The way epic filmmaking was 28 years ago — what happened?

Last night I watched the 28 year-old bio-epic movie, Gandhi (1982), directed by Richard Attenborough. Of course, the story is an inspiring one, about the life long struggle Gandhi fought for human rights through the use of non-violent protest. As a film buff who watches and studies many movies, what shocked me was the grand scale of the film; it was a historical epic film we haven’t seen in decades.

There have been epic films made since Gandhi, but are there any of these films made today without computer generated imagery (CGI)? Since Jurassic Park in 1993, film makers and studios have found using CGI cheaper and more efficient. Too bad, because there’s something awe inspiring about watching the funeral scene in Gandhi that used 400,000 extras. And there are other scenes that probably used just a thousand or two (see the screen capture above, for example).

The same chaotic energy can’t be captured by computer animation; CGI is too controlled, too painterly, too fake no matter how good the technology, because in the back of your mind the thought “this is cool computer work” is always floating around.

The limits of CGI are probably expressed the greatest in epic films, which are a genre all their own. Wikipedia summarizes epic films as

An epic is a genre of film that emphasizes human drama on a grand scale. Epics are more ambitious in scope than other film genres, and their ambitious nature helps to differentiate them from similar genres such as the period piece or adventure film. They typically entail high production values, a sweeping musical score (often by an acclaimed film composer), and an ensemble cast of bankable stars, placing them among the most expensive of films to produce. The term “epic” comes from the poetic genre exemplified by such works as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Ramayan.

To my mind, the epic film isn’t just about what was captured on the celluloid, but the process of filming too. It’s also about the struggle to corral and capture thousands of extras on film, which then affects the performances of the lead actors. That’s a dynamic that can’t be reproduced in a studio in front of a green screen.

Too bad. Bye, bye epic film.

Get the most out of Google Analytics and Thesis for WordPress

There are many things you can do with Google Analytics, WordPress, and a little Thesis theme magic, but really the tips I’ll go over here don’t require Thesis. Most of what you’ll learn here can also be applied to just about any WordPress theme with a bit of customization.

Before I lay the tips on you, let me point out that there’s a useful plugin called WordPress.com Stats. Don’t let the name fool you, the plugin is for self hosted (WordPress.org) blogs. In addition, you might also want to use WordPress.com Popular Posts (you need Stats for this plugin); the Popular Posts plugin gives me that widget on the sidebar of billweye.com. I like using the Stats plugin because it provides a quick, rough idea in real-time of my blog traffic, which isn’t Google Analytics’ strong suit.

Tools you’ll need

There aren’t many things you’ll need to improve the data collection from your blog using Google Analytics. Start with these plugins:

This tutorial assumes that you have a Google Analytics account, have it set up, and have some very basic understanding of how it works. This isn’t a tutorial about how to use Analytics, it’s to show you how to capture customized blog traffic and action data with Analytics if you’re using a Thesis theme (or not).

Tip 1: Installing your Analytics code

We have to start with this one if you’re using the Thesis theme: under Thesis > Site Options > Stats Software/Scripts never add your Google Analytics code here (I don’t know anything about Mint or other stats software). Never. I know what the fine folks at DIY Themes say; still, don’t install your Analytics code using their method. If you do, then Analytics will also be tracking page views of your traffic on the site, which doesn’t make much sense. To get the most accurate site traffic data, you shouldn’t be tracking any of the administrators, editors, or authors on the site (or at least segment that traffic, which you can do with a Analytics plugin). This is one reason you’re going to install the Google Analyticator plugin, to cut out all of undesirable traffic from your stats.

Tip 2: Getting the most out of your Google Analytics plugin

Before we start customizing the theme, let’s get the most we can out of our Analytics plugin. I’m going to reference Google Analyticator, but for the most part all of the WordPress Analytics plugins have the same features.

As I said above, you do not want to track logged-in users, so make sure that feature is turned off. There are now more granular options in the plugin for logging specific user roles, such as premium subscriber or subscribers. This is a nice feature.

Enable both “event tracking” and “outbound link tracking”. When visitors click on outbound links or downloads, those are events that should be tracked.

If Google Adsense ads are on your site, you should definitely enter your account ID (make sure your Adsense and Analytics accounts are linked). This is going to give you much more information in Analytics, such as what pages are generating the most ad clicks. If you have one page that’s outperforming all the others, you can study the page for the reasons the ads are performing well and try to replicated that formula on other pages.

Tip 3: Using tracking codes for site visitor behavior

Links good for event tracking

Tracking the behavior of visitors to your site might be important. For example, wouldn’t you like to know every time someone subscribes to your RSS feed? That’s an event to be tracked. If you’re using the Thesis theme that may be tricky, depending on what you’re looking to track. In this example, I’ve developed a RSS subscribing widget that fits my needs, that includes other things like a YouTube, Flickr, and LinkedIn links (in another tutorial I’ll go over my “stay in touch” widget). I can go in there and manually edit all those links. First, the code you’ll need:

<a href="http://yourdomain.com"
onClick="pageTracker._trackEvent('category', 'action', 'optional label');">Anchor Text</a>

What you need to do now is customize the variables of the event: category, action, and optional label. For example this is how I might track people clicking on my LinkedIn profile link:

<a href="http://yourdomain.com"
onClick="pageTracker._trackEvent('intouch', 'followlink', 'linkedin');">Anchor Text</a>

Many people get confused about what variables that can or should use when tracking events. The short answer is, there is no wrong answer; it’s totally up to you and what kind of data that you want to gather. With that said, you want to be smart. In this example, my logic was pretty simple. For the category I used the name of the area where I’m tracking links; any tracking code under Stay In Touch will have the category of “intouch”. The action I was tracking was following links, thus I used “followlink” (note: I will probably use this action with other links on the page because it isn’t category dependent). Lastly, the label is “linkedin”, which is self explanatory; this label should be the one unique variable that you use.

