Job Post: OpenBlock, Django and Community Newspapers

Written by Ryan Thornburg October 29, 2010 11:08 am EDT No comments

Request for Proposals:
Specifications for Community News Tool Using Python and Django.

The School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with funding from the McCormick Foundation, is developing business models and editorial products to help community newspapers transition to the digital age.

We are seeking someone who has experience with Python and the Django Web development framework to install a Django application called OpenBlock on a Web server and write a report that details the technical challenges, specifications and scope required for integrating OpenBlock into newspaper websites hosted by TownNews.com. The report would also propose potential alternatives that would be more efficient than using OpenBlock.

In order to write the report, the person we hire will need to perform these tasks:
1. Install the OpenBlock application on a server, and become familiar with its codebase.

2. Identify technical specifications for transforming data formats given to students by city and county government into geo-coded data formats optimized for use in OpenBlock. (See http://developer.openblockproject.org/wiki/Ideal%20Feed%20Formats) These technical specs might include the technical specs for building a site scraper (See http://developer.openblockproject.org/wiki/ScraperScripts) to retrieve the data, a feed parser or a program to impute the latitude and longitude of data types that are vaguely described in their original format from the government.

3. Identify high-level technical specifications for integrating an OpenBlock installation with the CSS styles, site navigation and URL structure of the news organizations so that users and search engines perceive the TownNews.com content and the OpenBlock content as a single site.

4. Contribute findings back to the OpenBlock project developers wiki at http://developer.openblockproject.org/wiki
We intend to select a candidate by December 1. The project would start immediately upon selection.

Please e-mail your proposals – including a proposed timeline, cost bid, resume, cover-letter and three references — to Christine Shia at shia AT email DOT unc DOT edu. Please include “Proposal – OpenBlock RFP” in your subject line.

Questions about this RFP can be addressed to Assistant Professor Ryan Thornburg at 919-962-4080 or ryan DOT thornburg AT unc DOT edu. Please include: “Query – OpenBlock RFP” in your subject line.

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Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream

Written by Ryan Thornburg October 14, 2010 9:16 am EDT No comments

Sitting next to News & Observer editor John Drescher last Friday during a forum about the Triangle’s media landscape, I had to feel a bit sorry for him. Of the nearly 20 representatives of news media in the region, he was the most prominent representative of the mainstream media and drew all the fire from the bloggers, entrepreneurs, do-gooders and pontificators who had him easily outnumbered and whose smaller organizations had often beaten his Goliath newsroom on important stories.

But I also envied Drescher. He was also the only one at the table who had ever dropped $200,000 of his company’s money on an investigation of a state agency. And the only one who knew what it was like to spend four years pinging the government for public records before he had a story solid enough to sell to his subscribers and advertisers.

One other thing made Drescher an enviable character in the Triangle’s media ecosystem. Despite their valid criticisms of increasing gaps in The News & Observer’s coverage of our communities many noted without irony in their voices, the small, independent and non-profit news operations had the most impact on public policy when they got the attention of Drescher’s paper or one of the local television stations.

And that made me realize that if our state is going to retain its generation-long reputation as a home for journalism that gives voice to the voiceless and holds powerful people accountable, then we must find a way to foster dozens of new and diverse tributaries of news and information that flow into the big, slow-moving mainstream media. Without the tributaries, the MSM seems likely to evaporate entirely. Without a larger channel into which they can empty, the tributaries seem likely to overwhelm us with a flood of disconnected datapoints.

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Welcome to JOMC 491: Public Affairs Reporting for New Media

Written by Ryan Thornburg August 6, 2010 12:53 pm EDT No comments

With only a few weeks left before the start of the fall semester, I wanted to quickly give registered and prospective students a little bit of an idea about what we’ll be doing in Public Affairs Reporting for New Media this semester. Seats are still available, so act now!

The goal of the class will be to develop a new online editorial product for the newspapers in Whiteville and Washington, N.C., that will help them provide be a comprehensive and highly engaging source of news and information for their communities. (Perhaps something like Everyblock.com)

So, the first thing to know about the class is that you will be expected to go to those cities — both about 2.5 hours from Chapel Hill — at least once and probably more during the semester. I’ll pick up the tab for your trips, but you will need to arrange your own transportation and schedule.

The reason we’ll be working with these two towns is that they are part of a larger effort being led by Knight journalism professor Penny Abernathy and funded by The McCormick Foundation (founding family of The Chicago Tribune) aimed at helping small newspapers make a financially sound transition to a digital economy.

