Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

New search tips for 2014 from Google research scientist Daniel Russell

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I couldn’t attend the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco this year. But thankfully, Google researcher Daniel Russell was there. He gave another excellent presentation about search-engine strategies and posted his advice online.

Daniel Russell, research scientist for GoogleAs the Uber Tech Lead at Google, Dan studies how people search the web. He started sharing little-known search techniques three years ago at the IRE conference in Boston. Since then he’s annually offered tips at IRE that can help everyone — not just reporters — find exactly what they’re searching for online.

Here are some of Dan’s new strategies and tools for 2014, and a recap of the most useful tips from his past presentations that I’ve used myself. You can check out posts about his other talks here and here.

Go back in time

One of the coolest new tools offered by Google this year allows you to jump in a time machine in Google Maps’ Street View.

Let’s say you’re walking around downtown San Antonio and you’re curious about the site of a historic building on Commerce Street across from Main Plaza. An inferno destroyed the building a few years ago and now there’s nothing but a vacant lot:

Commerce street without the Wolfson Building in Google Maps

In Google Street View, click on the clock symbol in the corner of the screen to check out how that spot looked over the years. In this case, you can look at what the Wolfson Building looked like before the catastrophic fire:

Google map image of the Wolfson Building in downtown San Antonio

The Wall Street Journal used this time-machine effect to illustrate dramatic growth in Brooklyn.

The cool thing about this is how you can pan around and get different perspectives of the sites you’re interested in.

Gallery of Google Map Mashups

The Google Maps Gallery allows organizations to mesh their data with Google maps. All these mashups are searchable, and Google links to the original sources if you want to download the information yourself.

Let’s say you’re curious about which counties in the United States are prone to tornado strikes. A search of “tornado” in the Google Maps Gallery shows a map based on federal data showing tornado strikes, total property damage, injuries and deaths by county:

Wildcards in Google Maps

Type an asterisk in the search bar of Google Maps and it will show you every business and significant, named place it knows about in the area you’re viewing.

If you plan on using any of this information in a news story, you’ll want to take steps to confirm what you’re seeing in the map. But this is a really quick way to get a sense of what’s in the area.

For example, if you’re writing about the Wolfson Building fire and want to get a quick idea of what businesses were nearby, in Google Maps, focus on the site on Commerce Street and try the wildcard search:

Force Google to search for certain words

By far the most common search function I use in Google is “intext,” which Russell discussed at his first presentation in Boston.

Sometimes Google tries to be too helpful. It changes your search terms and uses words it thinks you’re searching for– not the words you’re actually searching for.

And sometimes the websites in Google’s search results don’t include all your search terms because Google decided those pages might still be relevant.

That might be OK for general searches. But it’s not very helpful if you’re looking for pages with specific terms or words with unusual spellings. How do you make Google search for those exact words?

Typing intext:[keyword] (with no space on either side of the colon) might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Dan’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website.

If you’re researching the story of the Wolfson Building, for example, you’ll probably want to make sure that Google always includes that unique name in the search results. Typing intext:Wolfson San Antonio will force Google to include the term “Wolfson.”

Intext also works with phrases in quotes. So typing intext:”Wolfson Building” will strong-arm Google into showing you that exact phrase.

To learn more details about Google’s search operators, check out my post about his talk in Boston where he gave us a treasure-trove of advice.

Customized site searches

Google’s site search let’s you search for information on a particular website. Typing site:mysanantonio.com “Wolfson Building” would show pages with that phrase that were published by the San Antonio Express-News. But what if you wanted to regularly check what other local news outlets published in the San Antonio area?

Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search engine. You tell Google which websites to search, save your settings and Google creates a link to the custom search page. Now you can search those specific websites any time.

This technique is handy for anyone interested in a particular beat or issue. I created this customized search of San Antonio media and blogs to quickly see how news organizations are covering a story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.

Control F is your friend

Not everyone knows this so it’s worth repeating: Type “Control F” in Windows or “Command F” on a Mac to launch the “find” function in your browser to locate a specific word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page if you’re looking for something in particular. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Dan said at the IRE conference in Boston.

This year, Dan said useful Chrome extensions expand the usefulness of the “find” function. Let’s say you want to find more than one word. You could type an expression such as Wolfson|Building|Fire to highlight all those words. Handy.

Dan regularly blogs about search strategies by challenging readers with puzzles. It’s a good way to stay in practice. And practice, Dan says, is the best way to hone your search skills.

Mayor Julián Castro leaving San Antonio?

Monday, May 19th, 2014

How Castro went from having “zero interest in Washington” to being a possible contender for vice president.

Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

Sunday, April 20th, 2014
Sarah Brasse

Sarah Brasse

In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

Her name was Sarah Brasse.

