Last August, Michigan primary voters voted on Proposal 1. It was a complicated piece of legislation, one that was designed to eliminate Michigan’s personal property tax on industrial and commercial personal property.
But the language of Property 1 was confusing, wrote Fritz Klug, because “the ballot language [in Michigan] didn’t even mention the personal property tax it aimed to phase out.”
That’s why Klug, a multimedia journalist who works for MLive Media Group, set out to make the ballot issue easier to understand. He left no stone unturned. With his coworkers, he published an in-depth look at the proposal, a video, a quiz, a database, an editorial, a forum for readers to ask questions, local stories, and a voter’s guide.
It was the latest in a long line of projects that Klug has put together for MLive that break down complicated issues into manageable chunks. In addition to the ballot project, he spearheaded a year-long project designed to honor living World War II veterans across the state of Michigan. Klug created a searchable online database featuring 3,600 veterans, who were later featured in MLive’s eight print newspapers as well as at in-person events.
I wanted to talk to Fritz because he’s experimenting with new story forms, while managing social media accounts, taking photos, and writing several stories a day for MLive, the largest media organization in Michigan. He’s able to keep track of breaking news across the state, while adding an element of fun into his pieces. (He recently helped organize a series searching for Michigan’s best pizza and doughnuts.) And he’s deftly able to switch between mediums — from writing to creating databases to photography to editing videos — while making sure readers still have all of the information they need.
We recently chatted about several of his projects, as well as how Fritz keeps on top of the news while balancing his workload.
MK: I really like the project you did to explain the ballot proposal to change how businesses are taxed on property in Michigan. You published an article, an explainer, an animated gif, a database, a video, an editorial, and a quiz. (Did I get them all?) How did you decide to break it down in all of these different ways?
FK: Our number one goal was to find ways to reach readers. This was a very complicated but important issue. Even someone who actually wants to be an informed voter would have a tough time understanding and paying attention to the details.
Our guiding philosophy was to repackage all of our research in any way someone would want it. That means videos, explains, quizzes and even haikus.
MK: What was the audience response?
FK: We could tell there was an increased interest the closer we got to the election, so reminding people of all the work we previously did was important. People want the information when they want it (in this case, right before the election), so it’s nice to create a guiding map of sorts to help them find it. You can’t assume people will find what they are looking for just searching on Google.
MK: What did you learn from that project that you plan to apply to future projects?
FK: What really stuck with me from this project is to get people the information in whatever way they prefer to consume it. I don’t think there’s any harm in telling the same story with a long-form article, a video, a slideshow, or a series of gifs. In fact, these different media helps reinforce one another and attract a different audience who may have skipped over an article or a video.
There’s another complicated ballot proposal coming to Michigan voters this spring and we’re taking that philosophy to the next level. From the beginning, we were guided by that mantra: what ways will people want to get the information and how can we reach them.
MK: I also really like that you created a database to find all of the living WWII vets in the state of Michigan, particularly because it was then tied to a series of live events, which concluded with veterans gathering together at the Michigan Capitol. I am wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of putting that project together.
To do this, we wanted to utilize all of the formats we had at our disposal, including print, online, and in-person open houses at our offices.
The project was threefold: veterans and their families submitted their information online or through the mail. With it, we created a searchable database that included the names, photos and stories of more than 3,600 veterans in Michigan. These lists were published in our print newspapers. We also wrote dozens of profiles on their stories.
Mickey held open houses across the state, where the veterans came together, shared stories, met each other and had their picture taken. Hundreds of veterans came to the events, some waiting outside hours before it started.
MLive Media Group is made up of eight newspapers across Michigan and two digital newsrooms, so for many communities, we are the community news source. Seeing your name and picture in the newspaper, or being invited down to the offices for a special event, is a big deal.
MK: What takeaways from that project would you offer to other newsrooms?
FK: The biggest takeaway for me was to never think technology won’t work for a certain demographic or group of readers.
As we planned and rolled out the project, I wondered if having so much of the focus online, with submissions and databases, would work. I was surprised how many of the veterans in their late 80s, 90s and 100s are connected to the Internet. The project wouldn’t have worked as well without the print component. There was a large number of veterans who interacted with us online or called to ask questions about filling out the digital form.
This was best illustrated one night when I was emailing with a veteran about the project. He said he needed to change something in his information that was submitted. We were gong back and forth and then I saw the email signature: Sent from My iPhone. I was emailing with a veteran at 10 p.m. We both were using iPhones. That’s pretty remarkable.
MK: Your title is ‘news buzz’ reporter. How do you keep track of all of the news coming in?
FK: I am still a huge fan of RSS. I subscribe to dozens of the news sources in Michigan and check my feed multiple times a day. While I also use Twitter, I like having a complete list of stories from RSS and know that I didn’t miss anything. Using Twitter both as a social platform and a news service is overwhelming.
I also have a saved folder of tabs that I open twice a day with the home pages of several state and national news sites, as well as the saved url searches for “Michigan” on those sites. I want to know of every article The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal writes that mentions the state. It’s also a good way to see what those sites have on their front pages.
MK: What tools do you use to make your life easier?
FK: VIP notifications for email on my iPhone. While I wish I could only check email 10 times a day, it’s still the constant way to communicate with sources and receive information when news breaks. The VIP system on Apple’s mail program allows me to only get push notifications and sound alerts from people I select, including coworkers and sources. It takes a while to get all the contacts added, but worth it to not feel like I need to check email every 15 minutes and stay somewhat connected on weekends.
I also rely heavily on Twitter notifications for specific users and the Breaking News app, which allows you to subscribe to news stories and receive push updates. Whenever there is a big story that I want to follow, Breaking News gives me the updates I want.
(I wrote a post on my personal blog about the tools I use to keep track of news on my phone).
Other tools that makes life easier:
- Text Expander, to cut down on typing and correct spelling mistakes I always make but spell check never catches. I can’t begin to tell you how many times during the government shutdown I would accidentally type an “i” instead of “u” in “shutdown,” so I made a new snippet. According to the app’s stats, I have saved 34 hours of typing in the past two and half years of use.
- Omnifocus, to keep track of my projects and create a personal tickler file. Also, the Getting Things Done workflow is extremely helpful when dealing with so much information daily.
- Due, an iOS reminders app. What makes this one special over other reminder services is that it can remind you every minute after something is due. So, when I need to leave for a press conference at 10:10 a.m., it will keep reminding me until I get out the door.
MK: How do you get your news?
FK: I still try to enjoy reading the news every night. The one newspaper I make sure to read daily is Financial Times. While I don’t cover or do much investment, their articles are short and to the point. It’s refreshing as a reader and interesting as a writer to see how they cover the major news of the day with just a few hundred words per article.
I’ve been using an iPad since 2012 so that’s where I do most of my news consumption. I browse The New York Times and Wall Street Journal apps. I’m a big fan of turning on CNN when news breaks. While not always first, there’s something about TV news that makes it seem more live.
Throughout the day, I get most of my news is through email, push notifications, RSS and Twitter. I save interesting articles to Instapaper and try to read them at night or on the weekend.
MK: Four times a year, you and your colleagues travel the state of Michigan in search of the best food items. How do you sort the data so people can easily find it?
FK: We have to collect the same information for every place we visit. Organization is key. If you look at one of our top 10 lists, you will see that we have the same details for all the locations.
This is very important to John Gonzalez, the lead reporter on the project. He always says that information needs to be where people can find it. So if someone searches for a restaurant on Google, we want to have all the information they need to check it out. This includes our thoughts about what makes it a restaurant worth visiting, hours of operation, phone numbers and links to websites and social media.
I’ve also been working on specific map applications to provide a way to search based on location. It’s taking the information we’ve already collected and the work we’ve done and making something that stands on its own. I like to think that if someone is on a road trip with their family and want to find a nearby barbecue place that is good, they can easily find it. Unlike a service like Yelp, which is similar to the Yellow Pages with reviews, these are curated suggestions from a friend.
MK: If you were going to offer one or two tips to people working in smaller newsrooms, what would they be?
FK: First, never think something is outside of your grasp because you don’t work in big newsroom with a dedicated team of developers. If you want to try something, do it. You probably have to use a free service and embed code into your website, so it may not have the same design aesthetic as something from one of the bigger news companies. But who cares? You are bringing new forms of storytelling and interaction with your readers.
Also, make sure to focus on your readers and be ready to change. If you really want to try something, try it, but if readers really aren’t that interested, you may want to reassess if it’s worth the time and energy. It may not be the content, but they way you are displaying it. I think it’s important to work on projects that serve your readers. Just like deciding if a story is important to the community and would have interest, you should think of the same things when trying out something new with technology.