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  • Eric Ulken 2:41 pm on January 8, 2009
    Tags:, , Center for Public Integrity, Derek Willis, Marc Frons, Matthew Ericson, Ruby on Rails,   

    Making sense of data at The New York Times 

    (After a long holiday hiatus, I’m finally getting around to posting this write-up of my visit with Aron Pilhofer at the NYT.)

    "Movable Type" at The New York Times building

    Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2008: The digital art installation in the lobby of the new New York Times building says more, I think, about the future of news and of the Times Company than its creators may have intended. Yes, we know that the future is digital and real-time and kinetic, like the work by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. But, more than that, the journalism of the future will be defined by its capacity to extract meaning from countless bits of data. The work, titled Movable Type, elegantly illustrates the bits. Making sense of them is Aron Pilhofer‘s domain.

    It is my first visit to the new building, directly across 8th Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I am meeting Pilhofer, who leads the paper’s interactive news technology team, for a quick tour and chat. His group of 10 developers, assembled over the last year or so, works on editorial projects (such as the Times’ live election results) but doesn’t report to the newsroom. Their boss is Marc Frons, the website’s CTO.

    Over cups of caffeinated liquid in the Times’ airy 14th-floor cafeteria, Pilhofer tells me about Represent, a newly launched project from his team that, as the name suggests, lets you “keep track of what the people who represent you are doing.” Though still in soft launch, it’s already generating some nice buzz. (A bit on the tech specs from co-creator Derek Willis: They’re using GeoDjango to drive the mapping features.)

    Pilhofer is an archetypal journo-techie, raised in the computer-assisted reporting school and fluent both in the cadences of the newsroom and in the technical lingo used by his fellow geeks. Before joining the Times’ computer-assisted reporting team, he honed his skills at the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C. nonprofit that seems to have been a sort of proving ground for smart, webby CAR folks (Willis and my former LAT colleague, Ben Welsh, are also alums).

    This is the breed of journalist that web-oriented newsrooms would like to find more of. The problem is, “they just don’t exist,” Pilhofer says of his ilk. When I throw out the old question about whether it’s easier to teach a journalist programming skills or to teach a techie the principles of journalism, he tells me it’s not so much a question of trainability. Rather, he says, “there are more programmers out there that will find journalism interesting to learn” than vice-versa. He tells me that, with a couple of exceptions, the people on his team have either “very limited journalism experience or none whatsoever.”

    Given that most of Pilhofer’s group comes from a hardcore tech background, I wonder whether they’ve acceded to rigid product development conventions like wireframes and detailed requirements documents. His response: “Hell no.” (Actually, he uses a more colorful four-letter word, but you get the point.)

    He does throw out a lot of prod-dev terms like agile development, scrums, Extreme Programming and pair programming, but he uses newsroom analogies to describe them. Agile development methodology, for example, which stresses frequent deadlines and shuns long meetings, has a lot in common with the rhythm of a newsroom. And pair programming, an unconventional workflow in which two coders work in tandem on the same problem and test each other’s work as they go, is analogous to team reporting.

    Some other highlights from our chat:

    Software: Pilhofer says his team relies heavily on open-source solutions. Ruby on Rails is the workhorse in this shop, but it’s been adapted to produce flat files when necessary (as opposed to rendering pages on the fly), a performance tweak that enabled the Times to keep up with unprecedented traffic to its election results data.

    Hosting: Amazon’s EC2 service, used for most of the team’s data projects, has enabled them to scale with demand. “Amazon has been the savior of this group,” Pilhofer says.

    Newsroom geography: The interactive news technology group sits on the Times building’s second floor, in close proximity to the graphics and CAR teams, the two groups Pilhofer says his team works most closely with. (The paper’s business desk takes up much of the rest of the floor.) The graphics desk, in particular, has been a close collaborator, bringing sophisticated visual interpretations to many of the team’s projects. Pilhofer calls deputy graphics director Matthew Ericson the “de facto co-manager” of the interactive news technology team.

    Roles and hierarchy: Responsibility for the Times’ interactive projects is shared among Pilhofer’s team, the graphics department and other groups in the newsroom (a highly collaborative, loosely organized structure that reminds me of how interactive projects got done at the L.A. Times, but on a much larger scale). “I kind of like the way it’s working right now, where there isn’t some big, centralized, one-person-in-charge-of-everything,” Pilhofer says. “I think it’s healthier.” Each group brings certain strengths. For instance, the graphics folks want to do really intense, deep immersive online interactives, but they can’t do that without back-end help from Pilhofer’s team, so the two groups work together. Organizationally, Pilhofer says his team benefits from a direct connection to the website’s software and infrastructure folks while other teams are more closely tied to the newsroom. The downside to this setup, of course, is that it’s sometimes hard to know who owns what.

