Category Archives: Inner Workings of the BDC

Bridger Creek letter

Naming names in Bridger Creek

For the past two days, the newsroom has been talking about the lawsuit threatened by residents in the Bridger Creek subdivision, which is located next to the old city landfill.

The claimants — seven people so far — want the city to pay each of their four households around $3 million to compensate them for alleged losses due to the landfill gases seeping into their homes. The city has previously called the seeping gases, which come from the decomposing garbage, its “most important issue.”

Redactions

We were first tipped off to the story Wednesday evening. It was then that KBZK reported on the claim notice filed by the Bridger Creek residents. The KBZK story did not name anyone involved — not the claimants, not the attorneys. It didn’t even name city attorney Greg Sullivan, instead mentioning him by title only.

Included with that story was a PDF copy of the claim notice. It was heavily redacted. All the names were removed, apart from the name of the Bozeman law firm: Moriarity, Badaruddin and Brooke.

I emailed a link to the story to city reporter Erin Schattauer that night and asked her to look into it first thing Thursday morning. Erin called the city but wasn’t able to quickly get a copy of the letter from them. So she did the next logical thing: She called one of the other agencies reported to have received the letter, in this case, Gallatin County.

Within an hour we had a copy of the letter from the county. It was complete and un-redacted.

Disappearing story

Meanwhile, the story and the PDF of the letter on KBZK’s website vanished. Links to the story from social media led to a file-not-found error message.

The story reappeared on KBZK sometime later Thursday, along with a new version of the PDF. It was still redacted, but it now sported a KBZK watermark.

Erin continued reporting her story. She called the law firm and spoke to attorney Edward Moriarity, who was also one of the claimants. He was upset that the paper had the un-redacted document, wondered several times where we got it and said he hoped Erin and her family never had “to go through anything like this.”

KBZK has since posted more another story about the lawsuit threat. KTVM did as well, and so did ABC Fox Montana. None of their stories named the claimants.

On Friday, the city held a press conference to state that it would respond to the notice within the 120-day time limit. There was no indication of what that response would be.

At the press conference, the city handed out copies of the claim notice letter. All names were redacted from it, and the city manager told Erin that the city had allowed the claimants to decide what information was blacked out.

Naming names

If you clicked on the link above or read the front page of Friday’s paper, you know that the Chronicle named the claimants. Why did we name them when all the other local news outlets didn’t?

Well, I can’t say why they didn’t, but I can say why we did.

First, state law tells us that every citizen has the right to “inspect and take a copy of any public writings of this state” and that public officers are “bound to give the citizen on demand a certified copy of it.”

The only exemptions from this law are library records, burial site records, constitutionally protected information and records in which “an individual privacy interest” exceeds “the merits of public disclosure.” The law give the examples of trade secrets or matters related to safety.

There is no question that it was a public document; it became public the moment the city (and county, and state) received it.

The major factor here is the right to privacy. It’s a right granted by the state constitution. In fact, privacy is so important it’s granted before the right to bear arms and vote – though it’s granted after the “right to know.”

The public’s right know has to “clearly” exceed the individual’s right to privacy. And in the minds of the editors, there was no question that the public’s right to know exceeded any right to privacy.

These are people asking for a total of more than $12 million in public money. The merits of their case notwithstanding, that’s a lot of taxpayer money.

I don’t know how KBZK got the document in the first place — a leak from the claimants, diligent city records reporting or something else — but it was clearly to the advantage of the claimants to have their story put before the public’s eye without having to expose their identities.

Remember there is no lawsuit yet, only the threat of one. But merely having mention of that threat in the news puts pressure on the city to settle for considerable sums of money to avoid the expense of the lawsuit.

People seeking millions from the city without so much as exposing their names doesn’t sit right with me, and I think our other local news organizations should follow our lead and report the names.

Ohio lawsuit stops websites from charging to remove mugshots

A settlement in a federal lawsuit in Ohio means two websites can no longer charge people to remove mugshots from the sites, according to the Associated Press.

Not all mugshot sites are bound by the settlement. Only BustedMugshots.com and MugshotsOnline.com were named in the suit.

The AP reports that a number of states have similar lawsuits pending but:

efforts to rein in the sites have been complicated by questions about whether the attempts infringe on First Amendment rights and the difficulty of tracking down who owns the sites, some of which claim to originate from outside the country.

Some operators say they’re performing a public service by providing information about arrest records that can be found by parents and neighbors without searching through court records.

Attorneys in the case say removing the companies’ ability to more or less extort people to have the photos taken down will “make it difficult for them to operate.”

