getting started. I hope to post more often with Python, data and tech tips. I’ve bought Two Scoops of Django and JavaScript: The Definitive Guide for light summer reading (right), and I continue to plug away on a writing project that I hope to finish soon. And that’s in addition to lots of family and fun stuff we have in sight.

Thanks for hanging in, and please stay in touch!

Diary Entry, May 6, 1971

This is a page from my elementary school diary. In some ways, life hasn’t changed much. Also: Thank you, teachers, for letting me run the Bell & Howell projector. That was huge.

mychart

 

Favorite Albums List, 1963-?

I bought my first record sometime in the late 1960s/early 1970s. It was a 7-inch, 45 RPM disc featuring “I Like Science” b/w “We Need the Rain.” Artist unknown.

Nerd from the start is what I say. I also ran the projector in elementary school.

Since then, some of the music I bought has endured — as in my beloved progressive rock — but a lot hasn’t. I regret telling my boss at WPDH-FM, where I played music in the ’80s, that I would always listen to Judas Priest.

Today, here’s what has lasted — for me. To make this list, the album in general or the song specifically still has to raise the heart rate:

A Map of the World — Pat Metheny
The Fire Theft — The Fire Theft
Seconds Out — Genesis
Continue…

Again Towards The Analog

The feeling came a few weeks ago as I drove along a back road near the Potomac River. I was in the lowlands, about to cross from Virginia to Maryland, driving alone during a day in which I’d purposely disconnected from email, Twitter and most things digital.

I think we see things differently on those days.

My car rounded a bend, and through the trees I could see the river. The scene was perfection: bare trees arrayed on a grassy plain, standing watch next to the Potomac. If I’d shot a photo, it would have brushed up against Ansel Adams in intent if not quality. It took my breath, and I gave thanks.

Soon I was on a bridge crossing the river and then into Maryland. But the scene stayed in mind as I drove toward my destination, the road now winding through rustic small towns that seemed to take me even farther from the office.

I’ve thought back on those minutes often as 2011 disappeared into time past. I’ve thought how I need many more of those minutes.
Continue…

My First Earthquake

I was looking at my watch because the meeting was scheduled for an hour, and the hour was nearly over.

We were in a second-floor conference room in the USA TODAY building in McLean, Va. That side of our glass-enclosed HQ faces the intersection of the Dulles Toll Road and the Capital Beltway, and for the last few years we’ve been front-row-center to the construction of new HOT lanes for the Beltway and the work going on for the new Metro Silver Line.

Loud noises are not uncommon.

At 1:50 p.m. I checked the time. I have a bad habit of frequently and obviously looking at my watch, which implies that I am bored or inpatient. I’m not; I just like to know what time it is. I’ve always been a clock-watcher. I’m always on time. So, I looked, mentally noting that I had a free hour until my next meeting at 3.

A moment later, the floor began to vibrate. There was a sound, rumbling, like the bulldozers and cranes that had been outside for months, but somehow different.

“Is that a crane coming toward the building?”

I stood to push back the shade and look out the window. I never got that far. The room began shaking from side to side, and people in the next room started exclaiming.

Earthquake, I thought. I dove under the conference table and lay on my side while the room pulsed.

Part of me was in disbelief. They always said earthquakes don’t happen here.

And then it was over, and someone said, “Let’s get out of here!” And then we were outside, everyone trying to make a call on a cell phone and no one getting through.

Persistence

For the last many years, I’ve had an idea for a project. At work, in meetings and casual conversations, if an opening came up for me to tout my vision, I’d take it. Launch the pitch, follow up with an email.

“I’ve said it before, but we really should …”

Sometimes, I wondered whether people were thinking not about my grand idea but rather, “How can I get away from this man?” Mostly, they encouraged me — even though at the end of our talk it would be clear that other priorities held sway, and my pet idea had to go back to the shelf.

And so it did. Until about two weeks ago.

That’s when a spark out of nowhere set fire to the pile of kindling I’d been setting up all that time. Suddenly I found myself giving my pitch and hearing, “Let’s do this.”

And so for the last two weeks I’ve found myself in a room with the very people I’ve been bugging — some of the smartest, most creative people in my company — each one focused on turning this idea into something you’ll be able to see.

And the best part is that the end product is going to be way better than I ever imagined. Because now it won’t be my idea, but OUR idea.

