Category: News

#TBT: The Last Time I Was Unemployed

The last time I was unemployed was when I returned to Washington, D.C., after finishing grad school in Chicago. This was a weird time in my life. I had left a great job to get my master’s degree in journalism, and then returned to Washington, where I thought I had a great network of contacts, excellent, well-connected references, and a shiny new degree that would certainly lead to the job and career path of my dreams. Right?

Fast forward two months and I have worn out my welcome at every guest room, couch, and floor of my friends and friends of friends. I have sent out maybe 50 resumes with no response. I have had coffees, dinners, lunches, and happy hours with people who should be able to help me get in touch with people who are looking for someone with “exactly my skillset.” And, to add insult to injury, I have broken my wrist in an ice skating accident.

So… sitting on a friend’s couch in Oakton, Va., eating bite sized foods,  I did what I had to do. I emailed my former employer to see if there was any work that would be a good fit for me and my new skills. They knew I hadn’t intended to come back, I knew I hadn’t intended to come back. But there was a job available, and the pay was good. So back I went.

And I got great experience. And I learned a lot of things about a lot of things. But the most important thing I learned is that I will do whatever needs to be done to make it on my own. And if I hadn’t ended up back at that company, I may never have decided to move to Asheville. And that was one of the best decisions I ever made. So now, when I’m just starting out on this whole self-employed journey, I know I will do whatever I have to do to make it work, and I know I will learn a lot. And most of all, I know it will lead to great things, no matter what.

Government Shutdown; Or Why News Teams Need Slack

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past nine days, you know that the federal government is shut down. There are a million stories about why it’s shut down, what exactly is affected, and how Congress is going to get themselves out of this mess.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about why a news team needs slack, which can also be described as people sometimes doing nothing, which is why managers don’t like slack. There’s no such thing as an average day in the newsroom, but most news managers try to keep their staffing at a level where, on a regular day, everyone is pretty busy, but there is some slack in the system. There is a person who can take on an additional task, such as a quick breaking news story or one added event to cover.

Slack is relative. Large teams often have more slack, while small teams by nature have less. A team with 10 people working Monday-Friday can often find at least one person to volunteer to come in for a weekend shift or work a late night once in a while. This works best when every member of the team is equally inclined to volunteer, since each member then knows they only have to do it once in a while.

A team with four members will have less slack than this team of 10 and will need a good manager to determine what is possible, but with enough slack built into the system (i.e. not using your team of four members to do the work of six or more), the team can still be flexible and dynamic.

Where this system falls apart, however, is when that one-time added event or breaking news event becomes two solid weeks of breaking news with no end in sight.

Enter the government shutdown.

While many people in D.C. are staying home, wondering if they will be getting a paycheck next week, my team and I have been busier than ever. We have been trying to cover breaking news 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with a staff of four for two weeks. My best prediction is this will last through next week, when we will be trying to cover the same number of hours and stories with just three people on all but one day, and potentially into the following week, where we will be covering the same hours with three people all week.

Because of the sheer number of hours in the day divided by the fact that we each work 8-hour shifts, you can see that there is very little overlap. Add in a few meetings or technical problems (such as, say, a streaming video issue), and you see a team stretched very thin. At some point, something has to give.

Or else you end up with people who are burned out, frustrated with each other and the management, and just generally feeling taken advantage of.

Because the hiring process takes weeks (instead of hours, which is about as much warning as we get that we are going to need extra staff), it seems to make more sense to have one too many people than one too few. If there was a perfect number, then this wouldn’t be the news business.

When you are rock climbing slack refers to the amount of loose rope you have. It is the amount of room you have to climb higher before someone needs to give you more slack in the rope. It is also how far you are going to fall if you lose your grip. That is why it is important to have just the right amount of slack so you feel like you can reach higher and cover more rock, while still feeling like you have the support you need to reach and fail.

And finding that balance in your staffing is the key to being able to cover breaking news without sacrificing your staff or the quality of your product.

Have I Read Everything on the Internet?

I work in news. Some days I can barely make it to the refrigerator to grab my lunch. Other days, I do practically nothing. It’s the nature of the business. On the latter days, a former coworker and I used to joke that we’d “finished the Internet,” as in, “I’ve read everything on the Internet, want to go get a smoothie?”

Obviously it is impossible to read everything on the internet, in a literal sense, but lately I’ve been finding these strange loops in my reading habits online, where I find myself back at an article that I’ve already read, though my path to get there was different.

