Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How we discovered our paper was for sale

The Austin American-Statesman is for sale. This came as a shock to us that work there. I've been working for Cox Newspapers for 17 years in four different locations and I really like the company. But, as you can imagine, emotions where bristling last week.

Here's how it went down for us.

The prelude: All our sister metro papers (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Palm Beach Post and the Dayton Daily News) have had layoffs or buyouts recently. We know they are hurting for circulation and revenue, but I can't say I'm privy to how badly they are hurting. But if PBP is laying off 180 of their 300 newsroom employees, you know that ain't good.

So when we got a company-wide email on Wednesday, Aug. 13 a little after 11 a.m. about a mandatory company-wide meeting, we all suspected our time had come. Management here has said we are a strong company. Profitable, though we know we aren't making the same cash we were five years ago. Who is? But, we figured if nothing else the newspaper division as a whole has to cut, so maybe we were to share the pain.

There were two meetings scheduled at 2 p.m. and another at 2:30 p.m., all in different parts of the building. The online group I'm in met in Editorial, which I knew would be a tough crowd.

About 1:30 p.m. I got a sad face IM from a friend in Atlanta. They wouldn't chat anymore. Just a sad face. That didn't tell me much at the time other than they knew first. We have been sad for the other papers as they have gone through their own buyouts and layoffs.

At 2 p.m. we gathered in the newsroom to hear Publisher Mike Laosa tell us that the newspaper was up for sale. I was shocked. This was not the news we expected.

A couple of minutes into the meeting I was sitting on my Twinkle send button, but I didn't want to push the tweet out until we had the story on the Web site. I know our staff, and our philosophy about the web, and I knew we would publish the news before the meeting was over.

Well, Jason Meek beat me to it, which is fine. A Cox employee from Palm Beach, William Hartnett retweeted before I got it, too, but in retrospect I'm comfortable that I waited. I didn't want KXAN tweeting it before we did.

As the meeting drug on for an hour or more, Emotions rollercoastered and questions came fast and there were lots of "we don't know yet" answers. Who would buy us? Who could buy us? What about our healthcare? Should I retire? Too many individual questions for a group so large, IMHO ... questions that anyone who thought about it knew there were no answer for at the time.

It was a shocking day. My emotions over the last week have more or less modeled the stages of grieving: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Denial flew by pretty quick but the anger hung into the weekend. Not sure how I can bargain out of this and I hope not go delve into depression. Not sure I've accepted it, though.

I was dour and sour that Thursday and Friday. The weekend gave me time to reflect a little, and forget a little, and Monday was a new week. Let's get on with it.

I really believed (still believe?) in Cox as a company. I've been with them for 17 years at four different papers. They've done well to me and I have done the same in return. Intellectually, I understand why we are being sold instead of my former paper, the AJC, but emotionally it's not comforting that our "parent" has rejected us. I have a passion for journalism, but now Cox has clearly decided to get out of the newspaper business. Yes, they still have some papers, but I wouldn't bet on those properties being in the family in ten years.

I'm not in fear of my job at this point. It's going to be one hell of a job to extricate our web sites from COXnet and it will take people like me and my team to make it happen. I do worry about who we will lose.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A different fantasy futbol league

I've enjoyed doing Fantasy Football leagues with the NFL since 2000, and I've been in the championship game several times in one of the Statesman leagues. I like it because I learn about more players and watch more teams than just my "favorite" team (the Titans, if you must know -- even before they got Vince Young).

But now my love is soccer, and the English Premier League is arguably the best soccer in the world. Last year I cheered for Manchester United because of Cristiano Ronaldo, who ended up being leading scorer in the league, if a bit of a jerk after the season, flirting with a move to Real Madrid.

So, knowing a couple of soccer fans within other Cox Newspapers, I convinced a colleague to start a fantasy league (at http://fado.fantasyleague.com/) among other newspaperers. I'm not sure if any of us has ever done it, but what the heck.

