Data Tools for Creating Great Content



Data analysis and visualization tools are everywhere. Derek Willis, an interactive developer for The New York Times, uses plenty of them and the surprising thing is that—despite the fact he has the resources of a large, global newsroom—his favorite tools are all free. His message to freelance journalists and content creators: you don’t have to break the bank to make the most of data storytelling opportunities.

In fact, Willis says most tools used by colleagues at The Times are free.  “Especially programs that store and manipulate data…most of the programs we use are free and open source, and that’s part of why we use them,” he says.

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How a small newspaper used iPads to bend the rules of reporting

York Daily Record NewsVroom

Randy Parker, image by Tim SohnWith the rapid migration of news and media onto the mobile platform, newspaper editors are finding all sorts of ways to keep up with the changeover and stay ahead of the trends. That’s why Randy Parker, managing editor of the York Daily Record put a tablet or smartphone into the hands of its top reporters. Further, as Parker explained at the America East 2013 newspaper conference in Hershey, Pa. they take those tablets on the road and into the community to experiment with news ways to boost reader engagement.

Parker explained that several years ago his newspaper hired Lauren Boyer for a new position to cover business news focusing on consumer issues, but he didn’t want her to stay in the office and instead tasked her with finding new ways to tell stories for the paper. York Daily Record gave Boyer the first iPad it bought, and she used it to shoot videos and tweet. Today she still finds new apps and tools to download and use on a weekly basis.

“It was one of the best investments I could have ever made because it absolutely energized her, and it accelerated her creative thinking,” Parker said. “I noticed every time I look over at her desk, she’s not there.”

Boyer’s tactics integrated social media use and traditional reporting – allowing her to venture into the community, meet new people and still stay connected with the newsroom. Often Boyer would send out a tweet that she was going to be at a particular location and invite people to stop by and tell her what she should be covering. Parker explained that a local public relations representative from Harley Davidson who was hard to get a hold of found her that way one day and chatted with her for around 45 minutes.

The second person on staff at the York Daily Record to receive an iPad was the paper’s senior reporter who covered the courts. The judge let the reporter use the iPad in the courtroom because it doesn’t break any of the court’s rules.

“[The judge] said, ‘Well, there’s no cellphones and no laptops, but this isn’t a cellphone, and this isn’t a laptop, so, yeah, I guess you can use that in the courtroom,’” Parker said. “This was a new judge. I think he was looking to bend the rules to new technology.”

The court reporter uses Scribble Live, which lets him live-blog the proceedings and sends his updates to Twitter.

Parker said he has gradually rolled out iPads to 14 staff members. In addition, the paper has purchased six Nexus 7-inch tablets for photographers, and he predicts the paper will continue to purchase Nexus tablets instead of iPads because they’re less glitchy, fit into “boy pockets,” and they are “dirt cheap.”

The paper has tried Kindle Fires and Windows Surface tablets, but they never caught on.

York Daily Record also created a “News Vroom,” an old newspaper delivery van that goes to sporting and other local events from time to time. Workers erect tents around the van that house six laptops, six smartphones, six iPads, and a WiFi router that allows connection to up to 21 devices. The paper uses the mobile connection to showcase the newspaper’s apps at events that draw crowds: its e-edition for iPad, its iPad app designed to focus on breaking news, photo streams, and methods for sharing information like Little League game scores.

Next up for the York paper: developing a pre-fall high school football tablet e-zine and a commemorative Gettysburg anniversary edition for tablet.

Photo courtesy of Digital First Media.

Secrets to becoming the next media disruptor from HuffPo CTO John Pavley

A newsroom - photo from Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of John Pavley

While traditional media outlets wring their hands and issue alarming reports about slipping ad dollars and loss of audience shares, web-based publications like The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are not-so-quietly taking over as viral news sites and redefining the behavior of a successful news publisher.

At the helm of such a major shift in news dissemination are the few folks who can stand on the crux of engineering / software development and editorial prowess and see the future. Huffington Post’s Chief Technology Officer John Pavley, an alum of Spotify and Apple among other tech companies, is one such individual.

