Archives for the month of: April, 2014

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth have greeted this week’s Associated Press style change on when to abbreviate and when to spell out state names. Read on for a mnemonic inspired by the Beastie Boys.

The AP memo reads: “Effective May 1, the AP will spell out state names in the body of stories. Datelines will continue to use abbreviations.”

Here’s my mnemonic: Spell out “Illinois” in the body of a story. But in datelines, captions and party affiliations, you’re still licensed to “Ill.”

Now if only there weren’t two kinds of state abbreviations to choose from. As long as we’re simplifying style rules, why not choose one kind of state abbreviation? We have “Ill.” unless you have a mailing address, in which case “IL” is required.

I’m not writing this to complain; I think AP’s rationale of seeking efficiency is laudable. AP style is always evolving. Maybe the next step will move further toward simplicity and uniformity of rules.

If we move to using just one set of state abbreviations (and I’m sure a lot of people would hate this because it just doesn’t look right), I’d opt for the postal abbreviation.


I confess my thinking is influenced by understanding how the Google Fusion Tables application works. It understands either spelled-out state names (Kansas, for instance) or two-letter, capitalized postal abbreviations (KS). “Kan.” does not exist to Google Fusion Tables.

If you try to import a spreadsheet with geocoded data and merge it with a KML file to create a heat map, you’ll get the geocoding equivalent of the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive not working again: You expect to lurch into the hyperspace of data visualization, but the result is a disappointing lack of heat map. Going postal might be ugly to look at, but what works, works.


New York Times Insider has a fascinating piece by Gretchen Morgenson on how she broke into journalism, switched to a Wall Street job, and parleyed her “workingman’s M.B.A.” into a position as a finance columnist for the Paper of Record. It’s a model of the job-hunt process I described this week to students pondering their futures.

In my last week as a journalism teacher at Auburn University this week, I advised my students about how to hunt for journalism jobs. The venn diagram for this is one circle consisting of “Great jobs” and another consisting of “Great places to live.” One hopes you’d be able to find a job where the circles overlap. If not, you have to decide which is more important and work your way toward a position in which you are able to have both.

How do you get a job at the New York Times? Your first option is to be so good they can’t ignore you right now because you have your professors’ highest recommendations, you’ve had one or more prestigious internships, and have the skills, talent and drive to succeed at the Times right now. If you haven’t done all that, then you need to become so good they can’t ignore you. That includes finding out where the Times hires from and what skills and experience they want you to have, then do all you can to attain them.

Building a career in journalism works a lot like a baseball player working one’s way up through the minor leagues to the majors. If you’re pretty good but inexperienced, you can move from Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the Major Leagues incrementally. For me, that meant a few years in Double-A (papers with circulations between 20,000 and 42,000) to Triple A (a paper around 80,000 circulation) to the majors (where I finally started earning something approximating middle-class pay).

It also helps to start with the goal in mind.

When I started out, I wanted to work at the Des Moines Register or the Oregonian. So I found out the “feeders,” papers that were stepping stones to them, then made it my mission to get good enough that my work would be noticed and I could move up.

Funny things happen on the way to your destination, though. Your goals can change.

I discovered I liked being a big cog in a smaller machine in a more laid-back Western culture rather than a little cog in a big machine in a more formal work culture. Realizing that led me to leave Des Moines after I got there as a senior copy editor and go to the Santa Fe New Mexican, which I sincerely believe was the best community newspaper in the United States in the years I was there. When an editor at the Oregonian asked if I’d like to work there, I was too in love with what I was doing in Santa Fe to leave.

So you never know how your goals will change. Doing well for myself was important to me from the start, but doing good for others through journalism became too important for me to want to leave New Mexico at that time.

The American Dream is to better one’s condition throughout life. Morgenson shows you can do a lot of good for others while doing well. Her example shows you don’t always arrive at your ultimate destination on your first try. Life is full of transitions.

Speaking of transitions, I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge one of my own. I taught my last sessions at Auburn University this week, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with my great students and colleagues at Auburn University. It’s been gratifying to see how much so many journalism students have grown in my time here.

For my next chapter, I’m on my way to the Motor City to take a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at Wayne State University, where I’ll be joining some old friends from my M.A. days at the Missouri School of Journalism and making a whole bunch of new friends in a program that’s deeply committed to hard news and diversity. Detroit has a great, innovative culture, and in teaching Multimedia Journalism this semester, the innovation bug bit me HARD.

Thanks, Auburn, for hiring me out of my doctoral program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and giving me the opportunity to grow as a teacher and scholar. I’ll always have a warm place in my heart for the Loveliest Village on the Plains.

Just to be clear: I am not comparing Sandy Toomer’s etiquette to that of any specific opponent. In fact, I have no way of knowing whether I have received a call from Mike Hubbard. I can only assume he would be equally gracious. I do know that I’ve had numerous hangups and push-polls, at least one of which was about a different legislative race. But since my cell has a North Carolina area code, for all I know, the calls have concerned the U.S. Senate race in that state.

