My gold cocoon on wheels

The last thing I wanted was to own and drive a minivan — a gold Dodge Caravan that looks identical to its two million or so brethren on the highway and in every parking lot in town.

But it was what I needed.

Four years and a few weeks ago when we bought the van, I’d just had my cancerous uterus removed the hard way, and needed something gentle to ride in for the 200-mile drive between home in San Antonio and the best doctor in the world at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

While I passengered with a pillow, Willie drove the van to Houston for my next surgery, then drove down again for my series of radiation treatments. The ride was gentle, and I started to secretly love the van in a very un-soccer mom kind of way.

Later that year, I got the chance to teach journalism, Web publishing and design, multiplatform reporting and interviewing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But I didn’t want to move.

“You can commute!” said department director Ardyth Sohn. “Everybody does it.” And so I did.

I loaded everything I could think of that fit into the van; we pointed it toward Vegas and drove. The air conditioning was good and the ride was sweet, all the way across West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the Hoover Dam into Nevada.

And when I drove to the UNLV campus each day, at about the same time the third shifters were getting off work on the Strip, the van gave me enough elevation to see a couple of cars ahead so I could avoid the early morning drunks and the other crazy drivers.


The van has more .edu than I do

We drove the van home in December, back to Vegas in January, then home again in May.

I did the “commute” until 2008, when the van and I came home to San Antonio without a single scratch.

The van’s acquired some learned trappings along the way.

Above the UNLV sticker on passenger side of the van’s windshield is a parking pass for the University of the Incarnate Word. The van parks there while I swim laps weekday mornings at the Natatorium.

A Saint Mary’s University parking pass dangles from the rear view mirror, because the van hangs out there on Tuesdays and Thursdays each semester while I teach the class formerly known as Print Journalism.

A year ago, I was persuaded to take a leadership role in a new community journalism startup called We planned, strategized and budgeted for video cameras, a TriCaster and people. As it turned out, getting all of that stuff and staff from here to there, where we do our thing, requires … a van.

Gear in, seats up, people in, doors close and we fly to our assignment with the Interwebs. In the past few weeks, the van clocked 250 miles on alone.

Monday morning, I’m heading to Houston again to see my favorite doctor at MD Anderson. I have no doubt I’ll be told that the cancer’s still gone. Endometrial cancer is like that. Overwhelmingly, we are survivors.

While Willie drives, I’ll be online and working, thanks to bluetooth, WiMax 4G, the sizzling good cell connections on Interstate 10.

And thanks to the gold van that is my Giving Tree.


Students, Denver and the Fifth Estate

I’m in Denver today with a group of University of Nevada, Las Vegas students who are kind enough to call me their teacher. Fellow-learner is more like it.

Once again, we’re experimenting with the future of journalism — using the latest tools in different ways to help people get news and better connect with information, events and newsmakers.

The students are using Nokia N95 cellphones to stream video live from Denver and the Democratic National Convention straight to the Web. But that’s not all. The video is being broadcast on our Web channel at that lets anyone with a computer or smart phone chat via text with the students and their video subjects live, in real time.

So if you have a question, you can type it in, and the student journalist can see the question on the phone, and pass it along to the delegate, protester, elected official or whomever. You can even ask them to change the camera angle. It’s transparent, so anyone watching can also see the question and comment on it or type in a follow up.

You can also subscribe to our Twitter feed here, where you’ll get notified every time the video stream goes live>

Historically, the Fourth Estate — the press — has been in charge of deciding what questions to ask. But this week on our channel, the Fifth Estate — the people — will have a voice and access to power.

That means the people in the East Paradise neighborhood next to UNLV — a remarkably diverse and historically underserved area — will have just as much access to their elected officials and delegates as reporters do.

I was 28 when I first got to cover a convention, and it was the utterly scripted 1984 re-coronation of Ronald Reagan in Dallas. I covered the feds — the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, Secret Service — and I remember trying to worm some information out of one of the agents about people being arrested. “Robert Ludlum will have it in print before you do,” he glowered.

