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Archives: November 2009

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Personal Essay Writing

Personal Essay WritingStarting October 28, work with a published journalist to draft, edit, and sell your first-person essays! Jessica Olien will help you to workshop your writing so that it's ready to pitch to editors. You'll learn how to tell your personal story, self-edit you work to assess voice, style, and tone, and sell your essays for publication. Register now!

What I'm working on: Visualizing California's overcrowded classrooms

As a champion of innovation in journalism, I am thrilled when I can incorporate some of the technologies I blog about it into my professional work.

As a recent addition to the staff of California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, I was tasked with visualizing California’s high student-to-teacher ratio and the multi-billion dollar class-size reduction program that aims to reduce it. The result is three multimedia pieces that visualize different aspects of the story and use three different technologies to bring them to life.

1. Interactive Graphic: How do California classrooms compare?

California is ranked as one of the very worst states in terms of the ratio of students to teachers in the classroom. I constructed a Flash graphic that enables the viewer to compare this ratio to other states and the District of Columbia. The list in the left sidebar can be sorted alphabetically or by the rank provided by the National Education Association.

2. Video: How are larger class sizes affecting California teachers?

California Watch Director Louis Freedberg traveled to Plummer Elementary in Los Angeles and shot video interviews with teachers at the school with a Flip video camera. I was tasked with taking the hours of footage and condensing it into a few minutes of video. Anyone who has used the Flip knows it’s prone to shakiness and low audio quality, problems that had to be worked around. Using Final Cut Pro, I edited the video into three parts to make it more palatable for the web. One of the videos is embedded below, click here to view the other two.

3. Interactive Map: Are California class sizes increasing?

California as a whole has a larger than average number of students in its classrooms, but we also wanted to show how 30 of the top school districts in the state compared to each other. I constructed an interactive map using Map Builder that showed stats and anecdotal information for each district and also included a map of the district inside the marker itself. Click here to view the interactive map.

This story is my first with California Watch and with many more California-focused stories coming down the pipeline, there should be many more multimedia packages for me to share here. Let me know what you think and be sure to read the print story by Louis Freedberg and Hugo Cabrera that anchors the aforementioned multimedia features.

Also on 10,000 Words:

Why being an unemployed journalist is the best thing to ever happen to me
My favorite multimedia: What I’ve been working on this year
25 Things I’ve Learned About Journalism
How Twitter saved my career… and my life

How to record your mobile, landline and internet telephone calls

Interviews are the cornerstone of a journalist’s arsenal and with many more interviews happening over the phone, journalists need some way to record them. Whether its a landline, mobile phone, or internet telephone service, here are a few ways to record your phone calls.

One of the easiest ways to record a phone conversation with a traditional landline phone is to purchase a gadget that connects the phone to a digital audio recorder. Products like the Bell-Sonecor TR-70 Tele-Recorder Adapter ($12.70, Amazon) can be plugged directly into the handset jack of the telephone, while the other end is connected to the input jack of most standard audio recorders.

You can also record your mobile and landline telephone calls using services like Free Conference, which allow many people to call into a single conference line. The basic service is free, but for about $9/month or $6.50 per call, you can record the entire conversation and an audio file is delivered to the email address you use to sign up for the service.

Many journalists use Skype, the downloadable software that allows anyone to make phone calls over the internet. Skype users can download third-party software like Hot Recorder (Windows), Audio Hijack Pro (Mac) and Call Recorder (Mac), each of which records Skype calls and creates an editable audio file. The aforementioned programs range from about $15 to $30.

Alternatively, if you are using a computer and a headset to make a phone call and also have a digital audio recorder, you can purchase a far less expensive headphone splitter like the Belkin F8V234-WHT shown at right ($4.95, Amazon). Connect the audio jack of the headphone splitter to the headphone jack of your computer and connect the male end of your headset to one of the female ends of the headphone splitter. Then connect your audio recorder to the other female end using an audio cable with two male ends. This enables you to listen to the call and record it at the same time.

You can also record phone calls using Google Voice, a phone management service that allows users to make calls over the internet or on a traditional phone. You can record any phone call you initiate on the service by pressing “4″ during the call. When the call is completed, an audio file of the conversation is delivered to your Google Voice inbox. Google Voice has many other cool features and is available by invite only.

If you are in the U.S., federal law stipulates that at least one person must give their consent for the phone call to be recorded, which means you can legally record the phone call without notifying the other person. However, many states have their own laws that govern recorded telephone conversations. Twelve states have laws that dictate that everyone on the phone call must give their consent for the call to be recorded.

In the map below, the states highlighted in red only require one party to give their consent for the call to be recorded. Those highlighted in purple require the consent of everyone on the call. You can find more detailed information for each state here.

Source: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Also on 10,000 Words:

10 Essential iPhone apps for bloggers and reporters
12 Useful online tools for journalists
12 More useful online tools for journalists

Do journalists actually look like this?

Journalists are either very sexy or very wacky, judging from the photos available on stock photography sites. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the photos of “journalists” below.

All photos from iStockPhoto

Also on 10,000 Words:

Great (or greatly amusing) fictional journalists
7 Fonts that should die
30 Amazing photoblogs (and a few tips for creating one)

5 Ways to find, mix and mash your data

One of the most popular trends in online journalism is taking publicly available data and translating it into visualizations or infographics that readers and viewers can quickly and easily understand. A large percentage of the visualizations you see on the web were built from scratch, which can take a considerable amount of time and effort. The following sites allow you to mash your data in record time.


Swivel features more than 15,000 data sets for users to play with in various categories ranging from Economics to Health to Technology. From the data, users have created hundreds of thousands of graphs, charts and infographics, including the one below that visualizes the amount of rainfall in California since 1870. You can get started by copying and pasting your data or uploading an Excel spreadsheet or CSV file to the site. Once you’ve create your visualization, you can embed it anywhere on the web.


Socrata is an online space for data lovers to browse datasets as well as create new visualizations to share with others. The data itself can be visualized in a number of ways including, charts, maps, graphs and tables. The site has hundreds of datasets to choose from which can be mashed and downloaded into a variety of file formats including CSV, PDF and XML.


Widgenie lets users upload data from a variety of sources such as Excel spreadsheets, CSV files or Google Spreadsheets and using a drag and drop interface to create custom charts and graphs. Once the data has been arranged and styled, it is presented as a widget that can be embedded in web sites and social networks. Widgenie also has a premium service that offers unlimited widgets and branding opportunities.


Like the previously mentioned sites, Verifiable allows users to upload, mash and visualize data. Verifiable just launched earlier this year and has fewer publicly available data sets, but it does offer greater flexibility on how the data is styled and presented. Graphic designers will appreciate the ability to change and tweak the presentation and add details like custom labels and shading. Verifiable is free to use if you keep your charts public, but also has a inexpensive pricing plan for those who want to keep their work private.


There are a lot of cool things about DataMasher: the available datasets, the community built around that data, the unique visualization tools, and the easy-to-use interface of the site. What is truly intriguing about the site is the way users take two different datasets and create visual hypotheses. For example, to visualize the Most Reproductive States (US), one user combined the number of US births witH population figures from the 2008 US Census. You can check out the results below:

At the very least, DataMasher and the other sites listed here are great resources for generating ideas on how to mix and remix various datasets.

Also on 10,000 Words:

Data centers, APIs and what they mean to journalism
12 ways to find the best in data visualization
Where to find the best online interactive maps
News databases: Turning numbers into knowledge
5 Ways to take your map mashups to the next level