These variables are important because they’ll help you create some great reports in Analytics. In this example, I can create reports that tell me all about the Stay In Touch area (category), or create reports about one specific action on my site (followlink), or I can combine “followlink” and the label “linkedin” (imagine I was tracking multiple “linkedin” links on my site) and see in total how many people were clicking on my LinkedIn profile link. You could go wild creating customized reports if you capture the right data.

Tip 4: Advanced data capture

Let’s continue with the same example, my “stay in touch” widget. But now I want see how effective that widget is on my home page, compared any other page on my site. I’m thinking that even though my home page gets the most traffic, for some reason the widget’s not performing as well as when it’s on a single entry page. That’s the premise for this tip.

"stay in touch" with widget logic

Given this problem, what I need to do is create two “stay in touch” widgets that are the same except for the tracking code, then serve these different widgets onto the appropriate pages (home page, then all other pages).

To begin, we need to install the Widget Logic plugin I mention above. There are similar plugins that purport to be simpler, but I don’t find them such because their user interfaces are convoluted. With the Widget Logic plugin and a little knowledge about WordPress conditional tags, you can do some clever things.

If you look at the image to the left you’ll see my “stay in touch” widget with the Widget Logic field highlighted. That’s where you enter the conditional tags (this example is simple; using PHP you can get pretty elaborate). We’re going to create two of these widgets, one that has is_front_page() (is the front page) and the other with !is_front_page() (is not the front page) in the Widget Logic field.

Next we want to make changes to our tracking code, leaving everything else untouched for our experiment. For the home page (is_front_page()) I’ll use this as the tracking code:

onClick="pageTracker._trackEvent('intouchhome', 'followlink', 'linkedin');"

and for all other pages (!is_front_page()) I’ll use this tracking:

onClick="pageTracker._trackEvent('intouchothers', 'followlink', 'linkedin');"

Notice how I changed up the category? Now in Analytics I can create reports comparing the two.

Of course, this is a simple example of what you could do using Widget Logic. If you’ve done some other cool things, please drop a note in the comments.

I’ve got many other ideas for Thesis/Analytics tutorials. What do you think would be most useful?

Tax resistance in Western Massachusetts [VIDEO]

In 1992 I made this 30 minute documentary about federal tax resisters in Western Massachusetts. The event precipitating the video was the arrest for nonpayment of taxes by US Marshals and IRS agents of Randy Kehler on December 3, 1991. Kehler, his wife Betsy Corner and daughter, had been living in their house since 1989 when the IRS seized it.

Path of Greatest Resistance: tax resistance in Western Massachusetts,  tries to understand the motivations of a variety of tax resisters that lived in Western Mass. along with Kehler and Corner. In addition to Kehler, featured in the video are Andrea Ayvazian, Wally Nelson, Brayton Shanley, among others.

Looking back at the video, it holds up pretty well (only the first 4 minutes make me cringe). Of course the quality isn’t up to today’s digital standards, but I think the story is still a compelling one. There are some interviews where the video is dark. Believe it or not, at the time both the Shanley’s and Wally Nelson were homesteaders — that is, they were living without electricity, so our recording was done with battery power and no extra lights.

The video is from a VHS transfer, pre-digital recording or editing. I’ve remastered the audio and created new title and credit sequences. Otherwise, the video is as it was in 1992.

Emily Harding-Morick was my primary collaborator on this project, and deserves much credit for helping me make the documentary a reality.

Don’t drink craft beer in a catatonic state

What’s the point of drinking a beer that tastes like water steeped with recycled copy paper and lemon? Beer should have a flavor profile that makes you ponder its origins, and daydream about the cool people who crafted it. If you can’t picture in your mind real people crafting that beverage, then you’re probably drinking the wrong beer.

I just finished watching the documentary Beer Wars (a good blog that’s always updated with various beer news), a movie about the battle between small brewers in the United States and the (now) worldwide conglomerates. Right now 3 companies brew 80+ percent of all the beer in the world. If you’re a beer drinker, think about that: it’s almost hard to find beer not brewed from one of these 3 companies: AB InBev (Belgium), Heineken (Holland/Netherlands), SAB Miller (London & South Africa).

Over the past few years I’ve been drinking at one of the best beer bars in the United States, The Moan and Dove. There are many things that make the Moan great, but at the top of the list is that Jason (the owner) and his crew love good beer. That’s the philosophy of the Moan: find great beer and serve it fresh. That sounds simple, but it’s not. You have to convince a customer base that paying $9 for De Ranke XX on draught with straight CO2 gas is more satisfying than paying $3 for a Bud draught.

If you don’t know where to find great beer in your locale, check this directory out at Beer Advocate. I suggest first going to a good beer bar and asking questions. Taste a few different beers. Taste them. Enjoy the beer, because it’s not a race to fill your gut. You deserve to have beer that was made with care and that actually tastes like something.

Preview of Beer Wars

No Fishin’ In The Ditch [video]

I was doing my regular walk in Sunderland, MA, when I came upon what I thought was a nut fishing in a drainage ditch. Turns out she wasn’t a nut at all, but a graduate student from the University of Massachusetts Amherst doing research. This drainage ditch/brook overflows often, so Colleen Samson’s thesis project is to better understand the water flow. She’ll present her findings to the town, who may then fix the ditch.

