News Track Wrap Up

April 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

After following AZ news weekly for the whole semester, I’ve grown more interested in visiting the state.  But now that our News Track project is ending, I don’t think I’ll be checking out AZcentral.com anymore.  At least not until if/when I start planning a trip out west.

During the course of the semester, I’ve found a few positives about AZcentral – the writing has sometimes been good and some of their multimedia pieces have been very well-done.  Overall, though, I’d prefer to get my news from another website.  There are a few reasons for that.

First off, I’m not that interested in local AZ news, and AZcentral’s national coverage just isn’t as good as that of larger, better-funded newspapers and news websites.  Which brings me to my major issue with AZcentral –

The ads!  This website seems to get all of its revenue from advertising.  Ads are everywhere.  They dominate the homepage.  They pop up in new windows even when I have my pop-up blocker enabled.  Every time I read an article, I have to deal with a little animated GIF ad spinning in the corner of the screen.  Every time I watch a video, I can count on at least 30 seconds of ads before it starts.  It is, to say the least, annoying.

In addition, the site can sometimes be a bit tricky to navigate.  If you know what you’re looking for, you can usually find it, but if you’re just going through the site looking for interesting news tidbits, it can be hard to come across them.  Plus, some of their photo galleries are ridiculous – they often contain more than 100 photos that you have to click through individually.

But I think AZcentral is more-or-less on the right track.  They are not afraid to try multimedia – the site is full of video and photos, and they’ve also used Google Maps and live blogging effectively.  Some of their multimedia packages could use a little fine-tuning, and in many cases, the writing could use more editing (I shouldn’t see multiple typos  in an article). Hopefully, in a little while, they’ll improve and streamline their content.  A slightly easier-to-navigate site design wouldn’t hurt either.  But the major reason I’ve decided to stop reading AZcentral is the ads – they’re just so annoying, and they really detract from the reading/viewing experience.  Surely there must be another convenient way for a news website to take in revenue?

Earth Day Bird Walk Photo Gallery

April 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here are some photos from the Waltham Land Trust Earth Day Bird Walk, my last Patch assignment for the semester:

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The Waltham Land Trust and the Newton Conservators hosted an Earth Day Bird Walk on Saturday, April 16.  The walk started in the parking lot at Waltham Watch Factory and continued on the upriver trails of the Charles between Waltham and Auburndale.  Forty-two people from Newton, Waltham, and surrounding communities participated in the event, said organizer Sonja Wadman.

Live tweets from a murder sentencing

April 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Since I’ll be having my first live tweeting experience at Monday’s Boston Marathon, I thought I’d take a look at how news outlets approach the task.  It was a happy coincidence that, when I checked the AZcentral homepage yesterday, I found out that AZcentral’s public safety reporter Lisa Halverstadt (@LisaHalverstadt) planned live coverage from Faleh Hassan Al-Maleki’s Friday sentencing, scheduled for 1:30 pm (or 4:30 EST).

The background:  In October 2009, Al-Maleki, an Iraqi immigrant, ran down his daughter and her boyfriend’s mother in a parking lot in Peoria.  His daughter was killed, and the mother was seriously injured.  Prosecuters called it an honor killing, while Al-Maleki insisted it was a horrible accident.   A jury found Al-Maleki guilty of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and 2 counts of leaving the scene of an accident.  You can read the full article here.

Now Al-Maleki is up for sentencing, and Judge Roland Steinle could give him more than 40 years in prison.

So, around 12:30 AZ time on Friday, I checked out Halverstadt’s twitter page, and saw nothing on the trial yet.  Hmm, strange.  Then I checked the AZcentral site, and couldn’t find anything about it on the homepage either!  Finally, I ran a search and found that Halverstadt had posted an article just a couple hours before.

She used Cover It Live, and when I clicked on the “Click Here” text,  I was immediately brought to … an ad (sigh).  But 30 seconds later, I could see Halverstadt’s live feed.

Her first tweet was at 11:48 am, letting us know she’s on her way to the trial.  This was rapidly followed by 2 more tweets at 11:49 and 11:51.  Then, nothing.

At 1:18, the tweets started up again, at a rate of about one every minute or two.  She tweeted bits of news -such as Al-Maleki’s entrance to the courtroom.  She also used multiple tweets to give some background on the case.

I liked Halverstadt’s attention to offbeat but amusing details: at 1:36, she tweeted that Al-Maleki is wearing pink handcuffs.

But watching this type of live coverage is not ideal.  It’s just text and therefore not very visually interesting (of course, maybe photos weren’t allowed in the courtroom – but that seems unlikely since at 1:49, Halverstadt tweeted “Filming not allowed as she [victim Amal Khalif] speaks”). Every now and then (far too frequently in my opinion), an ad popped up and obscured my view of the live feed.

Two hours and approximately 60 tweets later, Halverstadt signed off.  She then wrote an updated article, posted later that night.

Overall, I thought her live coverage was good – her tweets were concise and informative, and she pointed out some interesting details.  The only downsides were the ads, the lack of photo/video from the trial, and the fact that Halverstadt’s coverage wasn’t clearly linked to on the AZcentral homepage (I hope someone other than me found and followed it!).

Follow-up coverage to the Tucson shooting

April 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

The shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January dominated the national news for about a month and lingered on the AZcentral homepage for even longer.   The event was tragic and sparked dialogue about the need for civility in politics. But eventually the talk died down, and newspapers and TV channels moved to fresher topics.

In the months since, arguments over collective bargaining in Wisconsin reached a fever pitch, and now the US government may shut down because Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on the budget.  What happened to all the talk about the need for civility?  Dan Nowicki, the Arizona Republic’s national political reporter, asks just that question in Has the Push for Civility in Politics Taken Hold?.

This is one of the better written articles on AZcentral, though I’m inclined to agree with the second commenter that it’s a bit too long.  The article seems well-researched, with comments from both politicians and political analysts.  The article also touches upon local issues, describing the creation of the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse in Tucson in the wake of the shooting.   The overall impression that the reader is left with, though, is one of despair.  In the body of the article, Nowicki includes statements from optimists who think that progress toward a more civil political discourse is beginning.  But the article ends with a quote from a former congressional staff member, “Calls for nicer language are praiseworthy but really won’t have much effect.”  Perhaps that’s a realistic outlook from a political insider, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, especially after hearing so much positivity in the preceding paragraphs.  I realize that Nowicki is trying to portray both sides, but I wonder how my overall impression of the article would have changed if the ending had been different.  Still, I thought the writing was very strong by AZcentral standards and that the article reminded readers (and perhaps politicians) of events in the recent past that ought to play a bigger role in current dialogue.

I looked for similar articles in other publications, and Google gave me just one other example – a column by Marta Mossburg, a fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, published in the Baltimore Sun on March 29.  Mossburg’s column, entitled Liberal’s Concern for Civility Didn’t Last Long, takes a rabidly conservative stance and shows that liberals aren’t the only ones disregarding civility. I have to say that I prefer the AZcentral version of the story, which offers views from both sides, to this rant.  Perhaps Nowicki was inspired to write his own piece as a response to Mossburg’s.

Fact checking at AZcentral

March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Newspaper reporters have to (or, in all good conscience, should) fact-check their stories before publishing.  AZcentral has also put their fact-checkers to work looking into the accuracy of comments made by politicians.

Readers can use an online form to suggest statements or claims that they’d like checked out.  On tap this week was President Obama’s claim that, “We lose the same number of young people to guns every day and a half as we did at Columbine, and every four days as we did at Virginia Tech.”

As it turns out, Obama crunched his numbers correctly based on the latest CDC figures on gun-related deaths, and his statement earned the label “true” and four gold stars.

AZcentral’s article consists of four sections: What we’re looking at (a synopsis of the statement), The comment (the actual quote), The forum (where the politician said it), and Analysis.

As a whole, I found the Analysis section slightly long-winded.  But at the end, they added a subsection called Bottom Line, which summed up the take-home message in three sentences.  I thought the  Bottom Line was  helpful in reinforcing the Analysis findings.  Plus, readers uninterested in the full number crunching process could get right to the point.

The bottom of the article lists the six sources used with links, and a sidebar again links to five of the sources.

I like the concept of having professional fact-checkers tackle political statements and figure out which claims have a firm basis to stand on and which are mindless rambling.  AZcentral is certainly not the only paper or website doing this – the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org and the PolitiFact site from the St. Petersburg Times are just two other, larger examples.

Fact-checker Valerie Heffernan, who worked at the New Yorker (which has one of the strictest fact-checking policies I know of), wrote this article discussing the rise of the internet and its effect on the fact-checker’s job for the New York Times last summer.  Blogging, she says, is the new form of fact-checking, and the public tends to view the Internet as a trusted source.

Luckily, it seems like some newspapers are still willing to dig below the surface, and some readers encourage them to do it.

