Blogs > 37th Frame

Photography, notes, commentary and much more from former Reporter Online Editor Chris Stanley.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A digital revolutionary

Here is some great news for our company (JRC), and me, and you...

Emily Bell, one of the great minds behind the web site, has joined the advisory board of Journal Register Company. I have already been privileged to meet and have great conversations with current advisers Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen and Betsy Morgan.

Emily was the director of leadership and digital content at the Guardian, which has been one of my favorite web sites for several years. If you have searched for just about anything on the web to do with, well, anything, likely you have come upon the Guardian site. This is a testimony to the fantastic variety of great content and their understanding of how to get it to an international audience.

Her expertise and insights will set the bar very high for the future of and all other JRC web sites.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

One last round

Today marks the last day for a local institution, Garden Golf and Go Karts. The Montgomeryville complex, which has been slowly shrinking in the past few years as surrounding retail development took over, is the planned site of new townhouses.

With mature trees, fountains, a man-made mountain, caves, and a signature waterfall that greeted motorists as they drove into the Costco parking lot next door, Garden Golf was the site of countless birthday parties, dates and family outings for the entire area. Despite some reports to the contrary, the grounds were still beautifully maintained on their next-to-last night, when I took both my kids over for one last round of golf. Somebody has put a lot of time and love into this place.

One less community gathering spot. It will be missed.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Does bad news make us happy?

Among the many reader comments under the story about a former Pennbrook Middle School principal accused of inappropriate contact with a 13-year-old male student was this comment:
Although if this guy is found guilty, he deserves what he gets in jail, I can't help but think how happy the North Penn Reporter is that they have this story. The Reporter must make 90% of its online ad revenue based on stories about the NPSD.
This brings up a not-so-well kept secret of the news business - yes, we enjoy it when big news descends on our usually quiet suburban newsrooms. And between two major teacher strikes, a handful of high-profile crime stories and enough political bickering to put us in the 'Chicago' league, we had plenty of material for our web site and the recycled tree edition (note the sanitized cliche) to keep the hits coming.

I'd be lying if I told you that the adrenaline didn't run every time the police scanner pops to life or I hear a siren in the distance. There is a thrill in not only finding out what is going on but being the first to share that information. Family, friends and strangers have come to expect this from us - after all we're the newspaper and we're supposed to know what is happening whether it has to do with our area or not. That is who we are. If a journalist is not motivated by covering these things, he or she is in the wrong business.

So the next question is - and it is a fair one - do we enjoy bad news? Are we secretly hoping that the fire alarm turns out to be a building in flames, or the whispered political gossip turns out to be true?

The best answer I can give you is that like the rest of the planet, what motivates us to do what we do and how we react to the situations we are presented varies greatly from person to person. Some do like disaster, and thrive on the energy of the rescue. Others simply record the facts dutifully, getting satisfaction from their first narration of history. Some are analytical, some are motivated by a particular cause. We have outsiders, who don't quite fit into the neat categories that can be applied to their friends and neighbors. Others are pillars of the community, involved with many traditional activities.

And while bad news and scandal does bring in readers, web hits and revenue, I believe what really motivates journalists is someting more complicated.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fun with RSS and Google

RSS (which stands for Real Simple Syndication, though that sounds just too goofy to be true) is a great way to pull headline feeds from just about any blog and many web pages. Here is a great example of a way to use RSS to pull information from one web site, in this case the Montgomery County WebCAD.

WebCAD is a site hosted by our home county (Montgomery) which has a live listing of fire, EMS and traffic situation calls. It is a great resource for local journalists who can't listen to the police scanner constantly, especially since many of the new frequencies are hard to locate or are encrypted.

The problem with this site is that the listings expire quickly on a rolling basis, so you might only see calls from the past hour or two. Useful during the day, but what I needed was a way to archive those calls at night or over a weekend, for example, so our reporters could review calls the next morning.

The solution is to use RSS feeds, which luckily are available on this site. Getting the feeds are as simple as pulling a link from the WebCAD site, which I simply added to a Google RSS reader on a iGoogle page (the customizable landing page you can create with your Google account). This reader remembers well over 1,000 of the previous RSS entries, so now we have a good archive of everything that happened in the county over the past few days.