By way of an extended footnote, you have no such sites to worry about from the police and courts of Gallatin County, where County Attorney Marty Lambert has decided that mugshots are not public information, so they are not published anywhere.

So any photos of accused people you see in the Chronicle or online are those we have taken ourselves in court. And, no, we do not go and take photos of them all. Some court dealings — most, in fact — don’t merit that level of news attention.

Other counties in Montana operate differently. As Lambert explained to us last year, a court case gave  county attorneys leeway to decide about mugshots. So far, we have not pressed Lambert further on the matter.

Part of the reason for that, I think, comes from an observation the former city editor made to me once when we were considering whether we could publish a parade of mugshots — as other state papers do.

That editor, Dan Person, pointed out that mugshots are taken of all people who are arrested, regardless of the details of their cases. That means that everyone arrested and later convicted of a crime has had their mugshot taken. It also means that everyone arrested and later found innocent has also had their mugshot taken. People whose cases have been dismissed also have mugshots.

Person worried, rightfully I now think, that posting mugshots of all these people insinuated their guilt when they were merely accused.

It is one thing, in other words, to take a photo of someone appearing in court in a case we are covering. It is another blanket publish all mugshots of all people arrested in a county.

Perhaps you think that reasoning is flawed, though. I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

Six days a week

As a company, we found out just a few days before the rest of the state did that the Chronicle would be dropping its Monday print edition. It’s a bad situation and a severe prick to our pride as a daily newspaper — one made worse by the fact that a press breakdown delayed Sunday’s paper, the very issue that carried the awful news about Mondays.

Now that the Associated Press has picked up the story, newsies from around the state are starting to react on Twitter, mostly with single syllables or gutteral sounds.

It also didn’t take too long for one of our friends at the local TV station to chime in:

I can’t wait to see what our advertising people will have to do to counteract the blitz that will no doubt be coming from TV and radio. They’ll make sure to note the fact that we’re not “daily” anymore — despite the fact that we’ll still be offering news seven days a week.

And then there are the occasional doomcasters:

Sigh.

six daysListen folks, it’s not ideal. We know that. And it doesn’t look good when you compare us to other papers in the state that are still printing seven days a week. But if there is anyone out there who still thinks that print has a long-term future, then, frankly, they need to wake up.

Yes, we like print. We love it. It makes a ton more money than digital does. But that revenue imbalance doesn’t change the fact that major, major changes are still coming to print newspapers.

How long will it take? A few years ago, I would have estimated 50 years to the end of the print edition. However, with the huge uptake in smartphones, changing the way people consume news and information much more rapidly than I thought possible, I’m seeing that my estimate was probably too liberal — how far I was off remains to be seen.

That’s how I see losing the Monday print edition, as the start of the transition. To call it a “slippery slope” is a misnomer. That implies a road to ruin or the corruption of some ideal. That’s not the case here — unless you are one of those increasingly rare print devotees who thinks that anything other than ink-on-paper doesn’t qualify as “real” or “serious” news.

I feel for those people. Their world is crashing down around them as the world makes the inevitable transition to digital news, and there’s little we can say to make them feel better. The best we can do is to keep doing what we’re already doing: producing quality journalism seven days a week. Maybe if we keep doing good work — even if it’s only online on Mondays — those people will see that we’re not doomed to listicles and celebrity fluff pieces.

Listen to me, judging listicles and celebrity news after writing a screed like this. Seems hypocritical…

Yeah… I’m OK with that on this one.

Concerning the threatened protests at Bozeman High and MSU

I was somewhat disappointed that the paper covered the announcement from the Westboro Baptist Church that its members plan to picket at Bozeman High School and Montana State University in early September.

After all, the church’s members have promised to show up here before and have consistently failed to do so.

The likelihood that anyone shows up on Sept. 9 is slim. The church simply seeks to boost its SEO with these threatened protests, convincing media outlets to report on their impending arrival and generate buzz around the group’s name.

It’s a game meant to keep their ideas and their church on people’s minds. It doesn’t matter that the majority of it is negative publicity. The church doesn’t care what others think of them; the majority of those against them are going to hell anyhow, they reason.

And there is the subtle manipulation of scheduling protests for the afternoon hours, guaranteeing that the first part of everyone’s day is focused on the WBC in some way, whether it’s wondering if they’ll show or wondering if we have to plan a backup story or not.

Of course, news organizations report the picket threats straight because we all have First Amendment rights, even if they are used to spew foulness. Plus, there is the added remote possibility that protesters actually will show up. They obviously do fulfill some of their threats, otherwise they’d cease to carry any weight.

And of course it doesn’t hurt the newspaper’s online presence either, as articles mentioning WBC picket plans tend to draw wide readership, lots of comments and plenty of social shares.

No matter what, though, our reporters will show up on Sept. 9, just in case. And if the WBC shows up too, the Chronicle will tell the story.

Distractions versus digressions

editorial commentOn Sunday, the front page of the print edition was caught in one of its own limitations. News of Edward Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong broke overnight in the U.S., too late for physical newspapers like ours to catch the news — you know, because there comes a time we actually have to declare the paper “done” each night and send it to press.

So by the time people opened up their Chronicles on Sunday morning, the headline “U.S. warns of delay in Snowden extradition” was hilariously out of date, considering that cable news and the Internet were already on fire with word of the whistleblower’s flight to Moscow.

I don’t have cable, so I didn’t find out about it until the following two tweets came in.

Hoffman followed that with:

He’s right about the limitation, but I don’t think it’s an example of why newspapers are dying. There are plenty of other reasons why ink-by-the-barrel journalism is on the decline.

Or maybe it is an example and I just don’t think it should be. Why? Allow me to get on my high horse…

As I stood there cooking sausage Sunday morning, why did I need to know that Edward Snowden had left Hong Kong?

Newspapers are in the business of editorial judgement, deciding just what is news and what isn’t. And considering that Snowden, as of this writing, is still missing, it doesn’t seem like much of anything major has happened in the story. Yes, he sought asylum in Central America. Yes, he left Hong Kong. Yes, he was missing from an airplane. But how does that impact my day? How does knowing the location of the NSA’s biggest pain in the neck make my life better or make me a more informed citizen in a democracy?

I value the risk he’s taken in providing the press with confidential information, but until he’s arrested, killed or granted asylum, he’s just a lone guy on the run, a guy whose sole claim to importance is something he’s already done, not necessarily something he can yet do in the future.

Sure, “experts” and members of Congress speculate he’s got more information to reveal, but those stories make heavy use of the word “reportedly.” No one knows what Edward Snowden has. We only know what he’s already done, and that’s over.

The FugitiveBut the idea of a lone wolf on the run is a powerful, powerful narrative. We love a fugitive on the run with something important in his possession and/or an ax to grind makes a good story. And having experts and Congress members saying that he’s “still” dangerous lends the story a sense of urgency that I’m just not convinced is warranted.

Meanwhile, the arc of the story in the international media has become about Snowden and not about the surveillance programs that are so disturbing to so many people. The thrilling escape stories merely distract from the issues that we should all be talking about — How comfortable are we with the liberties the government and its spies are taking with our liberties? How much freedom do we give away for a modicum more security?

A tenet I’ve held on to for some time tells me that when you notice everyone is looking at one thing, you should look somewhere else. I think that holds true here.

But I digress. I do that often, and for good reason.

In reality, yes, the printed paper was behind on the Snowden story. It was unavoidable, and instances like that are one reason why the Internet is an infinitely better place to get breaking news. Instances like that are also the reason why the editors attempt to pick longer-form stories with more analysis when possible, as they did for Sunday morning, to lessen the chance that overnight breaking news will render the story pointless.

It doesn’t always work, and it’s a limitation. But please, don’t let the flashiness of a breaking news banner on CNN distract from the real story, no matter how exciting the distraction (not digression, mind you) might be.

Update: I knew I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way. Ron Fournier in the National Journal wrote just a couple weeks ago that

Love him or hate him, we all owe Snowden our thanks for forcing upon the nation an important debate. But the debate shouldn’t be about him. It should be about the gnawing questions his actions raised from the shadows.

Make sure to read the Fournier post for a list of questions we should be considering beyond the whereabouts of Snowden.

Award winning

MNA LogoAt the Montana Newspaper Association banquet this weekend in Missoula, the judges saw fit to name this site Best Blog of 2012. I’m honored to have won the award and thrilled to have beaten out Billings Gazette blogs, which finished second and third in the category.

I like to jab the Gazette when I can because I envy the Lee-style sites — their sites run on the same software that the BDC site does, and it amazes me what they’ve been able to do about the speed and responsiveness of their templates.

Considering how many other categories the BDC finished second to the Gazette in, I have to lord it over them where I can too.

The PowerPoint of winners is here. There’s no regular text list that I can find (for shame!).

Restaurant inspection reports an opportunity for data journalism

It’s been a while since the last update on this blog that had anything to do with what I’m working on at the BDC, so here’s the big update.

Business Journal editor Jason Bacaj, in this month’s issue (pageflip-style), analyzed restaurant inspection forms for the past year and a half from the Gallatin City-County Health Department.

