A Pulitzer-winning couple tells GBJ students what it’s like to cover a mass shooting in real time

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Mark Potts speaks about the L.A. Times’ video editing process for coverage of the San Bernardino shootings at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

By Alexis See Tho

“It was an organized chaos,” recalled Mark Potts, a video editor at the Los Angeles Times, describing the scene in the newsroom when photographs, videos and Twitter posts poured in from the San Bernardino shootings two years ago.

Potts and his wife Hailey Branson-Potts, who is also a journalist for the L.A. Times shared the drama of covering a breaking news story of global significance with Tsinghua University’s multimedia reporting class. Branson-Potts and Potts were part of the Times team that received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, the top award in American journalism, for breaking news reporting.

“In the back of your head, you’re thinking, this is what I went to school for. You train and work your whole life so when you get into these situations, you don’t mess it up,” Potts added.

The prize-winning young journalists spoke to Global Business Journalism Program students in Professor Rick Dunham’s Multimedia Business Reporting course on March 1. Branson-Potts worked for Professor Dunham as an intern in the Washington bureau of the Houston Chronicle, where she covered the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, among other national stories.

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Professor Dunham uses the coverage of the San Bernardino shootings as a “best practices” case study for using social media in reporting. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

The December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, made international headlines when 14 people were killed an American man and his Pakistan-born wife. U.S. President Donald Trump has cited the shooting as a reason why he is seeking to restrict immigration to the United States.

Branson-Potts did live reporting on Twitter from the shooting scene, talking to the police and interviewing victims’ family members. And for days she stayed put in San Bernardino to get more information on the ground. It’s important to always be ready for moments like that she said.

“I have a ‘go-bag’ in my car,” Branson-Potts added, where she keeps a pair of jeans, comfortable shoes, make-up and supplies for at least a day.

But there are some areas that cannot be prepared ahead of time and only real-life experiences can be the teacher. Branson-Potts was answering a student’s questions whether news organizations train journalists on how to face situations such as the shooting.

“There’s no psychological training in newsrooms,” said Branson-Potts, who have worked and interned at news organizations such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and the
Houston Chronicle.

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Hailey Branson-Potts explains to the class her first few live tweets from the scene of the San Bernardino shootings. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

She added that although her editor did ask how she was coping when she was on the ground in San Bernardino for days, the answer would always be “I’m fine.”

“You don’t want to be pulled out of the story,” Branson-Potts said.

Although she has worked for big names in America’s newspaper industry, Branson-Potts’ first taste of the world of journalism came when she was 15 when she worked on the printing press for her hometown newspaper, the Perry Daily Journal, one of Oklahoma’s smallest daily newspapers.

“They only printed 2,000 copies everyday, but it was real experience (for me),” Branson-Potts said. She advised students to find as many opportunities as they could to work in newsrooms.

“When we hire young people at our paper, we don’t care what grades they made at school, we don’t care what classes they took. We care about their resumés and the stories they produced as an intern,” she said.

For shooting and editing videos, Mark Potts’ greatest education came from watching bad movies during his student days while working at a movie theatre.

He added that a journalist’s work attitude is of utmost importance. “I approach things like there’s nothing below me,” he said, “I’ve done videos for subjects that secretly…I don’t want to cover. But I go in there and say, ‘I’m going to make a really good video. I’m going to cover this like I’ve covered the inauguration and a protest.’”

For both of them, they repeat the mantra: There’s no story that you’re too good for.

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The Hailey and Mark Show (Photo by Alexis See Tho)


Congratulations to 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Lisa Falkenberg, who exposed injustice in Texas justice

Lisa Falkenberg gets a hug from Chron colleague Tony Freemantle after winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. (Photo by Steve Gonzales)

Lisa Falkenberg gets a hug from Chron colleague Tony Freemantle after winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. (Photo by Steve Gonzales)


What a thrilling way to start the day! On the morning I will host two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Larry Price in my Global Business Journalism classes at Tsinghua University, I wake up to news that my longtime Houston Chronicle colleague Lisa Falkenberg has won the 2015 Pulitzer for commentary.