Give birth to 10 WordPress blogs in 30 minutes

If you need to roll out multiple WordPress blogs, this article is for you. I’m going to show you how to set up 10 blogs in 30 minutes, or I’ll eat my hat! Not only that, but we’ll set them up with a standard group of plugins, extra search engine optimization, and security hardening to prevent hacking of your blog.

Here are the 4 basic steps:

  1. prepare the WordPress and plugins upload
  2. set-up your databases
  3. configure your wp-config.php file
  4. WordPress install process

Let’s get started.

Preparing a WordPress installation archive

First, download the latest version of WordPress (WP). Here’s the clever part of this step: because of the WordPress automatic update, you’ll never have to do this again. As I write this WP is at version 2.9.2, but when the next version is released and I want to install a new blog, I’m going to upload the older version (that I’m going to customize) from my computer. After I upload version 2.9.2 I’ll upgrade by going to Tools > Upgrade.

Now that you’ve downloaded and opened the zip file to your computer, let’s customize a couple of things. You’re going to need a plain text editor like Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit (Mac) to create four files. Make sure it’s a plain text editor that can create asci text files, otherwise you might have problems.

The first text file you create is named robots.txt. This file is where you’ll include the rules for search engines that index your site; if you restrict the search engine bots from indexing extraneous files on your site, it’s better for the good content on your site. These are the rules for your robots.txt file:

 

User-agent: *
Disallow: /cgi-bin
Disallow: /wp-admin
Disallow: /wp-includes
Disallow: /wp-content
Disallow: /trackback
Disallow: /feed
Disallow: /comments
Disallow: /category/*/*
Disallow: */trackback
Disallow: */feed
Disallow: */comments
Disallow: /*?*
Disallow: /*?

Sitemap: http://www.yoursite.com/sitemap.xml.gz

 

See that last line? That tells search engine bots where you’re site map is; we’ll get to that in a moment, but for now just change the domain to yours. Save the robots.txt file into the WP directory that you unzipped.

Next we’re going to create the .htaccess file. This file can do many things, among them it includes the rules for your permanent link structure (found under Settings > Permalinks). Add the following rules to your .htaccess file and save it into the WP directory.

 

Options All -Indexes

# protect wp-config.php
<files wp-config.php>
Order deny,allow
deny from all
</files>

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^www\.
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.%{HTTP_HOST}/$1 [R=301,L]

 

wordpress directory

Highlighted files we'll be working with

First, note that depending on how the preferences are defined on your personal computer (Mac or Windows), you may or may not be able to see any file that begins with a period, as in “.htaccess”. Because of this, it’s probably best to not include the period when you save the file into your unzipped WP directory; you can add the period (don’t forget) after all the files in the WP directory are uploaded to your server using FTP (or better, SFTP). Also, after uploading  the file, removed the “.txt” so that the file’s name is “.htaccess”.

Looking back at the code I gave you for the .htaccess file, let’s review it from the top. To begin with, the first rule tells the server NOT to display the contents of any directory that doesn’t include any type of index file, such as index.php or index.html. This is for the security of WordPress and your server.

The next rule is also for security, and depending on your server may be redundant, but nevertheless won’t hurt anything. The rule allows access to your WP configuration file only from your server.

The last rule in the .htaccess file is for better tracking of statistics if you’re using something like Google Analytics. Did you know that “www.yourdomain.com” and “yourdomain.com” are two different things for search engines and site stats applications like Analytics? True. That means if you don’t force all your site visitors to one or the other domain URL, you may only be tracking some people. So, that last rule forces the server to always add “www” to your domain URL.

The last two text files you’ll create are “sitemap.xml” and “sitemap.xml.gz“. These are empty files that’ll be used by a plugin we’ll talk about soon. Don’t worry about them, though note that you might have to change their permissions using your FTP program in the future, depending on how the server is configured. The plugin will throw an error and tell you if that’s the case. No worries!

Gathering your WordPress plugins

Part of what makes the process I’m showing you so efficient is that you’re doing preparation that doesn’t have to be repeated in the future. So, gathering your plugins first and putting them into the ‘wp-content/plugins’ directory (unzip the plugins and delete the .zip files) will make your life easier. It makes sense because, at least for me, with minor exceptions, I generally always use the same plugins across many different WP Web sites.

You can develop your own set of go-to plugins (favorites), but here are the ones I recommend:

Again, this is the set of plugins I commonly use. Your set might be different. But, as with the easy updating of WordPress, the same is true with the plugins. If after uploading the WP directory you see that some of the plugins need updating, no problem: go to Tools > Upgrade and update all the plugins in one shot. Finished.

Set-up your databases

Because there are so many variations on how to set-up your database, depending on your server, I’m not going to get too deep into the details. I will note one thing: use strong passwords and unique database and user names. Make them a little weird, for security sake. Other than that, copy down the database info and let’s move on.

Configuring the wp-config.php file

This is straight forward, though let me recommend two things you should do. Under “Authentication Unique Keys” always make the effort to get your keys from https://api.wordpress.org/secret-key/1.1/ and copy them into your wp-config file. Always.

Second, under “WordPress Database Table prefix” always change the default “wp_”. This is for the security of your database. Never use the default. I always throw some random numbers in there like this: “w865p_”. It’s another small step for security, not using default or easily guessed values in your blog configuration.

Installing 10 Blogs Process

You’re ready. You’ve created a customized WordPress directory that you can upload multiple times. Look at that image above of the directory; does yours look like that? It should.

