Checking in from Canada

In the four months since my last post — yes, I’m a terrible blogger — I’ve moved to Vancouver and started teaching at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Among other things, I’m coordinating the school’s Integrated Journalism course, required of all first-year students, and advising some second-year students on their theses.

It’s been a terrific experience so far, and I highly recommend the school’s Canwest Global visiting professor program to other professionals looking to take some time away from the field and work with some seriously smart and engaged student journalists.

And did I mention Vancouver is awesome?

Photo: Cherry tree in bloom in Stanley Park.

Posted here and there

The problem with writing for several outlets is that your stuff lacks a home on the Internet. But it’s nothing that a little aggregation can’t fix. In case you missed it, here’s some of what I’ve been writing in the last few months:

  • Today at De Nieuwe Reporter, the Dutch online journalism blog I write for, I posted a piece on InfoCamp, a terrific unconference I attended last month in Seattle. It’s about what online journalists can learn from information scientists. (And yes, it’s in English.)
  • I’ve been enjoying using, an aggregator that lets you build a personalized “newspaper” featuring the posts tweeted most frequently by people you follow. (Here’s mine.) Intrigued, I interviewed Maxim Grinev, the site’s tech lead, for Online Journalism Review.
  • I weighed in on the question of whether SEO practices make for dumb, boring headlines, also at OJR. (By the way, I’m working on an online course on writing headlines for the web for the Poynter Institute’s NewsU. If you have some instructive experiences to share, please let me know.)
  • Finally, I wrote about recently launched redesigns at Germany’s Spiegel Online, where I worked this summer, and my alma mater, the Los Angeles Times, also for De Nieuwe Reporter.

Also, as I’m doing more writing and consulting in various places, I’ve updated my about page with the customary disclosures.

What would you teach aspiring journalists about the internet?

It’s officially official: I’m headed to Vancouver in January to spend a semester as the Canwest Global Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. I will be teaching online journalism as part of the school’s integrated journalism course.

I’m looking forward to helping students think critically about the internet as a platform for news, and I would appreciate suggestions on how best to do that. In other words, if you had this gig, what would you teach?

Police radio play-by-play lands German Twitterer in trouble

I did this online journalism-related write-up last week for Spiegel International. It didn’t run there, so I’m posting it here (with permission, of course):

When a 71-year-old pensioner killed three people and wounded a fourth in a shooting spree last month in North Rhine-Westphalia, the police response unfolded in real time on Twitter. A user of the microblogging site, who was listening in on official radio communications taking place at the scene in the town of Schwalmtal, posted a running report of the suspect’s standoff with authorities.

The Twitter account was soon deleted, but not before much of user @JO31DH’s minute-by-minute account was repeated in blogs and other Twitter posts: “1 confirmed dead in rampage. … The commando unit has arrived on site … The forces will move to Hermmann-Löh Street in Amern … The helicopter is on Pletschweg … News channel N24 is also in Schwalmtal now.”

While listening in on police radio transmissions is legal in some countries, including the United States, it is forbidden in Germany and carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.

In the midst of the two-hour standoff, with reports coming in that the suspect had taken hostages, Philipp Ostrop, an editor at, tweeted, “If there’s really a hostage situation in Schwalmtal, can the perpetrator follow along with @JO31DH on what the police are up to? Is that such a good thing?”

Other posts warned the user that what he was doing was illegal.

The anonymous twitterer claimed protection as a journalist: “I call myself the press. That’s enough… Now shut up.”

The next day the would-be journalist posted a contrite message on his blog (now also offline but quoted by the Rheinische Post): “I would like to formally apologize. I see, in spite of everything, how these social networks can be misused. I don’t feel good about this. I hope things will soon settle down and others won’t repeat this stupid idea.”

The newspaper later reported that authorities had identified the Twitter user and would file criminal charges. According to police, the man did not threaten the operation because the commando unit on the scene was using secure mobile phones to communicate.

Search trends and geography

I know it’s been around for a year or more now, but I still can’t stop playing with Google Insights for Search, that small window into the universe of data that Google collects on user behavior. It’s a trend-spotter’s dream, and — particularly with its geographical filters — a potential source of story ideas for journalists.

For example, I can see the fastest rising search terms in Los Angeles and Berlin in the past week.

