By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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From talking about it to just doing it

When I first started teaching a course called Reinventing the News a few years ago, I envisioned it mainly as a seminar. The idea was that we would look at some case studies of where the news business might be headed and blog about it.

I quickly realized that wasn’t good enough. The spark for me was a student who had just come back from her co-op job at the Patriot Ledger of Quincy. She had assumed the most complicated tool she’d have to use would be a notebook. Instead, she was tossed a point-and-shoot digital camera and told to teach herself how to capture and edit video. She liked it so much she ended up changing her career goals from print to video.

It was with some trepidation that I began adding three weeks of Web video to Reinventing a year and a half ago. First, I had to teach myself how to do it. And it required exposing some vulnerabilities. I knew some students would be starting from zero, but I also knew that others were already better at video journalism than I’d ever be. Nevertheless, it proved to be well worth it.

Last week we finished the most complex version of Reinventing I’ve offered, and my students had to pull together a variety of skills for their final project. The assignment was to use free online tools to create a multimedia story. The elements:

  • An 800- to 1,000-word story about a digital media project that had caught their eye, written up as a blog post with relevant links.
  • A slide show of six to 10 still photos, posted to Flickr and embedded in their blog.
  • A two- to five-minute video they shot and edited, posted to YouTube and also embedded in their blog.
  • An explanation of how they used social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to find sources and report their story.

At the end of it all, they were asked to note the location of their story on a Google map and link to their blog post. The result is the map I’ve embedded above. I invite you to explore. These young journalists did a terrific job, and I am very proud of them.

If you click on “View Reinventing the News: Final Projects in a larger map,” directly under the embedded map, you’ll find the list of students on the left-hand side. Click on a name to find his or her spot on the map, each one of which is linked directly to their project. Hmmm … Google could make this a little bit simpler, eh?

I’ll be teaching Reinventing again this fall, and I will continue to refine. My first thought is that I ought to dump the brief wiki exercise I offer and instead delve more deeply into how to handle comments. Any thoughts you have would be welcome.

A heartbreaking miscarriage of justice

In a humane world, John Odgren would have been institutionalized in a long-term psychiatric facility three years ago. The focus could then have turned toward how best to help the family of James Alenson, whom Odgren killed in a bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.

Instead, Odgren, who was 16 at the time (Alenson was 15), is headed off to prison after having been convicted of first-degree murder. By most accounts, Odgren was a bullying victim who has Asperger’s syndrome and a variety of mental illnesses. Alenson was not among Odgren’s tormenters, which only compounds the tragedy.

Earlier this month, Odgren’s father, Paul, testified about the bullying to which his son had been subjected for years. The Boston Globe published a heartbreaking account [link now fixed], with the elder Odgren claiming that John had talked about committing suicide when he was only 9 years old.

My Northeastern colleague James Alan Fox, the noted criminologist, has a must-read commentary today in his Crime & Punishment blog for Fox writes:

Frankly, the thought of John Odgren, a boy who was bullied and ostracized repeatedly in high school, spending the remainder of his years in a prison setting is absolutely chilling. His well-documented fears and paranoid view of his world will undoubtedly become acute once he lives amongst a population of hardened criminals….

Life without parole makes sense for 25-year-old cold-blooded killers, but not for someone as immature and emotionally disturbed as John Odgren.

Finally, if folks at the Boston Herald have one shred of decency, they will delete the comments on their Odgren story as soon as someone inside the building reads this post. You can find the link on your own.

Talking back to the news with NewsTrust

Who doesn’t like to talk back to the news? That, in its essence, is the idea behind NewsTrust, a site I’ve been involved with almost from its inception in 2005. The basic idea is to rate news stories on journalistic criteria such as sourcing, fairness and depth. You can rate news organizations, and other reviewers get to rate you as well.

Last week Mike LaBonte, a volunteer editor for NewsTrust who lives in Greater Boston, visited my Reinventing the News class to lead a hands-on demonstration. Dividing the class into four groups, we reviewed a story in the Washington Post on a day in the life of an Iowa tea-party protester.

It was a difficult story to rate, and my students were of two minds. On the one hand, the story was woefully incomplete, and the reporter allowed the protester to make all kinds of ridiculous assertions about President Obama and health-care reform. On the other hand, the story had value if viewed not in isolation but, rather, as part of the Post’s ongoing coverage. As a result, student reviews ranged from a high of 3.5 (out of 5) all the way down to a 1.7.

We followed that up with a class assignment: each student was asked to find, post and rate at least three stories, and to write about the experience, as well as the positives and negatives of NewsTrust, on her or his blog. Here is our class wiki, which links to everything.