So do you need to know anything about computer programming, or media economics or news reporting and editing? Not really, but you’ll probably be much better off if you’ve had exposure to at least one of those topics. If you haven’t then you’ll need to rely on your own curiosity, self-motivation and time commitment to ensure your success and happiness in the course.

The class is going to be structure probably unlike any other class you’ve taken at Carolina. First, it has the experiential service-learning component. That means less reading and note-taking from lectures. It means more class discussion and hands-on group projects. My goal is for this class to teach you — as much as anything else — how to clearly articulate and creatively solve messy, complex real-world problems. To do that, we’ll be using the context of improving public affairs reporting for the people of North Carolina by using new digital news tools and concepts.

What will you do in the class?
The first half of the class will be an introduction to the problem with the second half focused on trying out different solutions. In class, we’ll be discussing articles, brainstorming and prototyping (making models that can give us a better idea of how people might use our website). Outside of class, you’ll be keeping a 2x/week blog of reflections, reading articles, and working in groups to figure out what barriers stand in our way of building a great site and then figuring out for yourself how you will overcome those barriers. I promise to be your guide.

How will you be graded?
30% – You’ll launch your own blog and update it twice a week. Some weeks I will give you specific assignments (write a descriptive report about Whiteville, discuss the readings, etc.) but most of the time you’ll simply write about your experiences.

30% – Prototyping. In many classes, you may have been asked to write or create one big final project that demonstrates your knowledge of what you learned. But in this class, you’ll practice the art of “fertile failure” — trying a lot of ideas, making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. You will be rewarded for failing fast and failing smart. We will use everything from toothpicks to MySQL to build our prototypes. You’ll start by using the materials with which you’re comfortable and end the semester by using tools that terrified you just three months earlier. These will be different tools for each student.

30% – Participation. Come to every class with a lot of questions, fulfill your service obligation, participate in online discussions outside of class.

10% – Data management and public records assignments. A big part of our prototyping and brainstorming will be around how to obtain public records and make them useable in an online database. You’ll have a few projects to get you familiar with the basics of the technology and issues surrounding this topic.

I hope that gives you a rough idea of the class. I’ll be posting a full syllabus and calendar soon. But in the meanwhile, enjoy the rest of your summer and let me know if you have any questions.

Best,
Ryan

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What’s the Demand for Downballot News?

Written by Ryan Thornburg May 5, 2010 1:33 pm EDT No comments

One of the partners for my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class this semester was the N.C. Center for Voter Education, long known for its efforts to change the way judges are elected in North Carolina as well as the voting guide it creates in partnership with UNC-TV. That voting guide was the first place I turned for information on candidates in yesterday’s statewide primary for seats on the Court of Appeals. I just presumed that no newspaper had covered the race.

But you know what happens to you and me when you assume things, so I checked it out. Turns out I was mostly right. I’m going to put together a summary of information that got reported about this race, but it got me wondering about this question: How much information – and what kind – of information do North Carolinians need about downballot statewide primary races? Are they getting? From where? Or why not?

After all, if journalism’s worth saving it’s only because of the impact it has on public life. I’ve long been curious about the connection between information and citizen participation. The presumption – not always right, as Samuel Popkin and Michael Schudson might tell you – is that the more information voters have the “better decisions” they will make.

A little more than 700,000 people voted in those races. Some of them might have wanted more information than others? How many had enough? How many would have changed their votes if they had had different information?

And, if we can figure out who needs this information – and what information they need – is there any business model that gets it to them? Do we need independent reporting on downballot races like this or is informing voters the job of the State Board of Elections and the candidates themselves?

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Future Journalists’ Take on the Future of News

Written by Ryan Thornburg May 3, 2010 2:54 pm EDT No comments

Students in my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class this spring worked with four community partners — WUNC radio, N.C. Center for Voter Educaiton, OrangePolitics.org and N.C. Data — to see what the future of news might look like in a world outlined by Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson in their “Reconstruction of American Journalism” post.

Among several good final memos from students, was this one by Ashley Lopez, who astutely notes that solutions that may work for the preservation of public affairs reporting at the national level might not scale down to the state and local levels where relevant and reliable reporting on government and public life is most needed.

