Chris Essig

Walkthroughs, tips and tricks from a data journalist in eastern Iowa

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Save your work because you never know when it will disappear

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We are a few weeks into the new year, but I wanted to look back at the biggest project I worked on in 2015: The redesign of

While most of my blog posts are full of links, I can’t link to that site. Why? Because it’s gone.


In a series of very unfortunate events, the site we spent many, many months planning and developing is already gone.

The timeline: We started preparing for the redesign, which was BADLY needed, in early 2015. We then built it over the course of several months. Finally, it was launched in July. Then, in a move that surprised every one, KCRG was bought by another company in September.

At the time, I was optimistic that the code could be ported over to their CMS. And the site wouldn’t die.

My optimism was short lived. Gray has a standard website template for all its news sites, and they wanted that template on KCRG.

So in December, the website we built disappeared for good.


The KCRG website you see now is the one used and maintained by Gray.

Obviously, this was a big shock for our team. Even worse, the code we wrote was proprietary and requires Newscycle Solutions to parse and display. So even if I wanted to put it on Github, it wouldn’t do anyone any good.

I’m not used to the impermanence of web. When I had my first reporting job in Galesburg, I saved all the newspapers where my stories appeared. And unless my parents’ house catches on fire, those newspapers will last for a long time. They are permanent.

Not so online. Websites disappear all the time. And those who build them have barely any record of their existence.

Projects like PastPages and the Wayback Machine keep screenshots of old websites, which is better than nothing. But their archives are far cries from the living, breathing websites we build. A screenshot can’t show you nifty Javascript.

It’s an eery feeling. What happens in five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Will any of our projects still be online? Even worse: Will technology have changed so much that these projects won’t even be capable of being viewed online? Will online even exist?

Think about websites from 1996. They are long gone. Hell, many sites from two years ago have vanished.

I don’t have good answers. Jacob Harris has mulled this topic and offered some good tips for making your projects last.

But it’s worth pondering when you’re done with projects. What can I do to save my work for the future? I have a directory of all of my projects from my Courier days on an external hard drive. I have an in-process directory for The Gazette as well.

I hold onto them like I did my old newspaper clippings. Although, I’m confident those clippings will last a lot longer than my web projects.

Written by csessig

January 21, 2016 at 11:52 am

The last four months

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Welcome back to my blog! I’ll get right into it: I worked at the Galesburg Register-Mail for about a year (see below) before becoming the online editor for I’m going to start recapping some of the work I’ve done while at the Courier. I’ll start by highlighting some of the sub-sites I’ve help create since starting here four months ago:

  • Caucus 2012 – Every newspaper in Iowa gets jazzed about the Iowa caucuses. This year they are even more relevant for us at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier because one of the GOP frontrunners, Michele Bachmann, was born in Waterloo. This page we set up back when I started in June uses templates found in our CMS (Blox). We put it together well before most of the nation needed or wanted to care about the caucuses.
  • On a Mission: Joplin Missouri – This was actually the first page I set up when I started. Our regional reporter traveled with a group of local volunteers to Joplin, Missouri after the area was ravished by a massive tornado is May. This page was set up to keep all of his stories and photos in one place.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – Remember when this movie premiere came out? It seems so long ago. Well, we put this page together back then to house our stories and other cool interactive quizzes and a character map provided by multimedia developers at other Lee Enterprise newspapers (namely STL Today and Billings Gazette). We also posted plenty of wire stories on the page as well.
  • Thunder in the Valley air show – One of the largest air shows Iowa has ever seen rolled into Waterloo earlier this summer. Our regional editor was writing stories months in advance, so we put up this page to help compile those stories as well as give the readers all the basic information on the event (ticket prices, etc.). The page was a huge hit and one of the videos we posted on it generated 1,700 hits, well above any other video we’ve posted on the site since I’ve been here.
  • Ames Straw Poll – With so much of our attention in July and August on Michele Bachmann on the Iowa caucuses, we needed to have something in place for the big test vote known as the Ames Straw Poll. I put this page together the morning of and updated it throughout the day that Saturday, finishing with full results and our story on Bachmann winning the poll.
  • Remember 911 – Like the rest of the nation, Iowans mourned on 9/11 during the tenth anniversary of the deadly, NYC terrorist attacks. We had several local stories running in the paper that Sunday. Online, we rolled out the stories every few hours all day. They linked our 911 page, which featured readers’ reactions and archive WCF Courier photos from 9/11/01.

