My wife and I took a three-day trip earlier this week, with our dog, to visit friends and relatives in Savannah and Jacksonville, so I thought I’d write a bit about the experience and how safe I felt, given the pandemic.

The basic conclusion: you can have a safe vacation, but you need to give it some thought and planning.

Taking the dog turned out to be a good idea, because traveling with a pet is very similar to traveling in the Age of Covid. Nope, you cannot eat indoors, nor can you do indoor activities. We relied a lot on, an excellent web site for dog owners that lists dog-friendly hotels, restaurants and activities for most towns. But we also found several dog-tolerant places on our own.

The basics:

Gas stations and bathrooms. This one turned out to be easier than I’d thought it would be. Pay at the pump, using the same two fingers to put in and remove your credit card and to punch in your password code on the touchpad. Use the same hand to hold the gas pump. Then go in to the gas station, use their bathroom, wash your hands thoroughly, and use a paper towel to open the door (bring your own; they sometimes have air dryers instead of paper towels). We added hand sanitizer in the car and felt safe. But there IS the chance that 5 minutes earlier, someone infected with the virus has been coughing up a storm in a small bathroom. My take was that so long as I was only there for 2-3 minutes, I was OK. Your take may differ.

I could not resist the billboards (!) for a Marathon truck stop restroom north of Macon. They claimed the largest and cleanest bathrooms in the state and I was in need so we checked them out and yes, they passed the test. 28 toilets in the men’s room, all operating automatically, as did the lavatories and paper towel dispensers, and there was no door, but rather a zigzag entrance. I used hand sanitizer anyway, but honestly, there was no need to touch anything.

That is not the case for the ladies, of course, who need a toilet seat. They’re not a major source of covid infection, but they have their own issues.

General advice: Truck stops are more likely to have large, fully automated restrooms.

Restaurants. We ate seven meals during the trip, all outdoors. The only time I felt vaguely concerned was in Savannah at the Crab Shack, a 200-person seafood place on Tybee Island. We were outdoors, on a huge deck, but there were maybe 50 people at tables around us, easily the most folks I have been around in 8 months. Most had their masks off, since they were eating, although the staff was all masked. Given that everyone was seated at round tables 6-8 feet away with their backs to us (and there was a breeze), I don’t think there was much risk, but I still felt anxious just to be around so many folks. *sigh*

PS: We were in Valdosta around lunch time on the way back and a search online recommended Clayton’s Shrimp Shack, maybe two blocks off of I-75 and definitely worth a visit. Somebody online said they loved the shrimp po boy with fried green tomatoes so I took a chance. Wow, best shrimp po boy ever. Lots of other options.

Hotels. We went large and small. In Savannah, we stayed at the Foley House Inn, a bed-and-breakfast downtown that allowed dogs. Lovely place, great location, liked our room, lots of privacy and an excellent breakfast (blueberry French toast, scrambled eggs and fruit) on their patio with our dog. Then in J’ville, Marriott’s Aloft hotel, an attempt at tres moderne coolness that mostly works, tho some folks may say they’re trying too hard. The window shades have rows of numbers printed on them, as in computer code; the colors in the lobby are all ’50s-ish, with pillows w/skulls on them (um, not what you wanna see at 7:30 a.m.); but you can order your included b’fast from the cook and it includes omelettes, an eggs-bacon-potatoes cup, etc.

The Marriott room had a piece of tape on the door to emphasize to us that the room had been cleaned, but it would have been much better if the tape had told us the day the room had last been occupied. The place didn’t seem to be even half full, and I’d have felt a lot better if I knew no one had been in our room for 48 hours. That’s one of those areas where you can fault Trump’s leadership. It’s the sort of no-brainer government-industry partnership where hotels/motels guarantee no one has been in your room for a couple of days, so any virus would have died out.

The B-and-B was more problematic. A staffer said they had been doing great business, generally full, so fair chance someone else had been in our room up until checkout time, 11 a.m. We came in at 6 p.m., stayed for 15 minutes and headed out to dinner, so the question is if someone was infected and breathed heavily in our room until 11 a.m., how dangerous would it be to be there at 6 p.m. I honestly don’t know the answer. I’m betting the risk is relatively low, that after 7 hours, most virus particles would have settled to the ground, but I don’t have conclusive scientific evidence of that.

The dog. Because our 2-year-old Lab mix was with us, we focused on outdoor activities. A 2-hour dog-friendly walking tour of Savannah was perfect, as was 45 minutes cavorting in the surf on Jacksonville Beach. We didn’t have time to tour dog-friendly Fort Pulaski near Savannah, but that was definitely an interesting option. Dog parks in Atlanta (Piedmont Park) and J’ville were also fun. And the pupperoo did great, thru ocean and walking tour and dog parks and sitting calmly at our table in restaurants.

Conclusion: You have to decide yourself how much risk to take, but planning makes things easier. If you’re comfortable eating outdoors at local restaurants, you’ll be fine on the road. Gas stations and restrooms are not as intimidating as we thought they’d be. If you’re worried about hotels, call ahead and ask them if they can tell you how long it has been since someone else has been in your room. As the days grow colder, you’ll need to give more thought to activities, but I’m guessing a lot of museums and galleries will be relatively empty and safe.

That’s our 2¢ Let me know your thoughts/experiences.

I’m going to add a post linking to some of the better stories I’ve done recently. I’ve left my position as a journalism professor to move back to reporting, covering healthcare, which is a fascinating and a bit challenging subject. But I also get a few non-health stories as well.

There’s a fun local road up the side of Signal Mountain called the W Road (that is the actual name) because of some hairpin turns shaped like, well, a W (or an M, depending on your perspective). Big trucks always ignore the warning signs and get stuck in the turns and have to be towed out.

If you are a senior, the fear of falling can be almost as bad as the falls themselves.

A new study says doctors should push to lower patients blood pressure to a systolic level of 120 (that’s the top number).

For about a dozen years now, there has been a push to recreate the Tennessee River’s population of lake sturgeon, which grow to be rather large. Now those efforts seem to be reaching fruition. 

Chattanooga’s air quality has improved dramatically since 1969, when it was rated the most polluted city in America.

A look at how the marketplace is shaping up in Tennessee.

In a pilot program, surgeons at Erlanger Hospital will use 3D printers to make models of  diseased organs before surgery.

Everyone needs a flu shot doctors now say, or else you can lock yourself up alone all winter.

A new program will offer halfway homes for teenagers who turn 18 and are too old for foster care. I just noticed that the AP picked this up, which is why this clip is not from the Times-Free Press.

A new adult day care care that offers comprehensive medical treatment as well is an alternative to nursing homes.


UPDATE: When I wrote about the value of Flipboard’s user-created magazines a couple of days ago, one of my major complaints was that folks could see them only if they own an iPad, smartphone or Android tablet. Well, the FB folks have fixed that. As of today, I (or any other FB user) can mail you a link to my magazines or post a link on social media, and when you click, the magazine opens in your Web browser. This vastly expands the utility of the magazines, since you can now let anyone see them. Here are links to three of my magazines, on Web Video,  Photos, and Data Visualization.

My purpose in creating these is to collect stuff on a given topic that I can then use in class, and now I can use FB’s web page to organize each magazine and then mail links to it to students at the beginning of class.

HINT – Once you open one of my magazines, click on the small icon at left with three short parallel lines. That will take to FB’s choice of best user-created magazines.

I’ve been using Flipboard’s new “Create Your Own Magazine” feature for about three months now, so it’s time to report on how it’s working.

I’m basically very happy with the software, that allows you to store your Web page bookmarks as “magazines” on Flipboard, displayed in the software’s unique layout.

For now, Flipboard is only available for iPads and iPhones, Android, and Windows 8 phones. The basic application allows you to select feeds from Twitter, Facebook or various magazines and pull them into Flipboard. The app then displays the headline, photo or illustration, and the first 1-3 grafs of the content, laid out magazine-style, with 2-6 items on a page. You turn the pages by sliding your finger from right to left, “flipping” them.


It’s a far better way to browse a Twitter feed featuring links or photo, e.g., because you don’t just see the url — you see the actual photo or article headline, along with the first few paragraphs of the text. Content from several dozen Web sites, including The Economist, Salon, National Geographic and The Guardian, are also available, in the same format.

But about three months ago, Flipboard announced a new feature that allows readers to create their own magazines. First, you set up your magazines, by title and category. For example, I created magazines for Photos, Data Journalism, Web Video, Teaching, Journalism, Mobile apps, Gadgets and Music.

Now, as I browse content on Flipboard, a small plus sign is visible to the side of every article, and if I want to save it in one of my magazines, I just click.

Far more powerful, however, is a Pinterest-like feature that allows me to add a link to my Firefox or Safari browser. With that installed, whenever I am browsing anywhere on the Web, I can click on the “Flip” link and a window pops up, allowing me to add the link to one or several of my magazines.

You may be asking how this is any different than just storing the URLS for those Web pages in my bookmarks folder. At a basic level, there is no difference. I generally add both a bookmark and “flip” the link to my Flipboard magazine whenever I find something of interest.

But Flipboard’s magazine-style layout makes it much easier to find a URL long after you’ve forgotten why you saved it. By displaying the headline, photo or video or illustration and the first few grafs of a story, you can quickly remember what the article is about.

Here’s a quick illustration of that comparison. Below is a screen shot of my bookmarks folder for Web video (OK, I could do a better job of organizing it):


Now here are several pages from my FB magazine for Web video:


Your magazines by default are public, so they can be followed by anyone else interested in your topic. At some point, for example, I could send a note to my fellow online journalism professors across the land, letting them know that I have collected several hundred links to great examples of web video, available for their classroom use.


Flipboard has already made one upgrade to the service. About six weeks ago, they announced a Web page where you can log in and edit your magazines. You can drag and drop each item into whatever order you like, and you can also create a permanent title page for your magazine (by default, Flipboard uses the art from your most recent post as the cover page art).


There are still some missing pieces for Flipboard to be more useful. I’d like to be able to write new headlines for the articles, e.g., and I’d like the ability to create subsections. For example, in my Photos magazine, I’d like to have one section for great examples of photos, another for photo gear, and a third for how to take photos.

And most importantly, I’d like to be able to share the content on the Web and not just on a tablet or smartphone. Most of my students have laptop computers, but almost none of them own a tablet computer.


We’ve been having a bit of a debate here at MSU over the New York Times’ “Snow Fall,” the paper’s latest multimedia extravaganza.
Read it here:

Several folks on the MSU faculty have noted that some 20 people spent six months on the project, which makes it cost-prohibitive for “normal” news organizations. Here’s my take:

The correct questions, I would posit, are whether this works — is it the most compelling way to tell the story. And then, can it be done cost-effectively, i.e., not NYTimes-style.

I think a lot of it works, though I think it needs one more hard edit. The text is way too long. The writer tries to tell you about at least 13 different people and that is just too many to keep straight. He’d be better off sticking to the three victims and the one survivor, and the key rescuers. And yeah, a faculty member makes a great point — how sympathetic are these carefree folks who did something stupid?

I think there are too many irrelevant photos that can be distracting (I counted over 75 — did you notice that when you click on one of the highlighted names in the text, you get a photo gallery?). I don’t think we need the weather map showing the storm. I think the audio clips need to be better identified as 911 calls and not just by the name of the person making the call. I’d put the final long documentary video clip at the outset, not at the bottom, and I’d do a better job of highlighting the clip about the joys and risks of this type of skiing.

But overall, I think it is really effective. I became engrossed in the story.

I should point out that the NYTimes folks seem to be positioning this as an eBook and not just a multimedia print story, i.e., this might be something sold separately for $.99 say, and not just part of the paper. Could they do a cutdown version for the paper, and then say, to read the whole thing, pay $.99? Would they get 100,000 readers?

As to doing it cost-effectively… Certainly the writer could have done 80% of the same piece in much less time, without interviewing, as he boasts, everyone who was on the mountain and all of the rescuers. The video is not really that difficult. Some of it was provided by the skiers from their helmet cameras. The rest could have been shot with a mid-level DSLR camera in the $900 range (though I’m sure the Times used something approximating $3,000). Certainly all of the interviews require only a tripod and a little attention to microphone placement and backlighting.

Those interactive graphics — the one showing the Cascades in 3D and the other one illustrating the science of avalanches  — are much harder. That’s a specialized skill for a graphics department because you need to be able to do illustration. But I’m not sure how long it will be before Google Maps makes it easy to do the Cascades map overlays.

I worked at and the AP doing some much less sophisticated versions of this sort of thing and the devil is in the details in terms of keeping the cost down. I concede, not many good magazine writers could also shoot the video and conceive the overall piece, but could SOME folks learn to do it? And if they can produce and sell the piece themselves in an eBook, can they make a living? I’m intrigued by that, though not convinced.

PS – Here’s what I sent my students yesterday…

Subject: Is this the greatest Web feature story ever?

It’s at least a great piece to spark discussion about the best way to tell a big feature story on the Web.

It’s maybe 10,000 words, way too long, for me. But it’s also a 10-minute video, with good interviews, plus video from some of the skiers’ cameras from the scene of the avalanche. There are 75 photos scattered all over the place, plus three 911 calls and 5-6 other short videos. There are several large animated graphics to show the route of the avalanche (it unfolds in real time), the science behind why it happened, and the terrain of the Cascades.

They cleared out all of the ads and navigation junk that normally clutters a web page.

And they again used that “Video loop as a still photo” trick — the one of the blowing snow that starts the piece and appears again in a couple of other places. Call it a video still? I like the embedded mini-videos – be sure to click to play them fullscreen.

Some of the stuff is subtle — on the third page, the one entitled “The Descent Begins”, notice how as the text on the left scrolls, certain skiers’ names are highlighted. As the text with the name in it scrolls to the very top, their position on the map at right shows up. Note also the tiny links on everybody’s name — if you figure out to click the link, you get large photos. That’s easy to miss.


Do the videos really work embedded here and there? Should the 10-minute video story have been at the beginning? Is the text just too long? Too many photos? Is the whole damn thing just too much?Or is this like a novel — you should curl up with it for an hour?Here’s some of the commentary:

Fishbowl NY:


As I mentioned earlier, Deb Galant, who runs the New Jersey News Commons here at MSU, organized a Google Hangout Web video discussion after N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s speech to the Republican National Convention last week.

We’d done a trial run the previous night and thought we’d ironed out all of the bugs, but the web can be fickle. One of our guests lost his connection and couldn’t join us and the n Deb lost HER connection halfway through our discussion. She was the host so when she dropped out, we lost the ability to stream, so we finished the discussion amongst ourselves. Here’s what streamed…

Still it was a good trial run. And the one she did a week later after Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s address to the Democrats went much more smoothly.

One big lesson learned:

Good lighting makes a huge difference. If you look at the demo videos Google posts or the ones from their booth at the GOP or Demo conventions, you can see how good the video quality is with good lighting (and better cameras). Hint to the folks at Griffin, or any wannabe tech startup — how about a cheap three camera lighting kit and some instructions on doing three-point lighting?

I did not attend the International Symposium on Online Journalism back in April in Austin, Texas, (nice place to be in April) but now the sponsors have posted videos from most of the presenters at the conference, and Nieman Journalism Lab has picked some of their favorites.

Ben Welsh of the L.A. Times tries to convince us all that it is not that hard to set up automated computer searches to parse data and he has some great examples of using that technique to automatically sort through real estate transactions or police blotters, at least for large cities such as Los Angeles. (It doesn’t work as well in those towns where the cops hand the reporter the handwritten log book to peruse in the chief’s office).

Brian Boyer of NPR makes the good point that too often flashy design trumps usability in interactive graphics (what’s wrong with on old-fashioned spreadsheet, he asks).

And University of Memphis j-school prof Carrie Brown-Smith shows how a local Twitter hashtag during a recent severe storm was useful to journalists.

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This blog on media, society and technology is run by Professor Alfred Hermida, an award-winning online news pioneer, digital media scholar and journalism educator.


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