Having been double-dog-dared, I worked as hard and as fast as I could, and just two days later, Jerry Needham and I had a double-byline story stripped across page one of the Dallas Times Herald about the supposed plot to attack the convention center via hang gliders.

For today’s reporters, news is just a nanosecond away from worldwide broadcast on the Web. And instead of talking to people, we can have a conversation about the news even as it is happening. That’s a great advantage, because as we know, the Fourth Estate commonly asks pretty clueless questions and could use all the help they can get from the Fifth Estate.

I cannot imagine a more fabulous time to be a journalist!

The students and I have many people to thank for this extraordinary opportunity, most importantly, Ardyth Sohn, Director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, who lured me to Vegas, sight unseen, to teach convergence, new media, digital journalism, multiplatform reporting and Web publishing and design, even though I could barely pronounce the word syllabus and had never written one in my life.

And we couldn’t have done this without a generous grant to support civic journalism from, KLAS-TV Channel 8. That provided students with reporters’ backpacks, MacBooks and cameras to explore and document the neighborhood. The money also supported the student-developed Website, East Paradise, and it paid the four students’ way to Denver.

I am tremendously grateful to Nokia, where some good-hearted folks had the technical chops and the vision to imagine what kinds of remarkable things can be done with the powerful N95 cellphones that only recently became available in the U.S. They loaned the students (and their lucky teacher) phones to experiment with this summer for this project.

Over at the San Francisco startup, Kyte, people went way, way far out of their way to help us load beta software and launch a classy-looking channel for the video and chats. You can make my day by embedding our channel in your Website or blog and spreading the word.

And thank you to my fellow learners, Reid Geary, Ariel Gove, Sandra Herandez and Denitsa Yotova. You truly are the ATeam!

I hope you will watch, participate and tell us what you think.

Fried squirrel, politics and the media

Some followup notes from my delightful conversation this morning on KNPR’s State of Nevada, with host Dave Berns and his panel of so-called “witty academics.” (The audio with David Damore, Ken Fernandez and me from University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Eric Herzik of University of Nevada, Reno, is here.)

During the show, I mentioned a wonderful resource at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which has been running a campaign coverage index showing how much attention the media is giving each presidential candidate. This one, covering the week of Jan. 6 through Jan. 11, shows Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton got far more media attention for her New Hampshire “comeback” than did the also victorious Republican Senator John McCain, who had not won in Iowa. Moreover, this index suggests that Democrat John Edwards is almost being ignored by the media.

One person who called in to the show wondered if the media is shying away from him because of Edwards’ criticism of the kind of big corporations that own the media. I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked to have been on air, so here is an addendum:

My two cents is that this is more a reflection of “pack journalism” than any philosophical thing on the part of the journalists. I could be wrong, but news organizations are lousy places to pull off a controlled conspiracy thing — they’re generally too blessed disorganized and full of ornery back-talkers.

The screw ups I’ve seen over the years stem more from laziness and fear than some order from on high. The fear comes two ways. First, there’s the fear of getting beaten. If everyone else is covering Candidate X, you’d better do it too or you will look stupid. Second, there is the fear of someone yelling at the publisher because a reporter didn’t cover their event — or because a reporter asked impolite questions. That is very real and very true.

I was pressured that way in my coverage of Texas gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush, as I wrote about here.

Fortunately, everyone seems to have a digital camera and a recorder these days, along with access to free publishing tools on the Web. So it’s a lot harder for candidates and their spinmeisters to squelch things.

Also, I didn’t have a chance during the show to mention a couple of other fine journalism resources for election information. The Las Vegas Sun’s ace database folks put together a truly nifty interactive map that shows voting, party affiliation and contribution information by Zip Code for Clark County. Check it out and play with it — the data tells the story.

And another friend of mine over at Congressional Quarterly sent me a link to CQ Politics Primary Guide — nice stuff and good, accessible information.

Now, a reward for reading this far down.

