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The Spokesman-Review’s Ryan Pitts on Web Scraping

April 20, 2011 in Blog, Craft, Experiments, Interview, Technology


An interview with The Spokesman-Review’s Ryan Pitts by JA’s Tram Whitehurst.

Ryan Pitts is the online director at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

“We primarily use data made available through various APIs, in either JSON or XML format, or we take data exports in CSV and then import them into our own system. As far as writing scripts to go out and scrape pages that don’t have corresponding data made available in one of those other ways, well, we don’t really do much of it. Not because we can’t, but because there are enough projects to keep us plenty busy with data that’s easier to get at.

That said, if a project came up where we could ONLY get what we needed via scrape, the tool du jour these days definitely seems to be ScraperWIKI. There’s a tutorial page that can help you get going, even with nominal understanding of programming.

There’s also a great tutorial here by Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times.

As far as scraping advice, I think one of the key things to keep in mind is the same as we do for data use via API — be considerate of your data source. Don’t hammer their web server with your script. In whatever way you’re taking in the data, build in enough delays that their web server doesn’t suffer and keep other people from being able to access it.”

Common Language Project’s Jessica Partnow on Teaching Entrepreneurship

April 20, 2011 in Blog, Craft, Education, Interview, Revenue

Jessica Partnow

Jessica Partnow

An interview with Common Language Project’s Jessica Partnow by JA’s Tram Whitehurst.

Jessica Partnow is the executive director of the Common Language Project, a nonprofit multi media journalism organization, where she reports and leads administration and organizational development.

“You hear the term entrepreneurial journalism and immediately think about money,” Partnow said. “But it is more about teaching the skills to be able to do everything in the process on your own.”

In addition to leading the Common Language Project, Partnow teaches a course on entrepreneurial journalism at the University of Washington.

Students learn to pitch story ideas, report for multimedia and use digital storytelling techniques, and work in teams to produce story packages published by news sources affiliated with Next Door Media, a network of hyperlocals in Seattle.

“They are really pushed to experiment,” Partnow said. “Students need to learn to trust themselves to follow something they think is interesting and are passionate about.”

Students get hands-on experience with new media technologies involving video, audio and other multimedia tools. Those skills are then easily transferable to other software platforms, Partnow said.

But she said it’s also important not to assume that just because the students are college age that they will intuitively understand the online world and new technologies.

“They do sometimes need to be taught even the most basic skills,” Partnow said. “Not everybody is blogging or posting videos to YouTube.”

And the most important discussion in the class is not even related to technology — it’s ethics.

“Journalists must be thinking about ethics even more when working outside the traditional media,” Partnow said. “They might not have the colleagues to bounce ideas off of and probably don’t have a team of lawyers behind them.”

The Register-Guard’s John Heasly on Web Scraping

April 18, 2011 in Blog, Craft, Experiments, Interview

An interview with The Register-Guard’s scraper John Heasly by JA’s Tram Whitehurst

John Heasly is the Web content editor at The Register-Guard in Eugene, OR.

What are some of the ways you’re using web scraping at your newspaper? How has it enhanced your work?

“Here’s one of my favorites. It updates every fifteen minutes and uses this page as its source. Another big scrape is elections… Here’s the full results page.

We also have a smaller customizable widget of selected races that we put on the homepage. It uses both county and state pages for data. The data also gets formatted into InDesign templates and is reverse-published into the paper.”

Where do you see the technology headed? Are there new ways in which it can be used?

“I don’t see any wildly revolutionary changes in the field of screen-scraping, as it’s kind of a hack/workaround to begin with. I think as data publishers-news sources-governments get their acts together, there will be more APIs, so people can get at the data directly. I think the ease of geolocating events is going to continually increase.”

Who else is doing web scraping well?

“Well, any of the EveryBlock sites, of course. The L.A. Times’ crime map recently came to my attention. It seems pretty amazing.”

What is your advice to journalists looking to start using web scraping in their own work?

“Find a problem, attack it! Make sure it’s something you’re passionate about, otherwise, when you hit a bump — and you will hit bumps — you’ll get de-railed. Ask questions in newsgroups, Google groups, The open-source software and the advice/help are free. All you need is a computer and an Internet connection and an appropriate pig-headedness and you’re set!”