Unlike previous semesters, we did not participate in a news hunt on any particular topic. Thus you’ll find stories ranging from the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the pending retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to lighter fare such as why yoga appeals mainly to women.

Students have differing views about the value of NewsTrust as well. One positive aspect, it would seem, is that perusing NewsTrust restores some of the serendipity that existed back when everyone read a print newspaper every day.

Yet Mark DiSalvo observes that Google News and the people he follows on Twitter already put news stories in front of him that he might not otherwise know about, and with less technological hassle. “Google News has better customization tools, and the people I follow on Twitter are already people whose taste I trust,” he writes.

Hannah Martin writes that NewsTrust makes her think about the news in a more critical and discerning way. “What I liked about the reviewing experience was it forced me to really analyze my news on its journalistic value, which, as bad as it sounds, is often something that slips my mind,” she says. “I browse the headlines of, read what looks important, and accept it as fact, rarely stopping to count sources or assess context. The process of reviewing though, forced me to think through all the elements of each piece, and consider what, as a journalist, should ultimately be there.”

My own view is that NewsTrust is potentially valuable as a crowdsourced front page — an alternative to letting the New York Times or the Washington Post tell us what the most important news of the day is. The problem is that the software is time-consuming and not particularly intuitive, even though it has been improved over the past year.

And though NewsTrust claimed more than 15,000 registered users by the end of 2009, most of the stories you’ll find seem to have been posted and rated by just a small handful of regulars. This is not surprising. Studies have shown that two much-bigger crowdsourced sites, Wikipedia and Digg, are the handiwork of small numbers of unusually active users.

I hope NewsTrust will continue to grow, because the idea is sound. The challenge is that crowdsourcing only works when there is a crowd.

Mapping a class project

I love this. My Reinventing the News class has put together a Google map of their favorite places within a mile of Northeastern. Each student wrote a blog post, took some pictures and then plotted it on a map, with a link.

The result — a “Newcomer’s guide to NU” — is a modest but useful example of how to use mapping as a journalism tool. The idea is to provide multiple points of entry for readers, which encourages them to explore and to come back.

The project was a bit of a high-wire act. I was having a hard time creating the map during the weekend, which may have been due to problems Google was having. Then, when everyone began adding to the map during class on Monday, we had barely controlled chaos, as random addresses began weirdly showing up and disappearing. Yet I think the end result turned out rather well.

Google Maps may not be the most sophisticated mapping tool available, but it’s free and ubiquitous. Understanding how to use it is just one of the skills today’s young journalists need to know.

Thaitation continues Brown Sugar’s tradition

Anchalee Chourattana takes an order at Thaitation.

Brown Sugar‘s announcement that it would close the doors at its Fenway location in early 2009 had the makings of a culinary disaster. Coupled with a fire that wiped out six good-quality, affordably priced restaurants on nearby Peterborough Street, it appeared that what had once been a foodie oasis would instead become a wasteland.

Fortunately, those who appreciated Brown Sugar’s outstanding Thai food did not have to wait long. In February 2009, the restaurant reopened under the name Thaitation. Even better, the menu hardly changed — no surprise, given that the new owner, Ratana Chourattana, had been a cook at Brown Sugar for 13 years, according to this story in the Fenway News.

Drunken noodle (click for larger size)

Why am I telling you this? My Reinventing the News class is putting together a Google map of our favorite places to go and things to do within about a mile of the campus — a “Newcomer’s Guide to NU.” This is my contribution.

Thaitation has the feel of a small neighborhood place and can get a bit cramped. My lunch companion, Susan, and I arrived a bit before noon last Friday and were seated immediately by a window. Be forewarned, though: If you come much later than that, you may find yourself standing in line.

I ordered the drunken noodle with pork ($8.50), flat rice noodles with green beans, pepper, onion and fresh basil, all of which was stir-fried in hot chili. It was fresh and hot, ideal for a cold day on which snow had made its last (let’s hope) ugly appearance of the spring. But it wasn’t nearly as spicy as I’ve had it in the past, either at Brown Sugar or Thaitation. Some might prefer it that way, but I like to break into a good sweat when I’m eating drunken noodle.

I also ordered a Thai ice coffee ($2.95), an odd choice given the weather. But the mixture of coffee and sweetened condensed milk is too good to pass up under any circumstances.

Pad Thai (click for larger size)

Susan played it safe with pad Thai ($8.50), which combined rice noodles with shrimp, chicken, egg, scallion, bean sprouts and ground peanuts. She also had the homemade limeade ($3.50), which, if I’d been paying more attention to the menu, I might have tried myself.