So, here is my starting lineup (subject to change with unlimited transfers before Aug. 23rd. In fact, it's changed twice already.)

Goalkeeper: T Howard, Everton (an American)

Defense: J O'Shea, Manchester United; Y Kaboul, Portsmouth; J Woodgate (Tottingham); L Buxton, Stoke City (he was really cheap and from the club aligned with the Austin Aztex)

Midfielders: C Fabregas, Arsenal; M Ballack, Chelsea; S Gerrard, Liverpool; M Petrov Manchester City

Strikers: Emmanuel Adebayor, Aresenal; Fernando Torres, Liverpool

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Remember The Milk worth all the cookies

I live and die by my To Do list. I'm a multitasker by nature, so I always have too many things going on at the same time, and a To Do list is the only way I can keep from diluting my focus too much.

I used to use the Yahoo Task list that's integrated with their Calendar, but I wanted to move to Google's Calendar so I looked for an online replacement.

That search led me to Remember the Milk, what I call the best Web 2.0 application out there, as least for usability. Here is why I love Remember the Milk (or RTM). I was going to rank these, but that was too hard.

* keyboard shortcuts: Like GMail, RTM uses single stroke keyboard shortcuts. If I want to start a new task, I hit "t" on the keyboard and then start typing the task name. After hitting return, I hit "d" and put in the due date, then tab through the list until I get to tags, enter then, hit return. Then I hit a number key to prioritize the task, then "n" to select none and move on to the next task. That may sound like a lot, but I can do it very fast and not touch a mouse. If I'm looking at the lists of tasks, I can move my cursor up and down the list by using the "j" and "k" keys, hit return when I'm on the one I want, hit "c" to complete it or "p" to postpone it. It's a very keyboard-centric app and I avoid using the mouse whenever I can. It's very fast.

* Selecting Overdue and Postpone: This, unfortunately, is used every day. Each morning, I check my tasks, click the "Select Overdue" link and then hit "p" to postpone everything that was last yesterday to due today. Almost too easy. Sigh.

* Time/dated notes: You can add notes to tasks about partial completions, or add other information as needed. Since the notes are timed and dated automagically, you can use the notes as a log of your work on a particular task.

* Integration with Jott: Jott is a voice-recognition site that I can call and dictate a task to be added to my list. (Also works with Google Calendar, I Want Sandy and others.) The downside is it adds the task to my "Inbox" which I rarely use, so I sometimes miss them. Feature request: Be able to add the voice task to a specific task list.

* Repeating tasks: Some tasks I have to do weekly. Setting as a repeating task will put it at the top of my list on the day I have to do it, then I can complete the task and it will creep up the list again until the day it is due.

* The tag cloud: This may not be a big deal to everyone, but I really like the tagging of task. There is a tag cloud that gives me an idea of the complexity of my current list and what subjects in that list will denominate my time. Clicking on the tag gives you a quick list of all the items in that list.

* The mobile platform: Remember the Milk won best IPhone Web Application at the most recent WWDC, and I do subscribe to the Pro RTM so I can use the iPhone version, and it is really cool and pretty, and, and, and ... and I still use the regular mobile phone version. Sorry guys, the iPhone version is really pretty, but the regular version is easier to use and faster. Maybe once I get the G3 iPhone, I'll change to the "i" version.

* Integration with Google Calendar: This was a huge deal for me when I was looking for a replacement for Yahoo, but I find now I don't use my task list that way anymore. I keep at Firefox tab open to RTM all the time, along with another for Calendar, so I don't really need them together anymore. But I still think it's cool that they integrate.

* So I've gone on and on, but there is tons more to RTM that I haven't used: Sync, Groups, Locations (Google Maps), Offline (Google Gears) and more.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Most phones age badly. The iPhone got better.

A year ago this month, Apple introduced the iPhone, and on Monday, odds are they will announce the next generation. Rumors abound on what is to come. GPS, G3 support, more memory, etc.