What are your favorite Web scraping tools and guides?

“I like Python as a language. I like the Python module BeautifulSoup for taming what I’ve scraped and Django as a Web framework for serving the scrapings.”


Josh Stearns Talks Independent Voices in a Consolidating World

March 28, 2011 in Blog, Interview

Josh Stearns

Josh Stearns

An interview with Free Press’s Josh Stearns by JA’s Tram Whitehurst

The Federal Communications Commission in January approved the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and Internet provider, with NBC-Universal. Stearns argues that the merger will transform American media, consolidating more control over more platforms in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

There are three important considerations for news producers and consumers in the deal, Stearns said.

First, Comcast’s agreement to help form news partnerships at the local level is not likely to take shape, he said. In a December 2010 letter to the FCC chairman, Comcast agreed to support partnerships in five cities between local nonprofit news sites and television stations for up to three years. Comcast specifically highlighted the partnership between Voice of San Diego and KNSD, San Diego’s NBC station, as an example.

“This was a last ditch attempt to win approval from regulators,” Stearns said. “It was primarily a symbolic gesture.”

Stearns said Comcast made no promises it would use the content created by the partnerships, and that there are no real assurances that the partnerships will even emerge. He also thinks it’s naive for Comcast to assert that it will create these partnerships within the next year.

“Building collaborative work takes time,” Stearns said.

Stearns also thinks the merger will have a negative impact on independent producers.

The merger will squeeze out already struggling independent, diverse voices,” Stearns said. “We’ve shown over and over that media consolidation decreases diversity in the media, hurts jobs and consumers and leads to more junk news, sensationalism and celebrity gossip — rather than real news and debate we need in our communities.”

Finally, Stearns said the merger relates to net neutrality and the future of the Internet. He said the FCC has little power to enforce net neutrality, calling last year’s regulations “toothless.”

Who controls the Internet is of vital importance,” Stearns said. “Comcast now has a huge reason to promote NBC content.”

MinnPost’s Joel Kramer on Funding

March 28, 2011 in Blog, Interview, Revenue

Joel Kramer

Joel Kramer

An interview with MinnPost’s Joel Kramer by JA’s Tram Whitehurst

Joel Kramer is the editor and CEO of MinnPost, a nonprofit news site serving the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

Founded in 2007 with $850,000 in initial funding, MinnPost has grown into one of the most respected nonprofit news sites in the country.

According to Kramer, the site had revenue of $1.25 million in 2010, about 25 percent of which came from advertising and corporate sponsorship. The remainder came roughly equally from foundations and members. About 2,400 members contribute amounts ranging from $10 to $20,000 a year.

“We’re doing quite well,” Kramer said. “Advertising and sponsorship revenue is rising, which is the plan. In 2010 we had our first surplus.”

MinnPost actively reaches out to advertisers and sponsors, Kramer said. They have a director of advertising and advertising support staff.

Sponsors are on annual contracts. They can sponsor content, departments and events. For example, the “Community Voices” section is sponsored by United Way.

Sponsors have no control over content, but they receive a variety of benefits, including public acknowledgments on the site. Kramer said four major sponsors account for about one-third of sponsorship dollars.

Advertisers can buy space on the site on a weekly basis. Their rate is based on the size and placement of the advertisement.

As for those looking to start a nonprofit news site of their own, Kramer said it’s important to have a significant amount of startup money.

“It’s very difficult to raise money the first year,” Kramer said. “Advertisers and sponsors want to see more of a history, and membership takes a while to build.”

Digital pioneer Robert Niles on teaching entrepreneurship

March 28, 2011 in Blog, Education, Interview

Robert Niles

Robert Niles

An interview with digital pioneer Robert Niles by JA’s Tram Whitehurst

Robert Niles founded and edits Theme Park Insider, an award-winning theme park news site. He also contributes to the Online Journalism Review and conducts trainings for journalists across the country.

What do you think entrepreneurship means when it comes to journalism? Where is the intersection between business and journalism for individual journalists?

“Entrepreneurship in journalism reduces to doing whatever needs to be done to raise the resources necessary to keep publishing. Typically, that means finding customers to write enough checks to pay for whoever’s doing the reporting and production of the publication.

