Making Public Information Public

VPR Web Developer Sara Simon created @dirtywatervt to help bring information about sewage spills to the public.
VPR Web Developer Sara Simon created @dirtywatervt to help bring information about sewage spills to the public.

As digital reporter for Vermont Public Radio, one of the things I spend my time doing is checking a number of government websites for new story leads. It’s generally not rewarding work but on the occasions there’s something new to be found, it can make for some good scoops that don’t require well-placed sources or anonymous tips.

Vermont hospitals, for example, are inspected by the state of Vermont to ensure compliance with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services standards, and inspection reports are released online at the website of the relatively obscure Division of Licensing and Protection (within the Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living within the Agency of Human Services).

Those reports can contain important information, like the fact that a patient was killed by an accidental, nurse-administered ketamine overdose at the state’s largest hospital and the hospital took seven weeks to change problematic drug administration practices.

That story could’ve been written in the spring soon after the inspection report was posted online, but I wrote it in July because that’s when I happened to have time to check the website that keeps track of those reports. If you’ve been a reporter for any length of time, you probably have or have had a few favorite obscure government websites where you hunt for story leads or new filings.

But given that news reporters in Vermont (and in general) don’t tend to have much free time, it’s not good for our audience to have public information that depends on being “found” in order to become truly public.

It’s 2015. Let’s fix that.

Another site I frequently check is the state’s website that tracks sewage spills reported to environmental officials. Our web developer, Sara Simon, created a Twitter bot that checks that site twice per day and tweets about any new spills that have been reported. (Here’s her code.) I was interested in the tool as a reporter, because Twitter easily allows me to set up push notifications for any user I follow. With the bot, I know I don’t find out about a sewage spill more than half a day after it was reported.

The state-run page that shows Vermonters information about sewage spills is five links from the homepage of the Agency of Natural Resources, which runs it. If you think that doesn’t sound too deeply buried, I encourage you to try to find recently reported sewage spills by clicking from the homepage. (Go ahead. This page won’t get lost.)

The agency is required by law to post public notice of sewage spills, but a public notice is only worth anything if the public notices. Now, instead of actively seeking out information that is difficult to find and only sometimes new, people can simply follow a Twitter account that only provides information if it’s new.

But you don’t have to code a public-information-spewing bot in order to free up buried information. Just keep in mind that most people probably don’t spend their days looking for the things we spend our days looking for, and it’s easier than it’s ever been to share those things with the public and other reporters.

When I was checking through the hospital inspection report website earlier this month and saw that a small hospital had received one violation

Last week, I saw this story from VTDigger that mentioned that same report in its lede. Reporter Erin Mansfield wrote a story that put the report in the context of a statewide issue, including interviews with top officials and links for deeper reading (VTDigger has been doing a great job covering the state’s mental health system this summer). The story did a great job using public information as a launch point for a wider story – it provided a great example of public service journalism that uses public documents in context to make it both more powerful and more informative for the public.

I tweeted the story, and shortly after got a nice note from Erin (who told me I could share it here):

Wanted to let you know that I found that report based on your tweet. I didn’t end up citing you because I couldn’t find an article on VPR to link to.

Erin didn’t link to VPR’s coverage of the report because there wasn’t any – beyond my single tweet. VPR got scooped on a good story because of my tweet, and that’s great.

Erin’s story was well-done with a bunch of new information and reporting, and it found a far wider audience than my tweet and the obscure state website the report was. VPR didn’t publish the story, sure, but the public still knows about the issue. The contribution from our newsroom was minor but important: a lead. (Not a lede. That was Erin’s.)

On pledge drives, I often talk about how peculiar the public media business model is: “We give it away and hope people value it enough to support us.”

We can be more creative about what the “it” of that sentence really is. It doesn’t have to be fully digested stories, it doesn’t have to be at our website and it doesn’t have to be coming out of a broadcast tower. It is information. This doesn’t mean we should start ignoring journalism or journalistic principles by tweeting PDFs all day without doing interviews or going into the field, but it might mean reporters being more generous about favorite obscure website for story leads, or making Twitter bots that make the information on your favorite obscure website for story leads less… obscure.

The point is: We’re working towards a more informed public. There are more members of the public and more sources of public information online than ever before. The problem isn’t that the information is lacking, it’s that there’s no facilitator bringing it to the public where they are. Serving in that role doesn’t always have to be traditional journalism, but it’s almost always a journalistic act.


Lessons learned: Covering the marathon bombings

I wrote a piece for Media Nation, which is Northeastern Professor Dan Kennedy’s blog, about my experience covering the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt in Watertown later in the week. You can check that out above.

Media Nation

Note: Northeastern journalism student Taylor Dobbs covered the Boston Marathon bombings and the final standoff in Watertown from the scene of both incidents, publishing stories and photos in Medium. Here he offers some advice to young journalists: Show up; be a witness; tell us what you know; don’t guess at what you don’t know.

Taylor DobbsBy Taylor Dobbs

In a fast-moving, violent situation, fear and confusion naturally prevail. Facts and hard truths are at a premium, and the most difficult thing to do is separate these disparate pieces and figure out what is happening.

As a journalist, I knew this was my job on the ground when I arrived at the edge of the police perimeter on Monday, April 15, minutes after a pair of bombs echoed through the crowded streets of Boston and then again when I headed to MIT after shooting was reported on the campus.

Show up

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Boston bombing and Watertown manhunt

A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.
A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.