With your first database set-up and the wp-config file squared away, start uploading to your server. While that’s happening, on your other domains create your the WP databases, copying down the corresponding information. After the first upload is finished, move onto the second domain by editing the wp-config file again with the new information, then save. Upload to the second domain. And so on.

See how easy it is to roll out many WordPress blogs once you have a customized directory set up?

If you have any other tips that should be included in this tutorial, leave them in the comments. I can always learn something new.

Photo by Scott Beale (Laughing Squid) and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Help me write one of the best blogs of 2010

I have high ambitions this year: write a weblog that’s good enough to be on one of those end-of-year best of lists. I’d at least like to write blog that garners noteable interest in 2010.

I’ve been blogging off and on since 2001. Mostly off. But in January of this year I was meeting with a new client about setting up their professional blog, and they asked me why I hadn’t updated my own blog in more than 6 months. I didn’t have a great answer, but I got the message: if you want to help people with their blogging needs, you need to be a regular blogger yourself.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been writing regular posts about things that interest me, or that will be useful to some readers. Usually, I’m writing 3 or 4 posts a week. Not all the writing is great, but at least once a week there’s a post I can point to with pride, in my opinion.

What would you do to make this a great blog? I’m leaving this open for comments because the more feedback the better, and I could use your help. Thanks for taking the time.

Photo by Annie Mole and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Getting wine to flow on the Web — working with Amherst Wines

I’ve been working with Steve Freedman, owner of Amherst Wines & Spirits, for more than a year now. Some of the things we’ve accomplished are create a new Web site (using the content management system, TypoLight), set-up an email list using Mailchimp, and offer Web communication consultation.

Helping people learn new Web technologies to communicate with their customers or audience is satisfying, especially when it’s someone like Steve who’s interested in expanding his skills. I asked Steve to answer a few questions about our work  together.

Hi, Steve. First, can you describe a bit about how Amherst Wine & Spirits was (or was not) using the Web for business, a year ago?

There was a static web site, basically just a “home page” which introduced the store. I could not put anything else on it.

We’ve been working together for a year now. What do think have been the most useful technological advances you’ve made?

The web site is a much more useful source of information than in the past. The mid-month email is terrific, resulting in more sales while also being measurable in terms of viewing. You set me up with terrific (and free) software to make this happen.

For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of working with you has been teaching you to do Web communication yourself. I get a kick out of walking into the store and hearing you tell me about the latest task you complete without a problem, whether it be updating the Web site or sending out the email newsletter. Can you describe a little bit about this experience from your perspective?

Computer stuff does not come easily to me. You have been patient in teaching me how to dramatically improve my electronic newsletter as well as uploading content to my web site. It has not been without incident – sometimes I trip up – but now I can usually do all the things I consider important by myself. I’m most comfortable when I do not need to depend on someone else to do my web stuff for me, and you have helped to get me there.

So, Steve, in terms of Web communication with your customers, do you have anything new planned for the new year? Can you share any plans Amherst Wines might have?

My next project will be uploading graphic material – photos and wine labels I can get from the web – to my web site and online newsletter.

Sustainable Seafood For People With Lobotomies

Mark Bittman writes in the New York Times today about a company in California that’s claiming to be selling “sustainable seafood.” The company, I Love Blue Sea, sells only seafood that’s found on neither the Greenpeace Red List nor the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Those lists track seafood fished in an unsustainable manner, which usually means one of three things according to Greenpeace:

  • there’s little data proving fish stocks are heathly
  • seafood is being sourced from depleted stocks
  • or, fishing methods are destructive to other fish habitats

All of this makes sense, right? I can’t argue with eating seafood only from healthy fish stocks.

But … shipping that fish across the country, from California to my house in Massachusetts, can’t be good for the planet.

Buying two pounds of gulf shrimp ($23.14) and shipping it overnight using FedEx ($26.84) ends up costing $49.98. AND the cross country flight my shrimp makes will deposit about 2,500 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I haven’t even figured the fuel cost for the flight.

Now, how sustainable is that seafood? I probably melted a glacier just to eat my two pounds of shrimp!

Photo by jpellgen and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Banal Failures of The Springfield Republican’s Phoebe Prince Coverage

Among media observers in Western Massachusetts, The Springfield Republican has a well earned reputation for protecting select powerful and corrupt people. That’s what I assumed was happening with the Phoebe Prince story, because much of the Republican coverage has been lacking. However, based on my investigation, the explanation is more banal: I’ve discovered an incompetent reporter with little courthouse experience and a newspaper trying cobble together a daily publication after cuts to newsroom staff by more than 60% in 2009.

You’ve probably heard the story out of South Hadley, Massachusetts, concerning the bullying and suicide of freshman high school student Phoebe Prince. According to a statement made by the District Attorney on 29 March 2010, there was a bullying campaign that lasted at least 3 months towards Phoebe. Thus far, Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel (a native of South Hadley) has charged 6 teens in the case; more teens may be charged. It’s a sad case, coming 11 months after the bullying related suicide of 11 year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, just down the road in Springfield.

The bulllying issue and these two cases coming up so close on each other would seem like a great opportunity for the local daily newspaper, The Springfield Republican, to make itself indispensable in the community. But the Springfield newspaper has failed the community on some basic levels, in particular holding the adults in this case — the school teachers and administrators — accountable for their inaction.

How The Republican got scooped in its own backyard

When compared to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and to a lesser extent the Boston Herald, the Springfield Republican has been getting beat on stories. You would think for a local newspaper they’d have the sources to get deep on this story, but thus far they don’t.

