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August 15 2012


Sublet my amazing office/studio: available from September until next spring.

Office space in Studio Huddle. Photo by Phillip Smith.

I find it amazing to think that fall is almost here. In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be off to New York City, Vancouver, and then heading back to my home in Oaxaca, Mexico for the winter. This summer has been epic and memorable in every possible way: I only wish I could have captured every little adventure in as much detail as the recent five days in Montreal. There’s always next year!

With the end of my Toronto stay in sight, it’s time to take care of a few logistics. Number one on the list is finding a magical person to sublet my space in the shared office/studio space known as Studio Huddle. People sometimes ask why I keep an office in Toronto when I’m away for so much of the year, and there’s only one answer to that question: I literally love the people I share the space with, and the space itself is the perfect oasis away from the other distractions in life.

Studio Huddle is roughly two thousand square feet of old-school style studio space on Niagara Street (just south of King, just west of Bathurst). North-facing light, white walls, and old hardwood floors — yep, it’s got it all. The space is shared by a dozen craft artists — mostly glass and metal artists — a photographer, and a couple of digital workers, including yours truly. Physically, the studio is split into five separate spaces: two craft studios, a glass studio, an office, and the large shared main space (~1000sqft). I rent a spot in the office that is located in the front of the space (north side); it’s filled with light all day and is home to roughly two digital workers and the occasional drop-in from the more creative types. More often than not, I have the office space to myself for most of the day. Rent also includes a couple of days of exclusive use of the main space, which I must admit I’ve never managed to make use of.

As mentioned, my studio mates are a super-creative bunch, and there’s just about every tool and piece of equipment that you can imagine here: think of it as a “hack lab” for non-technical types. I have to admit, it’s been a breath of fresh air to work in an environment where people are not focused on digital work … it’s grounding in some way to watch people work with their hands, and even to participate from time-to-time (now I know how to silk screen!).

My desk at Studio Huddle, complete with a nice chair, laptop stand, and reference books!

Okay, enough waxing poetic about how great the space and the people are, down to the details:

  • Sublet is available from roughly September 1st to Feb 28th, but the dates are flexible
  • The rent is $190/month and includes everything, taxes, high-speed wireless Internet, two locked storage shelves, studio fees, etc.
  • Also included is the use of my fancy-schmancy Herman Miller Mira chair, a laptop stand, a beautiful cactus, and several reference books (Canadian Oxford dictionary, Oxford Canadian compact dictionary, Bartlett’s Roget’s thesaurus, and The Chicago Manual of Style).

You should be:

  • Responsible: you need to be able to remember to close windows, lock doors, and so on if you’re the last person here.
  • Thoughtful: if you need to be on the phone all day, it’s probably not the right space for you.
  • Lightly equipped: there’s a good amount of space for a laptop and the usual office accouterments, but probably not for a giant three-screen desktop computer set-up.
  • Friendly and flexible: most days, you’ll probably be one of two or three people using the space and it’s pretty quiet, but some days there’s more going on and people are more social and chatty. If you need 100% silence all the time, probably not the right fit.
  • Creative: I think the space would be great for a freelance writer or journalists, a video editor or multimedia artists, a Web Maker, or something along those lines.

I think that’s it. The start and end dates are flexible, but it would be great — if you’re interested — if you came to see the space before September 1st.

Let me know if you’re interested by e-mail or hit me on The Twitters.

August 13 2012


The perfect five days in Montreal, as curated by my tribe.

Jean Talon market in Montreal. Photo by Phillip Smith

So, you’re off to Montreal and want the low-down on what to do? Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not super easy to get a list of great experiences as it is for other world-class cities: no obvious Wallpaper guide or Timeout or Perfect Four Days in Buenos Aires equivalents. Perhaps they’re all in French?

What to do in this situation? Why ask you’re uber-hip and dial-in friends, obviously. You don’t have uber-hip and dialed-in friends, you say? Not to worry, I asked mine and this is what they had to say about spending five days in Montreal exploring sights, sounds, politics, and culinary delights:

Art, film, music, and dance

  • Musee des Beaux-Arts: Museum of fine arts. ‘Nuff said.
  • Cinema Robotheque: On-demand movies, evening screenings of documentaries, and more. We didn’t make it here, but really wanted to go catch the The Boxing Girls of Kabul here.
  • Espace Tangente, “Laboratory for contemporary movements”: modern dance.
  • La SAT, Societe des Arts Technologiques in Montreal: multimedia arts space with a restaurant and a rooftop.
  • La Tulipe: for cabaret and sometimes bands.
  • Sala Rosa: for easy going music and Italian men (so says Mary)
  • Casa del Popolo: live music, readings, and various other events. We held the Beautiful Trouble Montreal book launch party here. Great folks.

Parks, walks, and politics

  • Parc du Mont-Royal, obviously. Laze in the sun, picnic, run, or play drums.
  • “Walks on St-Catherine for live bands playing in the street in front of la Place-Des-Arts at all times,” says Jolyane.
  • Jean Talon market on Saturdays.
  • Parc Lafontaine is always great for a few hours on a weekend afternoon and sometimes live shows in the evening,” says Michael.
  • Parc Laurier for ping-pong and Anarchist soccer.
  • The Lachine Canal if you feel like a nice ride complete with a pitstop at the McAuslan Brewery patio,” says Michael.
  • The Old Port of Montreal: “So cute and charming… I really recommend going there (get of at either Place Des-Armes metro or Champ-des-Mars metro on the Orange Line) walk around and be a good tourist,” says Elinor.
  • And, when your feet are exhausted from walking, “Scandinave Les Bains for a sweet daytime massage, hot pool, cold pool, etc,” says James.
  • And when you want to fire up your politics, Brian recommends checking out these listings: Radical Montreal and Pervers/cite

Cheap eats

And the more obvious, but obligatory:

  • Montreal bagels: “FYI, I did the taste test — grabbing some bagels from St-Viateur and some from Fairmount (about 2 blocks away) and partaking. If either one was the winner, I dunno … I felt I came out the winner, all things considered,” says Jon.
  • Poutine: Jessica recommends you check the Poutine Pundit’s latest listings to find the best spot.
  • When you’re out of ideas and it’s 2AM, best to get some tasty French fare at L’express.