I live four blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, so I heard the bombs go off on Monday, April 15, 2013. A few minutes later, I was outside taking photos. I wrote for Medium about the experience of walking through Boston as it went from a city in celebration to something out of a movie; SWAT teams, Army National Guard troops on Boston Common and non-stop sirens. For Thursday, I wrote my column in The Huntington News about the bombings and the city in mourning Boston had become.

I was interviewed by BBC World News and Vermont’s Fox 44 about the day’s events, and one of my professors, Dan Kennedy, featured my post in a roundup of writing about the attack. My coverage on Twitter in the hours immediately after the explosions got the attention of Mark Fischetti, who wrote a post about the value of social media during breaking news events. Meg Heckman, a graduate student at Northeastern who I’ve had the pleasure of working with this semester, wrote about the “Golden Hour” of news and the potential Medium has to become a haven for the photo/essay style of my post there.

Then, on Thursday night, news broke of a shooting at MIT, just across the river from my apartment. I grabbed my phone and ran over the bridge, where I met up with Seth Mnookin and Brian D’Amico, an MIT professor of science writing and a breaking news photographer, respectively. I knew both from Twitter, but hadn’t met either. We were standing behind the police tape chatting when a group of police cars sped away from the scene. The three of us hopped into Seth’s car and followed. We ended up being the first reporters on the scene in Watertown, arriving minutes after a gun fight between the Tsarnaev brothers – ultimately named as suspects in Monday’s bombing – and police. I wrote my account of the night for Medium. Seth Mnookin wrote about the scene in Watertown for The New Yorker. Brian D’Amico published his photos on Flickr.

In my home state of Vermont, the Burlington Free Press’ Matt Ryan wrote a story about the adventure. The paper also published some of my iPhone photos from the night. My former editor, Anne Galloway of, also wrote a story on the experience. I had the privilege of speaking with David Kroll’s newswriting class down at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. as well.

New England independent news

During the Spring 2011 semester, I wrote for the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s e-Bulletin about independent online news sites around New England.

Disclosure: After I submitted this story to the e-Bulletin, I secured an internship with Anne Galloway at No plans were in place for that internship prior to or during my reporting for this story.

The story: Continue reading “New England independent news”

Press Association Event Preview

From the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s online bulletin (second one down):

‘Copy editing basics for today’s (multiplatform) newspapers’

James Franklin began his career almost 40 years ago as a copy editor at The Boston Globe, in a much different news-media environment.

Now, as assistant night editor at the Globe, Franklin is responsible for supervising and training editors.

In a presentation scheduled for 3:45 to 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11, at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s winter convention, Franklin and a panel of Boston Globe colleagues will talk about methods for copy editing in today’s newsrooms.

“We’re going to be talking about catches, lack of information, and misinformation,” among other things, Franklin said. “They’re the fundamental work of copy editing.”

Using anecdotes from their experiences, the panelists will discuss what can go wrong in copy editing as well as ways to fix those shortcomings and prevent copy editors from harming a story, Franklin said.

Franklin himself will talk about last-minute corrections.

“You have very little latitude in order to make the fixes,” he said. “Sometimes copy editors make (a problem) worse in trying to fix something.”

Preventing errors while still fixing an initial problem is a fine line to walk, Franklin said. He said he hopes that the session will help copy editors understand potential problems and teach them how to avoid those problems while improving a story overall.

In a second session scheduled for 9 to 10:15 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, Franklin will lead a discussion on the training of copy editors. In today’s rapidly evolving media environment, it is important to teach an adaptable skill set, Franklin said.

One way to improve training is to have more resources available to New England copy editors, Franklin said. He noted that although the American Copy Editors Association is active in many regions of the country, it is relatively inactive in the Northeast. Franklin said he hopes to discuss how to bring more training resources to the region’s copy editors to help them work in today’s news environment.

“We have to keep the papers at the same level of quality while we focus and spend more time on the electronic products,” Franklin said.

Multimedia in the Newsroom

Any newspaper that’s fought it is now dead, it’s safe to say.

Multimedia (videos, photo slideshows, interactive maps and graphics) are here to stay. At The Huntington News, part of the reason I was brought on as web editor was to improve our multimedia presence online and to supplement our stories with more visuals.

I’ve taken classes or practiced as hobby almost all forms of multimedia a news organization would want on the web, so the issue isn’t with technical know-how (though in many large newsrooms across the country, that has been exactly the problem). The issue instead is getting reporters to add cameras (video and/or still) and web-consciousness to their reporting.

To make an article run as smoothly online as it does in print doesn’t require more of the same elements. This is something we could easily cover by having reporters spend a little more time on their stories. No; this is an issue of taking every story and putting some sort of visual with it (not to mention getting it out ASAP, not just by an arbitrary deadline). The folks at Wired magazine do an amazing job with visuals in print and on the web. They have a world-class design team working closely with their editors to put together visuals that perfectly supplement the content of their stories.

The Huntington News, as a student paper, simply doesn’t have the resources for this. Working with our current staff, we are trying to add multimedia to our online content. Slowly, graphic designers and possibly some video folks will trickle in, but it’s not as easy to get a full-time college student to take on more work for no money as it is to lure a graphic designer into the offices of Wired (which I hear are pretty flippin’ cool).

Tonight, as we plugged away on a project in the newsroom, our copy editor, who was helping out with the project, stopped and said “Multimedia is hard.” We all laughed, but the fact is it really is hard. Newsrooms around the country have been figuring out how to do more (multimedia) with less (staff and money). I didn’t realize until tonight what a feat it is just to be a newspaper right now, profitable or not.

Whatever the case, we’re going to work on improving the quality and quantity of our visual supplements, but journalism students have to sleep too. Sometimes.