Journalist’s Notebook

Recent posts

Starting This Back Up: Summing Up Five Years At DNAinfo Chicago

I haven’t updated this site in a while, mostly because of a lack of bandwidth. But since the sudden shuttering of DNAinfo last week — a place where I worked with some of the most-dedicated, talented and caring journalists I’ll ever meet for five years — I realized it would be good to restart the site that shares my name.

Ido plan on updating the look and functionality of the site eventually, but for now here’s an update on where I’ve been since my last post here in 2013 and how I plan to move forward in the next step of my career.

I’ve been at DNAinfo since fall 2012 up until last week. At the urging of the supportive and amazing Jen Sabella, I successfully pitched they make me the “data reporter and visualization producer.” Fundamentally, that means I’d tell stories with graphics and numbers, but rather than simply produce staid maps and line graphs, I was empowered to learn new techniques on the job and experiment with journalism. It was simply the best job.

Here are some of the features I produced, either independently, or with the fantastic team of John Ness (former DNAinfo Editor-In-Chief), Nicole Bode (former DNAinfo New York editor of everything), Nigel Chiwaya (my former DNAinfo New York counterpart) at the team at NiJel Mapping.

Special features:
How Every New York City Neighborhood Voted In The 2016 Presidential Election (Nov. 9, 2016)
How Every Chicago Neighborhood Voted In The 2016 Presidential Election (Nov. 9, 2016)
Where Do You Stand or Sit on The ‘L’ (Feb. 2016)
Where Do You Stand or Sit on The New York Subway (Feb. 2016)
This is Where Chicagoans Say The Borders of Their Neighborhoods Are (Sept. 28, 2015)
Chicago Craft Beer Atlas: The Ultimate Map Of Chicago’s Craft Beer Scene (April 2017)

Chicago crime databases:
Where Shootings Have Occurred in Chicago Since 2010 (MAP) (Since July 2015)
Chicago Murder Timeline (2012-2017)

A selection of census-based stories:
How The Racial Makeup Of Chicago Has Changed In The 21st Century (MAP) (May 16, 2016)
Young Black Families Move Back To Woodlawn, Reversing Exodus (Dec. 12, 2016)
Downtown Keeps Growing As Rest Of Chicago Shrinks (May 20, 2016)
Polish Population Plummets On Far NW Side As Residents Head To Suburbs (June 1, 2016)

Other data and visualization-based stories:
Less Than 25 Percent Of Chicago Kids Go To ‘Neighborhood High Schools’ (June 19, 2017)
Future Looks Bleak For Cabbies As Rides Dip 41%: ‘The Worst It’s Ever Been’ (Sept. 21, 2017)
Over 150,000 Cars Signed Up for Uber, Lyft and Sidecar in Chicago (Nov. 23, 2015)

It was a pleasure to tell stories about the neighborhoods of Chicago and New York in this new and exciting way. My hope is to build on what I’ve done at DNAinfo and help a new audience engage with information in new, exciting ways.

‘Murder in Chicago: The Human Toll’ Wins Editor & Publisher Award

Pictured are just 97 of the more than 375 homicide victims in Chicago as of Oct. 31, 2013. Some of these photos include loved ones of the victim, but one (five from the right and three from the top) includes mother and son victims, Chavonne Brown and five-year-old Sterling Sims.

Pictured are just 97 of the more than 375 homicide victims in Chicago as of Oct. 31, 2013. Some of these photos include loved ones of the victim, but one (five from the right and three from the top) includes mother and son victims, Chavonne Brown and five-year-old Sterling Sims.

On Wednesday, DNAinfo Chicago’s project “Murder in Chicago: The Human Toll” was awarded Editor & Publisher’s EPPY Award for “Best Investigative/Enterprise Feature on a Website with under 1 million unique monthly visitors.”

I wrote about my role in the project earlier this year. Though it feels a little weird about winning an award about people who would never have been widely know except for the way they died, I find what we’ve done deeply important and am honored to work with such a great team.

A Look at Chicago’s Murder Rate: Why Covering ‘Ordinary’ People Matters documented all 509 murders in the city in 2012.

DNAinfo Chicago documented all 509 murders in the city in 2012.

I recently finished reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo chronicling several years in the lives of a handful of residents of a Mumbai slum. The book is no doubt a herculean feat of journalism about what could be called some of the world’s more insignificant people. In the Author’s Note that follows this nonfiction novel, Boo writes:

When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with a team of hungry and talented journalists at, chasing down the stories of every homicide victim in the city of Chicago in 2012. The package launched a couple weeks ago, telling the stories of 509 people killed within city limits.

It’s fair to say that the large majority of these people were ordinary, at least in the traditional sense. Many were former gang members. Others, just victims of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were victims of their surroundings in neighborhoods not only plagued by gang violence, but poor schools and high unemployment. All, more or less, were destined to leave their mark merely as statistics.

Working on this project made me further appreciate the impact we have as journalists and that the individual details matter as much as the big picture. Journalism isn’t merely about holding the feet of decision makers to the fire but showing the everyday, often recurring, consequences of how we’ve shaped our neighborhoods, cities, states, nations and world. Just as the stories of the 20 children and seven women killed last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School matters in whatever debate about guns we have coming up in this country, so should the stories of Nicholas Camacho and Jeffrey Stewart.

All extraordinary things have an effect on ordinary people, in one way or another, and as journalists we have a duty to show that in our storytelling. If we forget this, why bother being journalists?