Thoroughly deserved. Lisa’s compelling columns exposed deep injustices in the justice system. The scales of justice in Texas are weighted … and not in favor of the individual.

Many in Houston will note that this is the first Pulitzer Prize in the history of the Houston Chronicle. Yes, that is a historical footnote worth noting. But let’s not forget that this prize was given because Lisa described in a compelling and clear nature the deep, systemic flaws in the local criminal justice system. To honor Lisa, let’s have more than champagne. Let’s fix the perversions of justice that take place in Texas.

I can now say that I once covered an election from the cluttered cubicle of a Pulitzer Prize winner, when she was on maternity leave.

Have a great celebration with Mizanur and the family, Lisa. And let’s see if we can do something about the ills you exposed.


How living in China has made me a better person

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Appearance #7 on CCTV. I’m a big fan of the “Dialogue” program.

My grandmother Naomi and I had a 4-decade-long debate over human nature. Having survived Stalin’s Russia, McCarthy’s America, the Depression and deprivation, she passionately insisted that people don’t change as they age, they only become more like they are (or were). I, on the other hand, a child of the Baby Boom who had evolved from the transistor radio to the smart phone, argued that people can grow or change, for better or for worse.

Our dialogue did not end until Grandmom Naomi’s death three years ago just a few years shy of 100.

I now want to claim victory — at least from personal experience — although I can still hear her arguing with me for being naive and idealistic.

My first semester at Tsinghua University in Beijing has given me plenty of time to contemplate life. After all, I am living alone for the first time in 30 years in a campus apartment, the only English speaker in my building. I chucked my job at the Houston Chronicle for a great leap into the unknown in a country I had never visited.

As I await my graduate students’ final multimedia journalism projects, I can reflect on how living in China has changed me. And it has. Mostly, I hope, for the better.

The biggest change in me is that I have become more accepting of the vagaries of life. In China, you are either patient or you go mad. Internet, WiFi, hot water, heat, electricity: none can be taken for granted at any moment. If you are brave enough to travel on surface roads, you have to expect unexpected delays. You have to let go of the things you can’t control. That’s a big change for me.

You also have to be decisive … or die. (As Joe Biden would say, “literally” die.) Bicyclists pedal every which way. Near misses with another bike … or a pedestrian … or a car … are everyday occurrences. If you don’t push your way out of the crowded subway car, you miss your stop. Don’t think. Act. All in all, I like that philosophy.

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I have learned so much from students in China. Here I am in Xi’an with Lu LAN and Jane Sasseen.

At the same time, I feel I have become a lot less materialistic. Americans like to collect things. I like to collect things. Everyone who knows me knows how many things I have collected. In China, I live in a spartan apartment with nothing on the walls, a pot, a pan and enough clothing for ten days. I feel oddly liberated. I realize that I don’t need “things” to make me happy. I need to do things that make me happy. And I have discovered that spending time with friends makes me a lot happier than spending time with “things.”

My professional makeover — new occupation in a new land — also has allowed me to evolve into a different kind of leader. As president of the National Press Club and Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, I led by example and governed by consensus. That wasn’t always the formula for success — or effective management — I learned. Too many times, people mistook collegiality for weakness.

Starting over in China, I realized the importance of being a strong, focused, disciplined leader. No more “player-coach.” I hope I have earned the right to be an authority figure both from my knowledge of my subject and my post at the university. Whatever I do in years to come, my time at Tsinghua will have shaped me as a leader.

I’ve also become much more of an environmentalist. Not in the sense of political activism. But in the sense of appreciating clean air, clean water and cooking oil that doesn’t make you sick. It’s a bit spooky to travel around your (new) hometown wearing an anti-particulate mask by 3M. It’s disconcerting to have a thin layer of toxic dust on your bicycle seat in the morning. This is what can happen to the world if we don’t do more to reduce carbon emissions and create green technology — now.