Written by csessig

September 28, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Video of tax rally approaching 400 views…

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– It didn’t receive an astronomical amount of views, but my video of last week’s tax rally got some attention from our viewers. I think it’s safe to say that video is becoming an increasingly popular medium for newspapers big and small because they do get a lot of attention. It’s no surprise that most editors who are hiring nowadays basically require aspiring journalists to have some sort of video knowledge. And YouTube is popular as it is, so why not jump on board.

– But just because newspapers are becoming more and more familiar with video, doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of video is increasing as well. Case in point: the National Press Photographers Association this year refused to give out a first, second or third place award in the News Video category because no entry met their standards. The judge’s comments are a startling wake up call for an industry clearly struggling to keep up with the times:

One of the judges stated that this was the Best of Photojournalism contest and unfortunately the work entered in this category did not hold up to the standards that we as an industry should be trying to achieve. It was clear from viewing this category that we all need to work harder in educating and training our staffs in both shooting and editing video for the web.

The judges did hand out an honorable mention to Colin Mulvany, a journalist at The Spokesman-Review who produced a video on a candlelight vigil. Mulvany has an excellent blog post, “Video at newspapers need to improve,” in response to the judge’s comments. Go ahead and read it all.

My favorite line comes at the end:

When I started this blog, I wrote a post called “What we can learn from TV news shooters.” The crux of that post : TV news shooters have done video storytelling decades longer than us newbie’s in the newspaper biz, and we can learn a lot from their successes. If you are lucky enough to go to a TV video workshop, you’ll get the fundamentals drilled into your head–Shoot wide, medium tight, super tight. Shoot action, then reaction. Get that camera on sticks! Use a wireless mic. Gather natural sound. What’s your opener? Closer? And, for Christ sake, white balance your video!

Exactly. I feel some journalists shoot video for the sake of shooting video, not realizing there are basic guidelines for newspaper videography. Mix shots, get good interviews, make sure shots aren’t shaky and audio is clear, and most importantly, make sure it tells a captivating story.

– Practice is also very important. And, quite frankly, most newspapers don’t have the money to hire a full-time videographer. This, I think, is my biggest fault because I just don’t get the opportunity to shoot video all that much. But journalists should try and get as many chances as they can. It doesn’t hurt to ask your editor if it’s alright to shoot video. Who knows, maybe they’ll say yes.

– Certainly, my videography skills aren’t all that great either. And I’m sure a lot of journalists are in the same situation. One site I always come back to for videography advice is this simple training video from BBC on the five shot rule. It’s worth a bookmark. It’s a great rundown on how to mix shots and sequence them together.

– That’s all for my rant. Hopefully some of this lights a fire under aspiring videographers. I know I want to shoot more video now…

It’s that time of year again…

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No, I’m not talking about March Madness. Or baseball spring season. Or the NHL playoffs, even. No, March is that special time of year for college students where we all must get our resumes, cover letters and Web sites together for those prospective internships or job openings. This semester is almost half way through, and after I’m finished, I won’t be attending school for the first time in 15 years. Scary.

Anyways, I have a new resume. Big deal. But I finally transferred it over to Adobe Illustrator (from inDesign), which I actually own. I should have done this long ago. But now that I have, I no longer have to rely on university Mac computer labs to edit my resume. That is certainly a sigh of relief.

I also have to edit my Flash Web site and develop a new cover letter. Conversely, I have edit this blog and all the other pages I operate. I like being all techy-savvy, but, boy, is it a pain editing every page…

Of course, the internship is long from over. But before I know it, I’ll be entering the “real world” unemployed and hungry for work. And no school to look forward to. It’s natural, but it’s still taking me by surprise.

Anyways, I’ve got to run. Be on the look out for big things in the near future. Hopefully.

Image posted by Flickr user Charles_Williams. It is used under a Creative Commons license.

Written by csessig

March 15, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Google declares Living Stories a success

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Almost two months ago, I blogged about an innovative news-gathering format being tested at Google called Living Stories. At the time, the New York Times and Washington Post were experimenting with the format. Well, a few weeks back Google declared the experiment a success and opened it up to the public. Specifically, Google is open-sourcing the code, allowing developers to create their own “living stories” using Google technology.