Sandra Constantine is the Republican reporter covering the South Hadley and Granby beat, who for the most part has been the primary reporter on the Phoebe Prince story. Other Republican reporters have been stepping up to help, but the majority of stories have been written by Constantine. This is a problem because Constantine has very little experience with the courthouse beat. A review of her work since 2007 reveals that Constantine has attended maybe three criminal arraignments; of those, her published work suggests that in only one case did she do research of court documents (“Suspect facing weapons counts,” 10 May 2007, Springfield Republican). Despite reporting for the Republican since the early 1980s, her court reporting experience is reed-thin.

On the morning of April 8th, three teens were arraigned on charges related to the bullying of Phoebe Prince. Sandra Constantine wrote a story that was posted at 9:30am, then updated on the Web at 8:30pm; the 8:30pm version of the story appeared in print on April 9. The thrust of the her story was a retelling of the charges and a census of the people attending the hearing. In addition, posted with the Web versions of the story was a PDF document of the indictments filed.

By itself the indictments are more or less useless when trying to write a story about the evidence the district attorney is presenting in support of her charges against the teens. If you want to know the facts and argument the D.A. is presenting to the court, you need the memorandum of law for each of the defendants; that memorandum includes the issue presented, statement of the case, statement of the facts (the important part), and argument (legal mumbo jumbo).  This is a public legal document available to anyone from the clerk of courts.

Without the statement of facts, which is a brief narrative of some of the evidence gathered (much more evidence will be presented at trial), Constantine couldn’t write a story worth your time reading. Why didn’t she get this document when both the Boston Globe and New York Times did?

Based on my investigation, it’s clear she attended the hearing and wrote a story that was posted to the Web at 9:30am; that story and the 8:30pm update included the (useless) indictments of the three defendants. In the morning the clerk only had the indictments on file, which were given to Constantine. She probably left the courthouse soon after to begin writing her first story, but never followed-up with the clerk for more documents.

What Constantine didn’t know was that the memorandum of law wasn’t filed with the clerk until later in the day. According to an email conversation I had with Boston Globe reporter, Peter Schworm, he wasn’t sure what time he received the documents, but “it was late in the day though – I remember b/c I was here until quite late.”

As I’ve detailed above, Constantine doesn’t have a lot of courthouse reporting experience, and in this case she was incompetent in preparing her story, which leaves the question, where the hell were her editors? After reading the story, didn’t they notice there wasn’t any useful content? The first story was filed at 9:30am, which would leave a lot of time to double back and get it right for the 8:30pm update. That is if someone knew the story was crap as filed. I guess we should heap a load of criticism on the story editors too.

How The Republican Can Improve Coverage

In addition to replacing Sandra Constantine with a seasoned court reporter, the Republican needs to develop better sources. Reading through the coverage thus far, it’s clear they haven’t developed sources that could shed light on adult behavior in the school. Why aren’t the reporters using Twitter to shake sources and information loose? That’s what I did to help write the article you’re reading. If a blogger can do it, why not a credentialed reporter?

There’s another problem at the Republican — not exactly related to the story — that nonetheless has affected the coverage of the Phoebe Prince story. In 2009 the Republican had two rounds of layoffs, in January and July, that decimated the newsroom. Right now they have about 22 full-time reporters, of which 20 or so cover more than 60 communities in the Republican circulation area.

Because general assignment reporters can’t be expected to be experts in every topic or issue that comes across their geographic beat, newspapers will often have reporters that cover specialized beats: business, food, medical, sports, and courts, for example. Right now the Republican has two of these specialized beats: the statehouse and the courts in Springfield (federal and state district). If a reporter (and editor) with courthouse experience were on the case, I’m sure the Republican would have better coverage.

The Republican should also closely look at the court documents for new story ideas. In the statement of the facts against defendant Ashley Longe,  there’s an interesting incident in the school library that took place on January 14, 2010 (the day Prince committed suicide). Here’s an excerpt explaining what happened:

According to witnesses, the defendant made reference to Ms.Prince on multiple oceassions while in the library. The first time, the defendant yelled something to the eFfect of “close your legs” and “I hate stupid sluts.” [...] The defendant walked by Ms. Prince’s table and said something to the effect that she (the defendant) hated sluts. According to witnesses the defendant said it loud enough so that Ms. Prince could hear it; and she did. According to one student, the defendant “was standing next to another table screaming at [Ms. Prince] from across the library.” [...] This student described the defendant as “taunting” Ms. Prince, or saying things to her from across the library, on and off for the five minutes that he and another male student were in the library. [...] The defendant’s comments to Ms. Prince were loud enough that they were overheard by other students in the library.

The narrative of the library incident is one and a half pages long; it’s very detailed. What I find astonishing is that not one person of authority is mentioned in the account. No librarian. No aid. No teacher. Not one person of authority makes an appearance in the narrative of the incident. Why?

Based on reporting, I’ve learned that the South Hadley High School library is sometimes “like the wild west.” Depending who the particular staff is in charge, discipline can be almost non-existent. Why is it like the “wild west” in the library? Are school staff themselves being intimidated by some students? I’ve heard one story about a past incident in the South Hadley High School that would confirm such behavior.

This could be a great news story that might address the issue of teachers trying (and sometimes failing) to stop bullies from running amok. What’s causing staff to fail to control behavior?

Another possible area of interest is a story dating back to 15 September 2007, written by Constantine, about two students that were suspended from South Hadley High School for 10 days because they had discharged Mace outside the library that put two students into the hospital. Was this a case of bullying? Here’s another published example of delinquent activity taking place in or around the library; what’s the problem there?

