Community news sites: “make the obscure findable”

In the next six months, I plan to apply everything I’ve learned during my MA Online Journalism course in Birmingham by launching a community news site for Birch Cliff, the Toronto neighbourhood where I live.

The goal is to provide obsessively local news coverage on subjects of interest to the 15,000 residents of Birch Cliff such as crime, traffic problems, garbage pick-up, snow removal, local sports, the farmer’s market, restaurants and real estate.

Making information “findable”

In the UK, hyperlocal sites are all the rage and there’s a real sense that if communities develop a powerful online voice, they can better communicate and influence events at the neighbourhood level.  Paul Bradshaw, has written numerous posts about hyperlocal news and, among other things, he says local news sites have a duty to enrich communities by making the “invisible visible; the obscure findable”.

How Councillor Gary Crawford voted

To that end, I have dug deep into the City of Toronto’s new open data website and ploughed through some data to try and find out what our new City Councillor in Birch Cliff Gary Crawford has been up to since we elected him in October 2010.  The spreadsheet below lists every vote that’s taken place at City Council since the election and tells his constituents how Gary Crawford voted each and every time.  You can search the data many ways — by date, by issue or agenda item.  You can also compare Crawford’s voting pattern to the pattern of Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

I’ve done some colour-coding to make the spreadsheet easier to read, particularly when it comes to hot button issues in Toronto such as designating the TTC an essential service, repealing the personal vehicle tax and reducing councillor’s expense budgets

You can view the spreadsheet by clicking here.

Posted in Birch Cliff blog, data journalism | Tagged | 15 Comments

Bridging the divide between hacks and hackers

I have some exciting news to share from the data journalism trenches but I’m not sure how to write the lead because it depends on the audience.

For data geeks I would write it this way:

I have finally managed to create a data story from a csv file on the Toronto open data site.  I edited the file name to delete .xls and then used Google Refine to split the document into readable columns.  I imported it to Google Docs and cleaned up the messy columns using the formula =split(G2, “, “) and then uploaded it to Google Fusion Tables where I merged data to create a visualisation to embed on my WordPress blog.

For my mainstream journalism friends I would write this:

The city of Toronto now has a website loaded with interesting statistics and data and I used it to create a chart to track the voting record of my city councillor since the day he took office.

This illustrates the great divide between most journalists and data experts  that I’ve been trying to bridge for the past several months.  I made some inroads while living in Birmingham because I was enveloped in a vibrant online digital community that included a strong local branch of Hacks and Hackers.

Now I’m back in Canada and joining new communities of practice, partially for an assignment in the mulitmedia module of my MA program, but mostly because the successful practice of online journalism requires a balance between journalistic content and community interaction. Continue reading

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Five great audio slideshows

I think it’s easy for people who work in television to underestimate the potential of audio slideshows as a medium for online storytelling.    When the tools of your trade are powerful video images and sound, marrying still photos to audio seems at first blush to be a step backwards, almost as heretical as it would have been to return to silent films after the talkies were invented.

It’s obvious, however, that audio slideshows are quite popular on the internet (7% of page views at the New York Times) and so I set off on a screening marathon to explore best practices and find slideshows that I think work just as well, or better than video.

Five great audio slideshows

1.   Joseph Cotton:  The Grandfather by Alexis Mainland

My favourite audio slideshow is a profile of Bronx grandfather Joseph Cotton and is part of a series by the New York Times titled One in 8 Million.  I had anticipated my top pick would have phenomenal photographs, but this slide show uses  black and white stills depicting average family routines that make up the fabric of everyday life.  It’s the character who is extraordinary — Joseph Cotton — a grandfather with inspiring wisdom and a mesmerizing voice passing along life’s lessons to his grandchildren.

Other slideshows in the series seemed to hold equal promise with similarly strong characters but fell short in my opinion because they promised the viewer more than they could deliver.  Audience expectations have evolved to the point where it’s difficult to do an interesting piece about a mambo dancer without video of mambo dancing.  The same holds true for the slide show about brothers who play rugby, even though their relationship is more central to the story than the sport.  Both slideshows might have overcome this obstacle with more use of natural sound.

