writer, editor, curator, producer & production manager
The rules of good journalism are simple: double source facts, don't bury the lede and write clean, readable copy. As an editor at the Chicago City News Bureau famously barked at cub reporters, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!"
I missed the heyday of City News, with all its Front Page-style grit and romance, but that lesson, along with many others learned on deadline, formed the core of my journalism education.
Journalism for me has always been both a means to an end—a golden ticket to ask questions and pursue interests far beyond what I had studied in college (history and photography at Indiana University)—and a way to make a difference.
It has served as a passport, providing access to places I otherwise would never have likely seen. Working on documentaries and television segments for Discovery, TBS and National Geographic as a production manager, producer and/or writer, I have traveled to the Old Havana neighborhood in Cuba, explored a Polish salt mine (Wielicka), seen the inside of a US nuclear missile silo, strolled across the roof of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City and chased after bears, wolves, coyotes, horses, birds and wildlife biologists. I have also been lowered into a Boston sewer and have crawled through a giant tunnel boring machine beneath the streets of Chicago with a man known as "Catfish." Every experience, breathtaking and gritty, has been adventure.
Bio Invasion, a special report on invasive diseases for Businessweek magazine, was my watershed story. Like many good stories, it was years in the making.
I first became interested in the exotic pet trade while working as a production manager on Wildlife Wars, on a television documentary about conflicts between livestock and wild predators in the American West (TBS / National Wildlife Federation). It was my introduction to canned hunts, a staggeringly unsportsmanlike practice where people pay to shoot "trophy" animals trapped within fenced enclosures. A few weeks after filming, I went to an exotics auction in northern Indiana where a literal Noah's Ark was for sale: lions, tigers, ligers (lion / tiger hybrids), bears, pythons, ostriches, even giant rats. It was so stunning that I began to look for a story angle sure to catch the attention of every party involved.
I found it several months later in a short wire service article about an ailing African tortoise covered in giant healthy African ticks that had been brought into the veterinary clinic at the University of Florida. These non-native ticks were known carriers of Heartwater, a serious animal disease that the US Department of Agriculture had spent millions of dollars over decades to keep out the country. At risk not only was the health of hundreds of millions of cows, goats, deer, antelope, sheep and buffalo, but also the livelihoods of American farmers and ranchers.
The ticks tested negative for the disease, but I stayed in touch with the veterinarians, who kept me posted on subsequent infestations. Eighteen months later, a sample tested positive for Heartwater and I had a story hook. Interviews led to interviews. Government employees mailed photographs of dilapidated diagnostic labs and were willing to go on the record about the chronic underfunding of US labs. Heartwater turned out to be just one many exotic, zoonotic health threats and two column story ballooned into a special report.
Bio Invasion received a number of honors, including an award from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). In short order, my contact list filled with the names of top virologists, epidemiologists and bacteriologists. I covered Mad Cow / Mad Deer and the spread of West Nile virus. I went behind-the-scenes at LAX for a story on wildlife imports. I wrote about links between infectious diseases and mental illnesses. I became fascinated by the connections between the micro and the macro.
TrackerNews was developed as a demonstration project for InSTEDD, an independent spin-off of Google.org's humanitarian practice whose primary focus was on the development of mobile tech solutions for disease surveillance and disaster response. The news aggregator covered the health and humanitarian beat with an emphasis on technology.
The project was inspired by two events: A charette organized by Amory Lovins, co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, on refugee issues; and Strong Angel III, a large military and civilian disaster relief exercise organized by Dr. Eric Rasmussen, who would later become InSTEDD's CEO.
Over the course of both events, a sense of collaborative esprit de tech developed among the hundreds of participants. Crisis mapping, for example, was in its early days. Some of the collaborations at Strong Angel helped pioneer the field.
I was part of a team that included scores of techs from Microsoft, Google and others elsewhere in Silicon Valley, along with dozens of first responders, UN staff and NGOs working on food, water and shelter projects. I interviewed dozens of the 800+ Strong Angel participants, which included scores of techs from Microsoft, Google and other Silicon Valley companies, along with dozens of first-responders, UN staff and NGOs working on food, water and shelter projects.