More in general, it would probably be helpful to actually dig into the archives and find other incidents that may or may not demonstrate a pattern of bullying or delinquent behavior in the high school.

Good Coverage About Important Stories Is Critical

Why should we be bothered by crappy news coverage about any story in our community? If you believe the function of our news media is to purely entertain the masses, then you might not see the importance of solid, enterprising reporting. However, if you understand that part of the function of the news media is to accurately inform legislators and citizens about the important issues of the day, which then in turn influences what laws get written and passed, you know the critical role the news media plays in our democracy. Situations like this don’t come along too often when a news story is bubbling up during the legislative process, like it is now with the currently pending bullying legislation in the statehouse.

UPDATE: I emailed Sandra Constantine on 4/15/2010 at 6:11 pm, asking for her response if she had one. Thus far she hasn’t responded. If she does, I will publish it in full. There’s also a conversation about this piece happening over at Media Nation.

Photo: public domain via Wikipedia.

Making Twitter Follow Friday Useful

Following on the heals of Chris Brogan and moving his Twitter follow Friday meme to his blog, here’s my shout out to people whose blogs or Tweets I read mostly religiously. I like Chris’ logic in moving these little promotions to a blog post format: trying to put all this information into 140 characters strangles the language and creates a 140 character mess.

  • @HolyokeHome — Their blog originates in Holyoke, Massachusetts (The Paper City), about the renovation of a new/old row house.
  • @WritersVoice — A book radio show that I listen to. Great interviews, including this one I did with Chris Brogan!
  • @StoneGreg — Co-founder of craft beer brewer Stone Brewing Co. Always has great links to interesting articles.
  • @CenterOnBudget – The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a non-partisan institute that’s always publishing great information about how the government is spending our money. If you want to be informed and don’t mind being sort of a geek, check them out.
  • @dankennedy_nu — Dan Kennedy is a journalism professor at Northeastern University and writes the blog Media Nation. A good source of information about the media business in general, especially around Boston.

UPDATE: Rob McGuire on how to recommend people and make yourself look good.

    Do you have any suggestions but don’t have a blog to publish them at? Leave them in the comments below.

    Profiling a social enterprise: Memory Magic

    I needed to get a VHS tape transfered to DVD for a project you’ll see on this site soon. By word of mouth (Twitter, really) I found Memory Magic, a local business that provides all kinds of digital transfer services. The interesting thing about Memory Magic is that they’re run as a social enterprise by a human services agency to provide employment for people with mental disabilities.

    The work they did for me is topnotch. Actually, it was better than I expected, and I probably would have paid twice the price without batting an eye. Plus, you can’t beat the mission.

    Here’s a little story about this business.

    Do You Know The Most Dangerous Roads To Bicycle In Western Mass?

    It’s Spring in New England which means people are digging bicycles out of storage and hitting the roads. Where I live, on Route 47 in Sunderland, MA, cyclists often jam pack the road — it’s a very scenic ride, if not always a safe one because of the narrow road at times. But Route 47 doesn’t make the list of most dangerous roads to ride in Western Mass because I’ve never had a problem (I did almost hit a horse while I was riding on Rt. 47).

    Least safe states 2008 (click to enlarge)

    First some bicycling safety statistics before we go through the list. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF report), there were 716 bicyclist deaths in 2008, accounting for 2 percent of all traffic fatalities. Most people that are killed while riding are older — and getting older. In 1998 the average age of a bicyclist killed was 32; in 2008 the average age was 41. In 2008, Alcohol was involved (either by cyclists or motor vehicle driver) in more than 1/3 of all accidents that resulted in the death of the cyclist. Most of the cyclists killed in 2008 were male (87%). (You can find a lot of great information at bicyclinginfo.org)

    Safest states 2008 (click to enlarge)

    How about a few Massachusetts bike safety stats? These come from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is a great database of all kinds of traffic statistics going back to 1994 and sortable by state. In 2008 there were 10 bicyclist fatalities in Massachusetts, which put the state below the national average (MA 1.54 per million population; national 2.35). An interesting thing to note, despite the small numbers: in Mass. there were more bicycle fatalities at intersections (6) than non-intersections. That isn’t true for the U.S. as a whole, where 65 percent of fatalities take place at non-intersections.

    Let’s move on!

    Most Dangerous Places To Bicycle In Western Mass

    The intersection of Routes 10, 9, and 66 in Northampton


    View Larger Map

    This is the general area where Meg Sanders was hit on Sept. 22, 2005, by an armored truck coming down Elm St. (Rt. 9) in front of Smith College. It’s a dangerous spot for a number of reasons: traffic picking up speed coming down the hills, tough left turns for cars, a lot of traffic, and on Elm St. where Meg was hit, there isn’t a lot of room for cyclist to squeeze through the parked cars and traffic. Keep your head on a swivel if you’re riding through there!

    Route 5, between Northampton and Easthampton


    View Larger Map

    Doesn’t seem that dangerous? Well remember, two thirds of all bicycle accidents happen at non-intersections. This area is fairly straight and mostly flat; just the kind of place motorists can lose concentration. Add on the fact that the two lane road is pretty narrow, and you’ve got a recipe for getting run off Route 5. Many factors here for disaster.

