Texas Tribune

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

    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
    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.

  • Everything you need to know about DPS, police pursuits and why troopers shoot at vehicles

    Last week, Hidalgo County District Attorney René Guerra asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to temporarily suspend its practice of using airborne snipers to fire at fleeing vehicles. Guerra made the request after DPS trooper Miguel Avila, riding in a helicopter, fired at a pickup truck he thought was carrying a drug shipment. Actually, the truck was full of immigrants suspected of entering the U.S. illegally. Two Guatemalan immigrants were killed.

    One of the most difficult and controversial challenges for police officers is chasing a fleeing vehicle. Police are supposed to catch criminals. But a lot can go wrong in a high-speed chase — especially in the deadly cat-and-mouse game DPS troopers play with drug smugglers in Texas border counties.

    DPS Director Mike McCraw has asked the FBI to investigate the shooting. But there are already resources available to the public that show why an incident like this near the border was probably bound to happen.

    Smugglers recovering drugs from the Rio Grande River
    Smugglers recovering drugs from the Rio Grande River (Source: Texas DPS)
    Two years ago, we found and wrote about a little-known resource: A DPS database that keeps track of every vehicle pursuit troopers are involved in. The database is available to the public through the state’s open-records law, and I teamed up with Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune to get a copy of the data and analyze it.

    We received data for nearly 5,000 chases that occurred from January 2005 to July 2010. The database was packed with details about every DPS pursuit in Texas, showing factors like how each chase started, how it ended, and how many people were injured or killed.

    One thing that jumped out at us was the high number of pursuits in Hidalgo County on the Mexican border. Between 2005 and July 2010, troopers in other Texas counties chased vehicles, on average, about 20 times. In Hidalgo County, DPS troopers chased vehicles about 30 times more often — 656 pursuits. That’s far and away the most in Texas:


  • Telling stories with data: Police chases and drug smugglers on the Texas-Mexico border

    After the Express-News and the Texas Tribune collaborated last month on a story about concealed handgun permits, Brandi, Matt and I were jazzed about the results and started talking about what to work on next. Here’s what we came up with: An analysis of nearly 5,000 vehicle-pursuit reports kept by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

    Drug runners drive into Rio Grande River
    Drug runners crash into the Rio Grande River (Source: Texas DPS)
    Until recently, I had no idea this DPS database existed. But I stumbled across it a few months earlier when I was working on this article about pursuits in San Antonio. SAPD keeps a database packed with details about each chase — the weather and road conditions, the pursuit speeds and durations, the injuries and fatalities. Since SAPD had this data, I figured other law enforcement agencies in Texas probably kept similar records. I asked around and sure enough, DPS was one of the agencies that collects details about pursuits.

    Why is that a big deal? Well, when you find a previously unknown database with information about an important public safety issue and analyze those digital records, you’ll probably discover fresh, interesting information for your readers. Public databases empower journalists to do their own research and find surprising answers.

    Brandi asked for a copy of the data and we received it from DPS with little trouble. It was a big spreadsheet documenting nearly 5,000 pursuits from 2005 to July 2010.

    One detail jumped out at us: Hidalgo County, by far, had the most pursuits over the past five years — 656. Several other border counties also ranked high, suggesting smugglers were often fleeing DPS troopers. The database told us all kinds of things about these pursuits — how often people were injured, how often motorists escaped, and how they got away.

    When reporters dive into data-heavy topics, it’s important to find the real people behind the numbers. We asked DPS early in the reporting process to go on a ride-along with a trooper in Hidalgo County. Brandi and photographer Callie Richmond visited McAllen and went on a ride along with DPS Trooper Johnny Hernandez. Their experience became the lede of our story. Brandi had some great interviews with Hernandez and other troopers in Hidalgo County, who openly talked about their continual struggles to catch smugglers from Mexico. The visit provided rich material for photos and an awesome online video that Callie produced.

    Brandi wrote a big chunk of the article on the drive back from McAllen. We finished writing and editing the story in a Google Document, which really beats sending e-mails back and forth and losing track of differing versions of the story. Google Docs lets you see what each collaborator is adding to the document as they write. It’s like the Big Brother version of Microsoft Word, but less evil. It’s a useful tool for collaborating with people, especially if they work in a different organization in a different city. Plus, Google gives you a chat window in the document, which is nice if you want to mock the typing skills of your colleagues.