Eating and drinking experiences

  • Garde-Manger for good eats,” say most of my peeps. I was there during Matt & Katie’s wedding weekend and it did not disappoint.
  • Le Club Chasse Et Peche Restaurant, which I also tried with Matt & Katie, was mind-blowing, but austere. Jessica recommended the new restaurant they own, Le Filet.
  • Lawrence: Popped in for lunch and lucked out with lobster poutine and lobster rolls.
  • Rumi, followed by dessert at la figaro across the street (get the rum croissant),” says Mary. Checked out Rumi on Saturday night late and got a seat in five minutes. Service was “meh,” but the food was excellent. Didn’t have room for the rum croissant, but picked one up anyway.
  • Jessica took us to Buvette Chez Simone where we rubbed shoulders with the hipsters and ate charcuterie and rotisserie chicken. Tasty!
  • Beers: Friends suggested Vices et Versa, Dieu du Ciel, and “Le Sainte Elisabeth for the prettiest patio.” I stumbled on Alexandraplatz and was impressed with the modern German beer garden feel, hip crowd, good music, and fine selection of local beers and wines, as well as some people making BBQ in the corner.
  • Bouillon Bilk on St-Laurent for a most delicious dinner,” says Liza. Didn’t try it, but passed by and the menu looked tempting.
  • “Oh and rooftop patio at La SAT, drinks, beautiful quebecois people and sun and buildings,” say Jolyane.

A huge thanks to Brad, David, Darren, Jessica, Trevor, Rodrigo, Jon, Brian, Mary, Michael, Jolyane, and James for these suggestions!

Have additions, drop them in the comments or Tweet at me.

August 02 2012


6 Questions for Rafat Ali on Skift.com, His New Travel Startup

Rafat Ali is one of those rare people in the media industry who understands the power he wields with his written words, yet can be so humble and friendly in person. I was struck by that quality in him when we first met probably 10+ years ago when he was first starting the paidContent blog as a one-man operation focused on digital media.

What he accomplished with that site was a lesson for all of us who are running small media ventures, taking a one-man operation and expanding it into a full-fledged online business. Ali received venture funding, expanded staff and built more sites, and eventually sold the site to the Guardian (which later sold it to GigaOm).

rafat mongolia.jpeg

After selling his baby, Ali decided to take time off to travel the world and disconnect from the intense 24-hour news cycle that consumes everyone who lives on Internet time for breaking news. And now that he has resurfaced, his new baby is Skift.com, billed as a "travel intelligence media company."

As he has described the startup on various Mediatwits podcasts (we co-host the show together for MediaShift), Skift will put a laser-sharp focus on the business of travel, the travel business and business travelers, disrupting the current incumbents who cover the industry in a less intense fashion.

We recently connected by email, and he answered my six burning questions about Skift and his plans for the site.

6 Questions for Rafat Ali

1. Why did you decide to target the travel business with Skift? From all your trips abroad?

Rafat Ali: It is in the travel sector, but not really built upon my own travels over the last two years. The cliche is: A startup guy sells his company, goes off to travel the world, and through his experiences during his travel, hits a brainwave in the middle of Mongolia on how to solve all the travel woes in the world. Thankfully, mine isn't that.

My travels inform my worldview on how we want to build Skift, how broadly we look at travel, but the genesis of Skift is more prosaic: We saw a big white space in the travel information industry, and we're attacking it.

2. What lessons did you learn from paidContent, and how did you apply them to Skift?

For one, we're bringing the same energy of the saturation coverage of the digital media industry that we did for years at paidContent, and now bringing it to the world's largest sector: travel. We'll be a digital native, 24/7, breaking news, analysis, opinion, somewhat similar to what we did with paidContent.

Also pC, back when it started in 2002, brought together then disparate silos of the larger media-information-entertainment industries, and with Skift, we're attempting the same with the very large silos of aviation, hospitality, destinations, cruises, technology and others, and bringing them together. The underlying assumption, that these silos will collapse, is the same as paidContent. We'll see if they're borne out.

3. Who are your first investors, and how did you find them?

A long list of 17 angels, 14 disclosed: Chris Ahearn, Luke Beatty, Gordon Crovitz,
Craig Forman, Jim Friedlich, Tom Glocer, Vishal Gondal, Jason Hirschhorn, Peter Horan, Alan Meckler, Mohamed Nanabhay, Sanjay Parthasarathy, Amol Sarva, Chris Schroeder.

These are all very accomplished business execs in the media-tech industry that I've known for years, covered them at paidContent, they spoke at pC conferences, and I have developed relationships with.

So they're betting on us, the team, to build a large media+information+data business in a very large sector.

rafat medillin.jpeg

4. How is it different starting a site in 2012 vs. when you started paidContent?

We realize trying to scale just using media/content will not cut it; we're trying to build a very large travel intelligence company, and that means we have to go beyond what we did at pC.

For us, that means building the company at the intersection of travel and data, and that means first pulling in that data, and then building services on top, all of which we hope the industry will pay for.

Also unlike paidContent, where we tried in small ways to do some crossover stories, with Skift we really will attempt it, aimed on the consumer side at business travelers. While paidContent helped define the digital media industry as it exists now, our ambition was to go deeper into the vertical, not go broad and consumer.

Skift hopes to redefine a new generation of data- and information-heavy media companies, built to break out of the vertical media ghettos and scale.

5. Tell me more about the "studio model" and how much revenue you think you'll get from services vs. ads.

This for us means we'll build a slew of data services, some of which will succeed and some won't. It means we'll be quick to prototype, and quick to discard if it doesn't work -- that's what we mean by studio model. It means we'll learn what the information and services black holes are for the travel industry and professional travelers as we grow, and we'll adapt quickly to address those needs.

