Have spare time? Here’s what to see in San Francisco

I’m writing this in anticipation for the annual Online News Association conference, but I could be writing this for anyone who is in town with some extra time on their hands. ONA folks should be sure to read “Your ONA12 insider’s guide to San Francisco” before this, and other visitors to this post, well, be sure to read the “Things to know about San Francisco” and the “Here’s what I will not endorse” sections.

Because below is what I will happily endorse.

Most of the shorter recommendations are assuming you’re based in the Embarcadero or Financial District area, but otherwise, this will be my evergreen post I point to when I want to recommend things to do in San Francisco. Things in highlights are my highlights. If you do nothing else, be sure you do those.

So: How much time do you have in SF?

Can only spare an extra hour:

  • Walk the waterfront and explore the Ferry Building, which is the big building thing with the clock tower. There’s markets and shops and restaurants, and if you’re there on the weekends, you can partake in a top-notch farmers market. Plus, there’s a lovely view of the Bay Bridge. Wave to Berkeley and Oakland across the Bay while you’re at it.

Can only spare two hours:

  • If you’ve never been to SF before and don’t have any other opportunity to see it, take a cab (and a coat) and go see the Golden Gate Bridge. I love the view from Crissy Field. Warning: At any time it may be too foggy to see anything, which might still be a beautiful sight.
  • Already seen the bridge? Wander around North Beach and Chinatown. Just walk to the Transamerica Pyramid and walk up the diagonal street, Columbus Ave. (There’s even walking tours every Sunday and Monday nights.)
  • If you’re too hungry to aimlessly meander, go to the 16th Street Mission BART stop and get a Mission burrito, a tourist attraction in themselves. My standby place by the BART is Pancho Villa Taqueria.  You should have a Mission burrito at least once during any visit to SF.

Can only spare three hours:

  • Go to City Lights bookstore in North Beach, buy a book and begin reading it over a drink in Vesuvio across the Jack Kerouac Alley. It’s where he and other famous Beat authors got their start. (This block is probably my favorite place in San Francisco, and I’m not all that into Beat poetry.)
  • Take a cable car. It is worth doing at least once, even if it is touristy. The cable car line that starts in front of the hotel isn’t crowded, but it also isn’t quite as amazing as the Powell-Hyde line. Try the Powell-Hyde line in the morning or at stops other than Powell and Market to beat the crowds. (Here’s a map in animated gif form!)
  • The Filbert Street steps and/or Coit Tower. I’m a totally out-of-shape human being, and I still enjoyed this walk up the steps to the tower, though I did have to stop often. The views are worth it. If you’re not fully mobile or are running out of time, there’s buses that go to the top of Telegraph Hill.
  • Take the Sausalito ferry (here’s the schedule), have a coffee somewhere there and take some pictures of the SF skyline. The ferry leaves next to Sinbad’s Restaurant right behind the Ferry Building. How apt.
  • Noisebridge. OK, this is not standard tourist fare. Some may be offended I list them as a “tourist destination.” But if you identify as a geek or a hacker, you need to check this hackerspace out and maybe take a class. It’s part electronics lab, shop class, craft room, hackathon and library all rolled into one. It’s open to the public any day, 24 hours a day. It is a bit chaotic, so be sure you arrive when someone can give you an orientation.

I have an extra half a day:

  • Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. That is a must-do. There’s even a treasure hunt if you want to play along. But please, please, bring a strong jacket.
  • If you’ve walked the bridge before, walk Land’s End, which in my opinion has the city’s most stunning views of the bridge.
  • If you can book it in advance, Alcatraz. This is the one thing I’ve heard is worth splurging on, but I’ve never been. Tours are usually sold out if you try to book the day of. Especially weekend tours. In fact, if you want to go, I’ll totally go with you.
  • Golden Gate Park. You need a minimum of a half a day to explore this giant park, and probably my favorite park in the country. Rent a bike or roller skates, visit the top-notch museums, see the different themed gardens, stumble on random Sunday concerts, walk through the park all the way to the ocean… there is too much to do, and you could probably sink a full day here.
  • There’s nothing like people watching and window shopping on Haight/Ashbury, where tourists, aging hippies, the homeless and the colorful crazies all hang out. Eat at the Squat & Gobble Crepery. Go to Amoeba Records, one of the largest independent music and DVD shops you’ve ever seen. Then go to KidRobot and Cheap Thrills to buy quirky and fun pop-culture relics.
  • Hell, pick a neighborhood and have at it!
  • Go view-hunting. Grab a camera and hit up the spots where you can see the entire city. Here’s a great rundown on the best views in SF.
  • My guilty pleasure: You may have your Full House house (which I highly discourage) if I can have my hop-on, hop-off bus tours. I like knowing the history and stories behind places, and I was genuinely entertained by the tour I took. Several companies depart from Union Square. I can’t for the life of me tell you which company is better. Just pick one!

I have an extra evening open:

I have an extra day or two:

  • Build any combination of the above into your own itinerary.
  • Explore the museums of your choice. I highly recommend spending a full day at the Exploratorium. Like Alcatraz, if you want to go, I’ll totally go with you. For art, the SFMOMA is hugely popular, for good reasons. But I also love the smaller, quirkier museums like the Musée Mécanique, which houses turn-of-the-century mechanical arcade games. It costs if you want to play the games, but otherwise it’s free admission, unlike most museums in SF.
  • If you didn’t get to squeeze Golden Gate Park into half a day, you can easily sink a full day in the museums and gardens and activities there.
  • Visited SF before and want something different? Come on over and explore the East Bay! We don’t bite. Check out downtown Berkeley or Telegraph Ave., or in Oakland see Jack London Square, downtown or Piedmont. All are vibrant neighborhoods worthy of a visit.

