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.


Is ‘Serial’ Journalism?

In a word: Yes.

(Note: If you don’t know what Serial is – first of all welcome to the Internet – and come back in 10 hours when you’ve finished listening.)

I’m putting this here because I think Serial’s success has perked up a lot of journalists’ ears (especially if they are, like me, in radio) and made them think about what they can take from Serial and apply to their own work.

Media critic (and my former professor) Dan Kennedy posted a commentary on his blog by journalist Brian C. Jones that makes an interesting argument that Serial isn’t journalism because it launched before the journalist involved – This American Life’s Sarah Koenig – knew what the outcome would be.

My objection is that when the reporting phase is exhausted, it’s crucial to understand what kind of a story it is, and maybe whether it is a story at all. At the very least, the writer has to be honest with listeners as to the “why” of the story.

Jones’ problem, he writes, is that Koenig is one episode away from the conclusion of her look into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and it seems likely she won’t have a “He did it!” or “He’s innocent!” conclusion to cap it all off. Not doing so, he argues, just causes a lot of harm to everyone involved in the case and doesn’t really accomplish anything. Therefore, he says, it’s voyeurism and not journalism.

Last week Koenig read from a letter from the defendant saying that his psyche has been bruised by her persistent questioning of his character. I imagine some prosecutors, cops and others whose work has been scrutinized feel the same.

I disagree with the argument that this disqualifies Serial from being journalism.

While I have sympathy for the family of the victim and the defendant with respect to the pain of being in the spotlight, I think Jones’ criticism is off the mark. To condemn a journalist for scrutinizing the work of police and prosecutor, and for the discomfort that’s caused, is to condemn accountability journalism. Accountability journalism is never comfortable when done well, and it shouldn’t have to be. Public officials – both the law and society in general agree – are and should be subject to greater scrutiny.

As to the harm caused to Adnan by digging into this case – Jones is right, it must be difficult. But (guilty or not) he was convicted of killing a girl. Is that not more harmful to his reputation or emotional health than anything Koenig ever could do? Does the outcome of her reporting (or lack thereof) somehow retroactively change the calculus here?

Journalists spend every day asking difficult questions and making people uncomfortable. Much of the time, especially for investigative journalists, this never pans out. That’s okay. But is it suddenly not journalistic work if they then publish their findings, painstakingly taking the time to note all the things they’re not sure about.

The only real difference between investigative reporting and what Koenig has done here is that the things that don’t pan out generally don’t go public, because it would require far too much ink or air time or pixels to say “we checked this out and there are a bunch of caveats but we still have questions.” But this is a podcast dedicated to exactly that, and Koenig openly acknowledges the weaknesses in what she’s found as well as the emotional difficulty involved in this digging – the criticism mentions Koenig’s own disclosure as evidence against her.

To say it’s not journalism because there isn’t a clear “why” is overly simplistic. Journalism is about creating a more informed public and moving conversations forward, and Koenig has done that.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Jones.

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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A look at Campaign for Vermont

Over at VTDigger, I looked into Campaign for Vermont, a group that emerged last fall putting ads on the radio. In response, one of the founders wrote an op-ed criticizing the piece and Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog picked it up. Here are those three posts in part; click through to read them in full.

Why is Bruce Lisman spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ‘start a conversation’?

Campaign for Vermont became a player on the political scene in Vermont late last year — thanks to the largesse of a single wealthy individual and an aggressive local media advertising blitz.

But eight months since a group of prominent conservatives founded the 501(c)(4) organization, its purpose remains unclear.

What is Campaign for Vermont, and more to the point, what is the group trying to accomplish?

The founder of Campaign for Vermont, Bruce Lisman, says the organization doesn’t adhere to a political point of view, but the group has pushed for fiscally conservative ideas outside the traditional Republican Party construct.

Campaign for Vermont, through hyperlocal radio advertising, has indirectly criticized “Montpelier,” a.k.a. Democrats who hold the governor’s office and the Statehouse, for “out-of-control” state spending. It has also chastised the executive and legislative branches for not being transparent enough about the way taxpayer dollars are used by state government.

In a recent email missive to supporters, Lisman wrote that “Campaign for Vermont believes that higher property taxes, increased electric rates and a risky health care scheme will strangle a vibrant economy.”

Lisman, a native of Burlington’s North End, and a former executive with Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan, says he is trying to draw attention to the state’s financial future through a “campaign for a prosperous economy.”

Listen closely to GOP candidates such as Randy Brock, who is running for governor, and Wendy Wilton, who is making a bid for state treasurer, and familiar Campaign for Vermont themes emerge.

After months of Campaign for Vermont’s focus on “prosperity,” Brock’s media consultant Robert Wickers said in a statement that “[a]s Vermonters learn more about Randy, and hear his positive message of economic growth and prosperity, this race will tighten.” Brock and Campaign for Vermont have also criticized the growth of the budget this year (an overall rate of 6.3 percent).