TrackerNews was an attempt to keep the transdisciplinary pipeline primed. An aggregator format was used because for its ability to deliver a lot of information at-a-glance. Stories were presented as suites of links, combining news articles with research papers, videos, maps, podcasts, historical articles, interviews, websites and books. Each link was tagged for a searchable database and each link suite included an companion blog post (see slideshow).
At its core, the TrackerNews project was about providing contextual relevance to make it easier to see patterns, identify potential solutions and perhaps even help spark unexpected, serendipitous collaboration.
Now I look at almost everything through a digital media lens, analyzing information flows and the potential to leverage impact.
From ebooks to videos, digital publishing platforms make it easy to package and deliver information in all sorts of new, creative and deeply useful ways. In the blink of an eye—or the click of a smart phone camera—almost anything can be transformed into media content. Existing content can be re-used, re-cut and re-purposed (archived news stories, research papers, textbooks, etc.). Even physical objects can become part of the digital mix through 3D printing files.
The challenge is making sure that all the parts come together into a meaningful whole: selection over collection.
The skills of journalism—a beat reporter's shoe leather smarts, an editor's canny sense of context, a curator's meta-story perspective—can make a tangible difference. In fact, it can make all the difference. Knowledge really is power. Due diligence matters.
The TrackerNews project pre-dated Zite, Flipboard and Pinterest—all brilliant aggregation tools that incorporate social sharing tools, yet all limited either by a focus on the latest news or by layout constraints. Zite and Flipboard throttle sharing to a single article at a time, making third party apps such as Pocket the default bookmarking tool. Meanwhile Pinterest's image-centric format is skews toward visual content. Ironically, its "icon wall" layout limits how many pins can be seen at one time, making it more difficult to make connections between ideas.
We also experimented with designing a personal TrackerNews aggregation tool (dubbed the konektome with a hat tip to a project to map the neural connections). It was only a working sketch, but designed with considerable functionality. A user could generate as many categories or sub-categories as needed, each with its own url. Whole sections, as well as individual links, not only could be moved around the template by dragging and dropping, but shared as well. Individual links were clone-able for slotting into multiple categories.
Perhaps one day such a tool will be built. In the meantime, I continue to explore new digital platforms and experiment with ways to package / repackage content to better leverage information assets, working on projects for conferences and consultancies.
Verticals is a sketch for a new type of digital business publication designed to go deep by going broad. The prototype focuses on the water business, a global market conservatively estimated at more than a half trillion dollars annually—and growing. In addition to an overview, case studies and expert interviews (podcast / video), an extensive digital bibliography lies at the heart the publication. Links are selected to inform, inspire and help businesses identify opportunities and include a section on industry trade shows and news sites. Verticals is a starting point, a reference providing context and perspective to support innovation. Stay tuned...
As a correspondent for BusinessWeek, my favorite stories focused on health, energy and the environment, but I started at the magazine as a marketing writer, the lead author on a cover story about "bricks versus clicks": the struggle to find balance between physical and digital retail.
The TrackerNews demo aggregator was developed for InSTEDD, an independent spin-off of Google's humanitarian practice primarily focused on mobile tech solutions for disease surveillance and disaster response.
The mission was to try to bridge "silos of expertise"—to broaden awareness among all the different actors working in the humanitarian space. The beat covered health issues, humanitarian work and technologies relevant to both.
We also experimented with designing a personal aggregation tool. A user could generate as many categories or sub-categories as needed, each with its own url. Whole sections, as well as individual links, could be moved around the template by dragging and dropping. Individual links were clone-able for slotting into multiple categories.
A companion blog post accompanied each "link suite" story on the aggregator, providing a second way to package and archive the information. Click a slide to link to its corresponding post. The archived blog includes a complete directory.
I have written dozens of posts for several blogs. The slideshow features a few of my favorites. Click on a slide to link to its corresponding post.
Verticals is a mock up of a new type of digital business publication. Each edition focuses on a different business vertical, providing an overview and an extensive linked bibliography.