Any more than that:

Invest in a guidebook, smartypants! I find Frommer’s has good 1-, 2- and 3-day agendas here. There’s also a fairly good SF information center at the Powell Street BART. I can also personally recommend San Francisco Free and Dirt Cheap, which helped me a little in writing this post.

I hope that helps you figure out your plans! This is my favorite city in the nation, so I’m honored to get to live close enough to it to be a “local” by default. But as you could tell, even I haven’t done everything I’m recommending (like Alcatraz!). I would love to explore even more.

I’m planning on it!

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Your ONA12 insider’s guide to San Francisco

Most of my life I’ve lived 3-and-a-half hours away from SF in the heart of the Central Valley. But now that I call the Bay Area my home, I thought I would let my fellow ONA12 attendees in on knowledge I wish I knew when first coming to San Francisco.

I still want to post another SF guide for those with spare time in the city. If you find yourself with spare time in the Bay Area beyond the conference, be it a few hours or a few days, here’s my recommendations on what to do in SF.

Things to know about San Francisco

Bring a jacket everywhere. I don’t care what the weather says.

This, my friends, is the Fleece of Shame.

It’s what tourists are forced to buy when they think they’re travelling to sunny California and the sky looks bright out their hotel window and their weather app says 70 degrees so therefore they don’t need a jacket. In two hours it will be a windy 55 degrees and they will fork over $50 for fleeces from some random tourist stand with horrendous tacky logos that will haunt them in every photo they take.

Do not be caught with the Fleece of Shame. Be caught with the much-lesser sin of tying your jacket around your waist.

The public transportation is… meh. But use the Google Maps app to get around.

Compared to my country bumpkin upbringing, the transit is amazing. But compared to cities like New York, D.C. and Chicago, our transit sucks. The BART shuts down around midnight on weeknights and the MUNI light rail doesn’t travel everywhere you need to go. And that electronic sign that says the bus is coming in two minutes has been lying to you for the past twenty.

Yet it’s still better than driving. So we soldier on.

Your survival tool is the Google Maps app. I use it constantly everywhere in the Bay Area without major problems. You can also call 511 from your mobile for live arrival times, or visit 511.org.

One helpful navigation tip: The sidewalk corners in SF are all embedded with the street names, in case you can’t see a sign or you never, ever want to look up from your phone.

Here’s the rest you need to know about getting around in SF.

If transit is meh, driving is hell on wheels.

San Francisco is built on three separate grids, some at weird angles that can confuse the hell out of newcomers. Plus, the city has so many impossible one-way streets and no-left-turn rules and steep-hill challenges. And then you have to park and spend longer finding a decent spot than you do driving. Plus the tight parallel parking and the remembering to turn your wheels on hills and… ugh.

If transit isn’t an option, just pay other people to drive for you. Taxis may not be plentiful everywhere in SF, but they’re around the touristy areas. You might also want to try Uber. It’s more expensive than a regular cab, but I’ve heard from reliable sources that an Uber car arrives within seconds.

Another option: If you’re a member of Zipcar, there’s a few lots by the hotel. You will have to drive, but you won’t have to find parking. That’s half the battle.

San Francisco is pricey.

Be prepared to pay $12-15 for basic lunch at most places in the Financial District, $15-25 for dinner. Dining by the waterfront can be $30+.

Don’t call it Frisco. Ever.

Or San Fran. Or anything else. The only acceptable spoken words are “San Francisco” or, if you’re anywhere in the area, “The City.” SF is acceptable in type, sometimes in speech. Just don’t call it Frisco. This bitterness goes back a long time.

Things to know about the hotel

It is indeed in a great location.

The BART, the trolley and the cable car all stop right in front of it. It’s attached to the Embarcadero Center, with four buildings full of shopping and dining. It’s on the waterfront. It’s accessible from everywhere. From a tourist’s point of view, it’s ideally situated.

It’s a cheapskate’s minor tourist attraction.

Hyatt Regency lobby, San Francisco

Hyatt Regency lobby, San Francisco. Photo: Suzanne Yada

“Hey dad, what was that place grandma used to take us to every time we were in San Francisco? The place with the glass elevators?”

“Oh yeah, the Hyatt,” my dad said.

True story. It’s even got side mentions here and here (fantastic guide books for cheapskates, by the way). And “The Towering Inferno” and “High Anxiety” were filmed here, if you’re into movie trivia.

There’s a cool Exploratorium exhibit in the lobby right now.

And a really terrible video of it here. The Exploratorium always has great stuff and we’re lucky to see some of their exhibits in the lobby. If you have an extra day in SF, you should go visit, preferably while they’re still in the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts. (They’re moving in spring 2013.)

Having said all that, you should also know about the union issues.

Read more details from the ONA website about the union dispute with the Hyatt hotels. Please read and consider all the information. If you are OK with knowing this, and you still plan to attend ONA, continue with the rest of this guide.

Things to know about the neighborhood

It’s called the Financial District. No wait, the Embarcadero.

It’s actually both. The Financial District is San Francisco’s downtown skyscraper area, where the only people who’d be caught dead wearing a suit hang out. And the Embarcadero is the area all along the eastern waterfront. But usually when someone refers to “the Embarcadero,” they typically mean the area around the Ferry Building and the Justin Herman Plaza. Exactly where the hotel is.