Between managing all things tech at the sixth most trafficked U.S. news site and creating articles and drawings for HuffPo, Pavley took time to chat with Ebyline about leading HuffPo into the newsroom of the future, and the trends ahead. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

What’s the newsroom dynamic like at the Huffington Post?

There isn’t a wall. There’s no [physical] wall between the technology team and the edit team. And there also isn’t a cultural wall. There isn’t this idea that [as an editor] you have to go to tech and beg for your work to get done or that if you go to [the editorial department] they’re not going to listen to you because you’re just a techie.

We encourage every single developer to take editorial training. And we encourage every editor to learn enough technology training that they feel comfortable to have a great discussion with an engineer. So it’s not like one side talking down to the other. They’re meeting as equal partners.

With all of this collaboration, is any side in charge?

We like to think of ourselves as editorial lead. So we focus very much on ‘What are the needs of our editors? What are the needs of our consumers?’ There certainly are technical needs as well in terms of scalability and performance. But one of the most important things to us is that our editors have the tools and the data that they need to execute their jobs. We’re a very flat organization.

As chief technology officer at HuffPo, what do you focus on most?

I hire really great people. That’s my number one focus is to bring on board fantastic talent… You can have a great process, you can have a great product, but if you don’t have a great team, all that falls down.

Number two is efficiency. I spend my days and nights, when I’m not recruiting people to build really great products, I sit down and think about ‘Are we doing as well as we can? What is preventing us from really knocking it out of the park every time?’

And then technology. I look at are we using really great modern technology to build our applications and our backend systems and our data analysis and our data collection systems? Are we using technologies that are really giving us huge return on investment, that are low-maintenance and that allow our developers to make changes very rapidly without creating a lot of technical debt?

John Pavley


What are some trends you have your eye on this year?

There’s a whole new world out there and we really have to take mobile seriously. It’s not web on smaller devices. We’re flipping to mobile much quicker than we thought and this has huge impacts in how we monetize with ads because ads are optimized for the web, they’re not really optimized for mobile devices. It has huge consequences for our content: our content was not meant to be read on a device that you carry in your pocket or walk around with in your hand—it was meant to be read while sitting at your desk and you have a cup of coffee in your hand and you’re going to read a huge two-, three-thousand-word article.

Another trend is people are increasingly impatient. They don’t want to wait for comments to be moderated, they don’t want to wait for facts to be checked. They want to know what’s going on in the world right now. They’re no longer accommodating their life to the schedule of the newspaper or the television network. It’s all on-demand and in real time.

The third thing that I’m excited about is that all of these mobile devices are getting more deeply embedded into our daily lives and there are apps out there that can help us lead happier and healthier lives on a mobile device that I carry with me wherever I go.

Any examples of this from Huffington Post?

At Huffington Post we have something called GPS for the Soul where I can actually measure my pulse through the phone’s camera and try to come up with an idea for how stressed I am and it will give me breathing exercises. I have another app called Move where basically it figures out if I’m sitting still or walking and figures out if I’ve been too sedentary. I think this is a huge trend.

I don’t think a media company now can just sit back and say ‘here’s the news’… Now we can actually be part of the solution.

What’s been the biggest surprise working at the Huffington Post?

Well I hadn’t worked with journalists before. I have to say the most amazing thing for me was meeting and working with journalists and understanding their process and understanding their thinking.

I would also say that I was surprised at the level of technology behind the Huffington Post until I got here… We have machine-learning algorithms that are pre-moderating content; we have recommendation systems. We have heat maps on our front page that tell us in real time what users are looking at and what they’re ignoring. So we have a lot of really great solutions already and I felt like ‘wow, this is a really great technology organization.’

What’s the biggest challenge about your work at Huffington Post?

Our biggest challenge continues to be scale… When you have the kind of growth that we have, solutions that worked for 500 people don’t work for 5,000 people or 5 million people so with each order of magnitude you have to go back and refactor your systems.

So, how do you become the next Huffington Post?

There are key things that any startup has to do which are, number one, keep your overhead low. Make sure that everybody can code… everyone needs to be on equal footing. You have to have a very clear vision of what you want to accomplish but you have to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice. You know, run with it. You can’t fall too much in love with your own creation.

Particularly in the media world, you really have to think six to twelve months ahead of the rest of the world.