    Why bother teaming with the Tribune? I blogged earlier about how I’m warming up to the touchy feely trend of collaboration in journalism — how it helps overworked reporters tackle stories, and broadens their reach with a wider audience when the final product is published. When our story ran Sunday, it was published in the Express-News, the Texas Tribune, the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times.

    The collaboration also helped us post online goodies for readers hungry for more information. Matt Stiles made an interactive county map of Texas. I used DocumentCloud to post this annotated copy of a pursuit report that offered context from the pursuit data. Callie’s YouTube video was a very cool mini-documentary that explained the issue. We also posted the data online, allowing readers to learn about pursuits in their own counties.

    There were some interesting reactions to the story. Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast was surprised so many suspects got away: “I would not have guessed that the number of chases ending with the suspect successfully eluding troopers on foot would have been so high, nor that the proportion who stop and surrender would be so low.”

    KXXV TV localized the story by looking at the high number of pursuits in McLennan County.

    That’s the great thing about news stories based on public data — people can take the information you found, talk about it, and look at the data themselves.

  • Collaboration: A touchy feely buzzword in journalism that’s actually good for readers

    You might notice an odd byline on this recent story about concealed handgun permits published by the San Antonio Express-News. I worked on the article, but so did reporters Brandi Grissom and Matt Stiles, who work for the nonprofit Texas Tribune, an entirely separate news organization based in Austin. The same stories, video, maps and photo that ran in the Express-News also appeared on the Tribune’s website.

    firing range in San AntonioAs scores of nonprofit, public-service media organizations sprout up around the country, “collaboration” is the latest buzzword in journalism circles. The gun-permit story was the result of the first collaboration between the Express-News, a daily newspaper established 145 years ago at the end of the Civil War, and the shiny new Texas Tribune, which launched nearly a year ago as a web-based source of Texas news and public data. The Tribune’s founder, venture capitalist John Thornton, believes in-depth journalism is a public good — but not necessarily good business anymore. So he joined forces with Evan Smith from Texas Monthly, made the Tribune a nonprofit that relies on donations, and hired top-notch journalists from other newspapers, such as Matt and Brandi.

    The folks at the Tribune offer their content for free to anyone who wants to republish it, and they’re eager to collaborate with other news organizations. The Tribune got a cold reception at a few Texas newspapers, but my bosses were always open to the idea of teaming up with the Trib. Their attitude was, if there’s a good story and it makes sense to work together, let’s do it.

    One idea was to write about data kept by the Department of Public Safety that showed how many concealed handgun permits are issued for every ZIP code in the state. When you view the data on a map, it shows the affluent North Side of Bexar County had higher rates of permits issued than neighborhoods close to downtown San Antonio, where crime rates were higher. It was a curious pattern that occurs in every major Texas city, and Matt asked if we were interested in teaming up on a story about it.

    We started working together in early September. Before this project, I knew Matt and liked his work. I didn’t know Brandi personally but liked her work, too, especially this story and this story. And I liked how the Tribune got people excited about investigative journalism. The owners were building something new, not looking for new ways to downsize and cut costs like every other newspaper in the country. It was a nice change.

    Brandi, Matt and I relied on conference calls, e-mails, and Google Documents to share material and ideas. Both the Tribune and the Express-News have talented staff who could have done this story on their own. But by teaming up, we were able to throw more people at the story, gather more information, finish it faster, and reach a broader audience. Matt called it a “force multiplier.”

    One thing that worked well for us was having a clear division of labor. I did the shoe-leather reporting in San Antonio and interviewed gun instructors here; Brandi interviewed people and experts in other parts of Texas, and Matt handled the data analysis. I wrote some early drafts using Google Documents so we could all work on the stories. Brandi plugged in information she gathered and beefed up the articles, especially the one about the surge in gun permits during the Obama administration.