Ferry Building at night, as seen from the top of the Hyatt. Bad photo: Suzanne Yada

It’s businessy and touristy by day, but it’s absolutely dead by night.

No, seriously. The place shuts down around 5 p.m. on weekdays, and you’re lucky to find much of anything open on the weekends or late night – with the exception of the 24-hour Subway. For those reasons, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time there before I knew the conference would be there. But in recent weeks I’ve discovered some gems in the neighborhood, so it’s still possible to have a good time. (Though you can have an even better time a 15-minute walk away.) Speaking of…

Don’t be afraid to walk 15-20 minutes to the good stuff.

Many of my fellow East Bay residents refuse to go anywhere more than a minute’s walk from a BART stop. Do not be like them.

Do be afraid, a bit, to walk in the Tenderloin.

Everything in red is where you want to avoid at night.


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Except if you’re joining us for karaoke Saturday night. In that case, suck it up, travel in a group, take a taxi if it’s past 10 p.m. Because, come on, karaoke.

There are some great events happening nearby while we’re there.

A world-class free symphony concert is happening just outside the hotel at the Justin Herman Plaza on Friday at 5 p.m. Plus, as it happens every weekend, a farmers market takes place at the Ferry Building. If you’re a big foodie, you might see celebrity chefs like Alice Waters grazing through the market. And the only-in-SF, not-for-the-faint-of-heart Folsom Street Fair [NSFW] is on Sunday, a short bus ride away. Just thought you should know!

For more journalism-y non-ONA events: On Wednesday the NorCal chapter of SPJ will have a meetup on digital security (but you must register by 10 a.m. Sept. 19). If you have an extra day on Monday evening, you have options: You can go learn how to solder your own circuits at Noisebridge (a must-visit place if you’re a hacker or geek), or Transmedia SF is having a meetup called From Coding to Stories.

That grey bridge you see is not the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is the Bay Bridge. It is grey. It has more than two vertical towers on it, therefore not the Golden Gate.

This is the Golden Gate Bridge. It is red. Well, OK, “international orange.” It has only two vertical towers. It is not visible from the hotel.

And now you know!

Look out for wild parrots.

Walk out of the hotel toward the waterfront and turn left into Sue Bierman Park. That squawking you hear are San Francisco’s famous wild parrots. They don’t look quite like Iago, but they are cool. Bring your telephoto lens.

Good places to dine:

Remember, most everything shuts down after business hours, so while your lunchtime options are numerous, your dinner options are not.

My favorite dinner place in the area is Pizza Orgasmica. The pizzas are heavenly, and it’s a rare place in the neighborhood open until midnight, 7 days a week. Warning: It’s also a theme restaurant, so you can order the Doggy Style, Kama Sutra, Kinky Cow… or if love isn’t your thing, you can also order a Divorce.

I also remember Gaylord India Restaurant being pretty good, and I heard good things from friends about Osha Thai and Gott’s but haven’t tried it myself.

For something more low-key, there’s a trifecta of pubs around Front and Sacramento streets:  The Royal Exchange, Harrington’s and Schroeder’s. (The latter is beating the other two on Yelp by a half star.)

You can dine at ritzy places on the waterfront, but for the most part, the long waits and the high prices aren’t worth it to me. But hey, it’s your money. Knock yourself out.

Good places to drink:

Local Edition. It’s a newspaper-themed bar. I don’t care if it gets packed to the gills, I’m not going to list any more bars because there are no other bars worth listing. Just don your fedora, get on the streetcar in front of the hotel, and ride two minutes to Montgomery Street to the Hearst Building, where the old Examiner print room now serves you cocktails among relics of the print era gone by. IT’S A NEWSPAPER-THEMED BAR, PEOPLE. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Events in SF while you’re in town

Here’s a very limited but recommended selection of events happening while ONA is going on. Or, you can visit here, here and here to do some searches yourself. Just make sure they don’t conflict with any of the ONA after-parties you’re dying to attend.

Wednesday, Sept. 19

$1 Book Sale, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at the SF Main Library, by the Civic Center BART. Because you can stand looking at some non-electrons once in a while.

Thursday, Sept. 20

#trendingtopicsTwitter Comedy Night, 9 p.m., Sip Bar & Lounge in North Beach. Comedians write acts based on the day’s Twitter trending topic.

So You Think You Can Paint? 6-11 p.m. Club Six in SoMA. Come and paint on the walls, get cheap beer and free edibles. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting paint on.

Friday, Sept. 21

Free SF Symphony concert right outside your windows.

Saturday, Sept. 22

Autumn Moon Festival, Saturday and Sunday, Irving St. and 22nd Ave. in the Sunset District. A Chinese cultural event kicks off with an 11 a.m. parade on Saturday. Events through 5 p.m. both days. There will be lanterns. Sounds epic.

Sunday, Sept. 23

Folsom Street Fair, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Folsom and 7th. This is one of the top “Only in SF” festivals, behind Bay to Breakers and… well, gay pride parades aren’t only in SF. In any case, you should go see Folsom. Because you will never, ever unsee it.

Monday, Sept. 24

Circuit Hacking Mondays, 7-10 p.m., Noisebridge in the Mission. Come to this hackerspace and learn how to solder. Or just drop in and hack away on your own projects any time, day or night.

From Coding to Stories, 6-10 p.m., Transmedia SF. Meet with multiplatform storytellers of all walks about translating the technologies to the stories.