I really wasn’t joking about Republican candidate Mike Huckabee claiming to have fried squirrel on a popcorn popper in college.

Here thanks to the good folks at Talking Points Memo, is the video:

Just because I am a calloused, cynical journalist, I do wonder if a popcorn popper actually gets hot enough to fry a squirrel.

But then, I wonder about a lot of things.

Perhaps some enterprising reporter will put it to a truth test.

Quote ’em if they can’t take a joke

That’s one of my basic rules of journalism, and never has it been so delightfully true as today, when we can not only tell you what someone said, but let you hear how they said it — in their own voice.

One of my students got a very rude awakening last semester thanks to an Embarq screwup, but she turned the incident into a very nice piece of digital journalism.

Have a listen to what she produced and published:

The challenge for the students in my digital storytelling class was to choose the right medium for the story, whether that was text, sound, video, graphics or still images. In this instance, telling the story through text wouldn’t have really done it justice. The sound makes the story.

Las Vegas Sun reporter Tim Pratt, who covers social services and the poor, wrote a piece Jan. 5 about the other victims of this bonehead snaffu by Embarq and the Clark County Housing Authority.

When he interviewed me, Pratt made it clear he understood the power of all things digital by asking if Ruby’s video might “go viral” on the Web.

That would be nice.

What’s important is that journalists no longer need a big old printing press, a radio station or a television station to publish and broadcast stories.

But knowing how to use digital recorders, cameras and editing software is increasingly important.

Just gather the facts, pick a medium, weave the story and publish!

P.S. — Check out the Sun’s Website redesign, which went live today. Among other essentials, they’ve added a field for comments under news stories, acknowledging that news is a conversation.

Faster than the Pony Express

Thanks to the printing press, the mail coach and the steam packet—gifts beyond the gifts of fairies—we can all see and hear what each other are doing, and do and read the same things nearly at the same time.

— Maria Edgeworth, (1767-1849) Irish author

(thanks to Ted Pease and his alert WORDster Louise Montgomery)


So “The Media” (whoever they is ;-), suffered an upset in New Hampshire Tuesday night when Hillary Clinton won. The polls had said Barack Obama would win the Democratic primary race there, but then an unprecedented number of the voters changed made up their minds in the voting booth.

But the good news is that there was no “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, because we have better and faster tools to turn on a dime and respond to news as it happens.

There’s a lot of speculation about why the pollsters and The Media (and the candidates?) headed into the New Hampshire vote thinking Obama would win the Democratic contest.

I’m not smart enough to answer that.

I wonder, however, if it is not The Media, but instead, the medium. If you agree with the suggestion that it was Hillary Clinton’s “near tears experience” that prompted a remarkable number of people to decide to vote for her, then it was video on the Web that tipped the scales.

Yes, it was ABC’s video, but more than a dozen individuals copied and posted the video on YouTube, and that’s where it went viral, getting more than half a million pageviews and thousands of comments in one-tenth the time it took the Pony Express to gallop a mochila across the country.

I’m thinking that The Media’s not in charge of the message here.

From a personal standpoint, I love that there is still a very serious contest underway, which means the Nevada caucus next week really matters. And even though the UNLV spring semester doesn’t start for another week after that, my students can cover it live, as it happens, with new tools, like Utterz and Twitter.

I had a delightful conversation about the ch-ch-changes and the primary this morning on KNPR’s State of Nevada with host Dave Berns and three political science professors, David Damore and Ken Fernandez of UNLV, and Eric Herzik University of Nevada, Reno.

Here’s a link to the audio from the show, and I expect we’ll be back for more next Wednesday morning after the Nevada caucus.

How wonderful it is that no matter which time zone we’re in, we all have a front row seat!

Blog it (well) and they will come

Students in my Digital Storytelling class zoomed into the prime time blogosphere this week, providing live, multimedia coverage of the Democratic presidential debate and the accompanying mayhem at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Besides making more than 150 posts to the UNLV Presidential Debate 2007 blog, many of the students published audio, photos and text directly to the blog from their cell phones, using a new, free tool called Utterz.