    University Drive, Amherst


    View Larger Map

    I wasn’t going to include this road in the list. It doesn’t make sense, there’s a bike path along the road! Well, tell that to Misty Bassi who was hit and killed on Memorial Day 2009. That’s right, the car jumped the curb, drove over a patch of grass, and hit Misty on the bike path. In general, when riding your bike around colleges and universities you should keep your head on a swivel. Most college aged drivers have had their license for anywhere between 2 and 4 years; that’s not a lot of experience behind the wheel. [correction: in the comments someone noted that Misty was not on the bike path. Funny, the media coverage of this story is very confusing.]

    Mind the gap!

    Haydenville Rd., Whately – Northampton

    I got this area from a tip, noting the mass of pot holes and wind. I was on this road a couple of times last season and can testify to the potholes. If you’re bicycling in New England, you have to expect the potholes. Last year I blew-out 2 tires and had to straightened my rear rim 3 times due to running over potholes. I guess I need to practice pothole swerving.

    Did I miss some dangerous places for cycling in Western Mass.? Leave a comment below and I’ll update the list.

    I would like to thank some people for their contribution to this list: Marie Lisewski, Allan Douglas, and David Kutcher.

    Photos by dbking and KTesh and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

    Jason Kottke and Hugh Hefner: men with a common project

    I‘m sure you’ve heard of Hugh Hefner. And you might have even heard of Jason Kottke, who’s been blogging since pretty much the beginning of blogging in 1998. Did you know that Hefner and Kottke have something in common? (This is totally safe for work, trust me.)

    Kottke’s Scrapbook

    I’ve been reading Jason Kottke’s blog since 2000. It’s evolved quite a bit since then, but in a certain respect I’ve always thought of his blog as a scrapbook of a mans’ walk through culture, which reflects his tastes, values, and passions. Most of the blog is not about Jason’s life — especially the posts from the last few years — though what he publishes is a personal editorial decision, so I think we can assume that those decisions say something about him.

    Kottke/Hefner

    Kottke/Hefner

    That’s why I think Kottke.org is certainly a scrapbook (of a sort) that chronicles Jason’s experience with “the liberal arts,” as much as it is about the liberal arts themselves. After all, the blog is not comprehensive of the liberal arts; it’s representative of the liberal arts Jason finds compelling. If you read through Jason’s interviews (links below), Jason says that he tries not personally editorialize or advocate for certain points of view on his blog — he wants to be “neutral” — but by curating the content, he is expressing his interests in his scrapbook.

    Hefner’s Scrapbook

    I would love to know what’s going to happen to Hugh Hefner’s scrapbook after he passes. Have you heard of this thing? Hefner has amassed about 2,000 volumes, dating back to high school, into a scrapbook of his life. Of course, his life really hasn’t been his life for some time; in part, because of his chosen profession, his life is a history of post-1950s censorship battles, socio-sexual developments, and race relations. Through the 1960s and 70s, Hefner and Playboy were part of (Hefner might say center to) a conversation about morality and sexuality in the United States.

    Here’s one example of how the Hefner scrapbook is more than a personal journal. In an interview with Brigitte Berman, director of the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, she relates one thing she found surprising in the scrapbook:

    So Hef’s into scrapbooking?

    He still does them. One of things I loved was the one about the Big Bunny–the big personal plane he has with the bunny logo on the tail. Hollywood friends asked him if they could use the Big Bunny to rescue Vietnamese orphans during the war.There are these incredible photographs of the bunny girls caring for these orphans on the plane.

    The scrapbook has been a passion for Hefner since before World War II (even using Twitter updates here and here to let us know when he’s working on it), and I think because of that the scrapbook will be made public after he’s finished working on it (the day he dies, I would imagine). It’ll probably be given to a library or other public archive, and probably digitized for researchers.

    That’s the key difference between the Kottke and Hefner project: one is readily public, the other is not (though Hefner has given access to researchers and filmmakers in the past). Despite this, I think they’re both scrapbookers at heart, collecting their interests and passions into compendium of entries. Both reflect their life experiences. Kottke is pointing us towards things that might interest us now; Hefner is collecting points in history that will interest us later.

    Related Links

    • Interview with Jason Kottke on Think Big
    • Interview with Jason Kottke by Rebecca Blood
    • Interview with Jason Kottke on Spark (CBC Radio)
    • William F Buckley interviews Hugh Hefner in 1966 (part 1 and part 2)

    Kottke/Hefner photos by megnut and cliff1066 and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

    How to use Craigslist and Google Reader for power searches (and getting free stuff)

    Have you found discovering good deals on Craigslist more trouble than is worth the effort? If you know exactly what you’re looking for, the search works great. But returning day after day is a pain. What if you’re looking for good deals on stuff, but aren’t sure what you’ll buy?  Let me show you how I scan hundreds of ads and laser in on what interests me using one tool and a couple of keywords. Plus, I’ll show you how to find piles of free stuff (could be junk).

    I use Craigslist 3 different ways, every day. I look for free things, scan everything being sold in my town, and I’m usually looking for a couple of specific things. I do all of this without going to the Craigslist site; the information just comes to me.

    Keywords and free stuff

    curb alert - click to enlarge

    Savvy users of Craigslist with things they want out of the garage or basement put their crap (in the eyes of some) curb side with the sign “free stuff”. I’m sure you’ve seen these piles. Here’s where Craigslist comes in: you then post an ad with the keywords “curb alert” in the title. Give a basic list of things people can find, your address, and the time you left the things curb side. Believe me, no matter the backwoods road you may live on, people will come and pick through your pile.

    Do you want to find these piles of free things? Go to your local Craigslist and search for “curb alert”. The ads will come flooding at you.

    Want to keep an eye on what’s being sold in your city or town? Search for your town name — mine’s “Sunderland.”