The RSS feeds don't include much information about the incidents, but at least give reporters a good idea of what happened and lets them know who they need to call for follow-up.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More fun with Droid

OK, so they gave me this smart phone, an HTC Incredible Android. I know it's smart because it always knows where it is, which is better than I can do some days.
Ask any teenager and they'll tell you the best use for a smart phone isn't the phone at all - in fact recent articles have suggested many smart phone owners don't use the phone much at all - it's the apps. Texting, Facebook, Twitter, games, camera, music,'s basically a little computer that happens to have a phone app.
So I loaded this thing up with things I figure journalists would use - voice recorder, camera, video camera, Twitter, Facebook, a cool app that finds local police scanners and plays the audio for you, a map/gps program, live video streamer and a few others.
And OK, maybe I loaded a game or two. But I need these for 'research.'
After a month of carrying this thing around, I can tell you what I have used the most so far for business and for pleasure.
For business - by far the most useful thing is the camera. I used it to send photos of accident scenes which were loaded on our web site before I even left the scene. No longer do I need to wait until I return to the office - with this thing EVERYWHERE is an office - from the side of a highway to a remote campground. This can be good or unfortunate, of I have no excuse to not check email or post something even when I am 'relaxing'.
Second most-used app is the police scanner. It draws feeds from hundreds of police scanners monitored online across the country. The GPS-enabled program automatically finds the nearest scanner and plays the audio for you. Now when I hear a siren or see a fire truck race by, I can quickly find out what is going and whether it is newsworthy. Very useful.
Posting live video is very easy with the Android, though the final result can be a little jumpy. 3G just wasn't made for video - I am a little jealous of my 4G colleagues who get nice hi-res video. This, too shall pass. Like early cell phone cameras that produced 320x176 pixel images, the technology will soon catch up to the concept and we'll all be broadcasting from our watches like Dick Tracy.
I am only just starting to explore the thousands of apps available for this gadget. Though many of them are awful (Lady Gaga wallpaper, anybody?) others are amazing.
This weekend I spent a night camping with a group of hyper Cub Scouts at a nearby Scout camp. With little to do at night (since the recent drought put our hopes for a camp fire out) I broke out the Droid and a little app called Google Sky Watch. This GPS-enabled app actually places a sky chart on the screen that matches the real sky, labeling all the stars and planets. As you move the Droid, the sky chart moves. We had a great time identifying the constellations, Polaris, the dippers, and Jupiter, which currently is so close to earth it looks like a 767 on final approach.
This hopped-up group of grade-schoolers, fresh from a s'more sugar rush, actually stopped chasing each other for a little while and begged to be the next to try and find a star or two.
Now, that's amazing.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fun with Droid

To call an iPhone or a Droid a phone is like calling a computer a word processor.
Yeah, it makes calls, but if you look around at people using these things, the vast majority of time they aren't making calls at all. They're texting, Facebooking, watching videos, Tweeting, scanning bar codes, transferring files, checking maps or about 200,000 other things. Some actually have a separate old-style clam shell phone for calls, since smart phones are actually pretty uncomfortable to mash against your face for any extended time.

I didn't think too much about the camera aspect of a Droid until I got one - I figured the Droid camera would just be a good way to get a quick photo on our web site for breaking news, or as an emergency back-up if I didn't have a real camera handy.

Then I started playing around with some of the camera apps - Retro Camera (simulates photos from old cameras, including a Brownie and a Polaroid), and my new favorite, Camera 360 which offers a good variety of artistic effects such as sepia toning, b&w modes, sketch conversion, fisheye lens simulation and more.

The one that really got me shooting was the HDR (high dynamic range) mode, which has become very fashionable among professionals recently. Normally this involves shooting several frames of a scene at varying exposures. Then, using software, you combine the photos to create an amazingly detailed final result with details in all exposure ranges, from deep shadows to bright highlights. It is a great effect.

Camera 360 has a HDR simulation mode. It uses software to simulate this range instantly, and while not as good as a real multi-exposure project, it captures the effect pretty nicely. Here's some examples:

Note the details in every range - this effect looks even better on a large screen.

Here's another very cool option: tilt-shift. Normally this effect is accomplished with special lenses or lens mounts that allow you to mis-align a camera lens with the film plane (or digital imaging chip), giving a unique soft-focus effect.

There are many more. I'll post them as I try them out. But don't call me to talk about these, I'll probably have the phone turned off while I am taking pictures with it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rock and roll cruise

What happens below decks when things get rough on a cruise ship