It was a very well-read story and was made better by the fact that we took the data Bacaj gathered and turned it into a nifty interactive database.

The health department provided Bacaj with almost 200 PDF documents generated by their inspectors, who use touchscreen tablets when out on the job. Jason meticulously read those PDFs and entered the data into a spreadsheet which he used as the basis for his article and which I used to power the database.

The data was cleaned up in Google Refine (of course), exported to CSV and then imported into Tableau Public. (Fortunately, our IT guy was able to give me a copy of VMWare Fusion and a license for Windows 7 so that I could run Tableau on my iMac. I really wish that they would make a Mac version…)

Details

Already having Bacaj’s data in a tabular format was a huge help, and getting Tableau up and working on my new virtual machine was no sweat.

Geocoding for Tableau to make the database’s map component was trickier than it ought to be. I was used to the way Google Fusion Tables handles geocoding data (and in fact can geocode data for you), so producing columns that Tableau would read involved a lot of trial and error.

Eventually, I found GPS Visualizer, which has tools that plug in to Yahoo and Google’s maps APIs. I used their site to batch geocode a long text-based list of addresses.

With the latitude and longitude columns in place, it was no trouble to get Tableau to map the data.

However, Tableau is a deep, deep tool, and it took a number of tries and lots of research in its documentation to figure out exactly what I was doing — and I still didn’t tap in to a tenth of what it can do. It’s great tool to have in the box.

Future

I don’t consider the database finished. Bacaj’s approach for data entry wasn’t terribly efficient, and I am in the process a custom Google form to input even more data from the PDFs, including links to the PDFs online where readers can see the actual reports — a crucial feature missing from version 1.

Would I rather use some sort of PDF scraping software? Of course, but I don’t know how, and at this point I’m not concerned with learning another new thing for this project (which, according to my research would nearly require me to learn yet another new this, the fearsome command line).

Today, I even went so far as to upload all the PDFs to DocumentCloud.

They aren’t particularly pretty or well-marked with metadata, but they’re a start.

We’ll produce more interactive databases in the future, just as soon as we can get ourselves some good local datasets to work with. If you have suggestions, of course, let me know in the comments.

twitter-bird-blue-on-white

A tale of two Twitter accounts

If you are a Twitter user in Bozeman, there is a good chance you have followed an account called @bznpolicereport.

The account posts the infamous Bozeman police reports. Its description: “Funny police reports from Bozeman, Montana. If you like these, take a look at the book” and then provides the URL for the page to buy a copy of the Chronicle’s book. The account lists its homepage as the Chronicle’s.

But there is another account called @police_reports. Its description labels it as “The official source of the world famous Bozeman Daily Chronicle police reports on Twitter. It lists its homepage as the police reports page on the Chronicle site.

The former account has 2,936 followers. The latter has 88. The former posts text only status updates; the latter posts truncated text updates with links back to a Facebook page. The former joined Twitter in March 2009, the latter in July 2011.

One of these accounts is controlled by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. The other is not.

I’d like to say that the one with nearly 3,000 followers is ours, but it isn’t. In fact, I have no idea who operates it or how — automated or hand-crafted.

What does the Chronicle intend to do about it this egregious case of intellectual property theft?

Nothing. In fact, I have a hard time calling it theft at all.

Twitter has guidelines for parody, commentary and fan accounts. Technically, the @bznpolicereport account fails to follow a few of these guidelines, but it has upheld the important one:

  • “The account should not, through private or public communication with other users, try to deceive or mislead others about your identity. For example, if operating a fan account, do not direct message other users implying you are the actual subject (i.e., person, band, sports team, etc.) of the fan account.”

The account may post Chronicle content, but the only links on it go back to the Chronicle site and in fact promote our book — sales that the owner of the Twitter account doesn’t benefit from in any way (that I know of).

So we remain in this odd situation of an unofficial entity holding more sway than the official entity. It’s kind of weird to think about someone out there liking your product so much that they promote it for free and without self benefit (that I know of).

It sure would be neat to know who the person is.

screener

Chronicle website gets a slight design refresh

Every six months or so, I get the inkling that it’s time to redesign the Chronicle’s website. Today was the culmination of another of those inkling periods.

I flipped the switch on a new look for the Chronicle today, one that I think makes it easier for readers to find what they are looking for, whether is by menu, search or by simply browsing the pages.

Let’s run through the highlights.

Rebuilt from the ground up

I took the old header, trashed it and built a brand new one that takes advantage of the Bootstrap grid system, rather than the default grid system that came with our site. Both grid systems worked fine, but Bootstrap grids are easier to customize and are easier to tweak if changes need to be made.

New feature: Top bar

We previously had some navigation elements above the logo of our website, but now that element has been improved. It is now set off in a dark gray color and includes more useful links right where they should be: highly visible at the top of the page.

When you’re logged out, you’ll see a link to log in or to subscribe if you have not yet joined the faithful. When signed in, you’ll have direct access to manage your BDC account, logout or go straight to your e-Chronicle subscription.

We’ve also placed gold-colored links to the most commonly browsed sections of our classifieds in this bar for easy access.

Search back up top

My grant experiment with placing the search bar in a floating menu at the bottom of the page was a valiant one, but ultimately it failed.

I got one or two calls a week from people who thought we had disabled search on our site or that we didn’t make our archives available. When I would direct them to the bottom bar and its search form, I could hear them slap their foreheads through the phone and say, “Of course, it’s right there!”

However, it should have been right where they were looking for it, right where 95 percent of websites keep their search bars — at the top of the site.

Rest assured, as long as I’m around and as long as it remains a staple of Web design, the search bar will remain at the top.

New weather icons

I replaced the weather icons will all new ones. The old ones, which were the content management system’s default icons, hurt my eyes to look at them. These are prettier and easier to read.

New menu

Previously, we used what is commonly called a “mega menu,” one that has super wide menus that contain all sorts of content, kind of like a website within a website.

However, that made the navbar itself a destination that was distracting people from the content actually on the page, and with the complexity of the mega menus, I’m not convinced it was making it easier to find anything.

The new menus are standard dropdowns with submenus, familiar to anyone who has used a computer in the past 30 years. They include all the options that were there before, organized in what I hope is a rational way, along with a few icons for visual cues.

One thing that always bugged me about the menu was that it had a “home” menu. To my mind, the “home” feature of any navbar should be a link to the homepage, not a menu to collect random things that have to do with the site — contact us, about us, staff directory and that sort of thing.

To that end, we included a simple menu button with an icon that should be familiar to most modern computer users. Under here, you’ll find all that site-related stuff, as well as a way to log in and log out, manage your account and reach your e-Chronicle subscription.

One more thing: Scroll down, and you’ll notice the navbar sicks with you as you move down the page. So you see, I stuck with the sticky menu idea somewhat, though in a more useful way than before.

New section titles

Our section titles have been retooled to stand out more to the eye with a blue gradient background that matches our header. The old section titles, red text with an underline, were not visible enough.

Reorganized homepage

The homepage has been reorganized to put the content people are after where they are going to see it. Since the layout of the homepage changes fairly often, as seasons change and as features come and go, I won’t go into too much detail here, but feel free to explore.

New headline font

Just because it looked nice.

Reworked search results

I also did some work on the search results to make them a little more viewer friendly. The results should look a little nicer when you’re searching for images, and the other results should provide a little more relevant information in a more readable format than before.

And that’s about it

It’s all over but the tweaking. Feel free to let me know what you think of the cosmetic change.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go start planning the next redesign.

Photo gallery new look

Chronicle photo gallery pages get a fresh look

Yesterday, I rolled out a redesigned version of our photo galleries page that aims to simplify what had been a cluttered and mostly overlooked page.

The old design included a mess of boxes using our CMS’s default templates: one for feature photography, a whole bunch of tiny boxes for user-contributed photos, a bunch more boxes for news, sports and “feature” galleries — the distinction between them being vague, and a lonely slider at the bottom with “historical” photos.

The new design capitalizes on the features brought to the site by our inclusion of Twitter’s Bootstrap framework and greatly reduced the number of elements on the page.

We have a slider at the top showing what we call “Wild Art,” feature photography that does not accompany a story — standalone photos.

Beneath that, an uneven grid of galleries that is more interesting to the eye and doesn’t truncate headlines or item descriptions like the old design did. (The old design made it nearly impossible to actually read what a gallery was about due to the truncation.)

And that’s it. No more indistinct separation of sports and news and “feature” galleries. The user is left to decide which gallery he or she will view by the appeal of its cover photo.

On top of all that, it gave me another opportunity to break out David DeSandro’s excellent Masonry plugin for jQuery, which takes items of uneven heights and stacks them in an interlocking way. With Masonry, a box that’s too tall no longer ruins your grid.

Though the layout of the page has been simplified, that doesn’t mean I won’t at some point add user contributed photos back into the mix. However, at this point we’ve found that sharing users’ photos is much easier on the social networks like Facebook, where they are likely to get more attention and more re-shares than on our site.

If you have any questions about the new design — or any complaints, be sure to let me know.