Here’s what I will not endorse

Do the following at your own peril:

Rice-a-Roni consumption.

The only place to get Rice-a-Roni is in every grocery store in the nation. Please, say no to marketing gimmicks.

In-N-Out consumption.

I may make enemies with this statement, but once you East Coast people stop calling my home state “In-N-Out-Land,” then we can talk. Also, until their fries stop tasting like Styrofoam.

Pier 39.

Unless you really really want to see the sea lions. But save yourself the time, crowds and overpriced everythings and just watch the live webcam.

Ocean Beach.

It’s cold. It’s windy. Sand blows in your face. I don’t want your opinion of California beaches to be sullied. You’ll have to go either all the way up to Stinson Beach or all the way down to Half Moon Bay, and neither of those are easy trips without a car. Even then I’d say you can’t get a truly great beach until you hit Capitola. But I’m not a big beach person, so take all this with a grain of… sand.

Visiting the Full House house.

It’s because I hate fun and youth. And because it’s someone’s actual house. And because Full House was filmed on a set much, much wider than that narrow Victorian house. And because everything that happens on that show would never, ever happen in San Francisco. I actually forgot the show was set in SF until someone asked about it last time ONA was here. So, just, no.

On a positive note…

You may not know just how excited I am about this year’s ONA. The first hint is this blog post, I suppose. I mean, I wasn’t about to just repurpose someone else’s travel guide content and call it a day. I saw this as an opportunity to show off a city I love to colleagues I don’t get to see more than once a year. So yeah, I may have stayed up a bit too late, and yeah, I may have even more stuff up my sleeve, but trust me. It’s all worth it.

See you in a few days!

[Edit: I had originally written a nod to the 24-hour Subway as a last-ditch late-night option, and then somehow managed to copy and paste that in to the cheap eats section. It's been re-edited to my original intention.]

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A true status update

It’s been a while since I’ve taken up space for a status update. So here we go!

Work

Growing pains is a wonderful pain to have in the journalism industry. We merged with the Bay Citizen and we hired new bodies to manage the new bodies. It’s always great to see new faces and new ideas energize the newsroom, but it’s also a challenge to upgrade our outgrown processes. I’m obsessing over workflow issues right now, finding out our pain points and researching any tools that might help us scale up. I’ve also been talking to other newsrooms to see how they do story management.

I shock myself by saying this, but it’s a fun challenge. I just hope it doesn’t remain a challenge for long.

This site

I threw on another cleaner template to this very site. Do you like it? The old one hasn’t been changed since I started this site in 2008. Yuck. Three columns? What was I thinking?

It’s a little embarrassing that I didn’t design my own “redesign,” but there’s a good reason: My old theme caught malware and I had to change things up fast.

It’s the first time I’ve ever had to deal with malware on a site, and I’ve been running a website of some variety since 1996. It came through an old Twitter widget called– well, I won’t tell you. I don’t want you to get malware. But it hasn’t been supported for some time.

Let that be a warning to you. Replace any outdated third-party widgets before they go rogue.

Speaking of technical stuff…

Coding

I need to learn JavaScript, like now. I can copy/paste/fake it. I can rely on jQuery plugins. But I feel inadequate as a web producer for only knowing HTML and CSS. I’ve been taking Codecademy off and on, but really, I need to have a project in mind before I go on.

And it doesn’t help that the only high school class I’ve ever failed was computer programming.

I’m getting tripped up on the basics of coding, like algorithms. My print design background helps me get HTML/CSS, but I got nothing to fall back on when it comes to making things WORK.

One day I’ll stop whining and just start doing it. Perhaps that day will be today.

…ha, no. Today’s laundry day.

Meetups

I’m seeking out coding study groups in the Bay Area. Women Who Code is a great resource. PyLadies too, if you’re into learning Python. But I’ve been much more interested in meetups outside my job description. Some are aimed at young adults looking to do cool things. Some are more artsy fartsy, or philosophical, or completely random. And some are just me reconnecting with old friends I haven’t seen in a while.

It’s been a fun experiment so far. In fact, I’m at a weekly meetup right now called “Shut Up and Write!” There’s about a dozen other people at this cafe who are shutting up and writing. I love this. I could use this time to blog every week, or I could use it for just doing personal creative stuff.

Oh yeah:

Creativity

Outside creative projects are vastly undervalued in a 24/7 industry like this one. I’ve been learning the importance of devoting myself to a project that is just me, only me. Because when you do that, you get crazy hybrid ideas from seemingly unrelated pursuits. It bleeds into what you do at work, and it sustains you when you realize work can’t be 100% of your life. (This was a long lesson learned.)

I have to give some credit to the as-of-recently controversial book Imagine. I know Jonah Lehrer fabricated Bob Dylan quotes, and that is a very stupid-ass thing to do. But the rest of the book still has great ideas.

My big takeaways: If you’re in a project and have a major creative block, stop thinking about it. Walk, run, play ping-pong, shower, sing. Just be patient and let your subconscious work, and the answers will come from seemingly nowhere. If you’re in a project and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, that’s when you have to obsess over it. Refine, redraw, rethink, rework, re-edit. I’m sure journalists can relate to that, even if they don’t relate to the author’s (good God, that was stupid) fabrications.

Another takeaway: Make sure to cross-pollinate ideas. Find things you like in a multiple of disciplines, from painting to sculpture to sports to food to coding to architecture to weather patterns. Whatever. Then examine them, and ask yourself why you like x, y and z. Then again, be patient and let your subconscious make some very interesting connections your conscious brain never would have.