The Huffington Post is very disruptive… We’ve disrupted print journalism newspapers with what started out as a blog and has become a recognized leader, a recognized organization of journalism. A lot of our practices in the beginning were kind of looked down upon. But now there was this article that just came out that said ‘everyone is the Huffington Post now.’ It literally said that.

Every news organization has to do what the Huffington Post did in terms of SEO and social and content in order to be successful. That’s really great but if you’re a startup you need to look past that to what the Huffington Post is going to do in six months to two years down the road.

Featured image courtesy of victoriapeckham via Creative Commons license.

Social media tactics for reporters from the Boston Globe’s Lavidor-Berman

AHCJ Logo 2013's Lavidor-BermanIf you’re a journalist using social media for marketing or research, and social media producer Adrienne Lavidor-Berman, and Elizabeth Comeau, online content producer for’s Health & Wellness section, have some words of wisdom for you. They presented on ways that social media can hurt and harm reporting in a workshop at the Association for Healthcare Journalists (AHCJ) conference in Boston on Thursday.

Make your social media interesting, useful and helpful.

“You want to be helpful to other people and just like in life the more helpful you are, the more helpful people are to you,” Lavidor-Berman told conference goers. She follows the principle set forth by Leader Networks’ CEO Vanessa DiMauro (@vdimauro): “three gives before a get.”

Make a commitment to using social media regularly.

“It is a discipline, just like exercising, just like being healthy,” Lavidor-Berman explains. While making your posts interesting and fun can help make social media more enjoyable, sometimes you just need to make yourself write three tweets or share two posts a day.

Create lots of lists.

If you’re looking to build up your Twitter following in order to have more reach, a good way to start is by creating lists of followers, Comeau says. She’ll create multiple lists for specific topics, and when an article is ready, she’ll market that content directly to people who will find it most helpful and interesting.

Use Facebook best practices.

“People break news on Twitter, but Facebook has a lot more regular people on it who…may be interested in what you’re reading and writing about and may be good sources for you,” Lavidor-Berman says. She recommends religiously reviewing privacy settings, enabling the “follow” function (which will allow you to limit the audience you share your posts with—keeping everything private except your reporting, for example), and taking advantage of graph search. Other options include having two separate Facebook profiles (which is against the rules, but not that uncommon) or creating a Facebook page for your professional life.

Use Twitter best practices.

Retweet generously. Take the time to look up both the reporter and the publication. Avoid the @-reply trap: be aware that if you start a tweet with the @ symbol, make sure to insert another character first if you want people who are not following the person you’re mentioning can also see the tweet. Use Advanced Facebook Search, which is more robust than the regular search feature.

Let people reach you anonymously.

Many people won’t want to publicly admit that they struggle with a health problem such as ADHD, for example, so that’s something to keep in mind when scouting for sources on social media. Going through organizations and advocacy groups to have them message on your behalf, or sending DMs, might be a better option, Comeau said. Make sure to follow people you’re trying to contact (or provide an email address) so they can message you back, Lavidor-Berman adds.
Follow these accounts.

• Facebook journalism program manager Vadim Lavrusik (who also teaches social media skills for journalists as an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism school) is on twitter (@Lavrusik) and Facebook, of course, where you can follow his public profile. He shares good information about social media for journalists.

Twitter For Newsrooms is a resource for those interested in new and interesting ways to use Twitter by journalists and newsrooms. Find information (and hashtags) on their site, and follow them on Twitter (@twitterfornews).

• Follow Associated Press (@AP), Reuters (@reuters) and Agence France-Presse @AFP). Sometimes you’ll see news on Twitter before it hits the system. Following reporters individually is also a good idea.

Matter’s $2.5 million bet on journalism startups

Matter logo 600Silicon Valley may have soured on media—the hot thing in the Bay is b2b software and online marketplaces these days—but the feeling apparently isn’t mutual. Some of the smartest money in the journalism world is ploughing a small fortune into startups—beginning today—and that includes the risk of investing in companies that face long odds at success. The payoff: innovation that the news industry badly needs but is having a tough time doing in-house, according to the folks doing the investing.

Banking on that possible payoff is Matter, a new startup accelerator located in San Francisco that just announced its first round of investments (see the list of companies here). Funded with $2.5 million from the Knight Foundation and Bay Area public radio station KQED, with support from public radio marketplace PRX, Matter is a four-month program in which early stage media-focused companies work together around the clock, trading a percentage of equity for $50,000 in capital, mentorship from seasoned entrepreneurs, and the opportunity to work side-by-side with other promising new ventures and industry leaders.

The program will culminate in a Demo Day June 13 at which Matter’s first class of startups will show off their businesses—some of which are likely to transform radically throughout the course of the program— to angel investors, venture capitalists, industry leaders and the press in the hopes of making it to the next stage of growth.

“This idea of what we’re trying to do is really support media entrepreneurs and the community around them and really instilling the Silicon Valley mindset with the mission of public media,” said Jigar Mehta, Matter’s director of operations, adding that he sees a real hunger for disruption in the ‘media that matters’ landscape.

Although he supports traditional media, Mehta is particularly intrigued by new platforms and devices and new ways people are consuming content. “There’s a whole new wave of reinvention and lots of different business models. I don’t think there’s just one that’s going to win out, but that’s what makes it exciting for entrepreneurs, I think.”


Journalism’s venture capital team


In addition to Mehta, a documentary filmmaker who worked as a reporter and video journalist for the New York Times, Matter is headed by former design instructor and film producer Corey Ford (who built Runway, an incubator for tech entrepreneurs at Innovation Endeavors), along with PRX founding CEO Jake Shapiro.

The trio has enough funding for 2 years of guiding ambitious startups as they borrow from entrepreneurial approaches and apply them to early-stage journalism-related ventures.

“People are still doing lots of experimentation,” Mehta said, pointing out that areas of content creation, crowdfunding and attempts to democratize distribution are ripe for innovation. “It still feels like the keys to getting this stuff out are still being held by traditional media companies,” he said.

Matter’s not the only media-based accelerator, though it appears to be the only one focusing on journalism and media in the public interest. A Knight-backed incubator—not to be confused with an accelerator—just promoted its third class of startups in Philadelphia. Media Camp, funded by Turner/Warner Brothers, is a 12-week accelerator in San Francisco and L.A. that has mostly invested in social media and apps. The BBC and The New York Times, among other news heavyweights, have also explored the startup world.

“Even big media companies want to be close to entrepreneurs who are really solving interesting problems they can’t as an institution because of all the institutional pressures,” Mehta points out. 

To gain entry into Matter, entrepreneurs had to submit a pitch deck or executive summary explaining their mission, customer profile, the problem they’re looking to solve, revenue model, and what technological or societal trends made the timing right for the opportunity. Finalists then worked on projects on their own time before interviewing with Matter for the winning slots.


“We’re not expecting to make tons of money”


Investing capital in untested businesses is a risky endeavor, as Silicon Valley knows. Knight Foundation director of innovation John Bracken points out that the failure rate of startups is high—between 30 and 95 percent depending on your definition of failure and who you ask, though accelerators improve the odds of success, he says. Still, he suspects that most of the projects will be unsuccessful.

“If the batting average is really high, then [Matter's] not taking the risk that we’re expecting them to take,” he said. “We’re not expecting necessarily to make tons of money out of an investment like Matter. What we are expecting is to help seed new thinking and help leading edge entrepreneurs who are thinking about where are citizens in our democracy are going to get the news information people need to live their lives and how do we build sustainable businesses that’ll do that.”

Why take the risk? Entrepreneur and startup guru Dan Martell  says looking at the numbers that succeed is not the right measure when judging an accelerator such as Matter.

“I think it’s how many companies fail faster or win bigger,” Martell said, pointing out that two years of mediocre success wastes energy and money. An accelerator program speeds up the moment of truth: it allows entrepreneurs to test out ideas and get feedback, meet with potential customers, prototype products, make tweaks and work to build buzz around their project, allowing them to find out earlier and faster if people are interested in buying what they’re selling

It’s also not always about the money, either, whether it’s journalism or venture capital. Martell points out that there are hundreds of ways to make more money that are more sensible than investing in tech startups. “Tech entrepreneurs are never usually motivated by money,” Martell said. “They just want to change the way they see the world work and solve a problem that hopefully they have a passion for.”