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Fertile Failure: Live Blogging Class Discussion

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 14, 2010 9:47 am EST No comments

Updated: 2:51 p.m. ET

Fail fast, fail cheap. Isn’t that what they say? Well, today I did it. My first attempt to live blog a class discussion didn’t work out. But neither did my first attempt to … well, do just about anything…

No matter. Here’s what I learned…

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A Lab for ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism’

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 13, 2010 3:07 pm EST No comments

This week is the first of a new semester in my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class — a journalism class in which the students must work 30 hours with a community partner over the course of the semester. Our goal this semester — expose the students to all of the journalism models that Len Downie and Michael Schudson outline as potential replacements for a decline in public affairs reporting at newspapers.

This semester, the 18 students in the class will be divided among four partners:

  • the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, a non-profit funded largely by foundation money and private donations;
  • OrangePolitics.org, a liberal blog about local politics run part-time by a single “citizen jouranlist”;
  • N.C. DataNet, a newsletter of from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program on Public Life, edited by a former News & Observer reporter and opinion editor;
  • a public broadcast outlet here in North Carolina.

If any of these sources will be part of the reconstruction of American journalism, the students in the class will help determine how it’s reconstructed. At the very least, the students will be able to report back to the rest of us more details about what they find in these laboratories of post-newspaper news.

Stay tuned… and add your suggested reading for the class via the Delicious bookmark tag JOMC491-examples-s10.

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Newspaper Corrections: Sources Now Share the Obligation

Written by Ryan Thornburg June 1, 2009 12:40 pm EDT 3 comments

Handling errors and corrections online is good topic for newsroom debate. The dual challenge is that online text can be updated/fixed/improved/corrected at any time and it’s also always available. That means errors can get corrected quickly, but those that don’t can damage credibility long past the daily print edition.

In a world where anyone can publish a blog, professional journalists need to emphasize accuracy and credibility even more. But the reductions in staff at almost all newsrooms in America is putting a squeeze on quality control.

This story from last week’s News & Observer provides an interesting case study. The piece quoted me, but mistakenly said I had worked for USA Today. When I saw the error, I emailed the reporter and used the article’s comments section to quickly post my own correction.

In the last week, though, I never heard back from the reporter. It turns out he was on furlough. He sent an apologetic note once he got back. That said, the fact error remains online.

So, let’s walk through what’s wrong (and right) with this picture:

1. Error gets in the news article. Yes, this is an automatic F in my introductory newswriting classes, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Many people would wisely artgue that these kinds of pernicous little errors are going to become more common, though, as reporters take on the work of departed colleagues and stories get fewer reads by editors before they go to press.

2. Vigilant sources can use comments to correct errors in the article. This is incredibly empowering and could go a long way to increasing trust in journalism. You often hear sources say they spot errors in reporting but never bother to ask for a correction because they figure the reporters and editors won’t care anyway. For the most part I think that’s the opposite of true. But it also doesn’t matter now — sources have the ability, and even the obligation, to correct errors of fact. To not do so is to complictly accept and tolerate inaccuracy.

3. Someone at the N&O should have been monitoring these comments and alerting the appropriate editors to corrections. The primary reason the comments section on newspaper articles are so low-brow is because the (already thinly spread) staff is not participating in them. Which leads us back to the old sentiment among sources and readers — that newspaper editors just don’t care about what I have to say.

This example highlights the two key components to success in the future of news — high levels of accuracy and engagement. Journalists who don’t pursue both are in danger of becoming quickly irrelevant.

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Notes From a Semester

Written by Ryan Thornburg May 6, 2009 5:03 pm EDT No comments

The semester at UNC-Chapel Hill is done and the students in “Public Affairs Reporting for New Media” have put together a wonderful resource for learning about and engaging in efforts to curb the state’s high dropout rate.

You can read my notes about their work at http://www.ncdropout.org/node/415
or visit the site’s homepage at http://www.ncdropout.org.

Among the pieces I’ve enjoyed the most are the online journalism tutorials that the students themselves created based on their own experiences hashing through their first efforts and multimedia, interactive, on-demand news story telling. You can see their tutorials here.

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Facebook Politics: Hidden in Plain Sight

Written by Ryan Thornburg April 29, 2009 7:49 pm EDT No comments

Surely some of you know more about this topic than I, but here are my thoughts the News & Observer’s Under the Dome blog.

Facebook groups are ripe for the harvesting

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What I'm reading

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  • Relational Databases - Example - Martin Baker 2010/10/16
  • MySQL :: MySQL 5.0 Reference Manual :: 10 Data Types 2010/10/16
  • Download & Install 2.4.1 2010/10/16

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