    More Pilhofer: Old Media, New Tricks recently published an interview with Pilhofer.

    Update 2009.01.13: Emily Nussbaum has a feature on Pilhofer, Ericson and other NYT geeks in New York Magazine.

    Coming next week: A look at DocumentCloud, a promising Knight News Challenge proposal from Pilhofer and ProPublica’s Eric Umansky and Scott Klein.

    Photo by Eric Ulken.

    • Daniel 4:30 pm on January 9, 2009

      Yeah, I bet it’s tough to tell some of the reporters apart from folks who hang out at the Port Authority. Kidding, of course.

      Loved this post of yours, Eric. I have to make it over there the next time I’m in NYC. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the link!

    • Suzanne 12:21 pm on January 11, 2009

      Where has this blog been all my life, and why did it take until now to stumble on it?

      Brilliant stuff.

  • Eric Ulken 7:35 pm on December 8, 2008
    Tags: Ron Kaye, Tribune Company   

    Ironic flashback photo of the day 

    YOU Own This Place Now!

    Above: Los Angeles Times employee entrance, Dec. 21, 2007. Those signs seemed a bit disingenuous even then, given the structure of the deal to take the Tribune Company private. Now they seem, well, ridiculous.

    Update: Ex-Daily News ed Ron Kaye’s thoughtful reaction to TribCo’s bankruptcy filing: It’s the beginning of the end for newspapers, but it’s also a great time to be a consumer/creator of news online. Not sure I’m quite as pessimistic as he is on the first point, but I totally agree with him on the second. (Hat tip: @busblog)

  • Eric Ulken 6:15 pm on December 5, 2008
    Tags: Europe, Japan, Latin America, Online journalism, South Africa, United States   

    A first draft of the itinerary 

    Newspaper boat

    I’m busy packing up my L.A. apartment in preparation for my upcoming adventure. So I haven’t had much time to spend on travel planning, but things are starting to take shape. Everything is subject to change, of course; here’s what it looks like now:

    • Europe: I will be there roughly from mid-January to early-April. It’s a work/play trip; I’ll be visiting family and friends in addition to my reporting. I plan to spend most of February in the U.K. Otherwise I’ll hang out on the continent, checking in on individuals and organizations doing innovative work that’s relevant to the practice of online journalism. I’ll be blogging the results here (and possibly on other websites, though everything will be linked here).
    • South Africa: I’m hoping to tack a couple of weeks there onto my time in Europe. I’m interested in looking at how the digital revolution is unfolding in societies with large unwired populations. Are cheap and ubiquitous mobile phones taking the place of PCs as news delivery platforms?
    • U.S.*: In late April and early May I’ll do a little reporting back in this country. I plan to focus on trends in database apps and information visualization for news. (*Update: I overlooked Canada here — an unintended slight as I do hope to make it to Vancouver at least.)
    • Latin America: In May I will try and get to Mexico and/or South America for a couple weeks. This is still pretty iffy.
    • Japan: I plan to head to Japan in June or July. I promised my teenage brother, a budding Japanophile, that I’d take him so he can practice the Japanese he’s been learning (and, hopefully, be my interpreter). I’ll use the opportunity to investigate this apparent paradox: How is it that one of the world’s most wired (and wireless) societies is home to seven of the 10 largest newspapers on the planet?

    Why aren’t Australia/China/India/the Mideast/etc. on the list? There are lots of great stories in each of those places, I’m sure, but I have to draw the line somewhere. As it is, I have no idea if I’ll actually get to all the places I’m shooting for. Either way, by August I will be thoroughly tired of traveling and writing, and I’ll probably go off the grid for a while. 🙂

    I’ll post more details as I figure them out. If you have suggestions for places to visit or people to contact — or you can hook me up with a tour guide or a place to stay in one of the stops on my itinerary — holler.

    Update 2009.01.24: An up-to-date itinerary can be found here.

    Photo by marcelgermain via Flickr.

    • Rachel Nixon 6:47 pm on December 5, 2008

      Ahem – how about Canada 🙂

    • Eric Ulken 6:54 pm on December 5, 2008

      D’oh! I meant to say the U.S. and Canada! Now that it has its own epic/adventure movie, it’s too big to ignore.

    • Andy 7:08 pm on December 5, 2008

      Sounds like an incredible year!