My major cross-discipline:

Music

I never used to say the dreaded dirty words “I’m a musician.” Now I do. I even add a twist: “I’m a songwriter.”

I’m still completely uncomfortable with those titles. No, no, I’m a web producer. I’m a geek. I’m a journalist. I’m a Suzanne.

But I’m also a storyteller, and music tells stories in ways words can never touch.

I’m so, so, so not ready to release my own full songs into the world yet, but I have in the past made up silly songs for online friends. And if anyone has seen me at an ONA, they know I’m the first to find an open piano and belt out random covers. It shouldn’t be a surprise to those of you who know me.

But I’m still wondering why it’s so scary for me to say “I’m a musician.”
It just is.

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How @APStylebook and @FakeAPStylebook spent their Valentine’s Day

This lovers’ spat is one for the record. Almost as good as this one.

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What Stanford’s d.school hackathon taught me about design, solving problems and, um, life.

Burt Herman sent the email to the SF Hacks/Hackers group, just as an FYI. Free food! Free drinks! Free networking! Prizes! And all you have to do is show up at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and rethink their website!

In other words, Stanford want us to work for them for free. :/

I thought about deleting the invite and refusing to go in protest. But as every good journalist would take into consideration, they did have free food. All weekend. And I heard the founder of IDEO would be there. So OK, they would be “paying” us in greasy pizza and high-level contacts, and who knows, it could be fun. I’ve been to a few hackathons before and found them all worthwhile. All right.

I went. I sucked.
It was AWESOME.

First, the background: The Stanford d.school is not a design degree program, and it has little to do with strictly visual design. It’s more of an interdisciplinary school to teach problem-solving, creativity and collaboration skills. (Fast Company did some great write-ups on it when it first opened.)

The challenge was to bring their system of problem-solving to the world so people can change said world. So the designers, programmers, business people and other eyewitnesses set out on the inaugural HACK.d hackathon.

In that 48 hours of little sleep and, uh, lower-than-average showering, here’s what I learned.

“Design” solves problems. And everyone solves problems.

To be clear, the design we are talking about has nothing to do with making things look pretty, though that can be a means to solve a problem. Design is problem-solving, period. Even in graphic design, you have a client that has the problem of looking unprofessional or communicating the wrong thing. Your job as a designer is to solve it.

The philosophy of the d.school was that everyone is creative but not everyone knows it. They just need a little extra guidance. So the d.school offers one specific five-step method of problem-solving, which I happen to like:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Or, to break it down with one example:

  • Watch and interview someone
  • Find out their biggest pain in the ass and define it clearly
  • Come up with as many ideas as possible that would fix the problem
  • Build one of them
  • Try it out on the person
  • Repeat as many steps as necessary.

It seems obvious, but there are some important points this process addresses. Such as:

Humans first.

That’s why the “empathy” stage is first. Many of us at the hackathon went through a 90-minute crash course called the Gift-Giving Project. We paired up and asked each other about the last gift we gave and what we would change about the entire gift-giving process, from remembering to buy a gift to purchasing to wrapping to giving to sending the thank-you card.

After the first interview, they had us interview a second time with a deeper emphasis on emotion (“The goal is to make the other person cry,” said the facilitator).

THAT is what was missing from many of these step-by-step plans to solve problems. That emotional connection. I heard a gripping story from a first-time dad, and he heard my story. And we actually listened to each other on a deeper level and worked that into our solutions.

This is why Steve Job’s designs work. They inspire a human-centered emotional reaction. Whatever you think of Jobs himself, you can’t deny the emotional connections he created through his products.

Sucking is a means to an end.

When you’re brainstorming ideas, it’s quantity over quality. I’ve known this for years and am comfortable with letting everyone offer whatever idea they have without shooting it down. It’s a different picture when I’m talking about my own ideas. I’m in self-editor mode even before I begin. The facilitator made a great point about “page vomit”: The idea is to use all your stupid, stupid ideas up, until you come across a not-so-stupid idea. Then don’t treat it as a series of failures that leads to an answer, but a road map you bring to your test user so they can tell you where to go.

It’s not about you. It’s about them. You are helping them find their own answer.

Workspaces do mean a lot.

The d.school is designed so that nearly every wall is a whiteboard, most of the furniture is on wheels, and a main workspace has adjustable walls. There are buckets of Post-its, Sharpies and Expo pens everywhere. But interestingly enough, I couldn’t find a regular pen and a pad of paper anywhere.

That’s because the workspace is designed purposefully to get people to share and collaborate. Your ideas are not precious, to be kept in your binder or entered into an Excel spreadsheet. They’re supposed to be messy and open. There’s not a lot of lecturing in the classes, so there’s no need for taking notes of some teacher’s PowerPoint slides. They call it a bias of action: Less talk, more walk.

Give people limits and they will find a way. Oh, they will find a way.

Yes, some people created amazing projects within 48 hours. That was the whole point of the weekend. But the idea of limitations and quick iterations was everywhere.

In the gift-giving exercise, I had 10 minutes to build a toy car out of a pile of kindergarten craft supplies. I chose Popsicle sticks, tape, magnets and pipe cleaners. In a way, the limitations were hugely helpful, because if your goal is to get good feedback on your prototype, the other person is more willing to criticize something that is crap than if they were presented with a polished prototype.

Become a kid again.

OK, so how many of you draped sheets between furniture and built tents in your living room? That’s kind of how I felt about the architecture of the place. The d.school bridges two buildings and uses the space between them brilliantly:

Stanford d.school - outside shot

Outside

 

Inside

You can still see the exposed walls inside the (yes) well-insulated room. Genius.