This is the work that’s always been done by publishers. But as news organizations become smaller and smaller — and even individuals become entire publication staffs — that work’s now being done by people who also have editorial responsibilities.”

What are some of the most important entrepreneurial skills young journalists should be learning in order to prepare for the marketplace?

“Ultimately, entrepreneurship requires the ability to listen, to observe and to ask questions that elicit informed response. And those are the skills of a journalist. If you can report, you can be an entrepreneur. You simply must lose your fear of math and of responsibility for money though.

To be a successful entrepreneur you must be able to identify a “pain,” an unmet public need. Then you must develop or call upon the personal network that can help you identify resources and a medium through which to meet that need. Journalists work their sources for information all the time. It’s not that far to apply those skills to entrepreneurship.”

How should journalism schools go about teaching these skills?

Journalism schools need to bring in more people who’ve started information businesses, to spark conversations among those entrepreneurs, students and faculty. Don’t rely just on big names who’ve started big companies. Students need to hear from some of the many people who’ve launched and continue to run profitable sites on their own, or in very small partnerships. That’s where millions of people are getting their news these days.”

Do you know of any schools and/or journalists that are doing this particularly well?

“Well, USC’s doing a nice job with its news entrepreneur boot camps. (Yes, that was a shameless plug — I help organize those). Also, Arizona State and CUNY and NYU have established promising efforts to train journalists in entrepreneurial skills.”

Dan Gillmor on Teaching Entrepreneurship and the Startup Culture

March 28, 2011 in Blog, Education, Experiments, Interview, Type

Dan Gillmor

Dan Gillmor

An interview with Arizona State University’s Dan Gillmor by JA’s Tram Whitehurst

Dan Gillmor is the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Founded in 2006, the digital media entrepreneurship program at the Cronkite School is built around two courses devoted to the development of new media entrepreneurship and the creation of innovative digital media products.

“It’s still a pretty experimental program,” Gillmor said. “The goal is to help students gain an appreciation of startup culture, of what goes into being an entrepreneur, and to provide lots of hands-on experience with technology and developing ideas.”

The introductory course, “Digital Media Entrepreneurship,” is part lecture and part lab. Students are given a “virtual sandbox” in which to experiment with things like podcasting, video, mapping, tagging, mashups, data-as-journalism and social media. “Off-the-shelf technology will get them 90 percent of the way,” Gillmor said. They also begin to develop and prototype a potential digital media product.

In the second course, “Advanced Projects in Digital Media Entrepreneurship”, student teams must see a project through from conception to launch.

“It’s important that they think through how it might be sustainable,” Gillmor said. One of his teams this semester is working on a project involving the Xbox Kinect.

Ultimately, Gillmor doesn’t think he can teach his students how to have an entrepreneurial mindset, but he does think he can help them to appreciate what startup culture is all about.

“We want them to understand what’s involved in entrepreneurship – it’s about owning a process, deeply ambiguous conditions that will remain that way, rapid development and iteration, and building things that will scale,” he said.

Gillmor also sees plenty of opportunity in the industry’s challenges.

“I think students in general need to understand that the clear path is largely gone,” he said. “But I tell students I’m jealous of them. They’re starting at a time of almost unlimited opportunity.”



Seattle Public Library Fuels Seattle’s News and Information Ecosystem

March 27, 2011 in Blog, Craft, Interview

King County Library

King County Library

An Interview with King County Library’s Marsha Iverson by JA’s Caitlin Giddings

“With ownership of information, you have vested interest in it.”

Iverson says when thinking of credibility, it really comes down to who owns the information that is being shared, and who is shaping it. Marsha Iverson is the Public Relations Specialist for King County Library Systems in Seattle, Wa. She is heavily invested in the Pacific Northwest Community and has developed a passion for library sciences and community journalism. She also runs the KCLS NewsRoom, which offers resources and services for journalists. We contacted Marsha recently to get her thoughts on newly established websites and credibility.

By teaming up with local public libraries, websites can do a lot to boost their credibility.

Libraries have established credibility and act as advocates to access information from all sides of a situation. They have access to information that is valid and verified through databases, explains Iverson. Plus, she says, the fundamental purpose of libraries if that the information is available to everyone for no additional cost.