    The Express-News benefited from this arrangement. If I had worked on the story by myself, maybe I would have thought to interview the gun owners, experts and public officials Brandi spoke with — but maybe not. And who knows if I would have had the time to do all that. And we also tapped into the power of the Texas Tribune’s awesome data library. By teaming up with the Tribune, the Express-News posted some cool interactive maps created by Matt. That’s a tangible feature that might not have been there for our readers if the Express-News handled the story by itself.

    By teaming up with the Express-News, the Tribune got an extra reporter out of the arrangement and benefited from one of the primary strengths of the newspaper, which pays reporters to spend weeks or even months to work full-time on a story. I hung out at shooting ranges, attended two concealed handgun classes, shot some video, and interviewed gun owners and gun instructors.

    All this time spent “hanging out” helped me collect telling details and colorful quotes that enriched the story, and I learned a lot about the issue. I liked how a folksy gun instructor, Michael Arnold, quoted the Chinese military genius Sun Tzu to tell his students the importance of using force as a last resort.

    Several other Express-News staffers helped out. While I was at a shooting range, Photographer Edward Ornelas shot some cool photos — I love the shot of the shell casing flying out of a pistol. At the office, Database Researcher Kelly Guckian crunched crime data we had to add some context to the story. And graphic artists Harry Thomas and Michael Fisher used the maps created by Matt for the print edition.

    What this all means is that in an age of shrinking newsrooms, collaboration briefly augmented the Texas Tribune and the Express-News. And the results most likely surpassed anything the two organizations could have accomplished on their own in the same time frame.

    Pitfalls: Coordinating the data-heavy graphics was a bit of a pain. It’s not like Matt could simply walk across the Express-News newsroom and talk to our graphics people. It took some back and forth to get everything right. Maybe we stumbled upon an actual use for Google Wave to deal with that.

    I asked Matt and Brandi, who left large corporate newspapers to join the more nimble and experimental Tribune, whether it was a pain dealing with mainstream newsrooms again. They said so far, so good. The gun story got pushed back a week because the Sunday print edition of the Express-News was jammed up with other stories. That’s not a problem the Tribune has to deal with. In this case we thought it was OK because it gave us some breathing room to keep working on the story and make it better.

    Overall though, we’re pretty jazzed about the way it all worked out — and we’re talking about our next cool project.

  • Pattern of concealed handgun licenses in Texas tied to income and politics

    We teamed up with the Texas Tribune for this story that explores why Texans tend to get concealed handgun permits in affluent areas, but not in low-income neighborhoods with higher rates of crime.

    firing range in San AntonioTribune reporter Brandi Grissom and I wrote the story, along with an article about the surge in gun permits that occurred in 2009 after Barack Obama was elected. Matt Stiles at the Tribune helped with the data analysis and made some cool interactive maps that compare the pattern of gun permits to income levels and election results.

    The package got some interesting feedback from readers, ranging from “no duh” to discussions about why law-abiding citizens in low-income neighborhoods aren’t seeking concealed-carry licenses.

    John Lott, author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” also responded with a blog post stressing how the cost of concealed gun licenses can reduce the number of people who obtain them:

    This is the point that I have been trying to make with my research for years. Higher permit fees and the costs of getting training not only reduce the number of permit holders, but they also make it so those who benefit the most from permits don’t get them. Both of those reasons work to reduce the benefit from right-to-carry laws.

    Express-News columnist Scott Stroud wondered if this is yet another sign of a polarized society:

    The tendency to live, work and worship among people who agree with us has accelerated in recent years and shows no sign of waning. In that context, the notion that the two major political tribes harbor different views about guns isn’t shocking.

    Any time the media delves into the hot-button issue of guns, some readers are going to be suspicious of the finished product. But I enjoyed speaking with the gun owners and instructors who were quoted in the story and video — I think they figured out I wasn’t a stereotypical sensational journalist. Instructor Michael Arnold invited me to a concealed handgun class and I got to hear him paraphrase Sun Tzu as he told students the best way to win a fight is to avoid a fight. Brock Wilkerson at A Place to Shoot also invited me to a concealed handgun class at his shooting range. Wilkerson let me spend two afternoons at the range and I met his customers and cool employees.

    They helped us put the voices of real people in the story. Along the way, I leaned a lot — and hopefully, our readers did, too.