In the group’s first radio advertisement, Lisman said, “It’s time to use modern technology to make Vermont state government totally transparent and accountable to every citizen.”

Wilton, at her campaign launch for treasurer, echoed that sentiment: “Information is key, but it’s the ease of that information that’s really important too. Because it’s got to be readily available, you’ve got to be able to see it and understand it, and it can’t be in some really arcane spot within the state’s website where you’d never find it even if you put it in a search function. It’s got to be somewhere where people can see it easily.”

Jake Perkinson, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, suggests that Campaign for Vermont might be a “launching pad” for a political candidate — most likely Lisman himself. Though he is the face of the organization — his portrait is on email messages and the website — Lisman has said repeatedly that he has no interest in running for office.

Kevin Ellis, a communications strategist with KSE Partners and a supporter of Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin, says Campaign for Vermont is the Vermont GOP’s ad hoc messaging machine, laying the electoral groundwork for Republican Party candidates this election cycle.

He also speculates that Lisman wants to be a kingmaker. Ellis says Campaign for Vermont’s ubiquitous advertising could be a potential prelude to financing candidates in 2014 — in the event that Vermont’s campaign finance limits are knocked down in the courts.

“Sure, he may give money to candidates,” Ellis said. “But I think he is a millionaire from Wall Street who came to Vermont and wanted to be a player. Spending this money is the best and fastest way to do that. Spending this money makes him a political player, scares the heck out of Democrats and makes him the toast of the Burlington cocktail party circuit among Republicans. But that is a long, long way from playing on the varsity team against pros like Peter Shumlin, Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy. To steal a phrase from David Plouffe, those guys play chess. Lisman is still playing checkers.”

Read the rest at

Op-ed: Words and Facts Collide by Tom Pelham

Taylor Dobbs, reporting for VTDigger, might use his recent article covering Campaign for Vermont as a teachable moment about poor journalistic technique. Dobbs, a recent graduate of Montpelier High School and candidate for a BA in Journalism from Northeastern University next January, chose the easy but less informing route. He gathered up the observations and quotes from a handful of insider politicos, namely Jake Perkinson from the Vermont Democratic Party, Jack Lindley from the Vermont Republican Party, political commentator Eric Davis and Montpelier lobbyist Kevin Ellis and presto, he had a political story to tell.

Dobbs’ slant on Campaign for Vermont is that we are not only about politics, but about Republican politics and more, about conservative Republican politics and his politically oriented but fact-challenged sources, not surprisingly, affirmed this perspective.

Dobbs does a disservice to the mission of VTDigger “to create a platform of consistent delivery of fact-driven reports on matters of public interest and to serve as a catalyst for more open debates on key issues that impact Vermonters’ daily lives” and to those seeking informed, balanced reporting rather than slant. In the same way that VPIRG and VNRC are policy-driven organizations focused largely on environmental issues, Campaign for Vermont is a policy-driven organization focused on the future prosperity of Vermont.

Questioning whether or not Campaign for Vermont, at its core, is about politics or public policy is fair game. Like Gov. Shumlin, Bruce Lisman is a wealthy individual who could mount a substantially self-funded effort for elective office. For those who primarily view the world through the prism of politics, like those interviewed for Dobbs’ article, the clear answer is that Bruce, despite his statements to the contrary, has political aspirations.

Read the rest at

And finally, the Green Mountain Daily post, Tom Pelham has a sad:

Awww, some bruised fee-fees over at Campaign for Vermont, the “nonpartisan” policy shop that’s obviously and blatantly conservative to anyone with a brain who spends five minutes reading their website or listening to their radio ads.

It seems that those dastardly folks at Vermont Digger committed an act of journalism. It took a long hard look at CFV and its founder/funder Bruce Lisman, and published a story pointing out the obvious: that CFV is conservative, that its policy positions are closely aligned with the Republicans’, that all its attacks are against the Democrats, that Lisman is spending a whole lot of money and nobody knows what his real ambitions are.

And that gave Tom Pelham a sad.

Read the rest at Green Mountain Daily

A semester as news editor of The Huntington News

I spent the spring semester as the news editor of Northeastern University’s student newspaper, The Huntington News, where I coordinated coverage of all on-campus (or near campus) news, including student government, administration and other student issues.

It was a totally new experience, and learning to manage a staff and coordinate photography and reporting for multiple stories at once was definitely a challenge, but I am very glad I had the chance to do it. Some of the stories I’m especially proud of from the semester, in no particular order and not necessarily written by me:

Coverage of the Barstool Sports Blackout Tour, which sparked controversy from women’s rights activists at Northeastern:

Coverage of a proposed Chick-fil-A location in Northeastern’s Curry Student Center, which caused outrage in the LGBT community:

Northeastern’s cafeteria workers spoke out against their managers, who they say mistreated them:

I’ll be spending another summer with starting tomorrow. I’ll be covering the campaign season here in Vermont, as well as other political happenings.