It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.
(more…)

San Antonio lawyer Alberto Acevedo says he bribed judge, got favorable treatment

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Express-News Reporter Guillermo Contreras, who covers the federal-courts beat, has been writing scoop after scoop about an FBI investigation at the Bexar County courthouse in San Antonio. The latest bombshell is a story about this plea deal for local defense lawyer Alberto “Al” Acevedo Jr., who lays out in excruciating detail how he bribed Bexar County District Judge Angus McGinty by giving him cash, paying for car repairs and selling the judge’s Mercedes for him:

“In exchange for these bribes, Judge McGinty provided favorable judicial rulings which benefited me and my clients,” Acevedo says in the court document. “Judge McGinty provided these favorable judicial rulings as requested, and as opportunities arose. These favorable rulings included leniency at sentencing and less restrictive conditions of release.”

San Antonio lawyer AcevedoThe clients included a man who was convicted of DWI and sentenced by McGinty to three years imprisonment. In court, McGinty had said the defendant had committed so many offenses it didn’t make any sense to put him on probation. Yet after Acevedo asked him to reduce the sentence, the judge did just that and sentenced him to four years community supervision:

On Sept. 10, Gabriel A. Lopez stood before then-state District Judge Angus McGinty and received three years in prison and a $1,500 fine for his no-contest plea to drunken driving.

He admitted his blood alcohol level was 0.21 — more than 21/2 times the legal limit. It was his third driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

“There comes a time when someone has committed so many offenses that it doesn’t make sense to put them on probation,” McGinty told Lopez, 35, who appeared with attorney Leandro Renaud.

The judge noted Lopez had 11 prior criminal cases and had received probation four times, while three of those were revoked.

“That’s unacceptable, Mr. Lopez,” McGinty admonished. “I do not think probation is appropriate.”

But just three days later, on Sept. 13, Lopez stood before McGinty again, this time with lawyer Al Acevedo Jr. And this time, he walked out a happier man after the judge changed Lopez’s sentence to four years of probation.

“Mr. Lopez, when you were here last, and I sentenced you, it’s because I thought you had earned the right to go to” prison, McGinty said. “Your attorney has done a good job of pointing out some facts that I didn’t adequately consider before.”

In reality, the FBI has alleged, Acevedo had the good graces of the judge because he had served as McGinty’s personal car service — paying for repairs on the jurist’s two luxury cars with the expectation that the scales of justice would tilt heavily in favor of Acevedo’s clients.

Later, Acevedo’s law partner congratulated Acevedo. “I guess it does make a difference givin’, givin’ people money, right?”

Acevedo laughed. “Sure does,” he replied.

Other clients that benefited from the judge’s leniency included an alleged bank robber and a man charged with aggravated robbery.

McGinty resigned after word of the federal investigation spread but hasn’t yet been charged.


Check out the San Antonio bars and restaurants that raked in the most money in alcohol sales

Thursday, February 20th, 2014
Jen at Bohanan's

Date night with no kids. Look how happy this woman looks.

Last night Jen and I enjoyed a rare date night at one of our favorite restaurants downtown, Bohanan’s, a swanky oasis of cocktails, jazz — and no screaming Tedesco children.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how much money your favorite haunt makes in alcohol sales, there’s now an easy way to find out.

Joe Kokenge, the Express-News’ database editor, put together this interactive data viz that shows total alcohol sales for San Antonio bars and restaurants last year. Some of these numbers are mind-blowing.

The top seller in San Antonio was the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa — the same project that sparked years of controversy for seeking exemptions from city taxes and for building on the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

The resort raked in more than $11 million in alcohol sales in 2013. That’s more than the second-place venue, the AT&T Center, home of the San Antonio Spurs and overpriced macro brews.

The sales data comes from the Texas Comptroller’s office, which doesn’t offer the information in a very user-friendly format. Joe combined a year’s worth of data and put together an interactive, easy-to-use table that you can sort and search.

It doesn’t show who sold the most alcohol, only how much revenue was generated in alcohol sales. So expensive drinks might move a company up in the rankings.

Out of curiosity, I checked Bohanan’s and learned it generated a whopping $2.2 million in alcohol sales in 2013.

That’s a lot of fancy cocktails.

‘San Antonio 4′ set free after doubts raised in bizarre criminal case

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Anna Vasquez, right, embraces her brother David Vasquez, as family and friends of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh gather in the 175th District Court in the Cadena Reeves Justice Center to hear that the 3 women will be released from prison. Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. The fourth women, Anna Vasquez, was released on parole from prison just over a year ago.Express-News reporter Michelle Mondo spent 18 months investigating the bizarre case of the “San Antonio Four” — four women accused of sexually assaulting two girls over the course of a weekend filled with debauchery and Satan worship. Michelle’s meticulously researched article raised questions about the evidence and the credibility of the accusers, who might have made up the whole sordid story.

Since then, one of the accusers recanted, and one of the accused was released on parole. Today, the remaining members of the San Antonio Four were set free on bond.

Amazing.

(Photo credit: Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News)


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.”
    (more…)

    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.

    (more…)

    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.