And that brings me to my final thought about the future. My journalism students have made me even more optimistic about the future. After all, they are preparing to enter a business with an uncertain future in a nation where the future of journalism is quite uncertain. But they are some of the smartest young people I’ve ever worked with, and they have a breadth of knowledge and a drive to do well (and do good) that makes me think that they can change the world.

I hope so.

They already have changed me.


My take on the dysfunction in DC

I’m still getting used to be the interviewee and not the interviewer. Here’s a recent Q&A with me conducted by Katie Perkowski, a super-talented former Texas on the Potomac intern who now works and lives in Bratislava.

Katie’s piece first appeared in WBP Online.

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Behind Capitol Hill: Q&A with long-time Washington watchdog

Rick Dunham has had eyes and ears on Capitol Hill and in the White House for three decades, giving him a unique view into US politics. In an interview with WBP Online, the former Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle explains how dramatic political party transformations have led to the dysfunction in Congress we are seeing today.

Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

By Katie Perkowski
WBP Online

Few people understand the inner workings of US politics quite as well as Rick Dunham, who covered the White House and Capitol Hill for three decades, during which time he served as Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, White House correspondent for BusinessWeek and board president of the National Press Club.

In a Q&A with WBP Online, Dunham explained the dramatic transformations of the two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, that he saw during his time in Washington, and why those shifts have led to an ever-dived Congress seemingly incapable of getting anything done. The latest evidence of that now all-too-familiar phenomenon? The federal government’s shutdown, now on day four with no sign of stopping.

Here’s what Dunham had to say:

Q: Can you describe the shift in dynamic you noticed in both the Republican and Democrat parties during your time in Washington? What do you think brought about this change in the way things get done (or don’t)?

There has been a tremendous shift, both culturally and politically, over my three decades in Washington.

One is ideological. Both parties’ representatives were far more diverse in the past. Democrats ranged from far left to far right. Republicans ranged from liberal to very conservative. Now there are no liberals and very few moderates left among Republican lawmakers. And there are very few Democrats remaining who are right of the political center. The party is pretty well split between far left, left and center. Republicans are pretty well divided between right and far right, with a tiny group of centrists. The key Republican division is establishment and insurgent. The establishment Republicans still are in the majority but the radical right Republicans control the agenda through mastery of tactics and willingness to “do the unthinkable.”

Culturally, there has been an even bigger shift. When I arrived in Washington in 1984, Congress was controlled by “doers” and not “talkers.” The goal of lawmakers was to make laws. Legislators used to legislate. Now, the vast majority on both sides of the aisle want to posture and play to their ideological core rather than to get things done.

The great lawmakers I have covered were often very liberal or conservative – Ted Kennedy was hard left and Bob Dole was very conservative – but they believed in moving things forward for their country in the end. There are almost none of those left now, and certainly not enough to get things done.

Q: Covering Texas, you followed Ted Cruz in his rise from solicitor general to senator. What kind of change within the Republican party does Cruz represent? There have been numerous reports out about how senior members of his party, like McCain and Graham are not happy with the way he’s doing things. Do you think there could be a party split among Republicans in the near future? What is the Tea Party’s role in all of this?

The key figures representing the three strands of the Republican future are Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. All are ultraconservative but only Rubio among them is pragmatic and willing to cut deals. The other two are ideological purists who would rather lose than compromise. Rand Paul is the leader of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. He is anti-government. Period. Ted Cruz is an ultraconservative in the mold of the 1964 version of Barry Goldwater, who believed that extremism in the defense of liberty (as he saw it) is no vice. Cruz is against government unless government will help him accomplish his ideological ends. He also is against (almost) anything Barack Obama is for. I call him the leader of the nihilist strain of the modern Republican Party.

That’s why old-fashioned conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham don’t like him. They are very conservative – I don’t buy into the revisionist view of McCain and Graham as moderate because they are willing to cut deals and occasionally act like mavericks.

McCain took an instant dislike to Cruz because Cruz has such an authentic dislike for the institution. McCain respects the institution. Cruz despises it. They are both strong personalities, so it is natural that they will clash. Neither of them is phony. They genuinely dislike each other.

McCain and other Republican leaders believe that Cruz is leading the party on a political suicide mission. They believe he is hoping to burn down the village and then claim to be king of the ashes.

Cruz represents the socially conservative strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Rand Paul represents the pure libertarian strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Both are ideologically pure and strongly “pro-liberty” but both philosophies are distinct and different. They have a slightly different definition of what liberty means.

Q: What kind of precedent do you think it would set if Republicans hold to their current stance and hold the debt ceiling “hostage” as some are calling it in an effort to repeal or delay a law that’s already been passed? Could that lead to similar actions by Congress in the future, or even “revenge” acts of a similar manner by Democrats?

I don’t think it will lead to a “tit for tat” reaction from Democrats in the future. Democrats never held the government or the country hostage during George W. Bush’s administration. I’ve always said that the Democrats’ big problem is that they are too “responsible.” I’m not talking about being ideologically moderate. I mean that they won’t take extreme measures in order to prevail.

Filibusters are another matter. Both sides are irresponsible and hypocritical when it comes to filibusters. That’s another big change in the Washington culture. But that’s another story.

In some ways, Democrats are to blame for all of this. It started with the defeat of Robert Bork, who was very qualified for the Supreme Court (in terms of legal qualifications) but was defeated for ideological reasons, because he was out of the judicial mainstream. That has led to the political equivalent of an arms race where each side is willing to become more and more virulent in order to make political points. It’s gotten to the point that Republicans will block Democratic nominations just because the nominees exist, not even for reasons of ideology or the nominee’s personal issues. That is utterly irresponsible and, I am sorry to say, bipartisan.

Q: Do you think the current party structure in Washington can survive, or should it be changed to prevent the type of mess we’re seeing now?

I see the party structure surviving because that is the history of American representative democracy. We have always had two main parties. The two parties have not always been Republican and Democrat. Since we entered the R/D era, the two parties have changed radically. Now, just about anyone who would have been a Republican at the time of slavery and the Civil War is a Democrat, and anybody who would have been a Democrat at that time is a Republican. The two parties have reversed regional bases. One of the only common threads is that immigrants still tend to be Democrats.

I see the Democratic Party becoming more “moderate” in coming years as more disgruntled former Republicans and moderate young people join the party. I see the Republican Party finally having a showdown between the establishment right and the hard right. It probably will take the nomination of a far-right Republican for president and an overwhelming defeat for the party to move back toward the center. The last two nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were not purists. Indeed, Ronald Reagan is the last hard-core conservative to be a presidential nominee. And Reagan would be considered a pragmatic moderate by today’s standards.

One last thought: If the Republicans are to have a future at the presidential level, they cannot afford to continue to lose immigrants, minorities and young voters. Those three blocs are the future. Republicans not only need to maintain their current levels of support, they need to increase them. A similar fate befell Democrats during the 1980s as Ronald Reagan cut into the blue-collar Democratic base, young voters went Republican and old New Deal Democrats died off rapidly. Democrats won just once in 24 years before Bill Clinton started to redefine the Democratic Party with his “New Democrat” movement. We’re at a similar point in reverse now. But I suspect we’ll need a disaster like the Democrats faced in 1980-1984-1988 to convince Republicans to rethink Cruz-ism.

Dunham is now based in Beijing, where he is a professor of multimedia journalism and co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University. You can follow him at https://rickdunhamblog.com/.

To contact the author of this story, e-mail katherine.perkowski@wbponline.com.


Rick’s Rules: Ten basic reporting errors

With this post, I am introducing a regular feature to RickDunhamBlog: Rick’s Rules.

Rick’s Rules will highlight best and worst practices in modern multimedia journalism and offer tips to improve your skills — whether you are one of my graduate journalism students at Tsinghua University, a veteran journalist in Washington, D.C., or a normal everyday “civilian.”

I also will try to experiment with innovative storytelling techniques. Today’s “Rick’s Rules” uses infogr.am.

TEN BASIC REPORTING ERRORS

| Create infographics

UPDATE: Due to technical difficulties on the WordPress site, I am forced to link to the graphic on infogr.am. Please follow this link to the graphic.


The big announcement: How the Twittersphere reacted to my new job in China

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Tsinghua, here I come! (University web site)

People who know me well know that I don’t possess one of the larger egos in American journalism. So I’m a tad apologetic for the blatant boosterism that follows. But I wanted to do it to thank all of my friends and the public officials who took to social media to respond to this announcement.

The overwhelming — and rapid — response reminded me of the power of social media. Twitter and Facebook have transformed our means of communication in just a few years. (Six years ago, when I left Business Week for the Houston Chronicle, I had to send emails to all of my friends just to let them know what had happened.)

Just like we do on Texas on the Potomac, I’ll start with Capitol Hill reaction:

Even former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who’s had to deal with my questions since my days as a young pup at the Dallas Times Herald, weighed in:

In the polarized American political world, there was bipartisan agreement — for once.

Reaction poured in from around the world, Helsinki to Beirut to Shanghai:

In Austin and Manhattan journalism circles, disbelief:

It was nice to hear from my colleagues:

Yes, Melissa. Definitely.

I’m especially grateful for the kind words from my former interns who have made me proud over the past six years.

And I’ll leave you with the words of that ancient Chinese philosopher Wayne Slater:


Top Ten: My proudest accomplishments at the Houston Chronicle

The superstar intern crew of spring semester 2012. (Photo by Pam Tobey)

The superstar intern crew of spring semester 2012. (Photo by Pam Tobey)

I have been fortunate to be able to experiment and innovate over the past six years at the Houston Chronicle. As I look back on my tenure at Texas’ largest newspaper, I am particularly proud of these accomplishments:

TxPotomac 2361. Creating Texas on the Potomac

Launched in December 2007, Texas on the Potomac developed into a valued “brand” in Texas journalism — THE place to go for news about Texans in Washington or national news of interest to a Texas audience. We proved that high quality journalism and “clicks” are not mutually exclusive. We built a large and loyal audience not only in our home base of Houston, but in Austin, Washington, Dallas-Fort Worth and in more than 20 countries around the world including Finland, Norway and Korea.

2. Reinventing Washington bureau coverage for a regional newspaper

Chronicle editor-in-chief Jeff Cohen hired me to reinvent the Chron Washington bureau, and I took the challenge to the next level. I reimagined how a regional newspaper should cover the nation’s capital. Rather than duplicate the wires or the national newspapers, we tailored our national stories to our local audience. We offered analytical coverage explaining the importance of the events that were unfolding in Washington. And we covered the Texas delegation and Texans on the Potomac like they had never been covered before. We broke news story after news story on the web and then offered value-added coverage for print. We had a robust social media presence, too, offering comprehensive coverage to readers interested in Houston and Texas politics on whatever platform they preferred. All while seeing our staff shrink. And shrink.

With MacKenzie Warren before she became a famous TV anchor. (Photo by Marco Van Stralen)

With MacKenzie Warren before she became a famous TV anchor. (Photo by Marco Van Stralen)

3. Helping to launch the careers of so many talented young journalists

It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with so many talented interns from across the globe. Our former interns have gone on to journalism greatness (already) at the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call and many other news outlets, large and small, print and broadcast … and digital. I hope my interns learned as much from me as I learned from them. The interns’ talents and enthusiasm prove to me that there is a future in journalism. To all my interns: You have inspired me.