But I want to wax poetic on the first version. I waited a whole two weeks before buying my iPhone, and I paid the whole $599 and I got 'burned' buy the price drop some weeks later. I considered it the cost of early adoption.

But here's what's cool: I like my iPhone better today than the month I bought it. Not only do I like it better, it IS better. Apple upgraded the software so we could edit our home pages. They made maps and directions better by adding GPS-lite triangulation. They opened up the handset for development by others, and we'll soon reap the benefit of that, but even before that, iPhones have been the greatest catalyst to mobile-specific websites based on the iPhone-size screen.

Tell me, before the iPhone, did you ever have a phone that you didn't hate after a year? You were begging for that two-year contract to end so you could replace your dying battery, scratched screen, sticky number pads.

The iPhone was the 8th most popular browser on our news website, behind two versions of IE, Firefox, three versions of Safari 3.x, and Gecko.

So, yes, I want to upgrade my phone, but only because iPhone 2.0 comes out on Monday. I wouldn't trade my current phone for anything else.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Groupware: Google vs Yahoo

I'm a Google guy. I started out a Yahoo! guy, but it seemed that each time my paper signed a new deal with Yahoo, I discovered how much better a Google web application was over it's Yahoo! counterpart, and I moved over, bit by bit. I felt like a betrayer, but Google is just soooooo much better.

Usually.

This week I've been trying to figure out the best way for our new soccer team to stay in touch. Mainly we just need an email list and a calendar, but since not every member of the team might be web savvy, it needs to be simple and integrated. I was surprised when I couldn't match a Google Calendar with a Google Group in an elegant way.

I so much prefer Google Calendar over Yahoo!'s Calendar ... it was the first service I moved. I like having separate calendars for different aspects of my life that I can turn on and off. I think it is super cool that you can embed those calendars on other web pages for those who may not have a Google account. The iPhone interface is usable, though not knock-your-socks-off.

Yahoo! just falls a little short. Too much visual noise, not enough feature.

I like the Google Groups email list and archive better than Yahoo!, too. It's not a clear frontrunner like with Calendar, but Google is clean and elegant and I like the threading. But here is the kicker: there is no way to gracefully connect a Google calendar to a group. In Yahoo, it's just built in. You can create pages within Google Groups, so I figured I would just embed the calendar into a page, but it won't take it. I can "edit html" and put in the code and preview, but once I save it says it doesn't support javascript.

Of course, Yahoo! has its flaws, too. Oh, they both do.

Some of my groupware wishes:

* Yahoo! Groups has a photo gallery, but why isn't it the far-superior flickr?
* I like the task and event combination in Yahoo, and wish that Google had an integrated task list. That said, Remember the Milk is the best, most useful web application in the 2.0 space. I could (and will) devote a post or even two to RTM. I use it all day, every day, for my task list. It's the only way I stay sane. RTM does have integration with Google calendar, but I found it much more functional used separately.
* There are other features available with Yahoo Groups: databases, photos, polls, files, etc. Google has fewer of those features, but to be honest they concentrate on the things that matter and do them very well: member management and email list/message archiving. Pages and files are useful (with the exception of that embed problem.)

But why, oh why, can't Google just bring their Groups together with the Calendar.

I thought about starting a whole Google Apps site, but we don't really need all that. (I once experimented with moving all my cmcdonald.com email accounts over to Google Apps and while I liked the family calendars and such, I couldn't port over my existing Blogger and Picasa accounts, so it just wasn't workable.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tweeting the news

At the RefreshAustin meetup tonight we talked out a collective idea about how to use Twitter as an ultra-fast reporting tool for a traditional online news site. Or at least how we would like to see it.

The concept is simple enough. Let's say there is a popular political figure holding a rally in downtown Austin at 6th and Congress. (It's been known to happen.) The news organization sends their best reporters and columnists to the event ... three or four people. They use their cell phones and laptops to tweet minute-by-minute updates and off-the-cuff analysis of the speech. Those dispatches are combined together into a single feed for the news site, but it's also a feed on Twitter so folks can follow on their own accounts and on their mobile devices, maybe even from the same event. Sort of like CoverItLive, but more accessible and mobile.

