Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Former San Antonio official Fernando De Leon faces federal charges in alleged bribery scheme

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Fernando De Leon, assistant director of land development for the city of San AntonioIn March 2010, San Antonio police detectives and FBI agents visited the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, the place where real estate projects go to live or die based on whether the necessary permits are approved.

One of the officials who signed off on those permits was Fernando De León, the department’s friendly, soft-spoken assistant director. Investigators headed to his office. De León wasn’t there, but they seized his computer and files. City Manager Sheryl Sculley later fired him, but De León wasn’t arrested.

Until last week.

A federal indictment made public Thursday sheds light on the case against De León:


Longtime readers of the Express-News might remember some of the details we had discovered about the case through public records and lots of digging:

  • Authorities were scrutinizing De León and a permit-expediting company called Rapid Permit Services. Federal officials subpoenaed records at Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc., one of the largest engineering firms in town, to gather information about Rapid Permit Services and possibly others. Pape-Dawson was not the target of the inquiry;
  • Rapid Permit Services got a plum job at the Rim, an 800-acre shopping center;
  • De León reviewed and approved some of the paperwork for the Rim that had been filed by Rapid Permit Services;
  • De León’s sister and possibly his mother were tied to Rapid Permit Services;
  • At Pape-Dawson, the point of contact for Rapid Permit Services was a project manager named Oscar Rodriguez.
  • For the first time, the indictment lays out the actual allegations against De León, and describes how he is accused of teaming up with Rodriguez to defraud Pape-Dawson and the firm’s clients.

    Check out the most recent story here, and if you want to learn more, here are past posts about the case.

    Review of the SteadyTracker UltraLite and tips from company owner Rene Kropf

    Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

    I have kids. Which means I own a video camera. Which means I chase my kids around with my video camera, trying to catch them in action. And the footage always looks shaky and horrible.

    So I’ve read more than my fair share of reviews about stabilizers, Glidecams and Steadicams. They rely on gimbals and counterweights to produce smooth, dream-like shots. But they’re often expensive, and some customers complain it takes forever to balance these contraptions.

    About 15 years ago, Rene Kropf and his colleagues were experiencing the same frustration as they worked in his garage trying to design a tool that could help stabilize shaky film footage for light cameras.

    “We went down the same route of counterweights and all that,” Kropf told me. “And we saw that as a nightmare. It’s like, the sun went down and we still haven’t balanced it, so forget that.”

    The SteadyTracker UltraLite doesn't rely on a gimbalKropf, the owner of Cobra Crane, a camera gear company in California, abandoned the gimbal system altogether. Instead, he helped devised something called the SteadyTracker Ultralite, a crowbar-like device with two adjustable weighted ends and a balancing pad in the middle that rests on top of your hand.

    I recently bought the SteadyTracker UltraLite for about $179 on Amazon. The SteadyTracker is touted as a simpler, inexpensive option compared to other stabilizers. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and produced some sample shots in this video review. When I called Cobra Crane with a few questions about the SteadyTracker, I was surprised to get a call back from Kropf, the company’s owner. He offered insights and tips that aren’t in the instruction manual.

    “It’s relatively inexpensive,” Kropf said. “It’s pretty easy to use. And the biggest thing, the number one thing that people comment on, is it’s a super-quick set up, so you don’t miss shots.”
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    More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples

    Monday, July 1st, 2013
    Daniel Russell, research master at Google

    Daniel Russell, research master at Google

    When a research scientist at Google offers to show you how to unlock the full potential of the powerful search engine, you pay attention.

    Last year Daniel Russell spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Dan showed us search techniques that can make anyone a better researcher. Some tips I already knew. Others I thought I understood but didn’t. And some I had no idea existed.

    I thought Dan’s talk was eye-opening — and others had the same reaction. My post about his presentation last year was widely shared, so there’s enormous interest to learn more about how Google works and how to use it effectively.