2. Mishoka’s Story:  Voices from the war in Eastern Congo by Duckrabbit

Whether you’re producing audio slideshows or video, content trumps form every time.  Nothing is more important than story, and this one is heartbreaking. Continue reading

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Infographic: Birmingham Council salaries merged with corporate structure

It’s only human nature to be interested in what other people get paid for a living.  It’s even more interesting when those people are top executives at a City Council in the midst of an unprecedented austerity program.

Birmingham City Council will vote tomorrow  on a budget that will eliminate 7,000 full-time jobs and reduce wages and benefits for thousands of employees.  The goal is to save £300 million over the next four years.

City Council bosses earn £4.6 million

For months, the unions have been arguing that the cuts will disproportionately affect the poor, the elderly, students and and the disabled in a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in Britain.   In an interesting bit of timing, a transparency directive from central government led to the release this past week of salaries earned by the most senior employees of Birmingham City Council.  Collectively, the top 47 executives earn £4.6 million annually, not including packages, pension contributions or the bonus of chief executive Stephen Hughes.

I’ve been playing around with data visualization and decided to create an infographic that merges the executive salaries with a diagram of the Council corporate structure.  The goal was to give readers of our website, Birmingham Budget Cuts, a more clear sense  of the story than could be gleaned from a spreadsheet. Continue reading

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Birmingham Council meetings should be televised

At Birmingham City Council this afternoon, Deputy Council Leader Paul Tilsley received an award.  I didn’t catch why he was being honoured because it happened during “announcements” at the beginning of the meeting, but it was hard to miss his reaction upon acceptance.

He walked toward the front and gave a bow to Birmingham Post reporter Paul Dale, which I thought was odd.  Even odder, when Tilsley returned to his seat he did what I can only describe as sort of a chicken dance in front of the Lord Mayor and then waved the award under Mr. Dale’s nose.   I have no idea what this was about.

I figure the Deputy Council Leader wouldn’t be dancing if Birmingham City Council was televised, as it is in some jurisdictions in England including, as I watched last week, Stoke-on-Trent. It wouldn’t be difficult or expensive to make democracy more transparent by putting it on television because Council already has a feed which is shown on large screens at the front of the Chamber.  It would also be a smart move on City Council’s part because, for reasons I can not comprehend, most local reporters don’t attend City Council meetings.  As far as I can tell there are no radio or TV people —  only Paul Dale.  If they televised meetings, they could deliver their message directly to the voters, without any filters.

More reasons to televise Council

If Council was televised, Birmingham voters would have seen the reaction after West Midlands Police Chief Constable Chris Sims presented his annual report in December.  At a time when more than 2,000 police officers and staff are expected to be made redundant and 600 officers will be forced to retire early, a Conservative Councillor stood up and made what I thought was a remarkable contribution.  She told Mr. Sims that she felt the police were much too nice to the despondent man who threatened to kill himself by jumping off an overpass in Birmingham City Centre.  She talked about how the attempted suicide snarled traffic for hours and how she was personally inconvenienced.  She told the Chief Constable she didn’t think it was necessary for his officers to waste time by offering the desperate, suicidal man some food.  (I didn’t catch her name but another spectator told me her husband and son are also councillors so that should help people figure it out.

If Council was televised people would have seen a heartfelt standing ovation in the Chamber today for a young veteran who’s received a medal for bravery.  People would have also seen that two members of the Respect Party failed to stand and one was swatted over the head by the Councillor behind them.

If Council was televised they would have seen a Councillor in December try and tell the Chief Constable that his constituents are still angry that CCTV cameras, paid for by anti-terrorism funding, were installed in Muslim neighbouhoods.  The Councillor was heckled by some other members of Birmingham Council and warned to tone down his language by the Lord Mayor who made a brief mention of libel/slander laws.