Public Appearance: KALW 91.7 on Sikh Shooting Coverage

If you are in the Bay Area or cruising the Internet today around 10:30 a.m. PST/1:30 p.m. EST, please tune into KALW 91.7 where I’ll be a guest on Your Call to talk about coverage of Sikh Americans, and more broadly minorities, in wake of events such as Sunday’s shooting at a Wisconsin temple. It follows up an article I wrote on the issue of minority coverage amidst breaking news situations for Columbia Journalism Review. I briefly discuss that story on a blog post on this site.

New Piece: On Minority Coverage During Breaking News Tragedy

For those of you who are interested in minority coverage in the media, please read my piece from today on the Columbia Journalism Review’s website titled “Breaking news: This minority group is different.” It’s specifically about the coverage of Sikhs in wake of Sunday’s shooting at a temple in suburban Milwaukee. Feel free to comment on CJR’s site or below.

New Piece: Urban Entrepreneurship Examined

I alluded to this story in an earlier post, but my nearly 4,000-word story on urban entrepreneurship in America was published today by Next American City.

The story examines how urban entrepreneurship, by that meaning largely small-scale, minority businesses in inner-city areas, has become a mission in the nonprofit, government and for-profit sectors. A key aspect of the story was deep-diving into what’s happening in Newark, N.J., where Mayor Cory Booker has developed into an inspirational leader of the cause of urban entrepreneurship.

The story is behind a paywall, a new revenue stream for NAC, which recently dropped its print magazine in favor of publishing longform pieces once a week. You may purchase my story, or any other for that matter, for $1.99. A yearlong subscription costs $17.98.

New Piece: A Primer on Afghan Food

This is the qabili palau served at Kabul House in Skokie, Ill. The dish, featuring succulent meat, covered with rice, carrots, lentils and raisins is the national dish of Afghanistan.

Read this introduction to Afghan food I wrote as my first piece for Food Republic, a website that produces stories about food with a predominantly male audience in mind.

And yes, it is in fact as delicious as it looks.

From the Archives: My First (Solo) Public Radio Piece

Cargill is by far the biggest employer of those in Beardstown, Ill., a rural town in Western Illinois that was the focus of my first-ever radio piece.

Late in 2011, I had the privilege of being added to the freelance roster of WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate. My first assignment called on me to assist with field reporting and editing a piece for the station’s Front and Center series examining the city of Milwaukee’s positioning of itself as the “water capital of the world.”

A few months after that experience, I went solo for the Front and Center on their series about the impact literacy has on the regional economy. I pitched a story looking at rural libraries and their evolving role in an increasingly tech-focused, recession-wearied world. That story evolved to become a story about immigrant communities in Beardstown, Ill., a small town an hour west of Springfield, Illinois’ capital. The immigrants, mostly from Mexico and West Africa, were drawn by jobs . The story explored the role of the library, local community college and Cargill itself in teaching these newcomers English and the impact such actions have on society and the economy.

The assignment ranks as one of my most memorable assignments, not only because I had to master a previously unfamiliar storytelling medium, from field production to studio recording, but also adopt a reporting mindset of being observant about everything going on around me from the sounds of someone checking out a book to the Spanish-language conversations that take place everyday in Beardstown’s restaurants and supermarkets. While I have always appreciated details as a way to enhance my storytelling, this experience taught me to always notice everything. It’s a tough thing to do, but I believe the journalist’s most important role is to notice and filter noise down to something that is understandable. What I learned on this particular assignment will loom large on my future ones — radio, print or anything else.

4 Tools to Create Interactive Timeline Features for Your Stories

In 2011, I had the privilege of producing the second of my three websites for the National Security Zone, an initiative that gives master’s students at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism an opportunity to dive deep into national security matters. It also brings in experienced journalists and Washington policymakers to craft in-depth journalism packages. The Data Minefield, curated, edited and created by Paul Rosenzweig, the founder of the security-focused Red Branch Consulting PLLC, addressed how the government has used large databases in the name of national security. One of the features of the assignment was to present a timeline chronicling the history of data mining in the United States in a compelling way. Through that process I came across several different web applications that try to convey chronology on the web. Some are better than others, but here are some of what I found out there.

TimelineSetter: Created by ProPublica, TimelineSetter is by far the most attractive and compelling timeline tool out there. It’s the program I used in the image you see above. The program offers a great deal of customization and seamless integration of images and video. With a little CSS know-how, it’s easy to get the right typography and color schemes. Admittedly, using this tool is not idea for the tech averse. Installing the application requires an installation process that utilizes the Mac Terminal, Ruby on Rails and tricky spreadsheet actions. Date entry is a bit iffy too. Nonetheless, the end product is beautiful and well worth the inevitable frustration.

Dipity: Dipity serves as the baseline of web-based timelines. It’s easy to use, especially when it comes to adding photos and video.. Still it’s pretty ugly and not very customizable, unless you get the paid versions. Not bad, but with a little work, you can get better timelines for cheaper.

Timeline 3D: There’s very little redeemable about the $65, Mac-only Timeline 3D from Beedocs. There aren’t many presentation options and even few customization options. I never figured out a way to integrate video into this program either. Save your money and pass on this.

TimelineJS: It’s the newest timeline app on this list. Created by the Knight News Innovation Lab, a joint venture between Northwestern’s computer science and journalism department, TimelineJS is much like ProPublica’s tool with the added benefit that there is no need to enter foreign Ruby coding into your computer. Enter the chronological info via a Google spreadsheet and out pops a timeline. The application also seems to have great Twitter and Google Maps integration. The end product is quite pretty too.