    You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance. This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    Since that conference a year ago, Dan began offering online classes. I’ve had a year to practice many of these techniques. And about a week ago, Dan spoke again at the IRE conference in San Antonio with even more advice.

    “You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance,” Dan said at his panel, Digging in with Google. “This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of the interesting new techniques, and revisit tips Dan discussed last year with some real-world examples of how journalists used them in actual news stories. Many of these methods also work on other search engines, such as Yahoo! and Bing.

    These tips are for journalists, researchers, librarians and anyone else who wants to learn new ways to find information. Google will never replace the importance of shoe-leather reporting — knocking on doors and talking to real people. But Google can help reporters find the right doors to knock on and reveal surprising details about the people you’re talking to. Knowing how to find obscure information on the Internet is a vital skill for any journalist.

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    Saying goodbye to an ‘Unsung Hero’

    Friday, June 28th, 2013

    The last time I saw Kelly Guckian, we had taken her out for lunch on her last day at the San Antonio Express-News before she embarked on a new journey at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I snapped this picture of Kelly and our colleagues outside the Express-News building 17 months ago:

    Kelly Guckian and the Express-News crew

    There she is in the middle with the slightly mischievous smile. See how everyone else is squinting in the bright Texas sun? Kelly’s the one flaunting sunglasses. Clearly the smartest one in the bunch.

    A subset of journalists in the news business knows how to obtain government data, analyze it and tell readers something new about the world.

    And within that niche, there are experts like Kelly. The ones who really know their stuff. Whenever a data problem stumped me, I’d turn around at my desk and ask, “Hey, Kelly, how do you …” And no matter what I asked, I’ll be damned if Kelly didn’t know the answer every time.

    Years ago, after the death of former state Sen. Frank Madla and his family in a tragic house fire, Kelly, Karisa King and I analyzed fire-response time data we obtained from the San Antonio Fire Department. I remember this story very well because it’s a powerful example of how public data can empower journalists to tell readers what’s really going on in their community. Our story said:

    City records show the Fire Department’s mission of protecting lives and property is clashing with San Antonio’s appetite for new land.

    In the past six years, firefighters rushed to inner-city blazes far more quickly than to fires in popular outlying areas that attract thousands of new homeowners.

    Delays on the city’s edges plague rich and poor alike, from the exclusive enclave of the Dominion to low-income neighborhoods like Sunrise, a struggling community on the far East Side.

    San Antonio annexed many of these neighborhoods despite protests by residents, who complained the city would fail to provide swift fire protection.

    The city’s own records reveal that most of the time, those fears came true.

    You can’t write that kind of story without knowing how to analyze public data for yourself. Kelly got that.

    Kelly started out in the news business as a photo archivist in 1994. But then she was drawn to the geeky goodness of computer-assisted reporting. This was her calling, and she excelled through intelligence, generosity and hard work. Kelly went to school in her spare time and rose through the ranks to become database editor at the Express-News.

    But it was a hard climb. Like I said, computer-assisted reporting is a niche field. Not everyone understands the work that goes into it or sees a need for it. But many of Kelly’s colleagues saw how she was improving the newspaper. When the Express-News created a new “Unsung Hero” category for the Philip True awards in 2004, the newsroom staff overwhelmingly nominated her to be the first recipient.

    Kelly loved to learn about this intriguing, challenging field of journalism. She would have kept on learning, and she would have been generous with her knowledge.

    But five months ago, Kelly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a ferocious disease.

    Yesterday, Kelly died.

    I’ll miss Kelly’s cheerful spirit. Her amazing desire to learn. And her mischievous smile.

    Live-blogging the IRE 2013 Conference in San Antonio: Resources that will help you be a better journalist

    Thursday, June 20th, 2013

    IRE Conference 2013

    Check out some of my favorite research tips, strategies and resources from this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where about 1,100 incredibly talented journalists are meeting in San Antonio. These conferences are geared for journalists, but really anyone who’s interested in research tools will find many of these tips handy.
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    How sexual assault victims in the military are declared mentally ill and booted out

    Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

    Amazing reporting by Karisa King, who shows in excruciating detail how sexual assault victims in the military face retaliation and accusations of mental illness. Check out the “Twice Betrayed” home page with links to video interviews and the entire package of stories.

