Ghost Factories: Behind the Project

This is a cross-post of a recent item I wrote for Investigative Reporters and Editors’ On the Road blog. “Ghost Factories” was perhaps the most fun, interesting and well-executed project I’ve done at USA TODAY, largely because the people and process worked so well. This covers all the moving parts:

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In April, after USA TODAY published its Ghost Factories investigation into forgotten lead smelters, we heard from several people who wanted to know more about how the project came together — particularly the online package that included details on more than 230 of the former factories.

The following is an expanded version of a post originally sent to IRE’s NICAR-L mailing list:

Alison Young was the lead reporter who conceived the idea for the project. In late 2010, she came to me with a couple of PDFs showing a list of suspected lead smelter sites, which I parsed into a spreadsheet and plotted on a Google map for her to research. Then she started digging, as one of our editors said, “Armed only with faded photographs, tattered phone directories, obscure zoning records, archival maps, fuzzy memories of residents and shockingly incomplete EPA studies.”

Ghost Factories

In December 2010, she began filing the first of more than 140 FOIA requests. The requests produced thousands of pages of government documents related to the sites, and to catalog them she created a project inside DocumentCloud. The product was extremely helpful both for organizing documents and for presentation. Brad Heath of our investigative team would later use the DocumentCloud API to integrate metadata from the documents — particularly their titles —  into our database so we could present them online. He also used the API to batch-publish all 372 documents that were included in the project. (He did most of the work using python-documentcloud, a Python wrapper by the Los Angeles Times’ Ben Welsh that makes it easy to interact with the API programmatically.)

How to Bottle Your Conference Glow

If, like me, you follow journalists on Twitter, then you’re familiar with the monthly river of posts with hashtags from the latest industry conference. Journalism conferences are like revival meetings minus any talk of the Divine. The faithful leave with a great glow — which lasts all the way till you get back to your desk, back to Inbox 2,000 and the note from your boss saying, “Please come to my office.”

Doesn’t have to end that way. Here’s how to bottle that glow and make it last till next year:

Take good notes: While you’re at the conference, email yourself a daily note with links, ideas, names of people to follow on Twitter, books to read and skills to learn.

Set goals: Compile your notes into a learning agenda. List three to five items to pursue between now and the next year’s conference. Examples might include launching your own web site, learning a programming skill, or lifting your writing skills.

Make a reading list: Use your favorite feed reader to follow blogs and sites related to the skills you’re learning.

Revisit the agenda: Six months after the conference ends, go back and look over the agenda. Catch up on what the presenters of your favorite sessions have been up to.

Make vital connections: Go beyond following people on Twitter and seek out people to network with. Share your ideas, struggles, wins. Look for meetups in your area or opportunities to coach others to share your skills.

Those are my ideas. Yours?

225 Years and Workplace Bonds

After a while, coworkers become like family. This is especially true in journalism, which is no 9-to-5 endeavor. Long hours, creative and quirky personalities, multiple daily deadlines and plenty of pressure either breaks you early or forges a soul-resilience that, when shared with other survivors, makes for powerful bonds.

So, that’s why a video I found last week reached deep into my core. It’s from a Poughkeepsie Journal package marking the newspaper’s 225th birthday, a milestone in its distinction as the oldest newspaper in New York state and the third-oldest in the nation. The speaker is Harry Scrivani, a man I saw just about every day for 11 years.

Harry ran the composing room — a windowless enclave on the building’s second floor filled with the aromas of ink, hot wax and photo chemicals. It was the place where text, headlines, photos and graphics dropped from the newsroom one floor up were cut-and-pasted onto page flats before being photographed and burned into printing plates. This was, obviously, in the days before Photoshop, QuarkXpress and Dreamweaver.

For a geeky, green journalist like me, to enter it was to enter a place of mystery and danger. It was a union shop filled with characters, some whose personalities teetered on a razor’s edge as sharp as the X-Acto knives they wielded. A request to excise a typo from a headline — not uncommon — could be greeted either with a chuckle, stony silence or a string of epithets. Most of the guys down there had been in the business for years, back to the days of the Linotype, and they were fiercely protective of their realm. To touch one of their pages, even if your byline was on it, was to risk having one of their metal pica rulers slammed on your knuckles. Do not touch! And yet, they also were the ones to save your hide by pointing out the fact you’d just misspelled “Ohio” in 48-point type.

In this world, Harry was the Good Cop, and I think he often took pity on me as I scrambled downstairs to make sure my pages were on time and all together. His many acts of kindness in overlooking the dumb mistakes and incessant requests of a perfectionistic young journalist all came back as I watched him reminisce about his days at the newspaper.

Watch it: It’s one man’s remembrances of his work, and at the end he says something I think we’ll all say, eventually: “I miss it.”

How I Spent My Summer Furcation

Just finished one week cut off, by force, from the office. It was an unpaid furlough — a common plight for journalists and others whose industries have been hammered by the recession. The financial hit will hurt (more so because the AC in my house and car also picked this week to die), but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve had in a while.

No office email, no office phones. Just a week to enjoy my family, feed my soul, fix up things around the house, and keep learning new skills.

So, I:

Hiked to a waterfall: Took a five-mile hike with my family through the Shenandoah National Park to the 86-foot White Oak Canyon falls. The trail, which ascends 1,000 feet over about 2 miles, had us breathing hard. The falls was spectacular, and we ended the day spent but inspired by the beauty.

Planted a garden: Our fourth year as amateur farmers, and each year we understand soil and seeds a little more. Given the time I spend in front of a computer screen, digging in dirt is necessary for emotional health. Watching seeds grow into food connects me to bigger things.

Studied Python: Inspired by hacker-journalists at the annual IRE computer-assisted reporting conference, I’ve jumped head-first into the Linux world with the goal of building apps using Django. After getting Ubuntu set up and finishing the Django tutorial, I decided to step back and study Python, the language Django’s built upon. Aaron Bycoffe responded to a Twitter query and recommended the free How to Think Like a Computer Scientist. Made it through 11 chapters this week and now understand Django a lot better.

Upgraded to Lucid Lynx: Speaking of Linux, my week off coincided with the latest update to Ubuntu. Demand was high and getting the download tough, but I eventually got it rolling. You can’t beat free.

Spent time with friends and family: Really the best part. Lots of laughs, intense conversations, great fun.

So now I’m feeling fresh — fresh enough to handle the 252 emails that rolled in when I booted up my work PC this afternoon.

Data redundancy saves lives

After a longer-than-usual commute this morning, I was glad to get out of the car and behind my desk. I had an app to code — a project I’d been mulling during the weekend and was itching to try. But my anticipation deflated pretty fast when I realized my desktop PC was offering me nothing but a silent, black screen. I rebooted three times, hoping that something somewhere would come unstuck. No luck.

“I think it’s the motherboard,” one of our IT guys told me. “I might be able to get it back to you tomorrow.”

After he carted away my PC — as if he were towing away a dead car — I realized I needed to make do with the only resource I had left: my laptop. If this had happened a year ago, I’d have had to spend most of the day reconstructing files and my working environment. But I was up and running in about 10 minutes, working on my project with minimal pain. Here’s why: