Using New Media Across the Globe

The Global Voices logo.

On Tuesday, a speaker from Global Voices came to speak to my Reinventing the News class. Firuzeh Shokooh Valle, a Northeastern PhD student and editor at Global Voices, spoke to our class about international citizen journalists and bloggers.

On its website, Global Voices is described as “an international community of bloggers who report on blogs and citizen media from around the world.” Global Voices was created in 2005 by two fellows at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman. The two had extensive experience with international news: MacKinnon had been a Tokyo bureau chief for CNN, and Zuckerman was an Africa expert, as well as a technologist. A more in-depth profile of the organization can be found in this New York Times article.

Global Voices now claims to have more than 300 bloggers and translators working for the site around the world. These bloggers aim to sift through global citizen journalism and present readers with comprehensive news reports “with emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media.”

After becoming interested in Global Voices, Shokooh Valle contacted editors at the website after noticing that her native Puerto Rico wasn’t being covered. Without knowing if Puerto Rico even had a blogosphere, Shokooh Valle began researching blogs.

After two years of volunteering, she was offered the job of being a Spanish-language editor, overseeing all that’s written in Spanish, which covers mostly Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Europe, and at times Latin America, though there is a Latin American editor.

Shokooh Valle described her duties as “writing long posts and [news] updates.” Additionally, she said she monitors “blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.” Though she’s not physically present in the countries she writes about and edits, she uses all of these social and new media channels to monitor the online conversation of major events, demonstrations and breaking news.

As Global Voices grows, Shookoh Valle said it’s getting easier for people to contribute, because she can now have people submit articles in Spanish and have them be translated into English. Currently, Global Voices has translators in 30 languages.

Global Voices allows people from all different areas of the world to learn about other cultures beyond what major news networks are saying. Puerto Rico, for example, has “great art and music blogs” with information that won’t be found anywhere else, according to Shokooh Valle.

I think this is one of the most important things that Global Voices offers. It’s a chance to learn about another country’s entire culture, instead of just check in during a time of political unrest. Our professor Dan Kennedy pointed out that someone once told him that American bloggers seem to be interested mostly in politics, and Shokooh Valle agreed.

There is so much more to a country’s culture than what’s going on politically. That seems to be one of Global Voices biggest problems:  How do you engage Americans in a country’s citizen journalism when that country is not engaged in any sort of civil unrest?

When it comes to North Africa and the Middle East, I think it will be important to continue to monitor the traffic to Global Voices. Will interest in countries like Egypt and Syria, for example, still be high six months from now? In a year?

Photo (cc) Mohamed El Gohary under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Max Brenner Brings Chocolate to Boston

The outside of Max Brenner on Boylston St.

I’ve been sick since Saturday night with some form of nasty stomach flu. I’m getting better, but over the past few days I’ve learned that it is extremely difficult as a person who blogs about baking to read baking and food blogs day after day while only being able to eat Cheerios.

What’s more difficult than that? Not being able to go to the opening of Max Brenner! A friend of mine is going to the preview night of the international chocolate restaurant tonight to review it for The Huntington News.

The newest location of this inventive restaurant is at 745 Boylston St. in Boston’s Back Bay. The Boston Globe’s YourTown site had a brief write-up of the restaurant, whose menu includes both chocolate items like waffle fries dusted with chili and cocoa powder, and “regular” food like pizza, salads and burgers.

While browsing the brunch menu, I noticed their “After Party Belgian Waffle,” which is topped with strawberries, whipped cream,  strawberry honey and melted white chocolate.

My attempt at a chocolate waffle.

I made chocolate waffles over spring break with this recipe from Tales From a Kitchen Misfit. It was my first attempt at waffles in my new waffle maker, and while everyone in my family enjoyed them, I felt that they were lacking a little something.

Perhaps it was the berry flavor? Brenner’s waffle adds strawberries and Kitchen Misfit’s recipe added blackberries.

While perusing the “Sweets” menu, I noticed that it doesn’t have any sort of brownie on it. There’s more than enough chocolate indulgence to satisfy even my chocolate sweet tooth, but there’s something about brownies that I just love. They’re simple enough to make, don’t take very long, but are, in my opinion, more dessert-like than cookies.

But with such outrageously decadent desserts as the “Chocolate Chunks Pizza” and “Deep Fudge Chocolate Cake & Shake,” I don’t think anyone who goes to Max Brenner will leave feeling like they missed out on anything.

Photo (cc) Max Brenner, from the @MaxBrennerUSA Twitter account.

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Jeff Howe Talks About Crowdsourcing and Journalism

Jeff Howe speaking at an event.

Jeff Howe was our guest speaker in my journalism class on Friday, speaking about, amongst other things, crowdsourcing. Howe is the newest faculty member to the School of Journalism, a former Nieman Fellow and author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business.

Crowdsourcing, a term Howe coined back around 2006, is the idea that ordinary people, who were once confined to their chosen careers, are changing the face of business and the news by using the internet to expand their talents.

For example, a lawyer who’s a good writer and who has a passion for movies can now go home from his regular job and write movie reviews that he publishes on his blog. This legitimate film criticism might start to give paid newspaper film critics a run for their money.

Is that a good or a bad thing?

In a YouTube video he showed us about the subject, Howe goes into more depth about the idea of crowdsourcing, saying that it’s “giving it to the people,” where “it” can be anything from the t-shirt business to journalism.

In the video, Howe goes on to say, “crowdsourcing doesn’t eradicate the business, it changes it.”

After showing the video, Howe engaged the class in a discussion about the pros and cons of crowdsourcing as it pertains to journalism. The pros, he said, were that it can be an effective newsgathering tool, a good way to disperse art and media, helpful to article writing and distribution.

Distribution, Howe told us, basically meant self-promotion. The thing that journalists once shunned as something taboo, he said, was the best way to get your work out in the open today.

Using Twitter as both a way to promote your work is important, but it’s also important to use Twitter as a way to stay updated on the news. Following reporters, instead of news organizations, can be a “window into the newsroom, into journalists’ minds before the story is published.”

So what are the downsides of crowdsourcing, or “citizen journalism”? In general, the biggest drawback is that it can be a big threat to journalism and reporting. Though Howe gave us great examples of how citizen journalism can help media outlets outside of the mainstream by helping find and research a story, ultimately citizen journalism “puts a crunch on an already strapped industry.”

Yet ultimately, is crowdsourcing good or bad for journalism? Howe left it up to us to decide where we stand on the idea. I, for one, had never thought of the debate in this way, and will definitely be giving the phenomenon a lot of thought when analyzing the news from now on.

Photo (cc) by Ernst-Jan Pfauth under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Taking Another Look at Google Recipes

Is the Google Recipe function actually hurting the people who use it?

That’s the question Amanda Hesser seems to be asking in an opinion article for food52.com, a website I’ll admit I’ve never been to until today. While cruising my Google Reader and Twitter feeds, I saw the article pop up both in a New York Times Diner’s Journal blog post, and on David Lebovitz’s Twitter.

A screenshot of a Google Recipes search.

The article is well-written, and a very thoughtful, thought-provoking piece. When Google announced the Recipe function just about a month ago, Hesser said she was excited to think that lesser-known food websites would be given a better chance to shine. Unfortunately, she found that not to be the case, and claims:

While Google was just trying to improve its algorithm, thereby making the path to recipes easier and more efficient, it inadvertently stepped  into the middle of the battle between the quick-and-easy faction and the cooking-matters group.

She goes on to explain that Google rewards the big food sites by putting them on the first page of results because they are well-versed in search engine optimization (SEO), and have the ability to put together ingredient lists, cooking times and the number of calorie servings in a dish.

In my initial take on the service, I mentioned being disappointed that most of the recipes come from mega-sites like foodnetwork.com. It doesn’t give great, smaller food websites and blogs a chance to show off their completely original recipes, or describe how mega-site recipes can be adapted.

Apparently, some websites will game the system by lowering the number of calories and not including prep time in their total cook time. This is deceiving to inexperienced cooks who may not know that these authors are stretching the truth. Additionally, it could hurt smaller sites because if someone sees that a dinner can (falsely) be made in 10 minutes, they might use that recipe instead of searching for a similar recipe that doesn’t hesitate to admit that when made properly, the meal might take 2 hours in total to make.

But is there anything inherently wrong in wanting to make something fast and easy? I know that as a college student, I rarely plan my meals ahead. While I’m no culinary genius, it’s nice to be able to make something other than mac and cheese once in a while, and finding a recipe that is simple and fast is very appealing to me. I also like the “ingredient” feature of Google Recipes; though it’s not perfect, it may help me narrow down the search results to recipes that call for ingredients I already have available to me.

It seems to me that I’m not alone. Singles and people cooking for families alike often don’t have the time or patience on a random Tuesday evening to let something marinate for a few hours before cooking it. Hesser argues that this is what is wrong with the way Americans approach food. Is it a problem? I would say yes. But I can’t say I blame Google for giving the people what they want.

Hesser says Google can address some of the problem with Recipes by saying that recipes cannot be quantified in such restrictive measures as a calorie count or cooking time. I agree. She says that perhaps sorting by comment-to-page view ratio would promote smaller food websites. Perhaps it would. Google keeps their algorithms a secret, but I bet something like that is not impossible to do.

In the last paragraph of her article, Hesser goes on to say:

I’m glad Google put effort into improving its recipe search, but their solution feels robotic rather than thoughtful. If they don’t change their current approach, I fear to contemplate the future of American cooking.

I’m not sure the situation is that dire. Foodie culture is growing. People are becoming more aware of the need for nutritious, filling meals. Have Google searches ever been “thoughtful?” People seem to be able to navigate countless Google searches avoiding spam and scams and getting the information they need. I’m sure that given time, people will be able to do the same with Google Recipes, finding the hidden gems in the sea of scammers and mega-sites.

Google Recipes definitely has its flaws, as Hesser articulately pointed out, but I think the function needs more time to improve before we can completely write it off as a failure.

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Flour Bakery Lives Up to the Hype

Before I began writing this blog, I had never heard of Flour Bakery. Almost immediately after  subscribing to local and not-so-local baking blogs, however, I learned a lot about Joanne Chang and her famous bakery chain.

I’ve read many blog posts about visits to the bakery, which has three total locations in Boston and Cambridge, and seen myriad baked goods made from Chang’s very popular cookbook, Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe.

The counter and bakery cases at Flour Bakery in the South End.

I finally got my chance to go to the bakery’s original location in the South End on Monday evening before covering an event. I walked in not knowing what to expect, and luckily had a few minutes to wait in line to ponder the extensive sandwich menu, which is on a large blackboard behind the counter. Then, I realized I also had to choose a dessert from their massive bakery cases. I definitely didn’t have time to inspect everything that was available, but I ended up choosing what was right in front of me, the Belgian Chocolate Brownie.

Though the approximately 8 tables were full when I arrived, I was able to find a seat by the time I ordered and paid, probably because I was there on an off-time – 6:30 on a Monday night. I’ve heard this place can be extremely chaotic and crowded on weekend mornings.

I only had to wait about five minutes for my food to be ready. I ordered the grilled portobello melt, which had big portobello mushrooms, fresh mozzarella cheese, roasted tomatoes and basil pesto. I believe it came on wheat bread, though I’m not entirely sure.

Flour Bakery's grilled portobello melt sandwich.

What a great choice! No one ingredient overpowered another, the tomatoes weren’t too messy, and the mozzarella had the perfect amount of melt. My only issue was that some of the mushrooms were so big that I couldn’t fully bite into them, making the process a little messy and unrefined. The sandwich was completely filling, though. After not having eaten since a late-morning breakfast, I probably ate it a little too fast but I was stuffed after just the sandwich alone.

I attempted to eat my giant brownie, which seemed like it was the size of a quarter of a regular 8 x 8 inch pan, but only made it a few bites in before I needed to leave.

The giant Belgian chocolate brownie in its basket.

I put the brownie in a box to save for when I got home. I’m glad I did this because I was able to savor the rich, fudgy flavor of the brownie at home, instead of rushing to eat it in the bakery. What I liked most about this brownie was that it had a crusty exterior but was still most on the inside.

Finishing the brownie at home with a glass of milk.

I have no idea how many calories one of these massive desserts is, but I’m sure there was enough sugar and saturated fat in one to last me a whole day, if not two. But this was definitely an indulgence! I’m glad I don’t live closer, or my arteries would be in trouble.

I would love to go back soon and try some of their other treats, like the double chocolate cookies, homemade oreos (only $ .75 each, and they’re big) or famous sticky buns.

Interested in trying to do some Flour-type baking yourself? Some bakers have posted a few of their own attempts at Chang’s recipes to their blogs.

Over at Sweetly Serendipity, there are the recipes for and pictures of the Apple Snacking Cake and Lemon Ginger Scones. For the more pastry-minded, experienced bakers, The Kitchn has a step-by-step guide to making the bakery’s Homemade Pop-Tarts.

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Cheap Eats: Thornton’s Restaurant & Cafe

The outside of Thornton’s Restaurant & Cafe.

Our latest class assignment seemed simple enough:  Find a restaurant that could be classified as “cheap eats” and review it. We’ll make a Google Map of all 17 locations this coming week.

My definition of “cheap eats” has definitely changed since moving into Boston, where everything seems more expensive than the suburbs. After changing my mind a few times on where I would review, I finally landed on Thornton’s Restaurant and Cafe, which is located in between the infamous Midtown Hotel and the Prudential Center.

Though I’d never been there myself, my roommate raves about it, and I love a good breakfast place. Looking at the menu online, I realized this place qualified as “cheap” – definitely for Boston and probably anywhere within a half-hour of the city.

I went with a friend on Friday at around 12:45 p.m., and there were plenty of free tables. The restaurant is fairly small, about 15 tables total, though it doesn’t feel claustrophobic because the front wall is all windows. Everything seemed clean and the decor was homey and cute.

We got to choose any free table, and after placing our drink order, were brought over an appetizer basket of seasoned pita chips with hummus. We both agreed the hummus wasn’t the most flavorful we’d ever had, but weren’t about to complain about a free and unexpected appetizer.

Our complimentary basket of pita chip strips and hummus.

Thornton’s serves both breakfast and lunch, and the back of the menu informed us that breakfast is served all day. The lunch menu was surprisingly extensive, and I briefly contemplated ordering the nachos before I saw the waffle options. I’m a sucker for a well-made Belgian waffle, so I ordered one plain and an English muffin. My companion ordered French Toast and two scrambled eggs.

My breakfast: orange juice, a Belgian waffle and English muffin.

Our food came fairly quickly. The French Toast, which is hidden in the picture behind our pita chips, looked like it was made with French bread, and I’m told was “crunchy where it should be and soft where it’s supposed to be.”  My friend said his scrambled eggs were “a little runny,” but over all, he said the food was good and he would definitely come back. My food was also good, especially the waffle. I’ve had more expensive waffles at other breakfast places in the city that were not as tasty as this one, so Thornton’s gets points for being inexpensive and having quality food.

Over all, the service was fast and friendly, and the prices were great.

The check. Breakfast for two under $20!

Breakfast for two under $20 (without tip, of course)? I’d say that’s a cheap eat! I love finding a good breakfast spot, and now that I’ve tested this one out myself, I’ll definitely be going back soon.

The basics:

Thornton’s Restaurant & Cafe

150 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02115

617-267-6336

www.thorntonsboston.com

Hours:

Monday – Friday: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday & Sunday: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Handicap accessible?

Yes

Accepts credit cards?

Visa and MasterCard only

Price range?

Breakfast: $4.95 – $9.75

Lunch: $4.75 – $9.45

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Can Maps Be Journalism?

Recently in my Reinventing the News class, we’ve been talking about maps as sources of information and journalism. We looked at a variety of different maps, some created by newspapers and some created by the government or independent businesses.

The first map I want to discuss is the New York Times’  “Map of the Damage From the Japanese Earthquake.” This map has four different filters: dead or missing, buildings damaged or destroyed, photos, and nuclear power plants. By leaving these options on the side of the map and having them appear on the map one at a time, it allows readers to gain a more complete understanding of the elements of destruction without overwhelming them by putting all of the information on one map.

Although some aspects of this map could be improved upon, I think this is a helpful tool that can improve the Times’ reporting. Maps like these are able to be a lot more thorough than a report could be in regards to the amount of damage to specific towns, and it allows users to visually put the various aspects of the disaster into context.

The next map I looked at was economy.com’s “Recovery Status Map.” This map is much more simple than the Japanese earthquake map. Each state in the US is divided into four statuses and colored accordingly: in recession, at risk, recovering and expanding.

At first glance, this map seems straightforward and easy to understand. Clicking on an individual state brings up an information box that explains the reason for its specific status, and has the status of each of the major cities in that state. Here is where I think the map fails as journalism, because it could be misleading. Some states that are labeled as recovering also have cities that are at risk, and there is no more detailed map that colors in the nuances of the country’s economic status by city.

Simple maps do not always have to be misleading, however. Maps created at the University of Michigan of the 2008 election start out with a simple red and blue map, but as the reader scrolls down, more maps are provided that go more in-depth and provide a variety of more accurate ways to interpret the results.

Depending on the map and the use of data, I would definitely say that maps are a good addition to traditional reporting.

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