    San Antonio Express-News launches paywall

    Sunday, May 5th, 2013

    San Antonio Express-News building

    Photo credit: Sean McGee

    Our new paid site was unveiled today. We still have the free site at mysanantonio.com that will offer things like breaking news, entertainment and event calendars. But in-depth stories and other features will now be tucked behind a paywall at Expressnews.com.

    I’m not sure how I feel about paywalls on news sites, but I see some upsides. Thanks to the paywall, we don’t have to chase page views, so there’s no link bait or bikini-babe slideshows. There’s no extra cost for print subscribers, which rewards them for buying the newspaper. And the new site looks drop-dead gorgeous. It’s actually a pleasure to read without the distracting flash ads.

    This is an interesting strategy. Mysanantonio.com will be free and post potentially viral content, while Expressnews.com will, hopefully, generate revenue from subscribers.

    What do you think?

    Texas Week examines dangers facing oil-and-gas workers on the Eagle Ford Shale

    Sunday, February 24th, 2013

    Watch February 22, 2013 | Eagle Ford Safety Issues on PBS. See more from Texas Week.

    Many thanks to Rick Casey, Bruce Kates and the folks at KLRN’s Texas Week for inviting me to discuss the dangers facing oil-and-gas workers on the Eagle Ford Shale. At least 11 workers have suffered horrible but preventable deaths since 2009.

    Workers dying on the Eagle Ford Shale

    Saturday, February 16th, 2013


    View Workers dying on the Eagle Ford Shale in a larger map

    The Eagle Ford Shale boom is pumping billions of dollars into South Texas. But it carries a steep cost. Our story tomorrow is about the workers who have suffered horrific, preventable deaths at drilling sites. You can see where employees have died and read the federal inspection records about the accidents in this interactive map.

    If you work in the industry and want to share tips or concerns, all my contact info is here, thanks.

    How to make stunning time-lapse videos: Q&A with photojournalist Tamir Kalifa

    Monday, January 14th, 2013

    Freelance photojournalist Tamir Kalifa spent two days working on this stunning time-lapse video of the Texas Legislature’s opening day for the 83rd legislative session. Lawmakers convene in Austin every two years and the event is widely covered by the media. But Kalifa, an intern at the Texas Tribune, captured the energy of the day in a unique, compelling way. I called him to ask how he did it.

    Q: This is actually the second time the Texas Tribune has done a time lapse of the opening day of the Texas Legislature.

    A: Yeah, that’s correct.

    What were you trying to convey in this particular video and how does time lapse help you do that?

    Tamir Kalifa

    Kalifa

    Well, I think that during the off year, the Texas government is sort of hibernating and waiting for this huge burst of energy that happens in the first few months of the year. So really what I wanted to show was the Legislature sort of waking up and coming to life and the excitement that everybody — from the legislators to the lobbyists to the lawyers to everyone’s families — I wanted to get across how people are hugely involved. I just thought doing a time lapse was the most efficient way to show the enormous scale of it. There were thousands and thousands of people swarming around the Capitol. There was an enormous line waiting to get into the House chamber to hear Joe Straus, to see him sworn in again.

    It was amazing. I’m a musician in Austin. Free Week is just coming to a close now. You had all these free shows and everybody is clamoring to get in. It’s one in, one out when it gets to capacity. I realized, as I was desperately trying to get into the House to just get a little glimpse of it, there are a lot of Texans who get that kind of enjoyment and excitement out of the government. And that’s awesome. I really wanted to show that and kind of show the grandeur of it. There aren’t that many things in Texas that are as old as the capital. So it’s also cool to showcase it in that way.
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