An example:

Wired Magazine recently celebrated 20 years of publishing by producing a special issue with some of the best articles from the past 20 years. This anthology included Disneyland with the Death Penalty by William Gibson, from the Sept./Oct. 1993 issue. I am a tablet subscriber to Wired and read the article, along with most of the special issue, during one of those slow days at work. Just last weekend, I picked up a book that I had purchased after reading an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab site about journalists learning to code. That book: a collection of essays, forewords and speeches by William Gibson, Distrust that Particular Flavor.

Not being good with names, and not being a particular fan of science fiction, I had no idea who William Gibson was, until I made it to about the halfway point of the book, and came across “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” again, which got me thinking about this particular circular phenomenon.

In this case, the reference came from two different media entities, but just as often I find that I read an article straight off the homepage of something and a few weeks later circle back to it through a Facebook or Twitter recommendation. Sometimes it’s been so long since I read the article the first time that I end up reading several paragraphs before the deja vu feeling sets in.

Some days it feels like I could never read everything I want to read on the homepages and twitter feeds of my favorite news sites. But on other days I find myself wondering if there is really that much new out there. When you narrow your sights from “everything on the internet” to everything worth reading on the internet, the list sometimes seems very short, indeed.

News Euphemisms

I was reading this excellent piece on the Republican position on Latinos and immigration, and how that affects their electoral strategy when I came across this sentence:

“Every election cycle, more of them will become eligible to vote, while the oldest, whitest and most Republican generations age out of the electorate on the other end. (‘Age out of the electorate’ is a euphemism for ‘die.’)”

It got me thinking about my favorite news, public policy, and academic euphemisms, those little phrases that reporters and academics use when they want to say something (often something crass or disturbing) but need to maintain a modicum of dignity.

One of my (morbid) favorites is “placed himself deliberately on the tracks,” used by WMATA and the Washington Post whenever a person commits suicide by jumping in front of a subway train (almost always on the Red Line, almost always shortly before rush hour). I think the reason I find this one (morbidly) amusing is that while it is a much more verbose way of saying something that is a little unseemly, it doesn’t leave nearly as much to the imagination as NBC News reporter Benjy Sarlin’s gem above.

What are your favorite news euphemisms?

The Cable Industry

On a recommendation from someone, somewhere (the exact source has escaped me; another issue of my infinite reading list – see below), I just finished reading an article from the December 1996 issue of Wired about the laying of transoceanic cables (Mother Earth, Motherboard, 4.12).

This article, written on the cusp of the internet revolution, describes a cable being run from Cornwall to Japan, crossing over land, but mostly buried at the bottom of a very complicated ocean. The writer, who describes himself as a hacker-tourist back when few people knew what hackers were to begin with, focuses on the technology that made these transoceanic cables possible.

But one particular part of the article hit home to me. For five of the last six years, I have worked for a cable network (the television kind). In one of the myriad positions I have held at this company, I used to request out of town, and sometimes international, video feeds.

In 2013, there are multiple ways we get these feeds. Some come off of a satellite dish in the sky. Some come to use via FTP (across the web). Some still come to us via microwave signals, which require a line of sight. Our newest technology is video feed via cellular signal, which, as a new technology, is spotty at best. But the vast majority of our coverage, from across the street at the U.S. Capitol building to across the ocean in London, comes to us via fiber link, or physical cable.

I have booked fiber feeds and cross-connects too numerous to count, but I never really thought about what this meant until I read this article from 1996. There are literally cables running across the ocean, carrying the BBC’s coverage of the British House of Commons to my building in Washington, D.C. There are cables in the White House and in the Capitol, there are cables in most of the “think tanks” and in the State Department and Pentagon.

There are buildings, like the one the author describes in Alexandria, Egypt, where people literally connect this fiber coming in from one location to one going out to another location, creating a world encircling network of fiber cables.

In the modern era, we take for granted that these fiber networks work, and have significant built in redundancies to prevent an interruption of service. But not so long ago, at a time in most of our lifetimes, this was not guaranteed. It amazes me to think that these systems only exist because a very talented team of engineers, cable layers, and sailors physically laid the cable that enables our nearly instantaneous around-the-world communications.

What amazing everyday feats of engineering and science are we performing right now that children born today will completely take for granted? What will we be unable to live without?

Infinite Reading List

I’m currently reading James Gleick’s 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, which tells the story of how information came to be, and came to be classified and organized. I’m just starting the book, but the chapter I read today, on the process of recording and organizing words and definitions into dictionaries, was fascinating.

A large part of Gleick’s explanation, at least in the early part of the book, has to do with how everything we think about through history is informed by our current circumstances. He likens it to trying to explain horses as four-legged automobiles without wheels. Words, he says, for much of human history were oral, not written, and it was only with the invention of the printing press that humans felt the need to create lists of words with standardized spellings and definitions.