If Council was televised, average citizens would have a chance to find out interesting things that might not make it into the newspaper.   For example, the annual housing report tabled today indicates that 99% of Birmingham Council’s housing stock now meets decency standards, compared to only 32% in 2003/2004.  Another report carried the nugget that City inspectors brought gold to dealers all over Birmingham and found that the most shady operators were offering only 17 – 24% of value.  This isn’t illegal, but caveat emptor.  And if Council was televised, people could find out vital life or death information, as was imparted by Councillor Shafique Shah today who reported a drastic rise in crime in Bordsley Green including a “flash mob drug dealing problem”.  If I lived there, I would sure want to know that.

In the year 2011, televised coverage of Council is not a frill, but rather a democratic right.  The voters elected these people and they have every right to see first hand what they voted for, good, bad or somewhere in between.

(3 Feb 2011 addition:  I’ve been informed by the Birmingham Council Press Office that Paul Tilsley was accepting  an award for “Customer First”, which won an e-Government National Award for excellence in local innovation.)

Posted in TV News | Tagged , | 16 Comments

The CBC, Egypt and Twitter


@cbcnews tweets 30 January 2011

Hey CBC — what’s with your Twitter coverage of Egypt?    @CBCNews sent out a tweet tonight asking people to follow reporter @NahlahAyed who is on the ground in Cairo.   It caught my attention because the uprising has been going on for five days now and I realized I hadn’t seen much on Twitter from Canada’s public broadcaster, probably because I was so wrapped up with Al Jazeera, BBC, @SultanAlQassemi, #Jan25, #Egypt etc.   So I went and looked at their Twitter account and discovered that @cbcnews had sent only 19 tweets in the last 24 hours.

Sheen?  Zuckerberg?

The entire list is below, but the short story is that CBC tweeted Charlie Sheen in rehab, Mark Zuckerberg on SNL, The King’s Speech, a comedian’s death and three sports stories (two of them about hockey).  There are five tweets about Egypt and one is a feature and one is telling me to follow Nahlah Ayed.  Nahlah Ayed is a fine reporter but when I looked she had only tweeted 105 times and was following 13 other people. Continue reading
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Hyperlocal Data Journalism

Ward 36 Poll-By-Poll Vote Breakdown

There is a quiet revolution underway in the field of journalism that is changing the way we tell stories. Data journalism is an emerging and increasingly valuable journalistic discipline that involves finding stories buried in statistics and visualizing them in a way that makes them easy to comprehend.
Data journalism is an offshoot of computer assisted reporting (CAR), which has been around for decades and was once the exclusive purview of reporters with programming knowledge or, at minimum, a geek side. But the ubiquitous nature of computers today and the advent of online journalism has resulted in programmers developing tools that put data analysis and visualization within the reach of every journalist. Increasingly stories are being published in both mainstream and online media outlets where the database is the focal point of the work as opposed to merely a starting point for an interpretive print article or television story.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the world wide web, sees data as the future of journalism:

Journalists need to be data savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars…But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyze it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together and what’s going on in the country.”

Technological advances mean that journalists need no longer be working on a project on the scale of Wikileaks or have the programming chops of Adrian Holovaty who developed Chicago Crime (now EveryBlock Chicago) in order to publish informative hyperlocal data journalism. Accessibility is improving by the day as more municipalities embrace the open data philosophy and take steps to release public data to improve the transparency and accountability of local government.


The goal of this experimental portfolio was to explore the extent to which new computer tools and open data are making investigative opportunities more accessible to community journalists. This was analyzed by using available public data for the neighbourhood of Birch Cliff in Toronto to develop data visualizations for a hyperlocal blog which is under development for the neighbourhood. It was truly experimental in that prior to enrolling in the MA Online Journalism program, I was unfamiliar with the term data journalism and had certainly never heard of the open data movement. My only experience with internet maps involved searching Google Maps for directions and printing the results. I have used spreadsheets in the past to view television budgets and tally student grades, but have never created a spreadsheet and have no knowledge of formulas. I have no experience with with HTML, XML, KML, JSON or geotagging.