As I noted when I first blogged about it, Living Stories has a lot of potential. It basically allows newspapers to create a web site for specific issues they cover extensively. Along with written stories, newspapers can add images, links, timelines and more to the web page. The advantage of the technology is basically being able to store all of this content into one place. Navigation is also a snap, allowing for an easy, and informative, reader experience.

From Google:

The basic idea of a living story is to combine all of the news coverage on a running story on a single page. Every day, instead of writing a new article on the story that sits at a new URL and contains some new developments and some old background, a living story resides at a permanent URL, that is updated regularly with new developments. This makes it easier for readers to get the latest updates on the stories that interest them, as well as to review deeper background materials that are relevant for a story’s context.

The Post, for instance, put together a number of interactive stories, including one on area schools. The Times covered the N.F.L. playoffs. Basically any issue or topic that a newspaper covers extensively can be utilized.

The only question is how difficult it will be to create stories, especially for non-techy journos. I haven’t tested it out myself, so I can’t answer that question. But hopefully we’ll know for sure in the next few months as newspapers begin experimenting.

For more background, here is a video from Google:

Image posted by Flickr user psd. It is used under a Creative Commons license.

Written by csessig

March 1, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Housekeeping matters

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1. So I’m finally switching over to Gmail after almost ten years with Hotmail. I checked my account information, and I opened up my Hotmail account on March 13, 2000, at the ripe age of 13. I really should have made this transition long ago because Gmail is just fantastic. But a few things caused me to cave in just now:

  • Google groups. I’ve been invited to two just this week, and they are so simple but effective.
  • Google Buzz. I haven’t really used this capability yet but it seems full of potential.
  • Chat. I have used chat in the past and it’s great.
  • Organization. All e-mails in Gmail and their replies are keep in the same thread, making navigation and organization incredibly easy.
  • MSN stagnation. Hotmail hasn’t changed it’s outlook significantly in 10 years. Think about that for a second.
  • iGoogle. I use Google Maps, Google Reader, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google News, which all can be conveniently organized using iGoogle. Why not just complete the package?
  • Google. It’s just better.

My new account is

As expected, the transition will take a lot of time and probably cause some headaches along the way. But I think the switch will be for the better.

2. The transition has caused me to change my pages on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the list goes on and on and on. And that doesn’t include all the e-mail subscriptions that I’ve gathered over the years…Of course, I’ve also had to tweak my web page slightly. But the biggest change I’ve made to the site today is adding a link to Publish2. A quick look:

For those journalists out there that haven’t yet heard of Publish2, go take a look. It’s basically a social networking web site for journalists (think Delicious), and, more importantly, a great tool to organize all of your newspaper clips from the Internet. It even has a toolbar add-on for Firefox, making it even easier to link pages to your Publish2 web page.

One of the most strenuous aspects of job hunting is finding the appropriate clips for the job. Of course, some clips will work better for some positions. Others won’t. This web site makes it incredibly easy to keep track of those clips, allowing journalists to fluidly go through them later. Seriously, go check it out.

And that’s it for the housekeeping matters. Useful posts coming soon.

Written by csessig

February 23, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Interesting ad?

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Last Friday, while surfing the Internet, I went to the Sun-Times web site to look at a few articles . As soon as I got to the web site, I noticed something different about it: instead of the usual blue background, the site was orange. I also noticed around the edge was a repeated pattern that I couldn’t make out. So I decided to right click the image and open it in a new window. Here is what it was:

An Ad. For a Jimmy Buffet concert.

Strange. I’m not sure if this was intended but if it was, it was quite ineffective because I had no idea what it was before I opened it in a new tab. My monitor at work obviously couldn’t view the image properly, and I’m sure my computer wasn’t the only one with viewing problems.

But the larger question is: does this signal a new trend being used by newspaper web sites to display ads? Are more and more newspapers web sites going to willing to change their own background–which naturally becomes a very familiar sight for repeat visitors–to make an extra buck? And if they are willing to do this, where will they stop?

I already get annoyed by those pesky roll-over ads and animated ads that pop out at the user. But this could be worse. I haven’t seen it used anywhere else, which is a good thing. But who knows what the future holds…

This isn’t the first time the Sun-Times has used “innovative” techniques to advertise on their web site. Right now, they have one of those ads that expands the entire length of the web site when you first open the site, forcing the user to close them. I can get over those ads. But they have to draw the line somewhere before their entire web site turns into a mass collage of ads.

Have you seen any interesting ads on newspaper web sites?

Written by csessig

February 15, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Posted in Technology

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