In the chapter on dictionaries, Gleick notes that during the early production of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, the editors put out a call for readers to cover 16th and 17th century literature. At that point, they believed that the entirety of human literature was finite.

The modern editors face an infinite, ever-expanding amount of written knowledge. I can relate.

It seems like no matter how much I read, my reading list just keeps getting longer and longer. And now, with web tools like Pocket and Instapaper, I can quantify just how infinite my reading list is. I save long-form articles in Pocket, I use Chrome bookmarks to save websites that require more interaction or specific notes, I have a Google Doc Spreadsheet of books that I have saved from lists, book reviews, and interviews I see, I have a stack of paper magazines a foot high and a stack of virtual magazines on my iPad twice that size. And everyday, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sources, I discover new articles and websites that I never would have found before.

Sometimes, on particularly slow news days, a coworker and I joke that we’ve “read the whole internet,” and sometimes, especially when it comes to news of the day stories, it feels that way. But mostly, I feel like I’m buried under piles and piles of reading that I want to do, but may never get to. And each day, the piles get bigger.

The Republican Party’s Built-In Liability

When I first moved to Washington, about 6 years ago, my roommate at the time worked for a liberal non-profit, and as you do when you’re 22 and new to town, I spent a good deal of time with her colleagues and friends, all of whom shared her ideological bent.

At the time, we lamented that the Republican Party was so good at messaging and ideological purity that it left the Democrats to be “the party of everyone else.” We thought that meant the Democrats would never be able to form a unified front, to counter the focus of the Republicans.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll released last week, the Post reported that”only 39 percent of Republicans gave positive marks to their own party’s representatives.”

Which led me to question, does the Republican party as it stands right now have a built in liability? Do people who think government is too big, too overreaching, inevitably see those who govern in negative light, regardless of party and platform? And if you run on the idea of the less government the better, are you running yourself out of a job?

Poll after poll shows that politicians with unbelievable approval ratings during primary and general election campaigns find an immediate drop off when the get down to the business of governing. For small-government Republicans, does the very act of governing betray the ideas they ran on?

Now, the vast majority of the Republican Party wants smaller government, not no government. Most understand that there are functions that only the federal government can accomplish. But a growing subset of the party holds the vast majority of government in contempt, meaning that the second a Republican stalwart is elected, he becomes part of the problem.

The younger me finds this comforting, a leveling of the playing field. If the Democrat’s tent is too big, then the Republican’s tent may be growing just small enough to squeeze out all but the most ideological incumbents in the federal government.

A Bandana-Wearing Rodent and A Staid Network

The company I work for can hardly be seen as “on the cutting edge” of anything. In focus groups, the words boring and slow come up almost as often as interesting and informative. And the work culture behind the scenes matches the product on the screen most of the time.

So when my boss asked me to look into a new social media product called RebelMouse and to investigate how we might use it to enhance our users’ experience at our website.

Basically, it’s a social media aggregation tool. At first look, you hook up your social media feeds (currently, it supports Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, Google+ and Tumblr), and it creates a neat, infinitely scrolling display page of your tweets, posts, and photos. You can either send people to the page hosted by RebelMouse, or embed the page in your website using a WordPress plugin or a simple embed code.

At first, I was a little skeptical. While I saw the benefit of using this for organizations that traffic in news, our focus is on events coverage and, because of that, many of our social media posts contain the words “Live Now” or “Watch now,” which become useless once the event ends. But then we looked at Time Magazine’s Person of the Year announcement. Time used RebelMouse to aggregate social media postings about their Person of the Year, and embedded those posts in their site.

We decided to use RebelMouse for Inauguration, focusing on photos and videos. We wanted to give our users a behind-the-scenes look at Inauguration day in our nation’s capitol. We knew from prior events that people on our staff and the public at large would be tweeting photos of themselves on the National Mall, along the parade route, and at the Capitol and White House. We thought that users who couldn’t be in Washington for the event could get a glimpse of what it was like to produce and attend this enormous event.

So we worked with RebelMouse to develop an embedded site and widget that we hosted on our own site, and then we got to work choosing photos to post on the page and making sure we had a variety of viewpoints and media. We linked prominently to the page from the top banner section of our homepage, and we promoted it heavily during our TV coverage of the Inauguration events.

So… was it a success? It’s hard to say. From an editorial standpoint, we thought it performed exactly as we had hoped it would. We got great pictures from our camera crews, producers, and viewers, and the RebelMouse feed was constantly updated through the hard work of our Developer-turned-editorial director of the project and our Vice President, who chipped in for breaks and evening coverage.

By traditional measures, however, we were less impressed. Our page views were mediocre and we did not get a lot of feedback from users or other staff. But we were encouraged by how quickly we were able to implement the tool, and are looking forward to trying some different promotions and link wording in the future. Overall, we’re calling it a success.

Hopefully our users will see it that way too.

If I Have to Explain Sequestration to One More Person…

If there is one thing I have learned from the past couple of years, it’s that I know basically nothing about how the economy actually works. I have a firm grasp of federal budgetary procedures and thanks to a great grad school course on how to report on the economy, a fairly good understanding of the Federal Reserve, the stock market, futures, options, and all of that stuff.

But as to how the economy actually works, what forces actually affect the rise and fall of the average person’s fortunes, I have to admit that I’m still a little in the dark. And that’s how it should be… right? If the economy is chugging right along, if everything is going as it is supposed to be going, if there aren’t any wayward bankers and investment advisers altering the flow of things, I shouldn’t need to know what things are.

Then came 2011 and 2012. Congress decided they were going to fight over every. little. thing. and that we might default on our debts. The only way to get anyone to agree to anything at all was to implement what is known as sequestration. In other words, the 435 men and women in the congress and the president couldn’t agree on budget cuts now, so they agreed to massive, economy-altering, but hypothetical, budget cuts about a year in the future.

Fast forward a year and, guess what? They still can’t agree and now those hypothetical budget cuts aren’t seeming so hypothetical anymore.  If the lame-duck session after the election can’t come up with some agreements on budget cuts and deficit reduction, those hypothetical budget cuts will become oh, so real.

In a recent episode of “The Bugle,” a satirical news podcast by The Daily Show’s John Oliver and his cricket-obsessed, London-based friend Andy Zaltzman, John Oliver went on a rant about having to explain LIBOR (the London InterBank Overnight Rate, or the interest rate banks pay to other banks to borrow money from them). “I don’t want to know what that is!” he yelled. And if it weren’t for the actions of some banks to allegedly affect the rate to make their businesses look more attractive, he wouldn’t need to.

But maybe this is all for the best. After all, now that I know all this stuff, maybe I could have a promising career explaining it all to my fellow Americans, most of whom remain blissfully unaware that these things exist, and how they are subtly changing the future of the world’s economy.

Design Delight

Ever clicked a link on Twitter or Facebook to a news article that sounded interesting and then realized you don’t have time to read it now, but want to save it for later?

I have this problem all the time, and recently found ReadItLaterList, now called Pocket. It’s a browser plug-in and a collection of apps that allow you to save articles for later. On the iPhone and iPad, the interface is extremely clean and easy to read, giving you just the text and the photos or video from the article (although this is not without some bugs/missed text, due largely, I believe to legacy design elements on webpages like drop caps and text that is actually an image).

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying this app both at work on my Firefox browser and at home, and especially appreciate the ability to save and view articles across browsers/apps using a single log-in.

What I really want to talk about, though, is one particular function that I find, well, delightful.

When reading articles in the iPad app, if the device is rotated, the app immediately asks if you want to lock the rotation, by bringing up the Apple “rotation lock” icon in the center of the screen. One touch and the screen is locked so you can view the page from any angle (say, laying on your side in bed) without triggering the screen rotation.

The first time this happened, I locked the screen rotation and kept reading, not thinking much about it. But the next time it happened, I realized what a delightful function this was. Screen rotation isn’t inherently a function or problem associated with this basic reader app, but it’s something that would require at least a couple of touches to adjust, if not for the built-in icon. Few apps consider these user experience issues for things only tangentially associated with the function of their apps.

And it’s the same for many websites, but not all.

Nieman Journalism Lab, a blog that focuses on news about news and the media, and on cutting edge news technologies, has a very subtle, but charming user experience function that few people might notice, but that makes reading it’s articles easier and more attractive.

When you click on an article, it takes you to a standard page, with menus, sidebars, and a header. But as you scroll down (or, as I like to think about it, engage the page), the sidebars fade to almost invisible, leaving the text of the article the only thing your eye focuses on. If you scroll over the sidebar, it reappears so you can click additional links.

This seemingly small and almost invisible function makes reading an article easy and eliminates distraction, focusing the entire user attention on the writing, which is key purpose of the site.

These two examples share a certain aesthetic, which I admit not everyone will find attractive, but I appreciate the simplicity and beauty of the site and app almost as much as I do the content, and it definitely makes me more likely to return (as a counter example, see Salon.com, which I think has the ugliest user interface on the web, and as a consequence, rarely finish articles on that site, even when they’re really interesting).

 

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