But what I’m finding fun right now is plugging in brand names and seeing where they’re strong. I offer, by way of example, some vehicle brands and maps showing search volume in the United States:

The four-wheel-drive Subaru line is understandably popular in mountainous, cold-weather states:

Geographic search trends for "subaru"

Saab has some fans in New England, but that’s about it:

Geographic search trends for "saab"

Another ailing GM make, Hummer, still gets some interest in Nevada and Texas (I suspect the bump in interest in Michigan may be mostly from concerned GM stakeholders):

Geographic search trends for "hummer"

Toyota’s Prius, meanwhile, is especially popular in eco-conscious places such as California and Vermont:

Geographic search trends for "prius"

And the Vespa scooter craze seems to have taken hold on the West Coast and, inexplicably, Utah:

Geographic search trends for "vespa"

When you look at popularity over time for all five brands, you can clearly see how interest in the brands associated with fuel-sipping vehicles spikes during periods when fuel prices are high. No huge surprises here, but it’s fun to see how well search data tracks real-world trends.

Have you used Google’s search trend data for story ideas? Share your tips in the comments.

Breaking the silence here

I haven’t gone totally off the grid. I just stopped contributing to it for a while. I needed to recharge my mental battery. Now I’m back and playing catch-up. Here, briefly, is what I’ve been up to the last few months.

April was “conference month” on two continents:

In May I visited old friends and colleagues in L.A. and Kansas City and family in Atlanta and Boston. I also traveled back to my alma mater, the University of Missouri (from which I’d graduated exactly 10 years earlier), to attend IRE’s excellent Django boot camp. I highly recommend this to anybody who wants to build web interfaces to newsy data. IRE offers a couple such classes a year, including at its annual conference. This one was run by a fellow Mizzou J alum, NYT’s Brian Hamman.

In June I went to Japan with my little brother. It was mostly a leisure trip, but in Tokyo I sat down with some folks from a telecom think tank to talk about paid content on mobile devices. There’s a write-up here.

That piece marks the start of an occasional column I’ll be writing for De Nieuwe Reporter, a Dutch blog that covers developments in online journalism. (I volunteered to write in Dutch, but thankfully they were happy with English. Which is good because I write Dutch at a pre-K level.)

Now I’m preparing to leave for a two-month Arthur Burns Fellowship in Germany. I’ll be working in Berlin for the web-only international edition of Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsweekly (and operator of the country’s most popular news website). I’ll also spend some time traveling within Germany and investigating trends in online journalism there. The orientation is next week in Washington, D.C., and I’ll arrive in Berlin Monday, July 27.

Stay tuned. I promise to check in soon.

How BusinessWeek measures user engagement

How do you get past those squishy pageview and unique visitor metrics and instead measure how users actually respond to the content you produce? My interview on this topic with BusinessWeek Online editor John Byrne (whom I met in Perugia at the International Journalism Festival a couple weeks ago) is now up on OJR. An excerpt:

Byrne: User engagement is how we nurture and build a community. Our reader engagement index is a comments-to-postings measure for a given month: So we will tally how many comments on X number of stories/blog posts that published that month. This gives us a ratio figure that we track to determine our monthly reader engagement index and growth.

Back in the States, for now

A quick update on the travels and the blogging:

I returned to the States earlier this week, after about three months abroad. I have lots of notes and ideas, and now I just have to find the focus to turn them into blog posts. Wish me luck. 🙂

What’s next? I’ll be visiting Japan in June, and while I’m there I hope to answer this question: How, in one of the most wired countries in the world, is the newspaper industry still thriving? (If you have any contacts in newspapers there, please let me know.)

And in July I’ll head back to Europe for a two-month fellowship in a German news organization (TBA), during which time I’ll also be traveling within Germany and blogging on trends in newsrooms there.

The itinerary is now updated to reflect all this.

Meanwhile, I’m in Austin for the International Symposium on Online Journalism. If you’re around, say hi.

Banking law: Holding them accountable

You know that 1999 NYT story that’s been floating around on Twitter about the passage of the bill to loosen U.S. banking regulations by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933? It includes some prescient warnings like this one from Sen. Byron Dorgan:

“I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010.”

Like any outraged citizen, my first instinct on reading this was to figure out who to blame for passing this law. So I thought I’d use’s congressional votes database to see how members of the House and Senate voted on this bill.

The Post’s database allows users to group votes by several criteria (including some silly stuff like lawmakers’ astrological signs). The most salient stat seems to be “boomer status”: Pre-baby-boomer lawmakers were more likely to vote against the bill (especially in the Senate), presumably because many of them still remembered the Great Depression.

Maybe older really does mean wiser?

If you find other interesting trends in the data, post them here.

Update: is a few steps ahead: Back in September 2008, they had details not only on the voting record for the banking bill but also on industry contributions to lawmakers broken down by yeas and nays. (hat tip: @bill_allison)