A pile of kindling. A random spark.

Never give up.

A Sense of September

The chill this morning — barely 50 degrees when I left the house at 6 a.m. to meet a friend for breakfast — told me for sure what the progressively earlier sunsets have been hinting at for weeks: The season is changing. Before leaving, I pulled my favorite hoodie out of the closet and enjoyed its warmth for the first time since the spring. A familiar, welcome cocoon.

I feel this way each September, embracing the transition from summer to fall more than any other change in season. This, I am sure, has its roots in the school calendar — 13 years of public school and another half-dozen of college conditioned my psyche to understand that Labor Day is summer’s last hurrah before the start of a new term. September has always marked a new time, a beginning again, another chance.

September seems particularly on time this year. If you’re a journalist, you’ve probably heard that my workplace is reorganizing, the result of long-standing trends in its business and in journalism in general. We’re not alone. All of us who ply the trade have spent a decade watching our ranks thin, our business models implode, and our products change in a frenzy of reinvention that takes on the aura of shooting arrows while blindfolded. Journalists of all kinds — print, broadcast, even web — were slow to recognize the oncoming train of an always-connected digital society in which everyone owns the metaphorical printing press. Just as we laughed at our parents who couldn’t set the time on the VCR — “but you just press these buttons!” — the newsroom data nerds and digital prophets, the ones who heard the train whistle years ago and tried to get their brothers and sisters to just open a spreadsheet for goodness sakes, have had their own chuckle, albeit one tinged with melancholy. We knew the day would soon come when digital ignorance would not be bliss.

And yet, it’s September.

My family moved often when I was young. From fourth grade to ninth, I attended six schools in three school districts.

That’s why September, announced with cool air and a display of stars in the crisp early sky, reminds me that seasons do change. For this I am thankful. And soon  — as leaves turn gold and fall to the ground — we’ll remember that some things need to die before they can live again.

How I Spent My Summer Furcation

Just finished one week cut off, by force, from the office. It was an unpaid furlough — a common plight for journalists and others whose industries have been hammered by the recession. The financial hit will hurt (more so because the AC in my house and car also picked this week to die), but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve had in a while.

No office email, no office phones. Just a week to enjoy my family, feed my soul, fix up things around the house, and keep learning new skills.

So, I:

Hiked to a waterfall: Took a five-mile hike with my family through the Shenandoah National Park to the 86-foot White Oak Canyon falls. The trail, which ascends 1,000 feet over about 2 miles, had us breathing hard. The falls was spectacular, and we ended the day spent but inspired by the beauty.

Planted a garden: Our fourth year as amateur farmers, and each year we understand soil and seeds a little more. Given the time I spend in front of a computer screen, digging in dirt is necessary for emotional health. Watching seeds grow into food connects me to bigger things.

Studied Python: Inspired by hacker-journalists at the annual IRE computer-assisted reporting conference, I’ve jumped head-first into the Linux world with the goal of building apps using Django. After getting Ubuntu set up and finishing the Django tutorial, I decided to step back and study Python, the language Django’s built upon. Aaron Bycoffe responded to a Twitter query and recommended the free How to Think Like a Computer Scientist. Made it through 11 chapters this week and now understand Django a lot better.

Upgraded to Lucid Lynx: Speaking of Linux, my week off coincided with the latest update to Ubuntu. Demand was high and getting the download tough, but I eventually got it rolling. You can’t beat free.

Spent time with friends and family: Really the best part. Lots of laughs, intense conversations, great fun.

So now I’m feeling fresh — fresh enough to handle the 252 emails that rolled in when I booted up my work PC this afternoon.

You Can’t Afford to Stop Learning

The late Jerry McBride, founder of the Marist College information systems program and mentor to many of us in it, gave our capstone class a bit of advice that I’ve always remembered:

“Never stop learning.”

Plenty of people, regardless of industry, argue otherwise. Play it safe, take few risks and stay with the tried and true — that keeps the bills paid and the lights on.

Decades ago, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” was a phrase you could bank on. IBM had it all — the kings of the air-conditioned mainframe, making oodles of money, and very snug in their white-shirt-and-tie ways. But they were slow to learn. PCs came along, the mainframe business withered, OS/2 failed to unseat Windows, and tens of thousands of people in IBM-hometowns found themselves unemployed. IBM’s come back, but it’s nothing like the company it was in 1980.