We think we'll get a majority of our revenues from services. Ads will be a decent part, both on B2B and especially on the business traveler side. Business travelers are a very addressable and lucrative category for all sorts of advertisers, including travel brands, financial services, luxury and others.

6. Will you ever look at travel the same way again after getting so deep in the weeds on the business side? How will things change?

Great question. I hope I don't lose my sense of wonder in travel. If I can keep traveling to the kinds of places I have over the last two years, then I surely won't, but if I just restrict myself to work and business travel, then I'll always be in work mode!


What do you think about Skift.com and its "studio" business model? Can an upstart disrupt the business travel industry? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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July 30 2012


Rafat Ali on building a media company on top of public data

Ten years ago, Rafat Ali wanted to build a company that could chronicle the transformation of media and technology. Now he hopes to do it again, this time in the world of travel. His new project Skift sounds at first a lot like paidContent: a mix of original reporting and aggregation tailored for a savvy, niche, information-hungry audience.

But this time around, Ali is placing his bet less on a stable of journalists and more on a team of product designers, developers, and, yes, journalists. Skift wants to be a media company in the same way Politico or Bloomberg is a media company: an information provider with a news wrapper. Skift bills itself as a “travel intelligence media company,” not a standalone news site.

Ali told me the way Skift will grow its audience and its fortunes will be through information services, not just news. “What we’re trying to do with Skift is scale quickly on content,” he said. “The more fortunate part for us is everybody covers travel in bits and pieces, so for us it’s a matter of bringing it all together.”

But Skift is more than just a curator of travel news. Ali and cofounder Jason Clampet want to collect a vast data library to build tools that would be useful not just to the travel industry but anyone hoping in a car, train or bus to get away. Ali has funded the site himself up to launch and has raised $500,000 from investors like former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz and former MySpace president Jason Hirschhorn. As designed, Skift — the Swedish word for “shift” — would be a media company built on a stable of products, not just content. “We’re starting with what we’re grandly sort of calling the world’s largest data warehouse of publicly available travel industry data,” he said.

That means things like visit and occupancy information that tourism boards report to the government, departures and delay information from airports, and flight data supplied by airlines to agencies like the FAA. It’s the type of information typically hidden away in Excel spreadsheets on seldom visited agency websites. “We’re gonna try and collect it, clean it, normalize it, put it in a dashboard that humans can understand, and then build services on top,” he said. He said they will also create APIs for the travel data they harness on the site.

Skift has a staff of four, including Ali, and they’ll be announcing the hire of a product development person soon. Ali stresses that as Skift grows they will hire more writers — but the writers will be focused on original reporting, not the things aggregation and curation can pick up more easily. Ali said curation is still an undervalued asset that can prove useful to content creators as well as their audiences. The day-to-day news of airlines’ fuel prices or the ebb and flow of tourism can be aggregated from elsewhere. Ali wants the site to chase the big stories, the airline bankruptcies and innovations in travel tech. “We’ll not get there in the next year, but we’ll get there in due time,” he said.

Ali has been around the media game for a while, having sold paidContent to The Guardian in 2008 and left the company in 2010. He’s gained an insight into how a media business can stay viable today. Focusing on a niche audience is one method of doing that, especially if that audience is highly engaged and willing to spend. Business travelers and travel industry executives are just such an attractive bunch. “We look at business travelers, professional travelers a bit like tech fanboys, where they like to consider themselves like experts in what they’re doing,” he said.

Ali said it’s not enough to simply provide people with news — it has to be valuable or actionable information. It also helps if you can package multiple resources together. In the travel industry, businesses are divided into areas like editorial (travel guides), transactional (booking flights and hotels), and organizational (plan your trip, track your flight). But there’s a fair amount of randomness that goes along with that. You may look up art museums through Frommers, find your flight through Hipmunk, and use GateGuru to navigate airports. “With Skift, on the business traveller side, we’re trying to take the randomness out of the equation and make a more directed way of delivering information,” he said.

Also in the long-term plans for Skift: a membership or subscription service. Ali believes the possibility of better data tools for travel is a step in that direction. But another option would be to create events, something paidContent has had success with. Ali said the they plan to hold one major event, a travel analog to All Things D’s D conference, which would appeal to travel industry executives, travelers, and technologists. “We’re trying to build a crossover media brand, a new kind of media company where the underpinning will be data, and then media as the layer on top of it,” he said.

Image of Rafat Ali by Brian Solis used under a Creative Common license.

February 10 2012


Meet us at the Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference

Our team is heading to St. Louis on Feb. 23 for the annual computer-assisted reporting conference, and we'd love to meet you. Come to our sessions or stop us in the hall to learn how we can help your newsroom and how to get involved. Read More »

January 28 2012


Mexico: Week two, flying solo in Oaxaca

Saturday market in Xochimilco. Photo: Phillip Smith.

I had decided early on that this would be my week of exploration. I was feeling better — my head cold was mostly vanquished — and my friend, roommate, and work colleague, David was away on an adventure of his own.

The week got underway with another trip to El Hub Oaxaca to get my membership sorted; 250 pesos for thirty hours. I figure that’s enough time to give working here a try. The space is huge and lovely, and the other El Hub members are all doing interesting work. Later in the week, Gregorio corners me to ask that I translate my El Hub member profile from English into Spanish. I’ll need to wait until David’s return for this task, as my Spanish has suffered from a year-and-a-half of not being used.

I’m invited by Jena to join a few people for drinks and snacks at the hip-and-trendy Comala. The small gathering quickly expands into a large boisterous group, several tables in size, as more and more people show up — it’s clear that everyone knows everyone in Oaxaca. It’s a great night: I meet a bunch of new folks, including the dry-witted Rodrigo, who I’ve run into almost daily since.

Having lived here a long time, I pepper Rodrigo with questions. He’s humorously obliging. My number one question: bikes!? Where the hell to find them, preferably used? I mean, what exploration of a city is complete without a bicycle between your legs? This is a question that confounds even the most die-hard Oaxaca residents. I wonder aloud where all of the old bicycles go, but nobody has an answer. Rodrigo recommends two shops, Zona Bici and Bicimundo, and while doing some research for this post I find that there are at least another three shops in town. I don’t quite find the time to tour the bike shops this week, so I add it to my list for next week.

The next exploration is coffee shops. Having thought that I was allergic to caffeine, touring the coffee shops wasn’t that high on my list, but I give in to the gravity of habit and decide to check out the bohemian scene. I manage to visit Lobo Azul (the same place that hosted the forum theatre group) and Cafe Brujula — both lovely, spacious, comfortable spots with good, strong espresso — the next two on my list are Nuevo Mundo and Cafe Los Cuiles, the later which is supposed to have great food also.

What naturally follows coffee? Lunch, of course. As far as lunch places go, and there are many — lunch is a big thing in Oaxaca — my current favourite is El Biche Pobre for the “La Botana Oaxaquena,” a big plate of mostly deep fried awesomeness. There are many, many others, mostly small nameless places, that all have their own version of the “comida corrida,” a set lunch menu that leaves me ready for a nap every time.

Then came the exploration of the outdoor markets. These tend to happen on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the city. The first one I stumble on by accident is an enormous market surrounding Parque Llano with a bazaar-esq feel to it: little portable restaurants with large communal tables that are elbow-to-elbow with people eating tasty treats, rambling produce stands, clothing, electronics — you name it, it’s here. On Saturday I tackle the outdoor organic market in Xochimilco, that sits just in front of the Iglesia de Xochimilco. This is a great spot for breakfast, lots of little stands serving strong organic coffee and various other breakfast goodies, and — to be honest — some of the best cheese I’ve had in my life.

Friday market in Parque Llano. Photo: Phillip Smith

While waiting for today’s variation of corn tortilla with unknown stuff inside for breakfast, I meet Vivian, an American who is here writing a book. She is by no means the first American author in Oaxaca I’ve met. It’s either something about the air here, or something about the history of uprising and resistance in Oaxaca, that seems to attract all of the world’s lefty writers. It’s a good thing that I like lefty writers.

The weekend wasn’t complete without a lazy Saturday afternoon rooftop soiree hosted by the ladies of Pro World, Teresa and Blaze, and deejayed by the ever-entertaining Scott. The music and conversation continued well into the evening, and it was a superb vantage point to watch the sun set behind the mountains that surround Oaxaca city.

I ended my “week without a room mate” with the realization that, in Oaxaca, flying solo isn’t really flying solo at all.

January 23 2012


Mexico: Week one, a slow start in Oaxaca.

Red Wall, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Phillip Smith

As you no doubt know from personal experience, having a head cold when the sun is shining and the weather is hot really, really sucks.

Nonetheless, the week was not without some adventures, for instance:

There was the cultural experience of a trip to one of the local mobile phone companies — Moviestar — to get a local phone number. Similar to Buenos Aires, it feels like there’s an peculiar level of bureaucracy required for such a straightforward transaction, i.e.: buy the SIM card from one person, stand in line to see the next person who can swap the full-size SIM for a micro SIM, wait for a third person to activate the SIM, and back to the first person again to add credit to the SIM so it can actually be used. Ninety minutes later I have a working mobile phone with 3G Internet. It is no big surprise to me that I have felt lost without Google Maps, and it feels great to have it working again for care-free city exploring. (Bizarrely, I managed to get by in Mexico City with a paper map of all things. Go figure.)

The terrible boredom of the next few days — mostly sneezing fits and watery eyes — was punctuated by several trips to the taqueria just a few steps down the street for their tasty chicken and vegetable soup with lots of yummy avocado. Another of the week’s “highlights” was a trip to Chedraui, the local equivalent of Walmart. Clearly, this week got off to a slow start.

On Thursday I was starting to feel a bit better, so Dave lured me out to one of the culinary treasures of Oaxaca city, La Biznaga. This place deserves all of the praise that it receives for being an oasis in an oasis; between the food and the open-air ambiance, it’s hard to say which one was better. Following dinner, a quick trip to the local hipster bar Txalaparta for another of Roberto’s never-ending despedidas.

The world gets smaller, again. As I talk to Roberto’s friend, Tonto, we discover that we’re both connected to Chocosol in Toronto, Tonto through his work with chocolate and me through the Toronto Awesome Foundation (we gave them a grant in October, I believe, to upgrade their off-the-grid, mobile chocolate factory).

The whole time I’m furiously writing down the recommendations and advice of any and every person within earshot that’s willing to submit to my questions: breakfast joints, health food shops, yoga studios, bicycle shops — by the end of the week I have a list a mile long. Now I have a reason to live!

On Friday I manage a visit El Hub Oaxaca, the local node of the global network of “Hub” spaces. The gregarious Gregorio gives a tour and tells us about El Hub’s focus on supporting local social justice activists, social entrepreneurs, and a variety of other non-profit initiatives. It feels strikingly similar to the early days of the Center for Social Innovation in Toronto: a bit dusty and rough around the edges, but filled with passionate and creative people. I must have liked it, by Monday I have a desk there.

El Hub, Oaxaca

I’ve recovered enough by Sunday night that I’m able to meet up with Nelly and Amber again. They’re on their way back from a few days in Puerto Escondido and Mazunte and just passing through on route back to Mexico City. We grab a bite at the Casa de la Abuela overlooking the Zocalo, but skip the opportunity to try the local delicacy, fried grasshoppers.

After dinner, we meet Dave at the church of Santo Domingo de Guzman for an evening of dancing puppets, fireworks, and a Burning Man-esque tower of pyrotechnics.

All in all, for a quiet week, it worked out pretty nicely.

January 15 2012


Mexico: Day Four, a journey to Oaxaca de Juarez

Occupy the fields

Monday morning. Sore throat. Start of the journey to Oaxaca de Juarez — my home for the coming months.

I gather my things, check out of the hotel, and get moving south.

On route, I meet two Americans, Nelly and Amber, they are coming from Durango and heading to Puerto Escondido. We exchange travel advice and recommendations and part ways.

Oaxaca, it seems, is really a small place: I run into Nelly and Amber again this same day, later in the evening, having dinner in Oaxaca’s historic Zocalo.

I make my way to the little apartment that my friend and colleague Dave has rented in La Cascada, in the hills just north of the Zocalo. It’s a bit hard to find on winding unmarked streets, but soon enough I see Dave’s red hair and I know I’m in the right place.

Without delay, Dave whisks me out the door and into the beautiful cobblestone streets of Oaxaca.

Our first stop is the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca to inquire about Spanish lessons. What at first appears to be a large compound from the outside, opens up into lush green gardens and shady outdoor patios. Students are scattered about, studying under a tree, taking salsa lessons, or perhaps catching a nap; it’s a little oasis of extranjeros in Oaxaca (probably not the only one). We meet Ryota, from Japan, who gives us the run-down and a tour. We stop by the kitchen where a class is learning to make Oaxacan food. Our Spanish is sufficient for today, but no doubt we’ll be back here soon to improve it.

Next, we make our way to the Zocalo, where we find a small restaurant with a patio. The Zocalo is filled with people — vendors, musicians, turistas, and so on — it provides no end of entertainment over a dinner that is various arrangements of corn tortilla, beans, and cheese.

Bellies full, we wander up to the Lobo Azul for a performance of “3000 mil mujeres” by a “forum theatre” group from Puebla. The performance explored the issues around the trafficking of women in Mexico. At the end, the performers ask the audience to take the place of one of the characters and to re-enact the scenes. One after another, audience members work through the scenes, and provide feedback to the performers. It’s an eye-opening experience.

Oaxaca Theatre

We wind up the evening in Xochimilco at a “despedida” (going away party) for Roberto, an linguist & activist who has been living and working in Oaxaca for the last six months but is soon to return to the US. Here I also meet the rest of Dave’s witty, smart, radical crew: Simon from Occupy Oakland, Erin who works with The Berkana Institute and facilitates “The Art of Hosting” workshops, Jenna (or Juanita) who is in Oaxaca doing research for her dissertation, Moravia who is here working with Witness for Peace, and also Yeyo and Ana. This lively bunch will no doubt be a recurring theme in my Oaxaca experience, and I’m grateful for that.

Alas, my sore throat is starting to feel like a cold, so I skip the generous and plentiful offers of Irish whiskey, which is always for the best as it has gotten me into trouble more than once, and head home exhausted and sober.

What a few days it has been. Sadly, the next several days are punctuated by a nasty head cold. Rather than bore myself by writing up my trip to the pharmacia to procure tissue and cold medicine, I’ll just pick up the story when it picks up again.

Hasta pronto.

January 12 2012


Mexico: Day Three, Mexico City. Pedestrian Sunday, Flash Mob, and The Zocalo.

The Zocalo, Mexico City. Photo: Phillip Smith

It’s Sunday. The last two days of exploring have taken their toll. I give myself a pep talk and manage to get outside around noon. Today’s mission: The Zocalo — the main square in Mexico City’s historic centre.

Google Maps says that it’s forty-five minutes from Zona Rosa. I figure I’ll walk there, wander around for the afternoon, have some lunch, and try to navigate the subway back. I set out in the direction of the Angel of Independence; from there I should be able to follow Paseo de La Reforma, a six-lane main artery of downtown Mexico City, all the way downton.

I arrive at La Reforma expecting the vehicular mayhem that is common to such large avenues, but instead find that it is filled with bicycles, people on roller blades, and random salsa classes. It seems that Kensington Market’s “Pedestrian Sundays” is not such a novel idea, nor nearly ambitious enough. Each Sunday in Mexico City, La Reforma is closed to vehicle traffic and is transformed into a playground for people. I walk down the centre of this huge avenue all the way to the historic centre.

A short pit stop at the Palacio de Bellas Artes is made more enjoyable by an impromptu interview. A group of five local students ask if they can interview me on camera for a school project:

“What is your name?”

“Where are you from?”

“What do you do there?”

“What is your favourite thing about Mexico?”

You never know when you’re going to get your fifteen seconds of fame.

Interview complete, with appropriate compliments paid to Mexico and its people, I’m off again. Cultural perceptiveness may not be my strongest skill, but — as I wind my way toward the Zocalo — I’m noticing that an ever increasing number of people are, um, not wearing any pants. At first it’s just a few here and there. Then more and more people appear wearing only underwear on their bottom half. It’s a jarring — but not entirely unpleasant! — sight. What is going on? I’m keen to investigate.

In the final block before the small street open into the massive square pedestrian traffic has come to a stop. Ahead is what appears to be a protest. A large crowd has filled the block and is chanting loudly. The chant grow louder and louder and then — suddenly — break into boisterous applause and cheer. The apparent cause of the cheer: a person waving their pants from a window above the crowd.

I push my way through. I want to know what’s happening. I’m now surrounded by people with no pants. The pantless mob randomly descends on those people still wearing pants and chants in Spanish “Take them off! Take them off!” (or something like that; admittedly, my Spanish isn’t great). If the person strips, the crowd goes wild. I find a few pantless warriors on the edge of the mob and enquire “Que esta pasando aqui?” Flash mob.

Having arrived at the Zocalo without having to remove my pants, I duck into the Hotel Majestic and head up to their rooftop restaurant, La Terraza. I sip a beer, take in the view overlooking the entire historic square, and snap a few photos.

The area and streets around the Zocalo are filled with vendors of all kinds. Some streets are so densely packed that it makes walking almost impossible. There are many performances happening simultaneously. It’s a swirling, noisy placed filled with bright colours and every smell imaginable. Definitely worthy of more than a few short hours of exploration.

It’s time to head back. I’ve read about a place — Plaza de Computacion, an indoor market of electronics — that I want to find on route to the subway. I head down Eje Central Avenue, a large busy street with lots of vehicular mayhem, and pedestrian mayhem also. Eje Central is not a pretty street. It’s busy and loud and the sidewalks are full with street vendors. I find the Plaza de Computacion. It’s a multi-floor market of mostly cell phones, video games, and pirated music and movies. A bit of a let down, but worthy of a quick tour nonetheless.

With the metro station Salto del Agua in sight, I make my escape from blocks and blocks of bustling commerce back to the relative quiet of Zone Rosa.

A quick stop at the local taqueria reminds me that I don’t like Dos Equis that much.

A sore throat sends me off to bed early.

Tomorrow morning I journey to Oaxaca.

January 10 2012


Mexico: Day Two, Mexico City. San Angel, Coyoacan, and La Condessa.

A park in the San Angel district of Mexico City. Photo: Phillip Smith.

Zona Rosa never sleeps and neither did I.

I'm up, but Saturday is already half over. Yikes! Gather my belongings and my wits, consult my options for the day — today is the day for markets in Mexico City. I'm off.

The first destination is the San Angel district for the Bazar Sabado in Plaza de San Jacinto. It's a lovely spot full of rambling cobblestone streets and a large central plaza full of vendors selling mostly art and hand-made crafts. I duck into a little taqueria and over lunch I make a note to come back again and to bring a camera.

Next, I'm off to Coyoacan. There is a rumour about good artisanal markets there too. I ask for directions. Nothing is as close as it looks on a map in Mexico City. The directions involve at least one minibus, if not two; I think about it for a minute, then I take a taxi.

The taxi drops me in front of a huge shopping mall. Not quite what I was looking for… but, hey, why not? I take a spin through the mall. It's very upscale. I think I saw a Prada store on my way out. I get new directions and head along Calle Mexico toward destinations unknown.

It's a sunny warm afternoon and the city is still quiet from the Christmas holidays. I pass the Viveros Coyoacan, another of the enormous and well-appointed parks that I've come across. A wrong turn here and there and I stumble on La Casa Azul, the birthplace of Frida Kahlo. I take a break in the courtyard and absorb some sun before heading off in search of the Leon Trotsky museum (which I'm not destined to find this day).

A short walk away along Avendida Miguel Hildago I find the centre of Coyoacan, near Jardin Plaza Hildago. Old narrow streets open into several blocks of connecting squares and gardens, all of which are filled with activity: vendors, musicians, food stands, an open-air theatre and much more. I spot a congregation of tents and political information — perhaps part of the Occupy movement here? I'm not sure. At the far end of all this is the Kiosko de Coyoacan, a two-floor building filled with crafts and food shops. I could easily spend a whole day exploring this part of Coyoacan, but it's dark now and I head back to Zona Rosa.

Old friend from Argentina, Clare, tells me that, similar to Buenos Aires, people eat late in Mexico City. We arrange to grab a bite at 10 PM. I walk from Zona Rosa to La Condesa along Avendia Oaxaca passing several hopping "Cervezarias" as I skim along the edge of Parque Espania. The streets here are not on a grid and it's easy to get turned around; I end up on Tamaulipas, a long stretch of "fresa" (slang for roughly 'hipster' and 'posh') bars and restaurants. I wind my way back to Nuevo Leon and to the small oasis that has been built at the corner Mexicali in front of the restaurant Bacan.

A bottle of Escorihuela Gascon brings back memories of Argentina and sends me on my way home.

January 09 2012


Mexico: Day One, Mexico City

El Angel de la Independencia in Mexico City. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

I left for the airport at 4 AM on January 6th. It’s always pretty quiet in Toronto at 4 AM and this day was no different.

This is my first time departing from the American Airlines terminal. It’s pretty run down. The U.S. Customs agents hadn’t even started their day yet. We all waited staring at these big metal gates, like the ones you see on TV at the border between two countries that don’t want each others people to come in. Eventually, and probably reluctantly, they opened the gates.

“What’s your business in the United States?”

“I’m going to Mexico.”

“I didn’t ask where you are going, I asked what your business is in the United States.”

“Um, I’m traveling through the U.S. to go to Mexico?”


I’m at the Dallas airport around noon I think. I’m looking for some food. I hear thunderous clapping. I think the Rolling Stones must be getting off a plane or something. I wander over to check it out. Hundreds of U.S. Army troops are returning from Afghanistan. They’re receiving a standing ovation from everyone in the airport. It’s both beautiful and frightening. I duck into the Au Bon Pain.

The plane lands in Mexico around 3 PM. I quickly read some information about what you can and can’t bring into the country — not the best timing, I know (honestly, I’ve never been great at planning trips). Whoops, I’ve brought along two laptops. Seems that you’re only allowed to bring one. No worries, I probably won’t get searched. Put my bags through the X-Ray: no problemo. Push the button that “randomly” picks people for searches: red light, oh shit. Act stupid, speak English, smile, and slip through with two laptops and a warning. Today is my lucky day.

Taxi downtown to the Zona Rosa. Walking around and I’m struck by the U.S.-ness of Mexico City: McDonald’s, 7-11, Chilli’s, GNC, Starbucks, and so on. I wander over to El Angel de la Independencia and take in the city for a while; it’s huge, but not intense like Buenos Aires. Nothing like swirling chaos around the Obelisco on 9 de Julio.

Dinner at Fonda del Refugio because it was written up on Wikitravel. Guacamole, little fried quesadillas, and chicken with mole sauce. Hey! When in Mexico… No celebrities, sadly, only a bill for 300 pesos.

It’s a Friday night. Zona Rosa is on fire. Boom, boom, boom goes the disco music until 4 in the morning.

April 29 2011


Royal Wedding: The big day

London was electric today. I cannot think of another way to say what it was like. One-million people were expected to descend on London today. However, one of my favorite parts of the whole week was the ceremony. I've been to a lot of weddings in my life and I absolutely loved their vows, readings, and words from the pulpit? I was reminded of the vows I made before God when I married my wife. Oh, and the songs from the choir were beautiful. BBC posted some of it, check out the transcript here. I admit that I teared up a little bit while I was photographing the thousands watching the wedding in Green Park which is right next door to Buckingham Palace. I focused my time on a little video story giving our readers a chance to experience the wedding through the eyes of some Americans and of course the Brits. I took one or two stills as well. What a day!

Audrey Joy, left, and Alyse Macqueh, both 16 and of France try to catch a glimpse of the royal couple in front of Buckingham Palace after the royal wedding ceremony. They came with face decorations with the initials of the royal couple as well as a miniature wedding cake. Some might call it a cupcake. Garrett Hubbard / USA TODAY

April 28 2011


Royal Wedding: Camping it up in royal style

Campers from all over the world gather to celebrate the Royal wedding from outside the city in Clapham Common. Garrett Hubbard / USA TODAY

Read the story here.

Royal Wedding: The Brits and their hats

Louis Mariette, a bespoke hat couture (read: fancy!) designer in his London studio with a hat inspired by the Lilac-Breasted Roller, the National bird of Botswana--where Mariette grew up. Garrett Hubbard / USA TODAY

Check out the story and video here

Check out more of his work on his website

The semi-official Will and Kate tour of London

Take a walk around London with the Prince William and Kate walking tour and learn about the history and upcoming wedding. Garrett Hubbard / USA TODAY

Jane Seymour's Royal Wedding British insight

British born actress Jane Seymour will offering her insights on the royal wedding for us Americans for Entertainment Tonight. Garrett Hubbard / USA TODAY

Check out the story here

"I love the smell of diamonds in the morning" says Jane Seymour on the set for Entertainment Tonight outside of Westminster Abbey at the royal wedding. Garrett Hubbard / USA TODAY

March 05 2011


A spur from Texas to go back to the blog

I just went to one of my favorite photography conferences of the year and was challenged by the Photoshop guru of the world* Scott Kelby to blog. So, I'm back to share some of my favorite photos, stories, and tips with you all!

The new cowboy on the block. Meet Rory. He came to be a cowboy and drive longhorn steer at the Stockyards in Fort Worth, Texas. © Garrett Hubbard 2011

Have you ever been to a conference where cowboys cracked their whips and the longhorn steer mozy'd on down the street? I would love to hear your conference highlights/horror stories.

*Photoshop guru of the world is my title because well, he's been the #1 technology teacher for the past six years. I also had the opportunity to guest blog for Scott last July.

August 07 2010


The best camera

Have you ever wondered which camera is the absolute best? The adverts will happily help you make that decision. People on various photography websites can suggest how to best drop $10,000 on a few lenses. Your friends might also tell you that Nikon is better than Canon. Well, I'm here to settle the matter for you. As a former Nikon shooter, now Canon shooter I want you to know that the best camera is the one you have with you. It's really that simple.
Cumulus clouds over Louisiana August 6, 2010. Taken with my nearly 3 Megapixel camera on my iPhone. © Garrett Hubbard 2010.

One of my photography professors and now friend, Greg Cooper from Brooks Institute of Photography taught me this profound and simple truth. My camera's F-stop, Shutter speed, and ISO are unknown and it doesn't really matter. Go out and take some photographs you love with the camera you have.

March 14 2010


Demand Media, Seed and Spring Break for the Internet (SXSW) Day Two

Before I dive into the subject of this post: AOL’s Seed and Demand Media, a personal update.

1. My SXSW talk yesterday went great. It was followed by a round table discussion which was a bit more contentious. The founder of Gothamist was of the opinion that community funded reporting can’t work. My response: Then NPR never should be alerted immediately. What we do is similar to NPR except we add transparency and control for where the contributions go. To say “it doesn’t work” when what I think he really means is “it won’t replace advertising” is lazy thinking.

2. A personal highlight: If we are in The Reformation of media then I often refer to Clay Shirky as our Martin Luther. While at AOL Seed’s party Clay walked up. I was ready to introduce myself. I had met him before, but he is the caliber of person for whom I would fully understand needing to introduce myself again. I am deeply humbled that he is familiar with me and my work. I often say that I am on the front lines of a battlefield. I’ve chosen my specific battleground, but the war is much larger. If that is the case – Shirky is a General.

Now for the real post. On AOL’s Seed and Demand Media

As many know I used to be a tech/media reporter. If I were here reporting the media story would certainly be AOL’s Seed. TechCrunch nailed the story already, so in true blogger fashion I am going to opine below. I am also going to roughly quote some of the folks I spoke with about the subject over the course of the day – but will not attribute these quotes. Our conversations were between colleagues and I don’t want to compromise anyone. I’ll email these individuals and update the posts if they are comfortable with me attributing.

A lot can be said about AOL’s Seed and Demand Media. They are often referred to as “content farms.” I am not sure if that is accurate and I can be a stickler about labels – but I’ll use that for now, as I lack a better term.  Some have even pointed to them as a battle for the Internet’s soul – no small wager.

To start out with a positive note, however, I’ll say this.

One inspiration for Spot.Us is to modernize the freelance process. It is horribly antiquated. Fifty years ago freelancers would type out their pitches and send them snail mail to editors and wait for a snail mail response. Today we email our pitches. But other than the medium of our communication – nothing has changed. The process is still very much one-to-one. It is not transparent and the dirty truth of freelancing is that you need to have a relationship with the editor. They are in charge. Spot.Us tries to make that process more transparent and have a one-to-many communication prospect.

I can see where Demand Media and Seed are rolling up their sleeves to modernize freelancing (from the perspective of a mulit-million dollar publisher).

The obvious downside of course is that they pay is beyond horrible for content producers.

One individual I spoke with asked a very poignant question: If Jimmy Wales were announce that Wikipedia was going to start paying editors $7 an hour wages or something close to it – it would ruin the whole system. If Demand Media and Seed want to become huge “content farms” answering everyone’s potential questions – maybe throwing meaningless amounts of money isn’t the way.

His companion noted that when Wikipedia first started out as Nupedia Jimmy Wales did pay exert editors. According to her over the course of three years those editors only produced 25 articles. If Wales hadn’t pivoted Wikipedia (then called Nupedia) would have failed.

I’ve also experienced this. In the beginning of Spot.Us we started paying the peer review editors 10% of the money raised. We ended up attracting people that were motivated by money. But since it wasn’t that much money – they weren’t that motivated. Since making the peer review editor role volunteer, I’ve found the volunteers are much more involved.

Lesson: You get what you pay for. The follow up question is whether or not people care. Since the majority of content from Demand Media and AOL Seed is going to be about “cupcakes and kittens” as one friend put it, maybe it doesn’t matter what quality the writing is.

The counterpoint: Another colleague whose opinion I hold in very high regard noted that the real danger is that Google could lose value. If Demand Media continues to put out the amount of content they do – but it’s at a mediocre level, and this content is in direct response to Google queries – the search engine could rapidly lose value.

Which raises the question: Would Google do something to demote Demand Media Content? Would that be an “evil” act? It would certainly be one where the search giant would integrate human judgment into its search returns over its own algorithm which would otherwise be gamed to ensure Demand Media content to be at the top.

My general impression, which was confirmed by others, is that of these two Demand Media is the “clockwork orange.” It’s insides are all mechanics. They make no attempt to hide it. They use an algorithem to determine what content they’ll produce and from there its a mechanistic system to produce the content. The humans are only involved out of necessity. Even the Matrix needed humans as batteries. AOL’s Seed isn’t guilt free of this – but it appears to make more of an attempt to include human judgment and editorial. The hiring of Saul Hansell, among other decisions, are obvious examples.

The final thought.

What Demand Media and Seed are doing isn’t necessarily journalism. This is especially true for Demand Media. What they produce is content. Plain and simple. The majority of it being answers to mundane questions “How do I tie a square knot?”

In this respect – individual journalists don’t need to be concerned about the exploitation of writers (although – the writes opt-in so exploitation itself is arguable). Most reporters I meet aren’t in the business of answering search engine queries. Nobody’s lunch is being eaten.

But – at a deeper level the journalism INDUSTRY should be very concerned. What this represents is yet another HUGE opening in the content/media space online that is being overtaken by venture capital money and brand new companies. A Gannet, Hearst, etc, should be in this space.

Why does it matter what kind of company owns this space?

Simple: Old profits from classifieds and advertising used to be pumped back into the system to prop original reporting because that was something newspapers did. Newspapers were always really in the advertising classifies business – but they would use their 30% profit margins on reporting.

If Demand Media starts making 30% profit margins, I don’t suspect they’ll start throwing that into investigative or original reporting. That’s not what they do. AOL’s Seed might – but that’s a hope, not a promise.

People love to point at Craigslist and blame it for the fall of newspapers. Aside from being economically questionable I often point out that the technology behind Craigslist wasn’t mind-blowing. Any newspaper company could have built that and today would own the classifieds business online. And who knows what they’d do with that profit? Fund some great reporting I suspect (and kudos to Craig Newmark who with his wealth has created the Craigslist Foundation).

With great power and money comes great responsibility. I’ll even give Demand Media and AOL the benefit of the doubt and say they’ll make charitable contributions to society with any new-found wealth. But will journalism be where they plant their flag? That’s a missed opportunity for newspaper companies.

March 13 2010


At South by Southwest and Updates

Today I am at South by Southwest.

Yes, you can tell I’m a noob because I didn’t refer to it as just “South by.” Perhaps when this event is done I’ll write a bit of a contrarian post about SXSW. The quick takeaways are.

1. Spring break for the internet: W000! Show me your A.P.I.!

2. The Ikea of tech conferences.

Regardless of that – it’s always a blast to see folks like Matt Thompson, Patrick Thornton, Sean Blanda, Will Sullivan, Dan Gillmor, Tristan Harris, Joe Edelman, Matt Mireles, Raines Cohen, Scott Rosenberg, Jonathan Berger and more. You’ll just be walking down the hall and boom, there they are. Working on the Internet often means you don’t get face-t0-face time with your colleagues. Even though I don’t directly work with any of these individuals, I consider them allies in a changing media landscape which we are all defining and redefining. Being able to shake a hand or give a hi-five never hurt. I’m sure I’ll run into more good folks tomorrow.

Meanwhile my geek out moment today was seeing Bruce Sterling breeze past me. Almost stopped him while he was walking just to say “thanks” without giving that a qualification.

Tomorrow I’m giving a talk on community funded reporting with Lynn Headley. My quick powerpoint is below. But as I often say: “Power corrupts and PowerPoints corrupt absolutely. Still – they provide me a mental map of things I want to cover.

View more presentations from David Cohn.

From here I’ll be going down to Columbia Missouri to visit the Reynolds Institute of Journalism. No doubt I’ll speak with more interesting journo-media-folk. I’ll try and grab some video/photos to share later. I used to make sure that at every conference I went to I would grab one good interview – even if it was five minutes nonchalant. Lately I’ve let that practice go. I hope to revive it.

There is lots going on in the life of Digidave. I also hope to revamp this website. Spot.Us though remains priority number one!

I have been a bad personal blogger as a result of this priority. I can’t say it will change dramatically anytime soon and I think most folks who follow this blog understand that and support what I’m doing with my work. Still – I owe you more.

Also note: I have started a more quirky personal blog: Digidave’s Quickies. These are mostly cool videos, links, etc. That space will be for personal rants, raves, links and more. I’ll keep this one more professional and of course the MOST professional stuff will be on Spot.Us since – that’s what I do in my day-to-day.

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