It’s important to keep in mind how people screen websites for objectivity and bias, she says. People who have a vested interest in how a new website is posting facts have the ability to review searchable databases to verify factual information.

Iverson believes it is necessary for newly established sites to have a way of evaluating the sources that are cited in the posted information. The goal is to be mindful of what is going to bring users back to the site.

Partnering with libraries offers journalists an efficient and comprehensive method of fact-checking information, as well as locating primary sources.”

New Media Landscape; Matt Rosenberg’s Take on Building Credibility

March 20, 2011 in Blog, Craft, Interview

A conversation about building credibility with Matt Rosenberg by JA’s Ilene Davis.

Matt Rosenberg is the Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit, Public Eye Northwest, and the Founder and Editor of Public Data Ferret, a knowledge-based, government transparency project. He has 27 years of experience in public affairs and journalism and was a regular op-ed columnist for The Seattle Times from 2001 to 2004. He was also a widely published Seattle-based freelance journalist. Matt serves on the steering committee of Journalism That Matters.

We recently reached out to Matt to get his thoughts on the topic of credibility and newly established websites.

One key component to the credibility and sustainability of a website is having and using established distribution channels, says Rosenberg.

In establishing trust with the community, another important component is that the website provides “… useful information that sort of rises above the clutter of the daily news and information steam,” he says.

Establishing partnership with other major media entitles is also a good way to boost readership and credibility for new sites. Rosenberg suggests establishing a “partner’s page,” where the collaboration can be featured. If the larger news entity features the partnership on its homepage, people who have never heard of the new website will become aware of it’s presence, resulting in a boost of site traffic. Utilizing something like Magento SEO strategies in order to strengthen search result rankings can be a great way to drive traffic to your site.Outreach and connection are two other big chunks of the credibility puzzle, says Rosenberg.

“It’s one thing to have good stuff on it and even to get traffic to it,” Rosenberg says of a new site.

But in this modern age of news and information, just publishing good stories is not enough. It’s also about creating a connection with readers, building a community and establishing partnerships, he says.

As the hyperlocal scene continues to explode, Rosenberg suggests that bloggers who care about providing news to their community can strengthen their reports by gathering information from local databases and public records.

Sara Shipley Hiles on Enriched Narrative with Geo-Mapping

March 20, 2011 in Blog, Craft, Interview, Technology, Type

A conversation about geo-mapping with Sarah Shipley Hiles by JA’s Caitlin Giddings

1993 St Louis Flood

Flood waters of the Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers near St. Louis, Missouri on July 29, 1993 (Gumley and King, 1993)

Programs like MODIS and GIS might be changing how journalists report stories now, but using mapping programs to source and illustrate articles is nothing new.

In 2003, before many geoinformation programs were available online to journalists, Sara Shipley Hiles conducted an influential project on flood plain development, published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a “Flood of Development: 10 Years Later.”

The story used satellite images from before and after the St. Louis flood of 1993 to compare how formerly flooded land was already being redeveloped without regard to the risk of another disaster.

But initially, Hiles started with one question: From a financial and environmental standpoint, why would developers put buildings on land that had already flooded?

“That question led to an investigation of flood plain development and how that’s regulated,” Hiles explains. “But the key thing we needed to know is: How much of the plain actually had been developed? Without looking at satellite imagery there was really no way to assess that. Getting on the ground you could see the buildings and developments that were there, but you couldn’t compare data from 10 years ago to today without actually getting a hold of satellite images from 10 years prior and that time. So that’s what we ended up doing.”

The Post-Dispatch contracted the study out to a university because, at the time, satellite technology required more expertise to interpret and the images had to be purchased.

“It’s a little different today,” Hiles says. “The technology is better and, more information is publicly available. We made the decision to contract it out, and the editor at the time approved that, which I thought was fantastic because it was a $10,000 study. They were able to get satellite images from the flooding and stitch together multiple images to cover the duration of the flood and take new satellite images to show how much of that same landmass that was under water was now developed. They looked at all kinds of development, whether that was parking lots or buildings or whatever. They came up with a figure, and then on the ground we took a look at what businesses were there to come up with a financial figure. It worked well, and I don’t think we could have done the same story without using satellite imagery. It’s a unique tool—it gives you information that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”