And when was the last time you played with Popsicle sticks?

The school brings the concept of play to a university that desperately needs it. Because it’s interdisciplinary, it means that some of the world’s best doctors, scientists, engineers and lawyers at Stanford can all take classes in play.

David Kelley said in his opening remarks that people stopped calling themselves “creative” as far back as elementary school, and that was a shame. Now the school he helped found is putting creativity back to people who may need it the most.

Like, for example, me.

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Carnival of Journalism: How universities can fill information needs

This post is the second of mine in the Carnival of Journalism. The first is here.

I had a media literacy course in community college. It was an elective. I liked it. It was cool. I don’t remember much from it, though.

I also had a critical thinking course at the same college. It was a requirement. I loved it. It changed my life. It wasn’t a “journalism” class, but it definitely focused a lot on the media. And it was more than cool.

I remember being asked to clip advertisements and identify the marketing tactics used to sway people into buying the product. I remember we were asked to memorize seven most common logical fallacies and apply them to different news articles we found.

Both assignments would have worked wonderfully in the media literacy course. But nope. Missed opportunity for the elective, but thank God students had to take the critical thinking course to transfer to a 4-year university.

We need more requirements like this, for everyone.

Media works best when the public is smart

When I read “Study: Many college students not learning to think critically,” I wish I were more surprised. This is not a j-school problem, it’s a school-school problem. And a painfully obvious one to boot.

So to address the root problems in this month’s Carnival of Journalism, we have to go deeper and wider than just the journosphere.

The Knight Foundation loves to use wording like “journalistic activity” and “information needs” to step away from thinking that only journalists can impart good information. I like that.

So to apply it to the role of the university, how about empowering departments who conduct original research to write for the public? Much of their work is inaccessible because of academic jargon or restrictive publications. If the school has a journalism program, what about a tighter and more in-depth partnership with them? And what if the journalism schools were able to broadcast this to a broader audience?

A scenario

Let’s invent an example. A university with a great biology department discovers an important find. A peer-review journal has published the study and it is passing the test.

To spread it to the community at large, the university PR department sends out a one-page press release describing the research. It’s not very in-depth, and frankly, the poor overworked PR department has other things to do.

If there were no journalism program at the university, an outside entity (such as the Knight Foundation!) could set up content-production training with the people in the biology department. It could give them tools to build their own website, seminars on how to write engaging blog posts, workshops on how to publish a database to the web.

But luckily for this fictional school, they do have a j-school and it has a special reporting class. (Yeah, yeah, I know I said let’s look outside the j-school, but let’s return to navel-gazing for a bit. Humor me.)

The class’ sole job is to maintain different online journalistic outlets — websites, blogs, newsletters, etc. The class maintains a handful of niche websites or blogs, and they keep the content coming every day. The niches could be on science, entertainment, politics, finances — whatever is an identified information need, whether it’s a local or a national niche. (The publications stay the same, no matter what semester.)

So the biology department’s press release lands on the instructor’s desk. She gives it to the student assigned to writing for the science blog that day (each student has to be well-rounded enough to rotate through all the blogs). They notify the established student media that they’re working on this article. They might do a short write-up, or they might wait until the student does something more in-depth on the science blog. They choose that route. The student then acts as the liaison with the science department into helping them translate this finding into English, obtaining some databases or spreadsheets, and posting it in an interactive way to the blog. If the science blog had a national audience niche, even better. The class could also set up a place on the site where the biology department themselves could upload and post articles. The student newspaper does a short write-up and references the science blog in a link or QR code from the article.

How is this different?

I view this kind of scenario as different from the current student media setup in that it encourages national audiences with very specific niches and consistent writers. How many good blogs do you know have gone dead because the person behind them got sick of doing it?

Research needs to be done in each community on what the information need is, however, not what the students want to blog about. That’s for their own blogging time (and it’s good journalism training to write for subjects you didn’t choose).

The flagship student media should represent a general-interest campus niche and should focus all of its efforts on that. But this class would allow students to identify information needs and focus on that regardless of campus relevance — or if there’s a deeper relevant topic on campus, it could fill that need where the established student media can’t devote the resources.

I will say, it IS similar to UC Berkeley’s Mission Local, but I’m imagining an undergraduate class writing for national audiences. I like to dream big.

Ideas more practical than that one

I’m full of too many ideas, and frankly, I need to wrap this up, so I’m going to toss out a few ideas of practical things that 1) don’t involve a brand new class and 2) is related to the Carnival of Journalism topic:

I originally was going to use this space to bitch and moan about how journalism schools should never lose sight of the basics, but I’m sure you all know that by now. I’d rather leave you with a sprinkling of ideas that you could turn into actual classroom exercises. Hope you do.

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Carnival of Journalism quick hit: The role of the university

This post is the first of mine in the Carnival of Journalism. And this one is my second. Go forth and be a part as well!

I have written so much on the subject of journalism education, I wanted to make a condensed post of some of those ideas first before I jumped into a point-by-point response to the Carnival of Journalism’s questions.

In February 2009 a group of journalism students held a massive online chat to talk about how journalism education needed to be revamped. Here are the highlights. It’s a great read.