  • Texas Tribune: An exciting experiment, still defining itself

    The Texas TribuneColumbia Journalism Review published a detailed feature story today by Jake Batsell about the Texas Tribune, the nonprofit news site/data library/journalism experiment that is still defining itself:

    I spent nine months scrutinizing the Tribune’s business strategies and editorial work, attending its events, talking to its reporters, and listening to the Texas journalism and political communities size up the new kid on the block. And while it is too early to make sweeping judgments about the Tribune, I came away mostly impressed with what I saw. It is clear and serious about its journalism, but it also has a sense of humor and is willing to try new things, fail, and try again—two qualities in painfully short supply at most traditional media outlets. But make no mistake, this is an experiment, and its success is hardly guaranteed. The Tribune has shown a remarkable ability to raise startup cash, but no one is certain where the long-term money will come from. It has drawn a lot of readers, but a huge portion come for the interactive databases of public information that, while undeniably a boon to government transparency, remain unproven in their concrete journalistic benefits. But more on that later. The Tribune is exciting. It has shaken up the state’s journalism establishment. And it is trying to be something at once familiar and altogether new.

    Batsell found a key point about the Tribune — it’s sparking excitement about journalism. Part of that excitement is caused by the charisma of Evan Smith, who was a great cheerleader for Texas Monthly before he became a great cheerleader for the Texas Tribune.

    But there’s something else at work here besides Evan’s enthusiasm.

    The philanthropic nature of the Tribune sends a message that journalism matters more than corporate profit margins. Instead of dismantling newsrooms, the Tribune is building a new one in fresh ways. I think the Tribune’s donors and its 10,474 Facebook fans appreciate that.

  • Creative fact-checking at Texas Tribune inspired by VH1’s Pop-Up Video

    The Texas Tribune came up with a new way to fact-check and add context to political speeches. Called “Stump Interrupted,” the Trib is adding VH1-style pop-up bubbles in videos of speechifying public officials, such as U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry.

    Creative fact checking at Texas Tribune inspired by VH1 s Pop Up Video John TedescoThere’s factual information mixed in with humor — I laughed at the bit about joining hands at the 6:05 mark. The Trib also links to Google docs spreadsheets to show its sourcing.

    Maybe I like Stump Interrupted because I’m a MST3K fan who appreciates sarcasm between soundbites. But this is certainly a Web-savvy twist to journalism’s traditional role of fact-checking.

  • What the Texas Tribune really offers

    Tomorrow marks the maiden voyage of the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization that covers state politics and issues. The Tribune might revolutionize the media landscape. Or, as founder John Thornton told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, it might suck.

    The Texas TribuneBut there’s certainly something the Texas Tribune offers that mainstream newspapers, TV and radio are struggling to achieve:

    Excitement about journalism.

    Watch the introduction video. Can the journalists in your rapidly shrinking newsroom match this level of enthusiasm? Probably not, which explains why every reporter at the Texas Tribune used to work at a mainstream media organization.

  • Texas Tribune receives big grant, but Slate claims nonprofit journalism is flawed

    Evan Smith (left) on Texas Monthly Talks, interviewing John Edwards.
    Evan Smith (left) on Texas Monthly Talks, interviewing John Edwards.

    There’s more news, interviews and criticism this week about the Texas Tribune, an ambitious nonprofit news site led by former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith and venture capitalist John Thornton:

  • The Tribune announced today that it received a $750,000 grant from the Houston Endowment and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation;
  • Mallary Jean Tenore at the Poynter Institute interviewed the talented reporters at the Tribune who left traditional media jobs to take a chance at the nonprofit;
  • And Slate’s media critic, Jack Shafer, took a swipe at the growing philanthropic trend in journalism, arguing: “We’re substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose money deliberately. No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions.”

    The Tribune’s primary benefactor, Thornton, responds to Shafer’s column by saying there’s a reason why philanthropists like him are writing big checks for journalistic ventures: “I think most of us want quality journalism. Just like I give money to Ballet Austin because I like to see artistic athleticism and pretty women.”

  • (Photo credit: mattwright on Flickr)

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