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”

VTDigger Stories

Below is a list of the stories I wrote this summer (2011) for

VTDigger wrap up

The entrance to the VTDigger offices in Montpelier, Vt.

My first story for ran on May 11, 2011. Twelve weeks, 37 bylines, and 25,000 words later, my internship is finished.

I’m not in journalism because I aspired as a young boy to spend my mornings in the Vermont State House covering three-hour policy meetings and listening as lawyers debated for over 30 minutes the meaning of a single phrase.

But walking the streets of Montpelier and the hallways of state office buildings or wherever our governor’s next press conference might be, I learned my state from a different angle. One hopes that politicians see issues from the same side of an issue as everyone else, but they don’t. Lawmakers and lawyers will fight over the meaning of one simple phrase for 30 minutes because while it’s only a phrase to me, it’s the quality of life of hundreds or thousands of people who look to them, the government, for an answer.

I learned to see the governor, one of only fifty in America (an obvious fact that still brings me pause every time I step into the room with him), is human. A man who can make mistakes, but more importantly, make decisions because he feels in his gut – without always looking at numbers or bulleted lists or commission reports – that people need this. I grew up 0.47 miles from the governor’s office, but it took me 21 years and the right internship to realize this.

If I had to guess how many times I heard my editor, Anne Galloway, say “If you only take away one thing from this summer…” it’s definitely be more than just the once. But if I only take one thing away from this summer, really, it’s that no matter how much research I do, how many interviews I conduct, or how many meetings I attend, I’ll never write the perfect story. Writing alongside my fellow intern Eli Sherman (literally – we shared a desk), Anne, and the other journalists covering Vermont policy and politics, I saw stories written three different ways about the same thing. And I saw stories about three different things all come from a single event. Sometimes I’d see a story about an event I’d passed up and realize it would have been the best story I wrote all summer. The good stories aren’t always where you expect them, and the good become the best sometimes by chance and sometimes because of that one extra phone call.

People on the outside of VTDigger know Anne by her byline, the back of her head in press conference footage on the local evening news, or her phone calls. The only way to truly know an editor, though, is by dragging your chair into their office, sitting over their shoulder, and watching them tear apart – with a precision that to the untrained eye looks remarkably similar to reckless abandon – your day’s work. It took me a good few weeks to write a lede (the first sentence of a story) that Anne didn’t promptly delete. It was painful to watch much of the time, but the education I got looking over Anne’s shoulder as she restructured and reworked my stories was the best journalistic education I’ve had so far. And I go to a journalism school for upwards of $40,000 a year. Anne has an uncanny precision and ability to articulate exactly what the story is without sounding too convoluted or worse: making an incorrect statement in an effort to be direct. I feel lucky to have written for her this summer.

I learned more about photojournalism than I thought there was to know in the arena of taking pictures of press conferences and political meetings from Josh Larkin, VTDigger’s head honcho of technology, design, and photo (and cool hats, but he doesn’t put that on the business cards).

The newsroom, despite being roughly the same size as some of the jail cells we saw on our prison tour of Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., was the best place I’ve ever worked. Walking in every morning, I was ready for something new and different. Almost every morning, I got it. From prison tours to digital nature walks to press conferences with the governor, every day was a new experience. If I began my summer with any doubt in my mind that I want to spend my life as a journalist, it has since disappeared.

Why I Want to be a Journalist (NY Times Week in Review story)

This post was inspired by this story in The New York Times, which covers the story behind Sgt. Salvatore Guinta (photo center) being the first person to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor while still living since Vietnam.

Image from NYTimes story. Lynsey Addario/VII

There are plenty of reasons to become a journalist. We love to romanticize our profession — if we may even call it that — with dreams of exposing corruption or telling the story of the underdog. I won’t lie, I would love to break the next Watergate, and I’d love to write a great feature (as of now, I hate writing features, but I know I’ll get over that and want this someday) on how so-and-so overcame such-and-such to achieve such-and-such. But really, what I hope to get out of it is even more abstract. I don’t live to expose corruption, I don’t look into every success for a triumph over adversity. I just live and just look.

Continue reading “Why I Want to be a Journalist (NY Times Week in Review story)”

To Infinity! and Beyond?

Unlike previous blogs I’ve tried to start and run with no focus or goal, I’m writing here specifically to share my work and attempt to improve it as I go. More generally, I’m here to talk about journalism. How will news organizations support themselves by the time I graduate? What will “news” look like? Will I ever have anything published on real paper?

I don’t know, but I know I’m part of the wave of journalists that will be making these decisions, so let’s start the conversation.