In August 2009, I had the good fortune of appearing on a panel at AEJMC with the likes of Dan Gillmor and Sandeep Junnarkar. Before the panel, I hosted a #collegejourn chat and asked participants what I should tell the room full of educators. Here are the key bullet points of what I gathered:

  • It’s going to take much more than throwing social media classes into the curriculum to make real changes needed. Read Daniel Bachhuber’s thoughts on this.
  • There’s a lesson plan in comparing ethics policies, legal quandaries and best practices of news organizations using social media. Less emphasis on teaching the tools, more on teaching principles.
  • Students who know social media should become TAs or peer teachers, or help organize a bootcamp/BarCamp at school to teach both students and the professors about social media.
  • But, professors, please still keep hammering fundamentals. Don’t get lost in the latest buzzword. Everything taught about social media should point straight back to the basics.

A few ideas I wrote about after the panel:

  • Students want the ability to experiment and fail. There needs to be a grading system that allows for this.
  • Educators and even some students feel queasy about marketing themselves. With all due respect, they need to get over it.
  • Don’t teach social media tools, teach concepts behind them. Don’t teach Twitter, teach why Twitter.
  • Too many students think someone’s going to fix the industry for them. Sorry. It’s all on the students now.
  • From what I’ve heard of Arizona State’s program, it has a lot of things going for it. Gillmor sets up a Ning for each of his classes and has students write and correct Wikipedia entries. There’s also an entrepreneurial class, and (if I remember correctly) students edit each other’s work on live on WordPress.

But to be more on point with the topic of Carnival of Journalism — “the changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community” — I really want to focus on another idea altogether: going outside of j-school to get this done.

Watch for my follow-up post.

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Since we last met, I seemed to have become a full-time employee

Due to circumstances ultimately beyond my control, I have landed an amazing job as a web producer at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley.

Before you chide me for being too humble, I believe that getting hired required four things:

  1. Right time
  2. Right place
  3. Right skill set
  4. Right connections

I did all I could for the last two, and the first two happened to fall into place.

I’ve been on the job for more than a month, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m working with an incredible crew, including past (and future) Pulitzer Prize winners. I work extensively on CIR’s biggest project, California Watch. For all of CIR’s sites, I’m posting stories, coordinating reporters and tech people, planning some redesigns and fixing bugs in the look and feel of the sites.

I have to make this post rather short, but here is more information from About.com and Wikipedia about what a web producer does. In three words, they rock it.

I’m biased.

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New AP Stylebook entries: Why is ground zero now lowercase?

If you have an online subscription to the AP Stylebook, you probably just got this e-mail. I haven’t found it posted anywhere else online yet, so I thought I’d do it here:

New entries have been added to the AP Stylebook Online. As an online subscriber, you can receive these updates whenever the Associated Press makes them. Every time you log into AP Stylebook Online, you can easily find recent updates by clicking on “New Entries” or “Recent Changes” in the left navigation bar.

Editor’s Note: New entries on al-Shabab, foodborne, ground zero, NPR, Sudan, video recording and videotape have been added to the AP Stylebook Online.

+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-

al-Shabab: The preferred spelling for the Somali militant group

foodborne (adj.)

ground zero

NPR: Acceptable in all references to National Public Radio. Producer and distributor of noncommercial news, talk and entertainment programming. Headquarters is in Washington, D.C.

Sudan: Use Sudan or Southern Sudan when referring to the governments. But it’s south Sudan and north Sudan when referring to locations.

video recording: Precise term for digital audio and visual recording. Digital has largely replaced videotaping.

videotape (n. and v.): Largely replaced by digital recording. The terms apply only if tape is used.

+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-

“Ground zero” is the most interesting entry. [EDIT: It's not a new change. See tweet below.]  The addition must be in response to the erroneously named “Ground Zero Mosque” (see Poynter’s column on why that’s bad for journalism and good for SEO). But it’s still unclear whether the lowercase “ground zero” makes the term generic, not referring to the World Trade Center site specifically.

I have a tweet into AP Stylebook and will update this blog post if there is a response. Or maybe I should use old-fashioned e-mail. Or older-fashioned phone calls.

EDIT, 8/27/10, 4:30 p.m.:
Two responses from @apstylebook:


@suzanneyada The term ground zero was inadvertently listed as a new entry. It isn’t new and our style hasn’t changed.less than a minute ago via CoTweet


@suzanneyada It’s lowercase based on our primary reference, Webster’s New World College Dictionary.less than a minute ago via CoTweet

I’m still not quite satisfied. To me it just makes sense to capitalize Ground Zero in reference to the World Trade Center site, and the rest can be done dictionary-style.

But I can see Bob Collin’s argument that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are far more deserving of the capitalization. Still, in modern context, when people talk about Ground Zero, it’s generally assumed that it’s in reference to Sept. 11.

So what do you think? Is there another term out there that is comparable?

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Things I love about TBD.com (and a few things I don’t)

TBD logo


TBD.com, a much-hyped local news website in Washington, D.C., launched to the public this morning. PoynterNewsonomics and Nieman Lab wrote lists on why it’s the news company to watch this year, and PaidContent has a great interview with Robert Allbritton, the guy in charge of TBD’s parent company. Mashable even has a nice writeup this morning, too.

Any time there is this much hype surrounding a product launch, someone is going to end up disappointed.

This time, it’s not me. I’m impressed with TBD so far, and I’m not easily impressed with news sites nowadays.

That’s a testament to how many cool little things are packed in this site. And from all accounts, it still doesn’t have nearly as many cool things that were planned for it, either.

Perhaps I haven’t run into many of the bugs that Erik Wemple spoke of in his letter from the editor. I have run into a few, which I list at the bottom of this post. But I love the ideas, the layout, the concept, the conversations, and I can’t wait until even more features are unveiled.

TBD.com screengrab

What I love:

  • The main news pages have the number of updates in the last 72 hours in the left-hand rail (see the picture above). In the right rail I find all the news in the area of my community. And you can refine that list by category? Be still my heart!
  • The headlines-from-everywhere idea. That’s hardly new, but I love the way it’s implemented here. They’ve pulled in content from a slew of different sources, from mainstream media outlets to blogs, and they geotagged them into locations, so they’re searchable by zipcode or neighborhood. And I love how every headline on the main pages has the source of the story in clear sight.
  • Complete This Story. On a story about D.C. mayoral hopeful Vince Gray, there is a box you can fill out if you have more information on his campaign. Two birds, one stone: TBD gets better opportunities for reporting, and users get better opportunities to interact.
  • I love the upfront traffic delays, using data from BeatTheTraffic.com. Public transit delays take data straight from WMATA. It works brilliantly for a major metro area whose transit data is publicly available.
  • The “Long Story Short” box on each TBD story. It’s a Twitter-friendly headline you can tweet with one click. (See it in action on the left here.)
  • Love the Foursquare partnership. It reminds me of a simple request I’ve seen in several newsrooms — “Hey, let’s put all our restaurant reviews on an interactive map” — yet is difficult to pull off because all the previous reviews aren’t in a data-structured form. Because TBD is built from the ground up in a purely digital format, it doesn’t have that problem.
  • Love The Facts Machine (on Twitter at @TBDFactsMachine). It’s in the same vein as PolitiFact and the San Diego Fact Check. Though all reporters need to be checking facts, I think every news organization should have at least one full-time employee doing nothing but fact-checking the crap out of politicians’ claims.
  • When I am logged in (with my Facebook account even), I can bookmark articles from within the site. Why haven’t more sites done this? Or have they been doing it and I’ve been blind?
  • They have a reporter dedicated to lists, says Erik Wemple. That’s kinda… a little bit… awesome. (If you read my blog, you know I’m a sucker for lists and bullet points. You’re reading ‘em right now!)
  • Comments. I love that reporters are actually responding to comments. I also like that the default sort is by highest ranked, but you can choose to have them listed in chronological order.
  • Each Metro station has its own page. For example, the Rosslyn station page has live boarding statuses, a trip planner, even a widget that shows when someone is tweeting about the station (this morning’s tweet from a random person is warning me there is no air conditioning on a Blue line car. THAT. IS. GOOD. TO KNOW.)
  • There’s a live chat all day today to answer questions. That’s “community engagement” right there.

What I don’t love:

  • The relatively few hard-news reporters. Of the dozen reporters on staff, only four are doing “news” news — one fact-checker and three community reporters, according to the letter from the editor. I understand that entertainment and sports rake in the dough, but more news news, please!
  • It’s still not clear how much vetting there will be of outside blogs. What if a blog posts an unfounded rumor and it gets aggregated, even featured? I know I spoke to Steve Buttry before about this, but now that I can see the site, I’m still unclear. (UPDATE: Not two minutes from posting this, I see that some of my concerns are addressed here.)
  • The name. Sorry. It just doesn’t quite sum up how cool the site is. I know if other domains were available, the TBD folks would have snatched it up. Also, there is no immediate explanation on the site on what the heck the name means and how it was chosen. That’s question numero uno for most visitors.
  • The Incidents page would be much better as a map.
  • This ad. Don’t know if there’s any way to block BP from an ad network, but SRSLY LOOK INTO IT.
  • Bugs. Yup, there are a few. I know the site had to launch before it was fully cooked because some tech-savvy people guessed the testing URLs correctly, so bugs are to be expected. I’m willing to bet the staff already knows about these ones I encountered. But I’ll write about them anyway in hopes it helps squash them:
    • Saved items. I could have sworn I saved more than two stories. Does it only register if it’s a TBD original? If so, what do the stars by the aggregated content do? And the star on the TBD story that IS in my queue is greyed out. Shouldn’t it be colored still?
    • Setting up locations. I was surprised that when I typed in the name Rosslyn, Va., TBD’s own home base, the name didn’t pop up under the list of suggested locations. And when I tried typing in three locations at a time, it didn’t seem to save.
    • If I mark a comment as a “Good point” on accident, I can’t undo.
    • The Facebook social plugin on this page seems to link to example.com. Or does it?
    • Minor quibble, but on my Chrome and Safari browsers, the “All Over Washington” tagline is hidden below the TBD logo on the home page. I think that’s just a CSS tweak.
  • And the biggest thing I don’t like about TBD: That it’s not based in my community. Doesn’t do me much good to enter my real zip code, does it? :)

So that’s my official two cents (in a reference to their comments section). Overall I’m quite excited about the site and what it means for digital journalism as a whole, and I’m happy the site is finally out in the open for everyone to see.

And I bet you the staff is operating on about 15 minutes of sleep. I’ve experienced this when the SF Public Press launched its first print edition last month.

Note to friends at TBD: Do get some shut-eye. If the only flat, non-Red-Bulled surface in the newsroom is Jim Brady’s desk, well, I’m sure he’ll forgive you for your nap.

Oh, and congratulations.

ADDENDUM: Read the Knight Citizen News Network’s  great post, “Lessons Every News Site Can Learn from TBD’s Launch.” And also catch up on the excellent live chat archive at Poynter with some of TBD’s top dogs.

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Come on over to the 21st Century. We have candy.