Stop learning, rest on the existing models, and it’s easy to become a mainframe-hawker in a PC revolution. Or a railroad tycoon watching with disregard as Henry Ford mass produces Model T’s.

I’ve practiced Jerry McBride’s advice better at times than others. Lately, very much so. I’m on a learning jag. My latest quest is Ubuntu, Apache, PostgreSQL and Django. Last night, this little screen brought a smile or two:

P.S. My bookmarks and RSS feeds prove one thing: There’s no excuse for not learning; the Internet is the best free library you’ll ever find.

Minkoff, Data Delvers and Yours Truly

Michelle Minkoff, perhaps the hardest-working journalism student I’ve ever encountered, for the last few months has been writing up a series of interviews with hacker-journalists and newsroom data nerds at her web site. Her subjects include include designers, coders and data lovers of all stripes. Among them are Pulitzer winner Matt Waite of PolitiFact fame, my Gannett colleagues Gregory Korte and Matt Wynn, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s Mary Jo Webster, whom I worked with for several years at USA TODAY.

Now add me to the list. Michelle interviewed me right after one of this winter’s east coast blizzards, and my cabin fever shows in the sheer verbosity of my responses. But it was fun reliving my early days — when I discovered the power of merging data and reporting. Here’s one quote:

A reporter in the newsroom came to me and said, “Hey, it would be really good if we could figure out what the most valuable properties are in the city of Poughkeepsie. And I thought to myself, “You know, this might be a good opportunity for me to go and make friends with the IT guy over in City Hall.” I went over and visited him, he was down in the basement of City Hall, in the computer room. Back in those days, they all had big mainframe computers in an air-conditioned room.

Actually, what I first did was I went to the tax assessor’s office, and I said, “I want a list of all the properties in the city of Poughkeepsie and how much they’ve been assessed for.” And they pointed me over to the corner where there were these big books filled with computer printouts, and they said, “Well, all the numbers are there, and you can just start copying them down.” And I thought to myself, “If they were printed on this piece of paper that looks like computer paper, then certainly they are in a computer somewhere in this building. And I can get that data on a disk that I can bring over and put into my computer.” And that’s how I really started figuring out that we can do computer-assisted reporting by going to the government and getting data.

That’s what I did. I went to visit that guy in City Hall, and I said, “Look, I know you’ve got a file on your computer. I’d love to have you put it on this floppy disk for me.” And he had to check with the local attorneys, and get their permission, and I called up a sunshine advocate in New York state and got him to weigh in, and they agreed that, “Yeah, the law says we can do this.” The next thing I know, I had that data on the computer and was going through it in Paradox. We wound up writing a couple of stories about different properties.

A hat tip to Michelle for a smart way to gain insight into our slice of journalism.

Winter Road

Sunset on the road near our house today, shot by my wife using just her cell phone camera. Fits the peaceful time of year when lots seems to have quieted down in preparation for the new year to come.

Teaching Little Miss Opie

Always mind what you say — you never know who’s in your audience.

Back in the mid-’90s, I taught creative writing at Vassar College for the Summer Institute for the Gifted. The students were precocious middle schoolers whose parents had dropped a bundle for a couple weeks of learning. My job was to impart my love of metaphor, description and iambic pentameter — all of which, as an English major, I truly adore.

One afternoon, I launched into a soliloquy about plot, explaining that every protagonist has an obstacle to overcome. The obstacle creates tension and drives the story to its end.

Needing an illustration, I began to explain the plot of the film Apollo 13, which had just played in theaters. On the blackboard, I drew an Earth and Moon and small spaceship with flames, and I explained how the crew’s dwindling oxygen and distance from home was a major obstacle. The kids connected immediately, interjecting their ideas and answering my questions.

Later, after the class filed out, a camp assistant who’d been in the class came by to chat.

“That was great,” she said. “Did you see Bryce giggling while you were talking about Apollo 13?”

Bryce was a red-haired girl with piercing eyes, sort of a female Opie if you remember The Andy Griffith Show. That should have been a clue.

“No,” I said. “Why would she find it funny?”

“Well,” the RA said, “her dad directed that movie — you know, Ron Howard.”

Ah, yes. I connected her name in my head: Bryce Howard. If you’re a film fan, you know her today by her stage name, Bryce Dallas Howard.