Author Archives: philtenser

First meetings with Google Fusion Tables

For our coverage of the 2013 Colorado general election, I employed mapping lessons learned during my attendance at the ONA13 conference. I used data from the Secretary of State to create four Fusion Table maps used on TV and online.

The first two maps showed turnout results for the mail-in ballots submitted before the actual opening of the polls on Nov. 5, 2013.

The first colors each Colorado county on a scale between blue and red, indicating which party has had a greater overall turnout.

The second shows, in solid colors, which party has had a greater percentage of their registered members vote.

Marshall Zelinger used simplified versions of these two maps in his presentation during the 5pm news on election day. See that video on TheDenverChannel.

The second pair of maps were built for display on our website and in our app. They indicate the approval or rejection of two statewide initiatives: Proposition AA – taxes on recreational marijuana; Amendment 66 – education funding changes and taxes. See those on TheDenverChannel’s 2013 election page.

All of the information I used to learn this tool is available in this summary of the session I attended during ONA:

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TileMill lesson

My final session of the conference was a lesson in the free TileMill software from MapBox. It was like the third major mapping revelation in the three days I was here, building on what I had already learned about Google’s maps engine and Fusion tables.

The lesson from the session is all transcribed here:

On that page are other links, including a Google Drive script that helps with geocoding plain addresses and sources of shape files for map outlines.

What remains to be practiced and learned in this level of mapping complexity is the available styling options.

–Phil Tenser, KMGH

‘Asymmetry’ of transparency: journalism in the age of surveillance

“There is an asymmetry at the moment of how the government can access our information” but isn’t immediately transparent to journalists, attorney Naboha Syed observed during a keynote panel on the third and final day of ONA13.

Her succinct observation came on the tail end of an hour long discussion centered around the Edward Snowden case and the age of government surveillance. 

It began, as It would eventually end, with Guardian US editor-in-chief Janine Gibson fielding questions about the high profile and massive story. She explained in broad strokes how Snowden made contact with the newspaper, how he wanted to reveal himself as the source and had a respectful approach to the judgement of his chosen outlet in the fourth estate. 

In exchange, Gibson said, the Guardian took several steps to protect their private communications. Firstly, she said, reporters were sent to communicate with Snowden face-to-face because that is always the most secure method. She said it took a great deal of trust to send them to Hong Kong and not want them to provide updates to the home office, which would ruin the security plans.

When they did communicate, she said, they used secured disposable chatrooms.

Micah Lee, Staff Technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, observed that encryption was also used in the initial email contact with Snowden. It is a trend he observed was growing as organizations try to learn good habits that will protect them if an important source does come up.

“What we do on the internet and what we say on the phone is like an open book,” Lee answers, adding good security habits close the book at least partially.

Nabiha seemed to agree, saying the proposed federal shield law won’t protect the kind of national security information leaked by Snnowden. She added, “I don’t know what (law) can.”

“Technological solutions are really key because we don’t have anything else,” she said.

The result? The panel concluded we are at the beginning of a new era, and suggested investing in the security and infrastructure to be prepared for the future. Having in-house counsel and basic security protocols were recommended.

Precautions aside, Gibson said the Guardian staff was not under a pretense that security would continue after publication began. After the first story, she said, everyone would know there was a leak. The second would prove it was a big leak and the third, she said, would make the government begin to investigate very quickly.

The Snowden NSA documents story is not over, as Gibson revealed. They are still exploring the information in the leak and preparing more stories.

“We have a ton of stuff still to do. We’re not stopping,” she said.


–Phil Tenser, KMGH

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Google mapping and fusion tables exercises

Here’s a link from a Google mapping and Fusion Tables session Friday afternoon, containing links to sample data sets and instructions for trying the tools for ourselves:


— Phil Tenser, KMGH

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How Natgeo is ‘opening the yellow border’

I thought that was an interesting turn of phrase from digital manager Keith W Jenkins, who talked about getting the magazine’s digital outlets to focus on its core strength: Photography.

Images are “The great attractor in the online connected space,” he said.

“We make things, we’re not just decorating the room with things,” Sarah Leen said about the magazine and the organization overall.

Illustrating his point, Jenkins shared the enormous success story of their latest version of UGC, called “YourShot” and provided a sneak peak of their upcoming site redesign.

Leen also showed samples from the magazine’s recent photography issue, which I was moved to download for my iPad. Of particular interest: their layouts for touchscreen images and an essay on the future of photography.



— Phil Tenser, KMGH

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Nate Silver keynote -quick blog

Quick notes, top 4 quotes IMHO from Nate Silver’s awesome keynote lunch speech:

“Too often the respiration of a statistic shuts down the critical thinking from a reporter”

“Just as they ask good questions of their sources, journalists should ask good questions of the data”

“You can train research techniques and writing skill, but do you have that critical thinking ability?”

“In the online news space, it’s all about differentiation and not about volume”

What were your favorites?




— Phil Tenser, KMGH

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Should we think of articles as particles or waves?

In the optimizing your narrative session, the speakers were divided about which analogy fits best for news. Purposefully, they arrive at the same conclusion physicists reached about light: Both.

Vox Media made the waves argument, demonstrating their StoryStream concept. They explained it as a step of refinement between live blogs and final wrap ups.

“Atomic unit of content is not the article” Trei Brundrett said.

In a hypothetical about an Apple event, Brundrett explained notes or play-by-play are taken in a live blog. Meanwhile short stories are pulled out and fleshed out in the StoryStream tool they custom-built.

The principal idea is that news comes and travels in waves.

Quartz’s Zach Seward argued in favor of particles, acknowledging the desire for atomized news and displaying examples of success with targeted story nuggets. He also discussed the methods of distribution.

“The new news habit is no habit at all,” he said.

He went on to argue, “It’s less likely that they are actively trying to obtain news in a set time of the day. It is more likely that the news is coming at them” as in social media and push notifications to  smartphones.

For those, he said, the prepared and targeted particles have the best success.

The arguments overlap, just as the design and editorial decisions that determine what we can do with both approaches.


–Phil Tenser, KMGH

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Friday morning quick midway visit

Tableau lesson: explanation on how the software geolocates info, shown where to find examples of projects. 
Chartbeat demonstrates new labs, including new big board and cards visualizations. 
Drones remain the most popular table, today was answering questions about privacy issues and FAA regulations over/above 500 feet
CoverItLive demonstration
ScribbleLive demonstration (from founder & CEO)

–Phil Tenser, KMGH

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‘The jazz age of journalism’

I heard a talk about a really interesting, but maybe not universally agreed upon analogy between jazz and journalism.

Of course, I chose to attend and that meant I was going to be potentially receptive. But I have it well engrained that arguments by analogy are always troublesome — thanks to my other studies in philosophy.

Still, I think that Laura Amico – CEO, Glass Eye Media, made a strong case.

At the core was this premise: jazz and news both exist within the environment.

On the surface, that comment seems obvious. But in the context of jazz, she argued, it should influence our thinking.

Jazz is about improvising in a stepwise manner, reacting to the audience, venue and previous notes.

“Each note, though incremental, shapes the note which it proceeds” she said, clarifying it is called “yes, and” in jazz.

She said, “In order for jazz to happen, each player in the ensemble must be doing their job.”

Again, I found myself reluctantly agreeing that this fit a (good) newsroom model.

Amico offered these three lessons from her comparison to the musica genre:
1. Innovation happens when the mind is free of preconceived plans
2. When we listen to what our colleagues – on and off stage are doing – we create space for all of us to do our best work
3. Take action, say “yes, and”

I’m left, however, with a single philosophical question stemming from a very memorable and unresolved philosophy of aesthetics class discussion: is journalism an art form? Is photojournalism or videography or writing, even if another one isn’t?

Addition from a question from the crowd: he asks about other genre comparisons, Iike punk. It is confrontational, loud, but also can be formulaic.  Doesn’t that sometimes apply too?


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The Drone Journalism Lab made a short midway presentation called “How you too can be shut down by the Federal Government!”

Professor explained FAA issues that keeps drones from flying for journalism.

His link:

Also, there’s a must read in the last IRE magazine about same subject and maybe by the same professor (but I’m not sure until I find a copy online)