The 17 students also provided solid journalistic coverage of the week’s events, including writing about CNN’s shabby behavior on campus. The post about CNN consistently ranked as the second most popular one on the blog after it went up Tuesday evening.

As of Friday morning, the blog was less than 100 hours old and had received more than 1,100 pageviews. Stats from our host, WordPress, show that the audience is coming from WordPress tags, MySpace bulletins, emails and link-love from places like Utterz and from my alma mater site in San Antonio and from my own Facebook profile, where I’ve posted and linked to it.

The students have been required to maintain a personal blog all semester, and this breaking news group blog was part of the plan in the syllabus all along. (Translation: They are being graded on their work, so there was some incentive — besides the sheer fun of it — to participate enthusiastically!)

Some aspects of the blog came as little or no surprise, because we spent a lot of time in class discussing things such as:

  • Transparency and ethics. So when I accidentally broke the blog Thursday evening, I wrote about it. That’s transparency — letting viewers know what’s going on, particularly when you’ve just screwed up.
  • Journalism. They know one of my basic rules is “quote ’em if they can’t take a joke.” So when representatives of CNN acted rudely in public, the students wrote about it here, here and here. They told the truth. (New basic rule: Don’t underestimate students who buy their pixels by the barrel.)
  • Finding and telling true stories in different mediums. So they were as comfortable as could be expected when I didn’t give them any more specifics on their assignments than “don’t bore me,” and “tell me what happened,” and do it with text and audio and photos and video.
  • Marketing, search engine optimization and visibility. So when it came time to do this blog, they tagged the blazes out of their posts (and sent out bulletins on MySpace!) — and they got your eyeballs.

But one thing I hadn’t expected was how much time we would spend in class wrangling with technology. It amazed me how difficult it was to even get a blessed piece of audio off of a digital recorder and onto the students’ blogs.

So after I talked to Randy Corke, the co-founder and president of Utterz when I was at BlogWorld last week, I decided the student bloggers would try something I hadn’t planned on or tested because it sounded like just the pixie dust we needed to make this blog fly.

Utterz lets you use your cell to send in photos, video, text and audio, then it mashes them together and plunks the finished product right down into a blog post. If there’s anything else like this out there, I sure hadn’t heard of it. Update: Here is a linknk to what somebody a lot smarter than I am had to say about Utterz two months ago.

Because these students are almost digital natives and all the way fearless, they tried it on deadline, and they not only made it work, they made it sing. One of them immediately waded into a crowd of demonstrators, interviewed people with his cell phone and had the audio up on the blog in less than 10 minutes — it was his first live “radio” interview. Holy cow!

(Here is a list on Utterz of all of the student posts tagged UNLV — you can see the good, the tests and the things we can learn from.)

How long have I been waiting for something like this? I told Randy a story about something that happened long ago and far away, in Phoenix, where my husband was the assistant city editor in charge of the cops and courts team at the Arizona Republic in the mid-1980s. His reporters were lugging those huge, shoebox-shaped Motorola “mobile” phones around to crime scenes out on the sticks, and they also had those whiz-bang Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100s to file their stories.

One day my husband asked the Motorola representative if they couldn’t come up with some sort of gizmo to make the two devices physically connect to each other. The dude from Motorola just shook his head dismissively. “No one would ever use that,” he said.

And then there was the year of deadly hurricanes, Emily, Katrina and Rita.

As content director at, I launched what I jokingly referred to as the world’s first interdenominational, multimedia hurricane blog. We pulled off the unthinkable: We got television reporters and newspaper reporters and newspaper photographers to all get along inside the same blog, and to file like someone else’s life depended on it.

We had it all — except the technology to easily pull it together. In the end, the “man behind the curtain” at that blog was one of my Web editors taking dictation over the phone because we had no other way to get the television meteorologist’s spoken words to go from a cell phone in a satellite truck in the field directly into the blog.

Well, now we do. And that’s not just a baby step toward real independent and mobile journalism.