To finish the post please click here. I had to move the content to another site because this one couldn’t accommodate the graphics that come next.

Posted in data journalism, Online journalism | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

London tuition protest

In the end, I missed the money shot.   I covered the demonstration against tuition fees in London on Thursday and I don’t have video of Princes Charles and Camilla being confronted by protestors.  I don’t have any footage of the massive bonfire in Parliament Square.  I missed the scuffle between police and the activist in a wheelchair.

I missed all of these images, now famous around the world, because it was a long day and my electronics died — the pocket HD video camera was first to run out of battery
power, followed by the still camera that also shoots video, then my smart phone and finally my back-up phone.

Did I miss the story?

This is obviously not an ideal set of circumstances for a one-woman mobile news crew covering some 20,000 students converging on the British Parliament intent on sending a message about skyrocketing tuition fees.  By the end, I was phoning in tweets to my partner Andy Watt and looking wistfully at better resourced mainstream media crews as darkness fell, the MP’s began to vote and the mood got uglier.

London police hit by paint balls

But does that mean I missed the story?  In my opinion, the answer is an unequivocal “not necessarily”.

The reason I didn’t miss the story is because I went to London specifically to cover local Birmingham university students whose anger and worry about the proposed tuition fee increases had led them to occupy public spaces in their home town four times over the previous two weeks.

They’re not what I’d call radicals, but rather young people trying to secure their future by studying subjects such as Chemical Engineering, Medicine and European Studies.

Their protest began at 11am on the Westminster Bridge where they orchestrated a photo op by hanging a 20 foot banner with Parliament as a backdrop.   They then walked 45 minutes to join the protest at the University of London Union and promptly marched the three kilometres back to Parliament Square.

I lost them along the way because my need to newsgather proved incompatible with their need to march quickly to avoid being kettled.  Every time I stopped to shoot I would run forward to try and catch a glimpse of their distinctive green hard hats, but it became a lost cause.


I was looking for the Birmingham students in Parliament Square when I got stuck on Whitehall after riot police moved in and the kettling began.  I managed to scramble behind police lines and had an excellent viewpoint, particularly when I climbed a light standard, but by then my mobile was shooting its last frames.

It was frustrating because I was unable to shoot anything but unwilling to leave a big breaking story.

And so I watched as police slowly let protestors out.  I watched the demonstrators become increasingly annoyed and surge forward by the hundreds to break through the police line, falling on top of each other and over metal barricades.   When I realized the same scene was being repeated at barricades 75 metres behind me, I finally left and narrowly escaped being stuck between two mobs.

Protestors "kettled" by riot police

Protestors "kettled" by riot police

The video I’ve posted on our website contains no reckless student violence, no police brutality and won’t be winning any awards for spot news coverage.   But I hope it does tell the story that I set out to tell —  the story of students from Birmingham who joined thousands from around the country and travelled to London to make a point.  I just wish it had a more visual ending.

I see this morning that The Guardian has posted a similar behind-the-scenes video which is worth checking out.
Posted in Birmingham Budget Cuts, multimedia, Online journalism, protest | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discrimination against online journalists?

Every journalist has their breaking point and today I met mine.

For anyone who may be visiting this blog for the first time, I publish the website along with Andy Watt.

It’s a news website that aggregates information about the impact of historic spending cuts in Birmingham but we also write a great deal of original content.   People seem to find it useful and we’re gratified to be approaching 4,000 page views in just five weeks.

Here’s my problem.  I woke up early and spent four hours this morning digesting 39 pages of “budget-speak” in the form of Birmingham City Council’s Business Plan for consultation with the public on how to cut £300 million in spending.  It wasn’t an easy read and it contained bombshells including a plan to axe 7,116 full-time jobs and another 3,000 part-time jobs.

I could have simply linked to one of the local newspapers, but I’ve been living this story for two months, have extensive background knowledge and wanted to write it myself.