The pad Thai, Susan reports, “didn’t skimp on chicken or shrimp,” had “lots of peanut flavor” and was moist — an important consideration given how quickly pad Thai tends to dry out. She gave the limeade a big thumb’s-up as well.

At this point it’s uncertain whether the Peterborough Street restaurants will ever be back. El Pelón, a well-loved Mexican restaurant, recently reopened in Brighton, a considerable distance away. Mike Mennonno, a local blogger, writes that plans recently filed by the block’s owner call for upscale establishments that probably mean the “locals will be priced out.”

Thaitation, though, stands as a shining example of the way things were in the Fenway. Not to mention a really good place to eat.

Thaitation, located at 129 Jersey St., in the Fenway, is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from noon to 11 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. Call (617) 585-9909.

What’s up with Google maps?

I’m looking for help with, or at least an explanation for, why I can’t create a Google map — something I’ve done a number of times before. I spent the better part of last night and this morning on it, and I’m ready to tear my hair out.

The problem is that the map I keep trying to create is not sticky. I create it, I save it, but then, when I go back to it, it’s showing a different map. And the link it generates is completely inconsistent, sometimes taking me to the middle of the country. (Mind you, the map I want has Northeastern University in the middle of it.)

This is for an in-class project we’re doing on Monday, so I really need to solve the problem. It is essentially the same project I did a little more than a year ago without incident, so, despite my ability to screw up even the simplest of tech tasks, I’m inclined to think it’s not me.

Have you heard anything? Do you have any suggestions?

Walter Robinson on the latest church scandal

Here’s an inspired idea: ProPublica called up my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson and asked him about the burgeoning pedophile-priest scandal in Europe, which is starting to rattle the papacy itself. Robinson, as I’m sure you know, headed the Boston Globe’s investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for exposing Cardinal Bernard Law’s complicity in a similar scandal.

Of particular interest are Robinson’s comments about claims that Pope Benedict did not know about what was going on in Germany when he, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was the archbishop. Robinson says:

I don’t know of any archdiocese where the archbishop or the cardinal archbishop was not kept fully informed and in most cases was not heavily involved in decision-making involving any priest who was accused of abusing minors. In every diocese in the U.S.,  including those headed by cardinals, there was personal knowledge by the cardinal archbishop when news of abuse surfaced. It was true in Boston, it was true in L.A., it was true in Chicago.

The fact we have one archbishop in Munich that claims not to know anything is enough to make one suspicious.

And not just Europe. Today the New York Times reports that the future pope had a hand in enabling and covering up for an American priest “who molested as many as 200 deaf boys.”

To paraphrase a famous question from a different time and place: What did the pope know, and when did he know it?

The friends of Tim Cahill

Congratulations to students in Walter Robinson’s investigative-reporting class at Northeastern University for their detailed, unflattering look at State Treasurer Tim Cahill’s campaign contributions, a story that led the Boston Globe on Sunday.

Cahill, an independent candidate for governor, has, according to their reporting, benefited mightily from his official position, raking in tens of thousands of dollars from firms with which his office does business.

Today, Republican gubernatorial candidates Charlie Baker and Christy Mihos pounce, while Gov. Deval Patrick remains silent.

Crowdsource my class mapping project

Sometime next month, my students in Reinventing the News will be doing a Google map project. The last time I taught the course, I had everyone visit a coffee shop near campus, take a picture, plot it on a map and link to their own blogs for more. Here’s how it turned out.

It was OK, and we might do it again. But I’d be curious to know if anyone had something meatier to suggest. For instance, what if I sent each of them (there are 18) to a different MBTA station? What would you have them do once they got there?

New-media mavens visit NU

Steve Garfield

We’ve been lucky to have some terrific guest speakers in my Reinventing the News class at Northeastern this semester.

On Monday we heard from Steve Garfield, one of the original video bloggers and the author of the just-released book “Get Seen: Online Video Secrets to Building Your Business.” I bought my signed copy from Garfield right after class and look forward to reading it.

Among other things, he’s got some information on how to use iMovie ’09, a great little video-editing program with a woeful lack of documentation. He also gave a demonstration of live video via Qik and showed examples of his citizen journalism, which have appeared everywhere from Rocketboom to CNN and the BBC.

Our other guest speakers have been Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, who became the editor of a thriving group of community Web sites called after being laid off by the MetroWest Daily News, and Stephanie Miller, director of digital media for CBS Boston Television, who’s in charge of the Declare Your Curiosity project at WBZ-TV.

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