    • Maria Eduarda 8:24 am on December 19, 2008

      Eric, why don’t you come to Brazil? Check,,, and see if they interest you. Just to be clear: I don’t work at any of them 😉 If any help is needed, contact me.

  • Eric Ulken 5:15 pm on November 19, 2008  

    My next assignment: covering online journalism 

    I’ve spent 10-plus years working from within to change newspapers in some small way. Now I hope to effect change from the outside. Earlier this month, I left my job as interactive technology editor at the Los Angeles Times to travel and learn and share stories about the great work taking place in online journalism around the world. I love the Times, my work and my colleagues, but I’ve decided it’s time to try something new: reporting.

    Beginning in January, my plan is to spend six months or so writing about trends and best practices in the field, both in the U.S. and abroad. Among the questions I’d like to explore:

    • What common themes emerge as news organizations change their workflow, culture, reporting structures and newsroom geography?
    • What are newsrooms in Europe and elsewhere doing that American media can learn from?
    • How are news organizations succeeding in doing more with less? Where are they focusing their resources and what are they walking away from?
    • What lessons can we take from success stories outside traditional media, including solo practitioners and online-only outfits?
    • How are news aggregators and social media affecting coverage choices and marketing of content?
    • What new storytelling and data presentation forms are gaining traction? How are viewers reacting?
    • How are traditional media companies altering (or blowing up) their business models to compete in the new information economy?
    • What role are the people formerly known as the audience playing in the newsgathering process?

    Kind of broad, yes, but I’ve always been more of a generalist than a specialist.

    A lot of people are blogging their opinions about the state and the future of journalism. I have plenty of my own, and I’ll share them when I think they’re relevant. But mostly I want this to be a fact-finding mission. I am not a reporter, but that is what I’ll try to be for these few months.

    I believe that much of the journalism newspapers do is still important and essential, and I want to see that work live on after print dies. So I intend to write with an eye toward helping traditional news organizations negotiate the terrain of online media, but I hope that some of these topics will be of interest to people beyond “old media”.

    I’ll be blogging here at, unless some generous benefactor agrees to finance all or part of this endeavor, in which case I’ll write wherever I’m asked to.

    I’m looking for guidance on where to go, who to talk to and what topics to investigate. Please leave your advice in the comments here. I plan to base my itinerary in large part on the suggestions I receive.

    More soon.

    Update 2008.12.05: Thanks for all the great thoughts. A few more details on the itinerary. Also, ran a little e-mail interview on my plans.

    Update 2009.01.24: An up-to-date itinerary can be found here.

    • Rachel Nixon 6:26 pm on November 19, 2008

      Cool! Count me in if I can help. Lots of thoughts too numerous to mention here so drop me a line. Hope all is well with you.

    • Kristen Taylor 9:35 am on November 21, 2008

      We’d love to hear how your travels are going on a Knight Pulse conversation ( in a few months–safe travels–

    • Dwight Silverman 9:38 am on November 21, 2008

      So, in other words, you are going to walk the earth, like Caine from Kung-Fu?

    • Stephen Baker 10:21 am on November 21, 2008

      You might consider spending some time in Finland. Seems to me that the folks at Nokia spend a lot of time thinking about the future of media–and that much of it will be delivered to individuals with geo-targeted content.

    • Shane Bugbee 1:16 pm on November 21, 2008

      sounds like a GREAT idea. we did something sorta similar, at least something I feel fits into your project.
      I’ve also been an self supported, underground publisher for over 20 years. I’m thinking I have a view off the media/journalism like no other…

      We’re now on the Oregon/Washington coast working on a book and film of our year on the road… you’re welcome to see how we roll, media RV and all… come on up, we’ll feed you and hook you up with a place to lay yer head.

    • Mark S. Luckie 2:32 pm on November 21, 2008

      Stopped by the newsroom and it was painfully obvious that you were missing. See you soon!

    • Dave LaFontaine 3:44 pm on November 21, 2008

      Glad you could join those of us who already wander the globe – although I must warn you, it feels much more akin to the situation of the angels in Wings of Desire, than to any Jules/Kung-Fu Caine paradigm. That is, you get to wander through and observe the lives of the people hard at work putting the virtual wrenches onto the digital mechanisms … but you’re often left feeling frustrated at the lack of power to jump in and directly influence events. Then again – particularly in light of current media meltdown conditions – how much can us tiny individuals actually control such lumbering macro events anyway?

      Somewhere, Wim Wenders is laughing like Dieter from “Sprockets.”

      You had indicated a desire to get together & pick our brains about the international digital media “scene.” We have much to talk about; make sure to come on by before you blow town.

