Matthew M. Robare Media

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“A real valuable tool — if used properly”

Tonight I had the great fortune to attend a roundtable discussion at the Nieman Foundation on Journalism and the Boston Marathon Bombings with David Beard, director of digital content at The Washington Post, Cheryl Fiandaca, who is the chief of the Boston Police Department’s public information bureau, as well as having worked as a TV journalist in Boston and New York, Seth Mnookin, a journalist who was on the scene of the MIT shootings and followed the police all the way to Watertown, David Abel, a Boston Globe reporter who was on the scene of the bombings shooting video for a documentary he was making, Callie Crossley, who hosts “Under the Radar” on WGBH and Jennifer Peter, The Globe’s Metro editor.

Most of the discussion centered around the role played by social media in shaping and reporting the story. The title of this post comes from something Peter said about Twitter — and she was completely right. I got much of my information about the story — both the day of the bombings and the day of the manhunt — from Twitter.

Mnookin said that he began using his tweets as his notes for the story. After the discussion I asked him about his use of the police scanner as a tool for gathering information as he followed the story Thursday night and Friday from Cambridge to Watertown. I was curious because a lot of information that turned out to be untrue or misleading or irrelevent came through the scanner ( one of the people I followed closely, Garrett Quinn, urged caution with the scanner, but still used it himself to some extent). He said that while there was a lot of chaos, the information that came through that turned out to be misleading or untrue didn’t invalidate the use of a police scanner — the fact that a suspicious package turns out to be innocent doesn’t matter: the police still have to check out reports because they don’t know until they do. He also said that filtering out the important stuff from the chaos was a matter of listening to the speakers’ voices and partly a matter of instinct and experience, saying that when he was a cops reporter he would spend eight hours a day listening to the scanner.

Beard said that there were three important things to take away from experience: “Have a coverage plan, keep your antennae up for new tools and sources and verify, verify, verify.”

Peter said that the day of the Marathon most people who worked the Metro section had the day off because that day is usually given over to sports coverage. She had to mobilize her newsroom on the move while Beard had to put his into action from afar. One of the things many people mentioned was the absence of The Boston Herald from a lot of the on the ground reporting — they don’t have the staff anymore to provide the neccesarry coverage in the event of things like the bombings.

I asked the panel about learning the lessons from previous breaking news stories, drawing a parallel between the reports of The New York Post that a 20 year old Saudi man living in Revere was the perpetrator with The Post’s denunciation of Richard Jewell after the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996. The panelists pointed out that there was a lot of good reporting being done, but the things that reporters got wrong stick in the public memory more. Beard did confess that it was a scary situation to not have the Associated Press “holding our hands.”

Two interesting tools were demonstrated, one is Massively Parallel Database, or MapD, which can track geocoded tweets. The developer, Todd Mostack,  showed the spread of Tweets across the country the day of the bombings. Keepr, a new app for finding credible sources in social media was demonstrated by the developer, Hong Qu.

The record of the livestream will be available later on.

Density does matter

This is a short essay I’ve written using some of my interest in urbanism.

“It turns out – counter the misunderstandings of some urbanists – that higher or lower density simply does not matter . . .” wrote Wendell Cox on NewGeography.com in an article entitled Density is not the issue. He was writing about the research of Geoffrey West and colleagues who have developed amazing mathematical models that can predict a number of things about a city based on its population, but many urbanists have mis-characterized the research as being about density.

While Richard Florida and other urbanists Cox called out for misreading the research may be wrong about the research, it does not follow that they’re wrong about density.

Cox pointed out that “the Seattle and Houston urban areas have population densities much lower than those of Paris, London, Hong Kong and even Los Angeles – yet they still rank higher among the most productive metropolitan areas in the world.”

But density does matter, just not in the way either Cox or urbanists who think only of population density – many suburbs and apartment blocks contain more people per square foot than the neighborhoods of tenements and brownstones they replaced. The thing that’s really important is building density. Some of those lost neighborhoods of tenements and brownstones were poor and some of them were slums, but the ones that weren’t slums were better and safer places to live than modern suburbs or towers in parks.

I was in a museum near Boston’s North Station the other day memorializing the West End, which was the neighborhood between Massachusetts General Hospital and what’s now Government Center. It was poor, but it wasn’t a slum by any means. In fact, it was the most diverse neighborhood in Boston, welcoming to new immigrants and the origins of people like actor Leonard Nimoy. In the 1950s the city seized most of it by eminent domain, after making it look like a slum by refusing to pick up garbage, and used federal funding to tear it down and put up wide roads for cars, subsidize private development of luxury apartment towers and largely erase all traces of the old West End. Sociologist Herbert Gans described the West End as “A nice place to live” and the museum guide pointed out a photograph of a cop, “Officer McCarthy . . . 27 years on the force and not a single arrest.”

What made the West End so livable and what continues to make Greenwich Village and Boston’s North End so livable and lively? Those are the sorts of questions good urbanists should ask – people come to the city to make money, yes, but their activities are based on maximizing their own good, not the city’s Gross Metropolitan Product.

This is where density comes in. Cities that have high building densities – i.e. most of the land is used for buildings, not driveways, highways, parking lots and large parks – are more livable and lively than cities with low building density. In such cities, more things are within a comfortable walking distance and the architecture tends to reflect the fact that it’s being viewed close up by people on the ground moving at walking speeds than by people driving on an elevated superhighway at 65 mph. The ability to go anywhere without a car and the fact that people who live in such places are usually renting mean that one might make less in such a city, but because of the lack of a car to maintain and a mortgage to pay off, one saves more than the Houstonian or Seattle-ite.

Walkable neighborhoods with high building densities, combined with a mixture of uses that result in the streets being used or watched much of the time makes them safer and more lively. The people who live in them and do all that walking are also healthier than the people who drive everywhere.

Houston might be richer than Paris, but Parisians don’t work for years to save enough money to spend a two week vacation in central Houston, either.

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