    Are you looking for something specific on Craigslist? Search for “dumbbells” (one of my recent searches).

    I probably haven’t told you anything you didn’t know already, so let’s start cooking with gas and push all this information to you automatically.

    Using RSS feeds to track searches on Craigslist

    Google Reader - click to enlarge

    Enlarge the above photo to the left and you’ll see that I circled the orange “RSS” link. You’ve probably seen these before on sites all over the Web; if you didn’t know, that stands for Really Simple Syndication (Wikipedia). This is the tool we’re going to use to get the custom Craigslist searches delivered to you. After doing your custom search, at the bottom of every page, you’ll find that RSS link. The data inside that link will update in real-time; whenever a new ad is posted that falls into your custom search, your RSS link will also update. Simple!

    But before copying that RSS link, you need a tool that can process it and output the data into a format your eyes can read. I use the free Google Reader software, but there are many other tools. You can Google “rss reader mac” or “rss reader windows” or “rss reader web” (for Web based software like Google Reader). Find your RSS reader, set it up, copy your Craigslist RSS link, then “add subscription”.

    The image to the right is of my “curb alert” RSS feed inside Google Reader. Notice the second ad? They forgot to include their address so people could pick up the free stuff. That’s a common mistake.

    Are you overwhelmed? I hope not, because in the long run you’ll save a lot of time and money.

    If you have any other Craigslist/RSS tips, please leave them in the comments below.

    Photo (CC) by Kevin Dean and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

    How to loose 60 Twitter followers in a matter of minutes

    What a drag. I wasn’t trying to spam anyone, market to anyone, or be a pain in the ass; I was just trying to pass along what I thought was a nice story. This experience sort of reminds me of the saying “no good deed goes unpunished”. But more to the point, the lesson to be learned is that using services offering automatic actions on your Twitter account based on keywords is an inexact science. I wrote a Tweet and immediately 60 people (out of roughly 1,000) stopped following me.

    Here’s the offending Tweet:
    marketing-tweet

    It’s a cool story about how this marketing dude helped a homeless man hone his pitch for donations by doing some A/B split testing. Check out the story, I think you’ll like it.

    Services like SocialToo (which I subscribe to) gives you the ability to automatically unsubscribe from someone you follow based on defined keywords they might use in Tweets, like “marketing”. But I wasn’t trying to market to anybody! Too bad.

    Besides “marketing,” what other keywords would you put on your automatic unfollow blacklist?

    How to be generous and drive more traffic to your blog

    Don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner, but yesterday I did a little experiment that’s going to change the way I write and publish blog posts. I learned that the more generous I am with crediting photographers who offer their photos with a Creative Commons license on Flickr, the more traffic my blog will get.

    When I publish a post, often I’ll find an accompanying Creative Commons photo on Flickr; they’re easy to find using the advanced search. As long as I give credit to the photographer with a link back to the original photo, I’m not really obligated to do anything else. But yesterday I went back and contacted each photographer whose photo I used in a post, giving thanks and a link back to my post with their photo.

    What most of the photographers did next was the great thing: not only did they visit my blog, but they also posted a link to the post on their Facebook pages, which drove more traffic to my blog. Moreover, it looks like some of those people subscribed to my RSS feed.

    To recap: I spent about 30 seconds per photographer contacting them, and they were kind enough give a link back to my blog. I hope they feel as good about this “transaction” as I do. Thank you Creative Commons, and thank you photographers.

    Photo (CC) micah.e (thanks!)

    Step by step how to use Google Insights to brainstorm writing ideas

    I’ve been working on an editorial calendar for a blog that I’ve neglected for a while now, My Weight Loss Struggle. To help brainstorm writing ideas, I took a look at Google Insights, the tool that gives insights into keywords, news stories that correlate to spikes in keyword interest, and geographically where these keyword searches are popular.

    Google Insights is a tool most useful to advertisers looking for information about trending interests, but just as easily it can help you discover new writing topics or niches of topics you’re already writing about.

    Here’s a step-by-step example of how I discovered some great topics for my weight loss blog.

    • First, I did a simple search for “weight loss” to see what came up. This was just some preliminary exploration.
    • I found too much information. I needed more focus. Insights can give you focus using a few different variables; the ones I chose were date (last 12 months), geography (US only), and category (health)
    • Now we’re cooking with gas! Straight away the regional interest section catches my eye. Here are the top 10 states looking for weight loss information using Google search: Alabama, Utah, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Idaho, Montana, Louisiana, Wyoming, and Mississippi. There’s something about that group of states that looks familiar.
    • I look up the median household income by state statistic, which gives us a rough idea of how poor or rich people are in different states. Bingo! Using 2008 numbers, here are the 10 poorest states: Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Tennessee, Montana, and Louisiana. Get this! 6 of the poorest states in the U.S. are also the ones most looking for weight loss information.

    You can’t beat having information like that. In this example it was my curiosity that caused the find. Looking at that Google list regional interest states, it seemed like they were poor. My hunch paid off.

    google insightsWhat you can do with this information

    Write posts! This gives me some great ideas about post topics because I can now picture my audience. There seems to be a group of states down south …

    • what about weight loss tips for people that like southern food? Is that possible?
    • these are poor states, so many posts about eating healthy on a budget
    • recipes that use ingredients often found in southern food
    • what about finding a guest blogger from one of these poorer states?

    I’m just getting started. Do you have any ideas to share?

    Give Google Insights a try and let me know your results in the comments below.

    Top Photo (CC) andymangold