    • Greg Linch 10:08 pm on November 21, 2008

      Have fun! There’s a lot of interesting online journalism work/newsroom restructuring going on in Europe, such as at El Pais in Spain, The Daily Telegraph in the UK and The Nordjyske Medier in Denmark.

      I learned about what El Pais is doing during a study abroad trip in 2006 and I know they’re still doing interesting things:

      The latter two I learned about from Randy Covington at the Next Newsroom conference. He’d be a good person to contact for international (particularly European) suggestions.

    • Eric Ulken 11:41 am on November 22, 2008

      Stephen: Finland would be an awesome trip, and I’d love to see what the Nokia folks are up to. Anybody got any contacts there?

      Shane: Interesting project. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and I’ll keep it in mind should my travels bring me out to that part of the country.

      Dave: That film left me scratching my head a bit, but I can totally see what you mean about the angels. 🙂 I’ll check in soon on getting together.

      Greg: El Pais, Telegraph and Nordjyske are definitely on the list.

      Thanks, everyone, for the thoughts. Keep ’em coming.

    • Nico Smedley 6:36 pm on November 23, 2008

      Awesome plan man. I just e-mailed one of my close friends who currently works for a small newspaper out in Cambodia telling her they should host you out there. Don’t know how interested you’d be in going to Southeast Asia (or if they could for sure have you) but I think you could learn from them and they could learn a lot from you. I’ll ask her to e-mail you and you can follow up if you’d like.

      I too am a member of the LA Times diaspora (I remember sitting in on a few presentations that you either gave or assisted with) — I left a few months ago. I wish you luck on this journey!


    • Digidave 11:02 am on November 26, 2008

      Good luck!!!!

    • Diana 4:36 pm on November 26, 2008

      Good luck with your new projects, Eric. This all sounds very exciting, and I’ll be keeping track for sure. If you ever want to talk about scholastic online journalism, I’d love to. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Bill Mitchell 8:41 am on November 27, 2008

      Thanks again for the very helpful Webinar on search Tuesday, Eric. Suggestions for your trip: Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw, Danish Journalists Association, various outfits in South Africa (not exactly on your itinerary, I realize, but lots of interesting stuff going on). Will send you names, contact info via e-mail. Very much looking forward to reading your reports.

    • Mindy McAdams 4:06 pm on November 28, 2008

      Just added you to my RSS reader, Eric. I’m looking forward to reading your ideas here.

    • Bianca Lemmens 3:07 am on December 3, 2008

      Come back to your beloved Maastricht and visit us at the European Journalism Centre! You will be able to combine several of the other suggestions in just one trip; we are dealing with a lot of those guys in a variety of projects. See you then:)

    • Sierra Jenkins 12:54 pm on December 24, 2008

      Hello Eric,
      Thanks so much for your tips – I’ve been loving all the sites you sent me too. Sorry for the tardy response – I just moved back from Mexico City and it’s been a bit of a chaotic period! I did pass through LA, but for only a few days. I’m job-searching down that way, so I’ll be going more frequently now and would love to meet for coffee (my treat of course). However, it looks like you are leaving LA – your trip looks very exciting. I look forward to reading it on the blog.
      I took your course at NewsU about improving usability and gaining web traffic. The tips were very useful for my employer –, which is launching a new multimedia/social networking site for expats.
      I’ve been playing with Soundslides, just need to upload my audio slideshows to my web page:
      Again, thank you for all your tips which were extremely helpful. Hope to meet you in person at some point and I hope everything is going well for you!

      Sierra Jenkins

    • Daniel 8:04 pm on January 4, 2009

      Can’t wait to read about them, Eric. Remember, you own this place now! (This place, I guess, meaning your blog…? That didn’t make sense.)

  • Eric Ulken 4:19 pm on November 6, 2008
    Tags: , eBay Inc, Jack Klunder,   

    Who says newspapers are dead? 

    The scene at Second and Spring streets, downtown Los Angeles, 2 p.m. PST Nov. 6, 2008:

    For the second day since the election, the line of people seeking copies of Tuesday’s paper outside the Los Angeles Times building is around the corner. (Copies of the paper are also listed at a substantial premium on Ebay.)

    Jack Klunder, the paper’s president, told me the Times printed a “couple hundred thousand” more papers to satisfy the demand. It’s also selling plates of the paper’s front page for $10 a piece and lithographs for $5. The Times’ Reader’s Rep blog has details.

    (Update 11/9: Sandy Banks has a nice column, with an accompanying Sachi Cunningham video, on the phenomenon. When I walked by the Times yesterday the line was still out the door and some enterprising independent vendors had set up shop across the street selling Obama T-shirts and other merchandise.)

    Finally, for those who prefer the digital version, here’s a photo I took in the newsroom Tuesday night:

  • Eric Ulken 3:48 am on November 5, 2008
    Tags: , Gay marriage,   

    New at Slice and filter California election results 

    In my last few weeks at the Times, I’ve largely been preoccupied with imagining and building our election data widgets for use on election night.  It might seem silly to spend so much time preparing for an event that’s over so quickly.  But I think we’ve found at least one app that’ll last long enough to make it worth the effort.  It’s our California county-by-county map, and I think it’s way cool.

    Sure, you can see bubbles by county for the state propositions and the presidential race, but you can also slice the vote by demographic categories (e.g.., counties that went for Bush in 2004) to see if you can spot trends. Happy filtering.

    (Credit where it’s due: The filters are inspired by NYT’s excellent county-by-county maps during the primary season.)

  • Eric Ulken 11:38 pm on October 27, 2008
    Tags: layoffs,   

    Leaving the Times 

    I want to say something about what took place today at the Los Angeles Times, where I’ve worked for nearly 5 years. It’s a drama that repeats itself in newsrooms across the country and has already taken place more times than I care to count during my tenure at the Times. The familiarity of the event doesn’t make it any less sad.

    I refer, of course, to staff cuts. Buyouts, redundancies, layoffs, terminations, separations voluntary and involuntary — pick your term. However you put it, it sucks — both for the people who leave and those who stay. This time I’m in the former category. The decision to go was mine, and I made it months ago, but saying goodbye is still hard.

    Days like today obscure the fact that hundreds of talented, creative and dedicated journalists remain at the Times. They still put out one of the best news reports in the country, and they’re working hard to drag a sclerotic institution into the digital age. I am proud to be associated with them, and I wish them well.

    (My last day is next Friday, Nov. 7.  Details on my own plans TK.)

    Photo by Mister-E via Flickr.

    • Rick Burnes 6:04 am on October 28, 2008

      Good luck! A tough decision to make, I know.

      Look forward to hearing what you do next.

    • Gregg Hartling 7:06 am on October 28, 2008

      It’s not going to be the same without you, Eric. Thanks for all the help you’ve provided me and my team since we joined last year. And you better not be a stranger given that we live about a mile apart. Best wishes and good luck.

  • Eric Ulken 10:41 pm on October 27, 2008
    Tags: Andrew Malcolm, blogs, , Luke Ford, Online News Association,   

    Backchannel on blogging 

    What happens when you put a bunch of bloggers in a room, feed them pizza and moderate a discussion on their craft? You end up with two real-time conversations: One in the physical room and the other in the Twitterverse.

    I know that’s no surprise to those who populate this corner of cyberspace, but as a newbie here — and, until recently, an admitted Twitter skeptic — I have to say it was pretty fun to watch a virtual dialogue unfold alongside the real-world one, as it did last Thursday night at the Los Angeles Times.

    The local ONA gathering on blogging (pix here) drew about 60 people to the Harry Chandler Auditorium for an informal talk with L.A. bloggers including Luke Ford (pictured) and the Times’ Andrew Malcolm. Tweets containing #onala were displayed in a search feed on the big screen, powered by a nifty skinnable Twitter client called Spaz. Instant visual backchannel!

    So yes: Twitter is good for something besides marriage proposals.

    Photo by David LaFontaine via Flickr.

  • Eric Ulken 7:19 pm on October 14, 2008
    Tags: , Mark Z. Barabak,   

    New (er, improved) at Electoral vote map 

    Added a few fun features to our electoral vote map, including regular analysis between now and the election by the Times’ Mark Z. Barabak:

    (This embedded version of the map hasn’t changed. Go to the vote map page on to see the improvements.)

  • Eric Ulken 5:23 pm on September 4, 2008
    Tags: , , Fremont,   

    New at California Schools Guide 

    Our newest database project, launched today, is a guide to schools in California with test scores, demographics and other useful info on public schools in the state. (Private schools are listed too, but there’s less good info available on them.)

    Data guru Ben Welsh (of L.A.’s Top Dogs fame) is the brains behind this project, also built in Django (which, it’s safe to say, has become the framework of choice for our editorial data projects).

    I think my favorite part is the ability to rank schools in your county by different criteria, such as average SAT scores or API score (California’s benchmark for academic performance). Factoid: Of the 10 schools statewide with the highest API scores, eight are in the Bay Area and four of those are in Fremont. Is it something in the water up there?

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