It wasn’t until after I posted my own story that I looked at the online coverage by other media outlets and discovered that the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail had excellent quotes from two of the main players, Cabinet Member for Finance Randal Brew and Chief Executive Stephen Hughes.

Mainstream media has better access

It was apparent to me immediately that they had been invited to a news conference yesterday afternoon and we had been excluded, left to fend for ourselves to interpret the release.

There are two things that make this particularly galling.

First, I had telephoned the Birmingham Council press office on Monday to inquire when the budget consultation would begin and officially request that we be notified.

Second, I was at Birmingham Council House all afternoon covering the protest and occupation by students over proposed increases to tuition fees.  I was standing outside talking to the press office on my mobile trying to get into the building.   I asked the press officer why two television crews were being waved in by police, I was told that they were there “for another reason”.

This morning I realized what the reason was and it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.    My anger was fueled by the fact that the Birmingham Council press office has been ignoring me and our website for seven weeks.

Press office ignoring our site

Several times I have filled out the form at requesting information and heard nothing back.  I have sent them personal emails and heard nothing back.  I have telephoned and not heard back.  Once, I called seeking a quote for a story and was told that Birmingham councillors are “important people”  (I don’t know what that implies about “the public’s right to know”) and was told to simply write no comment.  The refusal by the press office to deal with us has made it exceedingly difficult to cover all sides of the story on our website.

I’ve been a journalist for 29 years and have never been treated this way but I suspect it’s because I’m writing online for the first time.  Instead of writing a knee jerk blog post about discrimination against digital media, I telephoned the press office this afternoon and spoke to Deborah Harries, Head of News at Birmingham City Council.

Why we weren’t told about news conference

At first, Harries told me that it wasn’t a news conference but “a small briefing of regional journalists that we know”.  She deflected blame from the staff member who left me literally out in the cold yesterday.  Harries said she handled the briefing personally and thought she had the bases covered with print, radio and television, both public and private.

Harries described them as five people, “local, traditional journalists” who were on her “automatic invite list”.  She said they were journalists that the press office has been talking to about all aspects of the budget cuts and have “an understanding of the threads of these stories”.

She also said they were journalists who have talked to Stephen Hughes before and “know where he is coming from”.

Harries added that she “didn’t want the world and his wife there”.

Harries said they were not purposefully excluding our website from the news conference but suggested “it may be that we don’t know you”.  At that point I filled her in on all of my fruitless attempts to get information from Birmingham Council and explained that her staff definitely knew who I was.  I also gave her the url for our website which she had never seen.

Digital excellence?

The irony in all of this is that is an impressive news site that won the “Digital Innovation Award” at this year’s  Midlands Media Awards.  It is also the information arm of a local government trying to establish a reputation as a world leader in digital communication.

Harries told me the website is trying to have a two-way conversation with people instead of just pushing information out one way.  I told her I admire the site for many reasons, including transparency because it links to stories that are negative about Birmingham Council.

I was pleased that Harries said they might need to rethink their policy on how they deal with digital media and bloggers.  I had already suggested that notification of news conferences should be posted on the website instead of being on an “invite-only” basis.

I have smoothed over my relationship with Harries and provided her with all of our website’s contact details.   If the folks at read this, I’d like to think that they would consider it fair comment and still be inclusive of digital media, but you never know.

Transparency in government

I’ve written this post because I feel there is a broader point that needs to be made.

I am a guest in the UK and I try not be obnoxious by saying things like “this is the way we do it at home”.

That being said, let me tell you how they do it in Toronto.

City Council meetings are considered a valuable source of news and attended by most of the local media and not just two print reporters, as they are in Birmingham.  Interested citizens show up in the gallery to watch.  Council meetings are broadcast live and journalists who can’t attend can watch the proceedings on television along with the general public.

It is acceptable behaviour to walk up to a politician with your camera rolling and start asking questions which the politician will then answer.  If politicians are reluctant to answer questions they are often “scrummed” and wind up answering anyway.