I’m all for hearing from political candidates. I got a call from Sandy Toomer, a candidate for the Alabama legislature from Auburn, that went to voicemail. If I hadn’t been busy, I definitely would have liked to talk with him, and he did actually leave a message in his own voice, not a recording, asking for my support. I don’t know what he stands for, but I’ll go find out and see if I like what he has to say once I’m finished grading final exams and final projects.

As far as I know, I have not had a call from his opponent Mike Hubbard, but I can only assume that he would be equally gracious.

One thing I don’t understand in a local election campaign is when local candidates rely on robocalls, particularly those who hide behind a soft-money PAC. The saying goes that all politics is local, but particularly at level of municipal elections and state legislative elections, that’s doubly true. Relying on robocalls smacks of outside influence from people who want to conceal their motivations. I am suspicious of people who hide their motivations, particularly those who use soft-money PACs to hide where they get their support. Also, (and this is a free tip): People get a little creeped-out if you constantly call and hang up on them or don’t leave a message.

The following happened this morning. I don’t know whose campaign was behind the call, but it’s possible that it was a public opinion research outfit verifying voter registration and selling the information to anybody who would pay for it:

***RING RING ***
(Incoming call from 999-999-9999 on my cellphone)
ME: Hello?
CALLER: I just have a few questions. Are you registered to vote at 111 South Ross Street, Number 10, in Auburn, Alabama?
ME: An introduction would have been nice. Hello, my name is Michael. What’s your name?
CALLER: Sheena. Are you registered to vote at 111 South Ross Street, Number 10, in Auburn, Alabama?
ME: Are you the same caller from 999-999-9999 who called and hung up yesterday?
CALLER: (Pause) … No.
ME: And on whose behalf are you calling?
CALLER: ERS Research.
ME: And who is your client?
CALLER: I … don’t have a client.
ME: Well, I can only assume that you’re doing this because you’re being paid to make phone calls. Who’s paying you to do this?
CALLER: (Pause, and in a voice that resembled a 7-year-old when asked who had broken the cookie jar) … No one.
ME: I just think as a voter, I’m entitled to know which political campaign is trying to influence my opinions …


Please, Lord, tell me this gets me taken off their call list.

I have received similar calls from other organizations. Here’s the pattern: A real human calls to verify you are a registered voter, that you live at the address they have on file, and that you plan to vote in the June elections. This is followed by a stream of robocalls with push polls (for the initiated, these are automated phone calls that seem to be a scientific, unbiased survey for research purposes but turn out to be thinly veiled attempts to sway your opinions by asking leading questions).

If you don’t care enough about my vote to call me personally to ask for it when it’s a local campaign, you’re not working hard enough to earn my vote. Call me yourself. I’ll listen. If you leave your number, I’ll even call back. Or maybe I’ll drop in to chat if you let me know where to find you (and I do like Toomer’s Coffee).


The Multimedia Journalism students are finding out how useful and straightforward Google Maps Engine is as an online storytelling tool. Each created a map of five places on a subject relevant to the topics of their blogs.

The maps are an interactive version of an old standby of static print infographics: the locator map. Locators have a simple ingredients list: Headline, chatter, base map, place labels, and descriptions accompanying each place label. The difference with Google Maps Engine is that you get the gift of interactivity: Users can see pointer boxes with names and descriptions pop up as they hover the cursor over a list of place names.

The five-place Google Maps assignment is appropriate as an introductory exercise in interactive mapping for beginning multimedia journalists for these reasons:

  • It challenges students to conceive of a piece they find interesting and (hopefully) that their readers will also find intriguing.
  • It requires that they do the kind of research that will be expected of them in the newsrooms that will hire them after graduation.
  • It gives them an opportunity to put to use what they learned in the step-by-step, in-class Google Maps tutorial, the Kansas City barbecue map. Hey, I’m a Kansas City boy, but some things translate well from the Midwest to the South, and barbecue is one of them. So we can almost all relate to the subject.

Here’s what the students cooked up this week:

Google Maps Engine is not hard to use, once you understand what it does and how it works. The technical questions are not difficult; the challenge, as I discovered when I sat in on the international hackathon session at Auburn University’s computer science program last fall, is figuring out a journalistic use for it.

Coders provide the conduit, and it is powerful work that they do. Journalists provide the ideas for content to flow through the conduit. Technical thinkers and journalistic thinkers complement each other. Especially now, we need each other.

I’m proud of how much my Multimedia Journalism students have built their technical skillsets while flexing their storytelling muscles these last 16 weeks. May they evangelize new media thinking in the newsrooms they join in the near future. They’re smart, they love storytelling, and they’ve demonstrated a capacity for problem solving and tenacity. Editors , directors and station managers, you need these young people. Hire them!

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