Or there is popular 3-day music festival at an iconic downtown park where a mix of popular Austin and Texas acts intermingle with nationally touring headliners. (It's been known to happen.) Our music critics and editors at the festival send in bursts from the festival grounds, from the shortest bathroom lines to the latest inflatable farm animal. (Where's Willie? He's right here!) Imagine last year's coverage of the fire behind the food stand.

Now, for a broader view of the festival, lets put those tweets next to (but not mixed with) a scan of other posts from the festival. (Tweetscan? maybe follow @replies with some keyword, or some location-based scan. BrighKite?).

All that sounds easy enough, but there are hurdles. Some technical, some institutional.

As journalists, we feel it is important to edit news. It's part of the getting it right ... another pair of eyes is more than a spell checker. We double check facts, ensure clarity, demand fairness and all the things that makes journalism more than just another opinion. That thought above of "off-the-cuff analysis" probably makes the hair raise on the skin of good copy editor, and rightfully so.

We also have a technical issue of combining the tweets from several different mobile sources into a single account, but that's solvable. We could even develop a quick editing system between the submission and the publishing, but that would be wrong. Ultra-fast publishing is the aim here.

Now, about those adjacent tweetscans from the public? Not sure how we keep f-bombs from the front of our entertainment site. Maybe we just put that page another layer deep into the site. And I wonder if we can collect those for the Twitter users ... to have them all together into a single feed that people could subscribe to. This may already be out there with tweetscan or some other site ... I'll have to check that out.

It's worth more good talk among smart people, and it's worth doing in some fashion.

Friday, March 21, 2008

LiveBlogging with CoverItLIve

A quick note to note this:

Austin360 and Statesman.com are using CoverItLive software to do live blogging of the Longhorns first round game in the NCAA tournament.

Matthew Odam is running this one, though John Bridges did the first during the Big 12 tournament. Matthew is able to moderate comments and create polls on the fly. Pretty darn cool.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Officially, a new job

I've been working for two months as the interim Technical Solutions Manager for the online group at the Statesman, but this week I got the job for real. I'm really excited about the opportunity. I hope that it will lead to a more regular updating of this blog on techy things.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gmail's IMAP has saved the iPhone

I had written earlier about the email hassles for iPhone ... how Gmail just sucked and Yahoo's mail sucked the life out of my phone.

Well, it's old news that Google did come through with IMAP for the iPhone. It works great, and at much better battery life than Yahoo's mail.

Of course, Google couldn't just "fix" the mail in iPhone, they had to one-up it. So they created a web app for Safari on iPhone for Gmail that pretty much rocks. I'm still using the native Mail app because, well, it's native, but I have to admit that the features on the iPhone webby version are quite nice.

A technical bent

A technical bent
More than a year after I "thought" I would write a blog about online news, I finally get around to writing another entry.

I'm currently working as Interim Technology Solutions Manager for the Statesman. Other than the "interim" part, that's a pretty damn good title. My son calls me Head Geek, which my COXnet brethren loved, but I like being the solutions guy. That's worth living up to.

Because that is what we are about: Solutions. People need stuff built, or fixed, or figured out, and we do it. I have the opportunity to build a new team, with a new vision and a new goal and I'm just tickled.

I've been gawking at the likes of Adrian Holovaty, Chris Heisel and some of my other buddies and aquaintances more on the dev side of things (as opposed to editorial)and I've felt like I've been missing out. I get excited about geocoding and SSL and now I dabble in the command line ... I want to do more ... crave it ... and I'm sure that soon there will be no turning back.

I so excited to learn all these new things and tackle all these new projects, but my first task is to build a team who can help me take all this on. (What "this" is will have to wait on another post.) I've met some great candidates, and I've already been turned down by a few, but hopefully for the right reasons.

Ahh ... enough of this ... let's build something.

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