Ballooning costs, years of delay

Anderson Memorial Bridge. Photo (cc) by Antony-22.

Anderson Memorial Bridge. Photo (cc) by Antony-22.

In the Boston Globe, Lawrence Summers and Rachel Lipson offer a devastating look at our inability to build much-needed infrastructure projects in a timely, cost-efficient manner. Their example is the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Anyone who has to drive through that area know it’s best to avoid it. But they offer some truly horrifying facts, starting with this: the bridge was built in just 11 months 1912, but the repairs have been going on for four years—with “no end date in sight.”

Of course, the Anderson Bridge is hardly an anomaly. What about the Green Line Extension, plagued by cost overruns and years of delay? What about the Mother of All Infrastructure Projects, the Big Dig? On a smaller scale, the interchange of Routes 128 and 62 in Danvers has been a traffic-and-safety catastrophe since it opened a few years ago—and a similar interchange just to the south, at 128 and 35, is no better.

Summers and Lipson offer a list of what went wrong with the Anderson Bridge, and it’s instructive: historically accurate bricks that had to be specially ordered (really?); a redesign making it possible to build a pedestrian underpass (but not actually building it).

We’ve got to find a way to do better.

Open government in Mass. moves to closer to reality

The following is a press release from the ACLU of Massachusetts.

BOSTON—In a pair of unanimous, bipartisan votes, the state House of Representatives and Senate today passed the first major reform of Massachusetts public records law in four decades, sending it to Governor Charlie Baker, who has 10 days to sign, veto, or let it become law without his signature. If signed into law by Governor Baker, the legislation would address widely criticized weaknesses in Massachusetts public records law, which make it hard for citizens to get information about how their government functions.

“This is a great day for open government,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We thank the House and the Senate for making public records reform a priority and for getting the job done. We also call on Governor Baker to do the right thing and sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.”

The bill would:

  • Set clear limits on how much money government agencies can charge for public records;
  • Set reasonable time frames for responses to public records requests;
  • Allow municipalities to request additional time for compliance and the ability to charge higher fees to cover reasonable costs;
  • Strengthen enforcement of the law by giving courts the ability to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public records.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance—a coalition of open-government groups—praised the House and its leadership for making transparency a significant legislative priority. The coalition urged Governor Charlie Baker to sign the legislation without delay and usher in a new era of openness in Massachusetts state government.

“A strong public records law is critical to democracy and our ability as citizens to hold government accountable,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “With today’s vote, the House and the Senate made a significant commitment to transparency and freedom of information, improving open government, and moving our state a huge step forward from near last in the nation. This reform is long overdue and we hope the Governor will sign it without delay.”

In November, the Center for Public Integrity released a report that gave the Commonwealth an “F” grade on public access to government information for the second time in a row. Dozens of organizations have advocated for comprehensive public records law reform, arguing that the law is among the weakest in the country and needs updating for the digital age. State lawmakers made their last substantive amendment to the law in 1973.

“This bill represents a significant step forward for transparency in Massachusetts,” said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “It will do a lot to improve access to public records. We hope and expect Governor Baker will prove himself to be a transparency-minded Governor by signing it into law.”

“Massachusetts residents deserve a stronger public records law, and this bill offers many improvements. We look forward to the governor signing it into law and providing more opportunity to hold government officials accountable,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

The pending legislation advanced earlier in the week when a conference committee of six legislators reconciled earlier versions passed by the House and Senate. The bill passed by the House and Senate today includes provisions designed to reduce the cost of obtaining public records and ensure timely responses to information requests. In addition, by allowing courts to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public information, the bill would bring Massachusetts into line with 47 other states. The new law would not make such fee awards mandatory, but would establish a presumption in favor of covering requesters’ legal costs when courts find the law has been violated. The bill also includes safety-valve mechanisms to enable municipalities to get extensions on compliance deadlines and to receive reasonable compensation when dealing with particularly complex, time-consuming requests.

The full bill, An Act to improve public records (now H.4333), can be found here: https://malegislature.gov/Document/Bill/189/House/H4333.pdf.

Dueling media columnists bolster Times-Post rivalry

The late David Carr

The late New York Times media columnist David Carr. Photo (cc) by wiobyrne.

One of the last great newspaper rivalries got a boost on Monday with the debut of Margaret Sullivan’s media column in the Washington Post. Sullivan’s first piece was more a preview of coming attractions than an attempt to dig deep. But with Jim Rutenberg having replaced the late, great David Carr at the New York Times earlier this year, our two leading general-interest newspapers now have dueling media critics for the first time in ages.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

A Medford church’s demise and uncertain revival

wmcong

Photo via Penny Postcards

The Boston Globe has published a terrific story by reporter Lisa Wangsness and photographer Dina Rudick about a Congregational church in our West Medford neighborhood.

It was right down the street from us when we lived here in the early ’80s. When we returned to a different part of West Medford in late 2015, we noticed it had become a Haitian church and that the Congregationalists had moved into a storefront in West Medford Square. The storefront is called the Sanctuary United Church of Christ.

Now I know what happened.

The Globe and the Post upgrade their digital offerings

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.11.11 AM

Two newspapers have dramatically improved their digital offerings. The Boston Globe has unveiled four radically redesigned web pages for the Boston’s professional teams—the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots, and the Bruins. The emphasis is on huge photos and on gathering together in one place everything you want to know about your favorite team. Sports editor Joe Sullivan offers a rundown.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, is testing a new mobile website that it is calling its Progressive Web App, which you can access by clicking here. The PWA uses new technology to load instantly—as fast as Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, or news stories coded for Google’s new Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) standard.

These are both a couple of leaps forward. Even though the Globe‘s online presence is better than that of many newspapers, it needs to communicate to its readers that digital is a superior experience to print. The sports pages could be a prelude of things to come in other parts of the paper. The Post is well-known for its cutting-edge technology, but the speed of PWA is—as chief information officer Shailesh Prakash is quoted as saying in this press release—”a game-changing experience.”

A couple of quibbles. First of all, the Globe needs to focus on speed. Its responsive website is loads quickly enough on my Mac, but it’s slower on my phone and slower still on my aging iPad. That’s as true of the new sports pages as it is of the rest of the site. Second, it would be nice if the Post‘s PWA site loaded on a tablet and not just on a phone.

Finally, I found the type size a bit on the small side in both products with no way to make it bigger.

The trouble with Facebook’s ‘Trending Topics’

I still haven’t gotten around to writing anything more substantive about the controversy over Facebook’s “Trending Topics.” But this Storify lays out my main arguments.

A digital toolkit for better recording, better transcribing

reel-tape

Photo (cc) 2014 by darkday

Before the emergence of digital tools, recording and (especially) transcribing an interview was a tedious affair. The little micro-cassette tapes were of dubious reliability—and yes, I once had one fail on me during a crucial and contentious encounter. Transcribing was worse, as you’d sit there constantly hitting the “play” and “rewind” buttons, an imprecise process that risked damage to the tape.

I’ve been all-digital for maybe 10 years now. But I didn’t really begin upping my game until I tested my little Olympus recorder in a New Haven hotel room one morning in 2011 only to discover that it was pining for the fjords.

Since then, I have assembled a digital recording toolkit that I hope will be useful for journalists. By now, of course, nearly all of us are recording interviews on our smartphones. But I’ve been surprised by reporters who’ve told me their transcription technique consists of nothing more than playing back the audio on their phones. These tips, I hope, will make it easier for you to record and transcribe.

Read the rest at Storybench, part of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.