This is probably the only time I’ll ever talk about sports…

March 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

But the big news of the week is the Arizona Wildcats’ upset of the Duke Blue Devils.  I haven’t been following March Madness that closely, but there’s no way I could have missed the photos and headlines on the AZcentral website today.

AZcentral homepageThe main story is actually written by an AP reporter, not an AZcentral staffer (I guess Arizona Republic couldn’t afford to send a reporter to the game? It was played in Anaheim, which GoogleMaps tells me is just a 5.5 hour drive away from Phoenix). As of 1pm today, it’s been commented on 127 times, recommended on Facebook 484 times, and tweeted 34 times.

AZcentral did put together this photo slideshow, consisting of a collection of AP photos.  Their effort was recommended by 1 person on Facebook and tweeted by absolutely no one.  The probable reason?  The slideshow consists of 119 photos!  Even the most devoted basketball fan isn’t going to click through 119 photos (come on, anyone who cares that much probably watched the game).  I recall making a similar complaint last week.  AZcentral needs to realize that they have to spend the time selecting 10 or 15 highlights, not just dumping every photo they receive into a massive slideshow.  Besides, while the photos are well done, this was a game full of action, and I think video would have been a more appropriate choice for a multimedia piece.

AZcentral also offers a feature called box score, a summary that gives more details than I would have wanted to know about the game.

Personally, I find the chart a bit confusing – there are so many numbers, and I’m not sure where to look first.  I don’t know what most of the abbreviations at the tops of the columns mean, and there’s no legend.  Basketball fans who are familiar with the terminology and know the individual players may feel differently, but as a casual reader, I found the chart difficult to understand.

I can certainly understand the value of putting detailed, comprehensive information on the web for readers who are interested in really going into depth on a topic.  But for most readers, journalists need to break the story down and explain the highlights in a clear and easy to understand manner, as AP writer Beth Harris has done in her text story.  Her story gained 26 new Facebook fans and garnered 4 new comments in the time it’s taken me to write this blog post, while the mammoth, impossible-to-digest slideshow holds steady with a fan group of 1.

But for all their multimedia failings, AZcentral seems to have done something right in their search engine optimization.  When I google “UA upsets Duke,” AZcentral pops up at the top of the Google results page, above game coverage on sites like ESPN.com.

But  ESPN.com, I should add, is more successful with multimedia representation of the game.  ESPN offers numerous video clips of game highlights, most ranging from 30 to 90 seconds in length, an easy amount to digest. For true fans, there’s a detailed 4 min and 41 second breakdown of UA’s win over Duke.  I’m pretty sure it would take me longer than 4:41 just to click through 119 photos, and I wouldn’t learn nearly as much.

Finding the right amount of multimedia

March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

When I came to the AZcentral homepage today, this story about a man who’s homeless by choice was featured.  It’s a pretty cool profile of the guy, Jon Nelson, and is fairly well written (minus a few typos).  The story takes the reader through a day in Nelson’s life.  Nelson is described as “a really pleasant, happy guy who is fun to be around and tells cool stories.” I would have liked this profile to be accompanied by a video or audio slide show actually showing us Nelson’s daily routines.  At the very least, I would have liked to have heard the man’s voice (perhaps telling one of those “cool stories”).  But the only nod to multimedia here is a single photo of Nelson posed at a table in the library where he spends his days.

The St. Patrick’s Day Rewind falls on the other extreme.  This visual slide show contains a whopping 149 photos.  Who on earth is going to individually click through 149 photos?  Many of them are not very interesting at all.  At least half of the photos (ok, half of the first 40 – that’s as far as I got!) are small groups of friends posing for the camera.  Not a lot of photojournalism going on.  Overall, this piece is too long and too boring.

I went looking for an appropriate use of multimedia on the AZcentral site, and I came up with two videos, both from AZcentral partner Channel 12 News.  The first video features a local roller derby group.  It’s an interesting topic, and the reporters do a good job of showing how tough the derby girls are by placing the large male reporter in their line-up.  He’s not very successful at keeping his balance, even though he’s not wearing skates.  This video would have been even better if the reporters had followed up and gathered shots of the actual derby competition that would take place, rather than just showing the girls at practice.

The second video I liked was more of a news item – the police department is testing out video cameras for the force.   This is a well-researched and well-shot story.  It includes footage from the meeting where the new technology was announced, it shows how the cameras work by allowing viewers to see test footage from one of the cameras, and it describes a case where the cameras could have helped decide whose version of the “truth” is actually accurate.

So, AZcentral is clearly capable of coming up with good multimedia content, but it seems that they need to review when to use multimedia and how much is appropriate.