When major budget announcements are made by the federal government, politicians at every other level of government, as well as interest groups, hold news conferences to provide reaction.  Quite often, they go to the legislative chamber where the announcement is being made to make themselves more readily available to journalists (and, of course, to spin).

In Toronto, the departing mayor David Miller is an inveterate tweeter ( formerly @mayormiller, now @iamdavidmiller) who tweets interesting, useful information and doesn’t wind up getting arrested.

Toronto had a municipal election in October and the voter turnout was 53%.

I’m just saying.

Posted in Birmingham Budget Cuts, Blogging, Online journalism | Tagged | 14 Comments

The BBC and social media

I remember when online journalism arrived at the CBC national newsroom in Toronto in the mid 1990’s.  I worked on a program that produced hourly TV newscasts and because there wasn’t much of an online division then it fell upon us to fill out templates and put our content on the web.    Many were grumbling about the extra task foisted upon us during an already very busy day, but the internet provided an excellent opportunity to repurpose content and we did it.   Fifteen years later, some television networks are still doing little more than repurposing content by posting items and writing copy stories on their websites and they’re missing an opportunity.

Moderator Kevin Marsh, BBC College of Journalism

This point was made abundantly clear at Face the Future, a conference on the challenges journalists face working in the digital age.  The event was co-sponsored by Coventry University and the BBC College of Journalism and featured many excellent speakers but I was particularly interested in the folks from the BBC — arguably the finest TV news network in the world.

Here are some highlights from the presentation by Matthew Eltringham, who leads a project to teach social media skills to every journalist at the BBC:

  • Of the many platforms and sources providing content and information on the web (YouTube, flickr, PicFog, TwitVid, TinEye, pipes, Storyful, Demotix etc.) the most important to the BBC are Google, Twitter and Facebook.    Google is obviously about search but Twitter and Facebook are about conversation, communication and engagement — listening to what other people are saying.   It’s not just about content and information,  it’s about conversation, one-to-one,  one-to-many, and many-to-many.
  • Without a shadow of a doubt, Twitter is the most important breaking news source at the moment.   Anything and everything is on Twitter first and comes on the wires afterwards.  The Haiti earthquake story for 36 hours was told exclusively by Twitter.  It wasn’t told by AP or Reuters but by people who were found through Twitter.
  • There are 600 million people in the world having a conversation on Facebook.   The average time people in the UK spend at is one minute, while the average time people spend on Facebook is 11 minutes.
  • Eltringham says social media is an absolutely crucial tool in the kit bag of contemporary journalists and if you don’t have social media skills “you are going nowhere”.  He quoted Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News:  “This isn’t just a kind of fad from someone who’s an enthusiast of technology.  I’m afraid you’re not doing your job if you can’t do those things.  “It is not discretionary.”
  • Have a conversation with people but don’t impose a preordained agenda on them.    You can’t sit in the newsroom any more and decide what your story is.  Eltringham told the cautionary tale of a BBC producer who posted on a blog during Hurricane Gustav that they were looking for someone who was “unhappy about being evacuated or that they think that the authorities (esp Nagin) panicked and misjudged the seriousness of Gustav.” This was one response:  “Go suck an egg.  Troll.  Bend your stories to fit your euro-trash agenda on your own.”
  • Apply traditional journalism techniques in a new journalistic forum.  Don’t forget basics like confirming a story to make sure it’s true.   Eltringham showed a photo of a headless animal from Twitpic identified as a polar bear.  A TV newscast aired the photo without confirmation and it turns out it was a cow.
  • Eltringham quoted the BBC’s Richard Sambrook who he says coined the phrase “we don’t own the news any more.”  Eltringham says transparency and accountability are key issues and news organizations have to share news making decisions and the way they tell  stories with the audience.   It used to be that audience members wrote letters to the complaints department that sat there for six months.  Now if we get it wrong, they tell you, they tell their friends and their friends’ friends and before long your reputation as a journalist is completely trashed.

The Face the Future conference was streamed live on the internet and you can view the presentations at the BBC College of Journalism.

Posted in Online journalism, social media | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment