Hyperlocal Online News — Boom or Bust?


Resilient journalists are reinventing local coverage and pioneering sustainable business models in the wake of disappearing local newspapers and the implosion of Patch, AOL’s attempt to create a national hyperlocal network.


By Carol Wolfe

Despite the Patch meltdown that hit journalists with a new shock wave of layoffs, local online news sites are making steady gains in readership, financial stability and impact.

Patch, founded in 2007 by AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong, reached its pinnacle with more than 900 sites serving individual communities, Farhi reported. In 2013, after losing more than $200 million per year, AOL laid off hundreds of Patch employees and sold Patch to Hale Global.

Some have questioned the long-term viability of online hyperlocal news, citing Patch as a cautionary tale.

Yet many entrepreneurial journalists are beginning to find success on a smaller scale. They are testing new business models and taking on the challenges common to many small businesses. Their value proposition lies in a new form of news coverage that ranges from personally engaging the community through catalyzing change at local, state and even national levels.

Scott Brodbeck is one of the entrepreneurial journalists who is proving that local independent online news can thrive. Brodbeck was working in local TV news when he decided that the internet was a superior medium for local news. He started ArlNow in 2010 to serve his own community in Arlington, Va.

ArlNow quickly flourished. “I knew I wanted to go beyond serving one community,” Brodbeck said. “I wanted to find a new sustainable model for local news.”

Brodbeck replicated his model, adding BethesdaNow in 2012 and RestonNow in 2013.

Karen Goff launched RestonNow with Scott Brodbeck after covering Reston, Va. for Patch for 3 years.

Karen Goff launched RestonNow with Scott Brodbeck after covering Reston, Va. for Patch for three  years.

He employs three other journalists and an advertising sales person and is looking into options for expansion in other communities in the Washington region. The company, already in the black according to Brodbeck, is reinvesting profits to better serve readers and advertisers.

Brodbeck’s sites are among a growing number that are making slow but steady gains. Pew Research identified 438 operating digital news startups that created 1,900 jobs in the U.S. Slightly over half are registered nonprofits, a status requiring any surplus be returned to operations. The rest operate as commercial businesses.

Still that estimate may be low. “The Pew study underestimated the number of people involved in entrepreneurial startups,” said Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab at American University. No one has a fully accurate count, according to Schaffer.


Hyperlocals are beginning to replace community newspapers, according to Mark Potts, a co-founder of WashingtonPost.com who has focused on the hyperlocal space for 30 years. It costs at least $800,000 per year to publish a weekly newspaper and their advertising revenue is half of what it used to be. “An online hyperlocal news site can cut the costs by 80 percent,” Potts said.

The Alternative Press is a thriving hyperlocal network that is leveraging the economies of internet access by using a franchise model to expand, Potts said. Founded by Michael and Lauryn Shapiro in 2008, The Alternative Press serves several New Jersey communities and reports 1.8 million readers.

Michael Shapiro announced in March that Melissa Treacy, former Patch regional editor, franchised the Alternative Press model to run the Lower Providence site in Pennsylvania. Further expansion followed in April with the launch of North Penn, franchised by veteran journalist and former Patch Editor Tony DiDomizio.

A franchiser can launch and own a community news site using The Alternative Press platform, reported Michele McLellan, senior program consultant for the Knight Digital Media Center and founder of the Block by Block Community News Summit. The Alternative Press receives an annual fee and a percentage of revenue. In exchange, the franchiser receives significant technology, business and editorial support. Franchise publishers “own their business and have the right, eventually, to sell it. They are building equity as they build their businesses” McLellan reported, quoting Shapiro.

The picture is different for many solo local news publishers. Ned Berke launched SheepsheadBites in 2008 to serve the Brooklyn community, Sheeps Head Bay. By January 2013, Berke had built his readership to 150,000 monthly page views through valiant reporting and tireless focus on managing the business. He hired two writers and drew a salary.

Hurricane Sandy took a toll on small businesses and Berke’s advertising revenue, forcing Berke to scale back for a while.

“Right now the site is a one-man band,” Berke said. Monthly page views are now up to about 200,000, according to Berke, compared to 135,000 when Sandy struck in October 2012. Berke is looking ahead to bringing back a part-time writer.

Berke serves on the board of directors of LION Publishers an association of local independent online news publishers. He believes that hyperlocal sites have a flourishing future.

“Right now, we are going back to the agrarian model of journalism after being in the industrial age,” Berke said. “That will evolve into an industrial model at some point, but for right now I’m happy to be a farmer.”

The limited data available suggest that Berke’s experience is more prevalent than that of Brodbeck or the Shapiros.

Michele McLellan surveyed publishers of independent local online news startups in 2013. She found that 30 percent of respondents had a steady flow of revenue and turned a profit in 2011. Another 33 percent had a steady flow of revenue, but were not yet profitable. The remaining 28 percent had not yet nailed down a model to reach profitability, including 11 percent that relied on grants to break even.

Source: Michele’s List survey of online news startups published October 2013.


Publishers drawing a full salary represented slightly more than a third of respondents, with 32 percent drawing a full salary and 32 percent drawing no salary.

McLellan released new data in April that show some gains in profitability and revenue development. More than 60 percent of publishers responding reported higher revenue than the previous year and half of those reported doubling their revenue.

“Each community is different. We talk to each other,” said Brodbeck who also serves on LION Publishers’ board of directors. “You will hear that no one’s finding a way to make it pay. A hundred people have figured it out.”

Alaskan Gold

Hyperlocal news sites are like startups in any industry. While many slog their way toward profitability, some strike it rich. Alaska Dispatch, an online news site, announced this month that it would pay $34 million to purchase the McClatchy Company’s newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News.

Alaska Dispatch was started by Tony Hopfinger, Amanda Coyne and Todd Hopfinger in 2008. Alice Rogoff, former chief financial officer of U.S. News and World Report, joined as majority owner in 2009. The Alaska Dispatch’s readership and advertising have both doubled every year since it was launched, according to the company’s post on Michele’s List, McLellan’s directory of online local news publishers that are aiming for serious revenue streams.

Ken Doctor speculates on the significance of the digital-only Alaska Dispatch purchasing a legacy newspaper in a Nieman Journalism Lab post. To temper the David and Goliath analogy, Doctor notes that Rogoff is married to David Rubenstein whose estimated net worth is $3.1 billion. Brodbeck cautions against reading too much into the purchase. “The money is coming from a wealthy benefactor,” Brodbeck said.

Front Lines of Journalism

The well-healed and financially-strapped local online sites share a common mission. They are driven to fill a vacuum in their communities left by other media outlets.

“It’s not just local news,” said Danna Walker, former Patch editorial director and an American University adjunct associate professor, “It’s a movement toward communities taking ownership of their news.”

Hyperlocal sites are taking a watch tower view of municipal governance, according to Schaffer. “They are adding coverage that did not exist before,” she said.

ArlNow is an example of a hyperlocal news site showing its teeth as a community watchdog. The site recently broke a story on a Columbia Pike bus stop that cost $1 million to build. That story resulted in Arlington County launching an independent review of the Super Stop before rolling out the model to 23 other planned Super Stops, Brodbeck explained.

Local sites are also the primary sources of many stories taken up by the national media, Brodbeck said.

ArlNow also broke the story about Jeff Krusinski, an Air Force officer charged with sexual assault who was removed from his position as chief of the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. This local story catalyzed renewed national attention to combating sexual assaults in the military.

“We are on the front lines of journalism,” Brodbeck said.

Many hyperlocal news sites are responding to a disrupted industry by successfully pioneering new models of journalism and financial sustainability.

“If writers choose to do so they can liberate themselves from editors and publishers,” Berke said. “You can take charge of your own work again, you can experiment. It’s a hard time, but a very exciting time for journalists.”



New Media Offers New Hope to the Labor Movement

Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as they watched the Wisconsin uprising unfold in January 2011. Protesters throughout the state were gathering to oppose the push by Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature to strip public service unions of collective bargaining rights.

“We were moved by all the people standing with the public service employees,” Miller said, “Students and other activists were standing with them in the cold.”

Many Wisconsin government workers lost their jobs because they participated in the protests, according to Miller.

In the aftermath of the failed uprising, most public sector unions in Wisconsin lost between one-third and two-thirds of their members, according to Salon. Workers are now turning to creative new forms of organizing.

Miller and Kutch are among those pioneering new media and social engagement techniques to amplify the power of workers.

The Wisconsin battle is one example of how the unions have been losing ground for decades. Total U.S. union membership declined from 17.7 million workers in 1983 to 14.5 million in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As union membership declines, income disparity increases, according to Colin Gordon, history professor at the University of Iowa. The gap between the percentage of unionized workers and the share of income going to the top 10 percent has widened to a level last seen during the Great Depression in the late 1920s.


Source: Colin Gordon, Professor of History, University of Iowa.

Gordon’s analysis of “Historical Statistics of the United States”, unionstats.com, Piketty and Saez, and “The World Top Incomes Database”


“Workers today are in a very tenuous position,” said Nina Shapiro-Perl, former filmmaker at the SEIU. “They are afraid of losing what they have, of falling further down the economic ladder.”

“Employees are really afraid of managers in the workplace,” said Martha Solt, an FDIC employee and active member of the National Treasury Employees Union. Solt credits the union with effectively negotiating pay and benefits during the first few of her 12 years as a member. But she has seen power shift in favor of employers.

Organized labor again suffered a blow in February when a vote to unionize a Tennessee Volkswagen plant failed, despite management’s receptivity. That attempt failed due to enormous political and corporate interests, according to Larry Kirkman, former executive director of the AFL-CIO’s Labor Institute of Public Affairs. “That had a chilling effect that resulted in a loss by a narrow margin,” Kirkman said.

A week later, the United Auto Workers filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board. The appeal cites threats by state politicians to withhold tax incentives from Volkswagen If the vote passed, according to Politico. Senator Bob Corker also promised more work and a new SUV product for the plant if the vote failed.

As they watched the Wisconsin uprising fail in 2011, Miller and Kutch asked themselves what they could do to give workers a stronger voice. The SEIU and other unions were already engaging new storytelling and interactive communication techniques to build membership and achieve labor wins.

Miller and Kutch decided that that they would explore new tools workers could use to create their own online campaigns to organize action around specific issues. Miller said they were concerned they might not succeed if workers were too afraid to publicly identify their individual participation in a campaign.

Their concerns were put to rest by Target employees Anthony Hardwick and Seth Coleman in November 2011.

Miller and Kutch worked with Hardwick to post a petition on change.org, protesting Target’s plans to force employees to work through the night on Thanksgiving. The petition drew 200,000 signatures and massive media coverage.

Hardwick lived in Nebraska and could not get time off from work to personally deliver the petition to Target headquarters in Minneapolis. Miller and Kutch looked through the petitions to find a Target employee in Minneapolis who could. Miller recalled that Seth Coleman, a dockworker, agreed to do it.

Kutch flew to Minneapolis to support Coleman in delivering the petition, Miller said. Coleman was shaking and chain smoking as they waited. Kutch asked why he had agreed to do it since he seemed very scared.

“‘When you’re asked to stand up and do something, you need to say yes,’” Miller recalled Coleman saying.

Having proven their concept, Miller and Kutch decided to launch coworker.org in 2013.

Jorge Rios, a student guest worker from Argentina, launched their first campaign. Rios was one of 15 students who paid $3,000 – $4,000 to travel to the U.S. under the State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel Program.

The students worked for McDonald’s franchise owner Andy Cheung, who housed them in overcrowded basement apartments and deducted rent from their minimum-wage paychecks. The students expected to work 40 hours per week, but were often given as little as four hours. Cheung kept them on call to work with 30-minutes notice.

Rios’s coworker.org petition drew over 9,000 signatures. Cheung was forced to pay $206,000 in back wages and damages to 291 employees, 178 of whom were foreign student workers. McDonald’s forced Cheung to sell his franchises.

Miller sees a thriving future for coworker.org. Funding sources include Georgetown University, the SEIU, the AFL-CIO and others. New campaigns are targeting Juicy Couture and Walmart. A labor law guide and toolkit will soon offer workers help in taking actions like filing a complaint.

Whether the engagement is on a web site or in a hall, younger workers are looking for a stronger voice.

Molley Kaiyoorawongn is ready to become active in her union. A fourth-year teacher in Washington, D.C., Kaiyoorawongn went to an event at Busboys and Poets in March. She went to hear a talk on a book called “How to Jump-Start your Union” and to listen to her newly elected union president, Liz Davis.

“The union’s power comes from a feeling that each of the members is part of a group, no longer alone,” Kaiyoorawongn said. “At some point you have to speak out.”

Saving a Radio Station – One Pledge Drive at a Time

A day in the life of Katea Stitt sheds light on her selfless and self-renewing mission.

Katea Stitt, WPFW director of music and cultural affairs, pitching a pledge drive during "On the Margin," hosted by music journalists Josephine Reed and Giovanni.

Katea Stitt, WPFW director of music and cultural affairs, pitching a pledge drive during “On the Margin,” hosted by music journalists Josephine Reed and Giovanni.

Katea Stitt jumps up from her desk and heads to the broadcast booth to pitch another critical pledge drive for WPFW, Washington’s listener-supported “jazz and justice” radio station. The stakes are high. Members provide about 90 percent of the station’s funding, according to Stitt, WPFW’s director of music and cultural affairs.

WPFW is one of 5 independent stations in the national network of the Pacifica Foundation. Lewis Hill, a World War II conscientious objector, launched Pacifica in 1949 with KPFA’s first broadcast from Berkeley, Cali. A contentious organization from its inception, Pacifica has been criticized for its top-heavy governance and lack of consensus that exacerbates financial difficulties, according to a New York Times article by Ben Sisario.

Stitt stops on her way to the sound booth, catching other WPFW staff on the fly.  She stands in the reception area, calmly checking on programming and operational details, looking as if this is how she normally conducts meetings.

Racked by a bad cold and hacking cough, Stitt is also trying to find someone to take her place on air. No one else is available and Stitt moves on as the show is about to start.  The quickest way to get to the sound booth is to go outside in the freezing February weather. Stitt doesn’t hesitate, though she has left her coat behind.

“The thing that keeps me going at WPFW and Pacifica is our mission – to be a provocateur, to move the social justice mandate. We are the voice for those whom society has rendered voiceless,” Stitt says. That voice is amplified by music, another wellspring of renewal that has kept Stitt energized through 30 years of both volunteer and staff involvement with WPFW.

Music infused Stitt’s world from birth.  Her father was famous jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt and her mother was an accomplished jazz singer. “In the music there was something political,” says Stitt. “If people can be sung to or serenaded with the same message that they can listen to in a lecture, that will be more powerful.

Katea Stitt confers with sound engineer, Mike Vernon at WPFW in Washington, D.C.

Katea Stitt confers with sound engineer, Mike Vernon at WPFW in Washington, D.C.

Stepping into the sound booth, Stitt kneels to adjust a microphone. She signals to the sound engineer and the show’s host who are both ready. Host Josephine Reed begins interviewing Thomas Brothers, author of the new book “Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism.” An unbelievably sweet sound clip is called up, as if Armstrong were right there, playing in the booth. Stitt expertly delivers the pitch message, thanking several callers by name in real time.

Back in her office, Stitt identifies her top long-term priority with no need for reflection.  She wants to cultivate younger people who know really know jazz so that they can become on-air hosts.  She passionately wants to bring younger audiences to the rich range of jazz from the traditional Armstrong to Butch Morris whose work will be featured in a future show. Morris simultaneously composed and conducted improvisational music using a series of hand gestures that he invented.

“I am 49 and I was in my 20s when I started volunteering here.  The median age of our members was 25-30.  We were all very politically conscious.  Now our median age is about 55.”

The station has reached some stability in its leadership and location, according to Stitt. A younger general manager is reaching out to younger audiences, promoting events like DJ nights and poetry slams. When the station faced a dire need to move to an affordable location, Ventana Productions offered some affordable space in Washington.

A task force is exploring accepting limited underwriting from like-minded organizations, a move that would require a herculean effort to change Pacifica’s bylaws. For now, WPFW keeps working on one fund drive at a time.

“I don’t say I don’t get discouraged,” says Stitt. “I just don’t let discouragement rule me.”

Nina Shapiro-Perl, a former labor movement activist, sees the danger of burn out among activist leaders. Now filmmaker in residence at American University’s School of Communication, Shapiro-Perl attended a retreat for activists called Windcall about 18 years into her work as a film producer with the Service Employees International Union.

“This transformative experience – and I don’t use the word loosely – led me to real change,” Shapiro-Perl said. Two years later she left the labor union and moved on to complete an award-winning film, “Through the Eye of the Needle.”

Observing many activist leaders, Shapiro-Perl found, “The work is so important that they don’t think they can take time for themselves.” The labor movement and other activist organizations sometimes adopt a macho approach to the work, according to Shapiro-Perl. They see themselves as an army with a mission to make change. That military mentality can lead to people missing things in their life. “We need to pay attention to the heart and not just be driven by our goals, even if they are very commendable and urgent. The process is important. It is just as important as the end results.”

Stitt has not attended Windcall, but she seems instinctively drawn to a way of life that is both selfless and self-renewing. Several years ago, she donated a kidney to her dear friend, poet Sekou Sundiata.

Stitt loves her job and finds renewal and inspiration in working with WPFW’s staff and volunteers. Her 12-year old daughter also keeps her infused with energy. “When I go home and see her, I have another chance at that day,” Stitt says. “I mostly choose to be happy.”

Note: Carol Wolfe served on the WPFW Local Station Board from 2004 – 2007.

Katzen Arts Center: Countdown to a Gala

scene story interview shot

Inside American University’s Katzen Arts Center, a team races to complete installation of the museum’s new exhibits before the gala opening in just four hours.

A small forklift buzzes past the artwork on the ground floor. Tools and light bulbs sit in roughly organized heaps on the floor. A woman climbs a ladder and replaces a light bulb to achieve a new effect.  A man with a paint roller darts around the exhibits, touching up the walls.

Outside, snow brackets the stairway to the main entrance. The Katzen Arts Center, seemingly deserted on this cold Saturday afternoon, gives no hint of the hustle within the museum. An empty corridor curves toward the gallery, an orange wall reflecting light from the window that looks out to the campus across Massachusetts Avenue. Plush armchairs line the way, unoccupied for the moment.

“The snow this week put us behind,” said Katzen staffer, Annette Isham, “This show opens at six o’clock tonight.  We would usually be done by now.” Barely dry stenciling on the wall introduces the new ground floor exhibit, “Washington Art Matters II – 1940s to 1980s.” This is the last exhibit to be completed.

At the top of the 3-story atrium, a videographer prepares to shoot an interview on the threshold of another new exhibit, “Agustín Fernández: Ultimate Surrealist.” A camera on a tripod faces a vacant chair surrounded by lighting equipment, ready for the subject.

A slender woman dressed elegantly in black approaches, completing a final check on the exhibit. She introduces herself as the daughter of the artist. “We are preparing for the opening tonight,” Clea Fernández says, providing some of the facts, dates and analytic context of her father’s work as an artist.

Then she points to a massive square canvas.  Metallic black, silver and bronze lines infuse an intricate realism into a wholly unrecognizable industrial image. “That one hung in my room as a child,” says Clea.

Another striking narrow work hangs push-pinned along the full length of the atrium. In a few hours, it will be shown to the public for the first time, according to Clea.  “He drew that when he came to visit me when I was a graduate student in California,” Clea says. He had no room to work in her tiny kitchen, she recalls, so he used a roll of paper, scrolling along to reveal only the section in progress.

Clea returns her attention to the final preparations for the opening as an older man in soft tweed joins us. She introduces him as Donald Kuspit, curator of the Agustín Fernández exhibit. She graciously but quickly ushers him to the chair before the camera so that Kuspit can complete his pre-show interview.

The remaining new exhibits now stand fully ready in muted spaces. Soft track lighting is trained on a series of Dean Smith drawings, themed around fine-lined pale gray circles. White-on-white framing subtly separates the drawings from an even paler gray wall.

All the galleries, now complete, stand hushed and empty. All is ready for the flocks of esthetically dressed visitors who will later fill the spotlighted spaces with curiosity and eager conversation.

The Boston Globe’s “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope” – A kaleidoscopic interactive series anchored by data visualizations

Washington – Why does intractable violence persist in a troubled neighborhood despite city-funded programs and the tireless commitment of many strong families and community activists? That is the lede I would have elevated in the Boston Globe’s interactive tour de force, “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope.”

The series brought together extraordinary reporting, videography, photography and data visualizations, rightly receiving the Knight Award for Public Service at the 2013 Online News Association Conference. Yet 68 Blocks lacks an early signal of a compelling question to be answered.

The Question

Subtitled “A Globe series on a year in Boston’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood,” the series unfolds as a kaleidoscopic year-long snapshot of a neighborhood. I grew up in the Boston area, visiting grandparents who lived less than a mile from Bowdoin-Geneva. I had a compelling personal reason to delve deep into the series. Still, I had difficulty seeing how the vignettes and interactive features related to a cohesive, driving narrative that answered a question or called to action.

In contrast, consider the Guardian’s “NSA Files Decoded: What the revelations mean for you.”   The Guardian’s subtitle immediately compels a visceral, personal interest. Everyone with a cell phone or a Facebook account is quickly drawn along the narrative path examining government surveillance on a massive scale.


There is also a stark contrast in the navigation styles of 68 Blocks and NSA Files Decoded.  The linear, scrolling presentation of NSA Files supports the classic structure of journalistic storytelling, starting with a lede and a nut graf followed by more information. The video interviews and interactive data visualizations occur in an order that gradually builds on the premise, namely that the posited issue at stake is “…nothing less than the defence of democracy in the digital age.”

68 Blocks, on the other hand, adopted a navigation style that is more like a collage than a linear narrative. The opening screen roughly organizes the series chronologically over four seasons from “A disquieting spring” through July and August and ending with “summer becomes fall.” The dominant element at the top of the opening screen is an image that takes the reader into a 10-minute video that tells the story of a bicycling teenager who was shot to death.

It is a moving and effective video, but nothing in the opening screen signals the takeaway for the reader who is asked to invest another thirty or more minutes with the series.

The left panel listed a number of interactive elements and data visualizations that added rich context to the series.


The elements were interesting to explore, but they were not necessarily integrated with a narrative that cohesively illuminated a question.

Another navigation flaw compromised the series. The left-panel navigation menu does not remain consistent throughout. Clicking on one of the parts in the story replaces the series menu on the left with a listing of current stories. It is very difficult to return to the main thread.

Data Visualizations

Despite the stream-of-consciousness navigation, 68 Blocks successfully deployed a wide variety of interactive data visualizations to add insight on the challenges of life in Bowdoin-Geneva. The interactive maps are especially effective. “We met early on with the editor of the series, Steve Wilmsen,” Gabriel Florit, a Boston Globe data visualization specialist said in a telephone interview. “We discussed all the relevant data sets we would like to include and quickly decided what could be visualized.”

Homicides and shootings. The interactive map, “Homicides and shootings in Bowdoin-Geneva,” was first on the list. The map plots individual shootings and homicides on a map of Bowdoin-Geneva.  Selecting a point on the homicide map displays an insert noting the victim, date and weapon. A link to the original Boston Globe news story provides further detail on each homicide. The reader can further explore the mapped data to compare the proportion of shootings and homicides to their populations for Bowdoin-Geneva in comparison to all of Boston, filtering by decades.

The map effectively shows that the incidence of shootings and homicides in Bowdoin-Geneva have remained about triple that of Boston as a whole. The ratio spiked to 3.7 to one during the period 2000 to 2009, begging the question of whether or not the rate is increasing. A line graph charting the rate over time could have shed more light. Unfortunately, more recent comparative data was unavailable. “’There was a lot of data that we wanted from the city – like on shootings – but we didn’t get a lot of it until the very end,’” Wilmsen said in an interview with Boston Phoenix reporter Chris Faraone. “’…it turned out that a lot of the things we wanted to do were much more difficult than we imagined. Access [to police data] was really hard to get…’”

Bowdoin-Geneva racial distribution. The Bowdoin-Geneva racial distribution graphic is another powerful element that maps changes in the neighborhood’s racial composition over a 60-year period.

“The racial distribution one was a ‘no brainer’ in that it could be displayed as a map,” Florit said in describing the early selection of data sets to target for the series. “I had to deal with some physical resources. I went to the library, looked at maps in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I needed to be accurate and not show residents in spaces where there were no buildings at that time.” Florit used U.S. Census data, noting that “95% of the work was in data clean-up. Most of it was very tedious work.”

“Some of the visualization decisions were dictated by how the data were available,” Florit said. “In this example, the time increments for the small maps were dictated by the census data being available in 10-year increments. So each map represents a 10-year time period.”

Changing geographic boundaries presented another challenge. “We didn’t have shapefiles for every decade,“ Florit said. “We spent days and even weeks just creating the shapefiles.”

Florit’s work with the data visualization team resulted in a powerful graphic showing the racial evolution in Bowdoin-Geneva, linking some of the changes to historic events. One such event occurred in the 1970s when violence erupted around the city in response to court-ordered student busing to desegregate the Boston public schools. I lived in Boston at the time and was still visiting my grandmother less than a mile away from Bowdoin-Geneva. I found that the graphic oriented my perceptions of the changing neighborhood in a time line and also grounded them in a context of factual data.

There is one change I would have made in the racial evolution graphic.  I would have included some outline of about 3 major streets in each of the thumbnail maps. That would have signaled the orientation in thumbnails where the dots were extremely sparse.

68 Blocks included five additional complex data visualizations. There could have been more. “Some of the decisions on what to include were made by whether or not the data could be secured,” Florit said. “We wanted to include one on income disparities in Boston, but the data were not available.”

Most of Florit’s work at the Boston Globe is now devoted to developing more complex visualizations for smaller projects. “Driven to the Edge”, a Spot Light feature, is one of his favorites. The story focused on corruption in the taxi industry that resulted in a sweeping review of city regulations. Florit worked with Alvin Chang and other Globe staff to produce an animated chart that graphed one taxi driver’s expenses and meager earnings over a period of 87 days.

Florit is one of a growing number of data visualization specialists to be found in today’s news rooms. Unlike some journalists who acquire data visualization skills, Florit’s background is in software development. He became interested in how to make more powerful charts and taught himself the skills he needed. Florit described how he found his way to journalism. “I happened to attend an event at M.I.T. organized by the Globe and met someone who said they had an open data visualization position,” Florit said. “I’m ecstatic to be here. It’s the best job ever. Look at the Spot Light project…  Just ten days after the story published the administration said it was opening an investigation. This is a way that you can effect change.”


Politics and Prose: An Interactive Bookstore for the Digital Age

WASHINGTON, 29 June 2013 – It has been two years since Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine purchased Politics and Prose. Since then, the rapid rise of ebooks and Amazon’s growing dominance have threatened the survival of all bookstores. The once mighty Borders bookstore chain went bankrupt, closing over 500 stores.

Yet, innovation continues to thrive at Politics and Prose. Graham and Muscatine have extended the bookstore’s legacy of dynamic author appearances.  In the last month, they hosted Michelle Obama who signed her new book, “American Grown.” Joe Scarborough of the TV show, “Morning Joe,” joined Mika Brzezinksi who spoke about her new book, “Obsessed.”

Graham and Muscatine have also added an array of new classes and workshops for all ages along with collaborative activities co-hosted by organizations like the D. C. Public Library and Sidwell Friends School.

Now, they are pioneering a mashup of their community engagement with advances in print-on-demand.  Meet Opus, an Espresso Book Machine, designed to instantly produce books with limited print runs.  Authors can self-publish via Opus, purchasing some technical support and printing from Politics and Prose.

Opus also helped Politics and Prose make the next leap from bookseller to publisher.  The bookstore launched “District Lines,” in May.  This new periodical gathers local literary and graphic contributions, dynamically engaging new and established artists as well as readers.

So, what does the future look like for Politics and Prose?  “Our customers have shown determination still to buy lots and lots of physical books,” Bradley said, “So our revenues have continued to rise over the last two years.”


Newark Street Community Garden


WASHINGTON, 4 May 2013 – As spring emerges at the Newark Street Community Garden (NSCG), gardeners quietly prepare for a new season of vibrantly blooming flowers, a bountiful harvest and renewed community bonds.

Just a block away from the high-rise buildings and heavy traffic of Wisconsin Avenue, over 200 garden plots await NSCG members who secured a spot where they can grow their own flowers, fruits and vegetables. The plots are staked out by a motley array of wire fences. A few early daffodils dot the barren, browned remains of last year’s growth.  Several plots have a chair or two, still turned up side down for the winter, evoking peaceful summer evenings to come after a hard day’s work. Each plot shows the unique character of its gardener.

“The city supplies the land and water and the gardeners organize themselves,” said Naomi Woolsey, an NSCG member. “We have a board, and rules and regulations and meetings.”

The NSCG was created in 1974 when the U.S. federal government demolished an office building left over from World War II, according to Linda Blount Berry, former NSCG president. One of the garden’s co-founders, Anne Chase, mobilized the neighborhood to turn the pile of rubble into a community garden and the federal government deeded the land to the city.

“Early on we had a lot of women who were gardeners here who came to work for the government as secretaries. They did not marry and were single,” Blount Berry said. “They retired and this became supplemental.  They know how to can and preserve what they grow. We don’t have too many of them left…these women introduced me to the garden.”

Many gardeners now share their harvest with those in need throughout the city. “We all have the option to donate produce to local food banks,” said Woolsey who served on the committee that organizes produce donations. “When everything is in full production, we have the opportunity on different Saturdays to put the produce in a certain location.  Then we deliver the produce to one of the local food banks.” One plot is also set aside to grow food for organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen, So Others Might Eat and a women’s shelter, according to Blount Berry.

Another big change occurred about five years ago when NSCG partnered with Casey Trees to plant about 85 trees around the garden, according to Blount Berry. “We have fruit trees – apples, cherries and peaches.  Most of the fruit trees came from Casey Trees,” said Blount Berry. “Our fig trees are from a gentleman from Greece. He brought the twigs from Greece back with him.”

The Newark Street Community Garden attracts members who have come from all over the world to settle in Washington. “We have people from China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Central and South America, Africa and many more,” Blount Berry said. “We learn a lot from each other and about different methods of gardening.” Albertino, a man from Portugal, gardens almost all year long. “He’s the best gardener I have seen in my life, and I am a landscape designer,” Blount Berry said. “It’s fascinating to see what he can do with a garden.”

About 89 percent of the gardeners live in the immediate neighborhood and the other 11 percent are from around the city, according to Blount Berry.  Any Washington resident may apply for a plot. However, the waiting list was recently temporarily closed due to unprecedented demand, according to a sign posted near the garden’s entrance.

The NSCG organization consciously interacts with an ecosystem that extends beyond its collection of individual plots.  Aware that the area drains into the Chesapeake water shed, members practice organic gardening, according to Blount Berry. Gardeners take advantage of a communal compost heap located at the edge of the garden. The trees planted about five years ago were carefully selected to attract bees, butterflies and a wide variety of birds as well as to provide much needed shade in the summer.

“Once you are in the garden, it’s transformative,” said Woolsey, an active NSCG gardener.  “People walk through all the time. You hear them admiring the gardens. It’s a respite. It’s a quiet place in the middle of the city.”



Digital Now 2013 Conference Gathers Futurists to Predict and Create the Next Decade

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL, 4 April 2013. Soon after the year 2020, artists and architects will create beautiful works of art by simply waving their hands in the air, said Michio Kaku on Thursday to an audience of 500 association executives gathered in Florida for the Digital Now 2013 conference. The artists’ and architects’ creations will be captured by computer chips embedded in “smart wall paper” and be “printed” out by three dimensional printers, according to Kaku.

A theoretical physicist, Kaku interviewed 300 engineers and consolidated his findings to envision a future that is less than 10 years away. Widely known as the author of the best selling books, Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future, Kaku has also hosted TV specials for the Discovery Channel and other major networks.

To put recent great leaps in perspective, Kaku said that Stalin would have killed to obtain the power contained in a computer chip in a birthday card that plays music when opened, and is then thrown away. The first manned space flights relied on computing power that is roughly equivalent the power contained in one of today’s smart phones.

Moore’s Law is still in effect, according to Kaku, and computer power continues to double every 18 months.  In 2020, computers will be everywhere but the word “computer” will no longer be used. “Internet glasses will do everything,” Kaku said. “There will be internet contact lenses. Just blink and you will be online. The first to adopt them will be college students taking exams. Tourists will see the ancient world in Rome resurrected in their lenses as they walk through.”

Retailing and publishing are both undergoing digitalization and medicine will be the next big thing, according to Kaku. We will have tiny MRI machines in our medicine cabinets and smart toilets will routinely perform diagnostic tests.

In the time since Steve Jobs died, new knowledge about pancreatic cancer has  been discovered that could have saved his life, Kaku said. Previously, pancreatic tumors could not diagnosed until they were fatal.  It was thought that pancreatic tumors were fast growing. We now know that pancreatic cancer is actually very slow growing, according to Kaku. We just did not yet have the gene sequencing complete.  In the future, smart toilets will show pointers to pancreatic cancer 20 years in advance and nano particles will be swallowed in a capsule and released to destroy only cancer cells.

The cost of the first complete genome was about $3 billion, said Kaku. In 20 years everyone will be able to get one for about $100. “Your genome will be your owners manual,” Kaku said. “Doctors will be able to grow replacement parts with your own DNA in plastic.”

Early experiments are already underway to print human kidneys, said David Metcalf, describing the work of surgeon Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Institute for regenerative medicine in another Digital Now 2013 presentation.

Metcalf, a researcher at the University of Central Florida, described 3-D printing as a springboard to an emerging “maker society.” Personal fabrication systems are becoming affordable, inspiring a new generation of artists and engineers to innovate. Computer scientists from MIT are calling this new wave, “The internet of things,” according to Metcalf.

“The maker culture is doing for engineering what Web 2.0 did for journalism,” said Colin Ford, a graduate computer science student at the University of Central Florida. The maker culture is giving rise to a creative class of people from around the world who are interacting with each other. They gather virtually and physically around a project and expect to have something built in a short time, said Ford.

So what are the takeaways for association executives? Kaku challenged the audience to think about how they can use the developing technology. “Those who resist will be bankrupt,” said Kaku. “Still there will always be an urge to gather with like-minded people. We haven’t changed for 100,000 years.  Because we are hunters and gatherers, we don’t trust electrons.  We’re social hunters. We like to talk to each other, size people up, bond with them.”

For Colin Ford, the emerging maker culture points the way to a new way of engaging association members in collaboration.  People are looking for shorter-term projects with a practical, tangible results. “There need to be multiple paths to leadership in organizations, said Jenny Levine, of the American Library Association. “Help people contribute in small chunks and iterate often.”

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL, 4 APRIL 2013. Michio Kaku in profile pauses as as video clip of his appearance on the Discovery Channel is played during his presentation at the Digital Now 2013 confererence. Dr. Kaku, a theoretical physicist presented his vision of life in the future, based on interviews with 300 top engineers.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL, 4 APRIL 2013. Participants gathered at the opening general session of the Digital Now 2013 conference to hear about “The Big Bang” now being experienced in media and in associations as the digital transformation of communication and social engagement reach critical mass.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL, 4 APRIL 2013. Engaged participant listens to Michio Kaku describe a new application that allows paralyzed physicist Stephen Hawking to speak simply by thinking.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL, 4 APRIL 2013. David Metcalf of the University of Central Florida UCF) displayed a 3-D printer enables designers and engineers to create their work on computers and “print’ a three-dimensional object. As these 3-D printers proliferate and become less expensive, a new “Maker Society” is emerging based on what MIT computer scientists have called, “The Internet of Things.” Colin Forward, a graduate computer science student from UCF said, “Maker culture is doing for engineering what Web 2.0 did for journalism.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL, 4 APRIL 2013. Inside the 3-D printer displayed by David Metcalf of the University of Central Florida (UCF) at his session on “The Maker Society” at the Digital Now 2013 conference.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL. 4 APRIL 2013. On the left is a working measuring tape that was printed from a 3-D printer. On the right is the commercially produced end product.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL, 4 April 2013. Don Dea, founder of Fusion Productions, wrapped up the first morning of the Digital Now 2013 conference. “This is the year when reach ‘the big bang’ of the impact of technolgy on our organizations,” said Dea, lead planner of the Digital Now 2013 conference, galvanizing attendees to integrate visionary aspirations with practical implementation plans.

Visual Storytelling – 9 photos

AMERICAN SOCIETY OF HEALTH-SYSTEM PHARMACISTS (ASHP), Bethesda, Md., March 2013. Environmental portrait of Terry Wang, applications analyst. Terry immigrated to the U.S. from China when he was 9 years old. Terry’s undergraduate work in economics and computer science was followed by an MBA from the University of Maryland that he completed while working full time at ASHP. Terry has developed several AHFS and other drug information apps for ASHP. environmental portrait

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, Washington, DC, 17 March 2013. An installation composed of neon lights and paint by artist Glenn Ligon on display at the National Gallery of Art. dark vs. light.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, Washington, DC, 17 March 2013. An installation composed of neon lights and paint by artist Glenn Ligon on display at the National Gallery of Art. Ligon created the piece for his first solo showing that opened at the Luhring Augustine gallery in New York in October 2013. light vs. dark

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, Washington, DC, 17 March 2013. Visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is becoming a more interactive and social experience. Children receive handouts and crayons, reflecting their experience in coloring and drawing. Seniors enjoy gathering at the museum, discussing what they are seeing. These visitors are enjoying the cafeteria seating between the east and west galleries of the National Gallery of Art. multiple planes

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, Washington DC, 17 March 2013. This visitor to the National Gallery of Art is creating a new work of art. He is using his iPad to take a video of the waterfall through a kaleidoscope. A still image of his video appears in the foreground on his iPad screen and the waterfall that produced the image is in the background. multiple planes

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, Washington, DC, 17 March 2013. Waterfall seen through a window in the passageway between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art. subject (waterfall) in motion

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, Washington, DC, 17 March 2013. Waterfall seen through a window in the passageway between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art. subject (waterfall) static

AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, Washington DC, March 2013. AU students between classes, with focus on student with smart phone. depth of field, shallow

AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, Washington, DC, March 2013. American University students between classes with focus on background. depth of field deep.






National Cathedral’s Earthquake Repairs to Take 10 Years and $20 Million

It took 83 years to build the cathedral in stages as funding became available. Once again, the cathedral is relying solely on private funding and much of the work is being handcrafted. 

By Carol Wolfe

Photo Gallery

As the new year approaches, the Washington National Cathedral braces for 10 years of fundraising and construction to repair the damage caused by the earthquake of August 2011.

Cathedral staff remain undaunted by the restoration challenges. “It took 83 years to build the cathedral.  It will take 10 years to repair the earthquake damage, but it will be done,” cathedral tour guide Jane Junghans said.

For decades, thousands of people have gathered at the cathedral in times of national tragedy. Despite post-earthquake challenges, the cathedral will gather many on Sunday, December 16 when the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral will preach about the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn. to address gun violence.

The Washington National Cathedral sustained more damage during the earthquake than any other building in Washington, according to Junghans. Unlike the Washington Monument, the second-most damaged structure in Washington, the cathedral receives no federal funding. Private donations are the cathedral’s only funding source.

Funding challenges and the handcrafted nature of the repairs both contribute to the estimated decade to complete repairs.

Stone carvers continue to work daily, chipping away to recreate and repair finials, gargoyles and other stone blocks, according to tour guide Dick Mitchell.  They line up finished pieces outside the shed, waiting until funds are raised to bring back a crane to complete installation.

Soaring Costs

The estimated cost to complete the earthquake repairs is $20 million according to cathedral docent, Elaine Darby. About $7.8 million has been raised so far, including a $5 million donation from the Lilly Endowment, the Indianapolis-based foundation created by the family that built the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company.

The cathedral needs more funding to complete the interior inspection of the interior vaulting that rises 100 feet above the floor, according to Mitchell. Netting has been installed under the vaulting to prevent any loose mortar from falling. “The inspection process is expensive and complex from an engineering perspective,” Mitchell said.

The cathedral has a history of gathering private donations from a wide variety of sources. Many donations were designated to fund specific elements. Over 200 stained glass windows were contributed by donors to honor individuals or organizations. Foreshadowing the recent Eli Lilly donation, another medical supply company was associated with an original stained glass window called “Roots of Healing.” The famous window, “Space,” was donated in honor of the NASA space missions and the first lunar landing.

Donations, large and small, can come from unexpected sources.  Jeff Sypeck, a former teacher of medieval literature, is donating a portion of the proceeds of one of his books to the cathedral’s earthquake repair fund. The book, “Looking Up,” is a collection of poems and photographs of the cathedral’s famous stone gargoyles.

“In a fast-paced, hectic city in the here and now, there is a sense of history at the cathedral,” Sypeck said, “It belongs to traditions that go back centuries.” The cathedral provides a great place of refuge to the neighborhood, according to Sypeck who lives less than a mile away.

The Stone Carvers

The Washington National Cathedral is well known for its stone carvings, rooted in the traditions of the medieval cathedrals in Europe.  Vincent Palumbo and Roger Morigi, fifth-generation stone carvers from Italy, led the craftsman who created most of the cathedral’s hundreds of carvings.  In addition to creating masterpieces of religious iconography, they continued the medieval tradition of carving caricatures of each other and coworkers into the cathedral as chronicled in Marjorie Hunt’s book, “The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral.” One pinnacle carving shows Roger Morigi with his golf clubs.

Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s head stone mason, carries on the traditions of Morigi and Palumbo. He learned the craft from his dad and went to work for the cathedral in 1984, Alonso told WAMU’s Jocelyn Frank in an interview. He set the final stone in place in 1990 with President George H. W. Bush in attendance.

New carvings continue to be created, reflecting current cultural icons and leaders.  The Darth Vader gargoyle has become famous.  The most recent new carving of Mother Teresa was installed on October 25, joining Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and others in the cathedral’s Human Rights Porch, according to Mitchell.

In a behind-the-scenes soaring space, high under the bell tower, there is an arched wooden niche with several shelves of empty, standing bottles.  “Those are champagne bottles,” Mitchell said, “The guild of stone carvers were here for several generations, working on the south lawn.  Each New Year’s Eve, they would take a bottle, toast the new year and sign the bottle.”  They collected the bottles in a construction shed, according to Mitchell.  To honor them, the carpenters built the niche and arranged the champagne bottles.  They had the foresight, according to Mitchell, to secure the bottles with wire.  Otherwise, they would have certainly been shaken loose and smashed during the earthquake.

Telling America’s Story

 Iconography is a way to tell a story without words, according to Junghans. The medieval cathedrals used carvings and stained glass images to tell stories about Jonah and the whale and Adam and Eve. The Washington National Cathedral uses iconography to also tell the story of America.

The story of World War II is told in a chapel donated by England, to thank the people of America for their help. A stained glass window is a tribute to the Marines in Iwo Jima, showing the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi.  England’s Queen Mother made one of the needlepoint seat cushion covers.

Another national tragedy is memorialized in a small cross made from the debris of buildings destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

The Washington National Cathedral has provided a place for Americans to gather to honor their most respected leaders and reflect on times of tragedy. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon from the cathedral’s pulpit, according to Junghans, a week before he died.

A ceremony was held at the cathedral to dedicate the Viet Nam War Memorial.  The name of every soldier who died was read in a ceremony that took 3 days to complete, Junghans said.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died in August.  His memorial service was held at the Washington National Cathedral. “You had to have an invitation from NASA to attend,” Junghans said,  “All the lights were dimmed for a short time and then you heard a booming voice.  It was John F. Kennedy saying ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’  Then, Diana Krall walked over to the Steinway piano and played ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’”

Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world visit the cathedral each year, according to Darby. “The Dalai Lama once came to conduct a joint Buddhist-Christian service,” Darby said. “The place was filled and there were crowds standing outside.

Performances of Handel’s Messiah draw crowds to the cathedral every December. Linda Kiser came from Lancaster, Pa. to attend the concert this year. “I come about once a year,” Kiser said. “This is my first time to hear the Messiah. I come for the beauty of the cathedral, just to be here.”

Jason Zsak brought family visiting from Pittsburgh to see the cathedral. They were there for the first time, drawn to visit by the architecture, history and religious tradition of the cathedral, Zsak said. They loved the tour and thought the stained glass was especially beautiful. Zsak said he would definitely encourage others to visit.