4. Teaching cutting-edge training programs for journalism students and midcareer professionals

Through my role as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute — the educational and charitable arm of the National Press Club — I was able to teach thousands of aspiring journalists, midcareer journalists, journalism educators and professional communicators the skills they needed to survive and thrive in today’s rapidly changing multimedia world. Whether the subject was writing for the web or building a community and brand via Twitter, I embraced the turbulent times and tried to help others navigate through rocky seas. That training has trained me for the next chapter in my life.

McCain La Voz5. Offering robust coverage of issues of importance to our Latino audience

Before Texas on the Potomac came along, there was a void in “mainstream media” coverage of Latino politics and national policy issues of interest to Texas Latinos. With the help of my TxPotomac compatriots and superb La Voz de Houston editors Aurora Losada and Silvia Struthers, we provided comprehensive coverage of important issues such as immigration, health care, border policy, U.S.-Mexico issues, Voter ID, voting rights, redistricting, education and other matters of particular interest to our Latino audience. We gave special attention to Latino elected officials and representatives of heavily Latino districts across Texas. I often wrote stories that appeared in print only in Spanish in La Voz.

Covering Rick Perry in New York (Photo by Andrea Vasquez)

Covering Rick Perry in New York (Photo by Andrea Vasquez)

6. Award-winning coverage of Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign

Texas Associated Press Managing Editors gave only one journalism award for coverage of the 2012 elections. It was to our Houston Chronicle team for coverage of Rick Perry’s disastrous White House run. I was proud to have created “Rick Perry Watch” on Texas on the Potomac, the forerunner of our robust “Perry Presidential” web site. Our coverage combined breaking news, ahead-of-the-curve analysis, multimedia storytelling and interesting items culled from other outlets. The result was the most comprehensive daily report on an ill-fated campaign, one that became a must-read for political reporters covering the 2012 campaign.

“First, readers were lucky to have a newspaper willing to dedicate the staff to cover Perry’s bid as an intensely local story,” the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors wrote in their citation. “Just as important, the overall level of work was superb.”

7. Starting a monthly lunch with the Texas delegation

When I arrived as Chronicle Washington bureau chief, there was widespread grumbling in the Houston-area congressional delegation about the Chronicle. To improve lines of communication, I created a monthly, bipartisan lunch with our local lawmakers and the Chronicle reporters and editors. It gave Houston-area House members a chance to tell us what they were working on and what their constituents were talking about, and gave us a chance to ask questions and develop in-depth stories. It also provided opportunities for some bipartisan legislative efforts on issues such as energy, transportation . All in all, it allowed all of us to better serve our joint constituency — the news consumers of Texas and the voters of the Houston area.

I owe bipartisan thanks to Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and Gene Green of Houston for rounding up lawmakers from Houston — and more recently South Texas — each month.

8. Reaching one million monthly page views on Texas on the Potomac

When I created Texas on the Potomac, I asked how we would judge success. I was told 100,000 page views per month.

Well, we twice hit one million page views — once during the Republican National Convention in August 2012 and again in November, the month of the election. The doubters have been vanquished. Even with very little publicity, we built a franchise. It also helped that I taught our tremendous team of interns the science of search engine optimization.

"Mister Houston," a.k.a., Jesse Jones -- publisher of the Houston Chronicle and Commerce Secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Mister Houston,” a.k.a., Jesse Jones — publisher of the Houston Chronicle and Commerce Secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

9. Winning all those “Jesse” Award nominations — if not the award itself

I’ve been the Susan Lucci of the Houston Chronicle. Year after year, I’ve been nominated for the “Jesse” Award for outstanding Houston journalism but I never took home the statuette. Reporter of the Year. Editor of the Year. Innovation of the Year. Blog of the Year. Multimedia Journalist of the Year. And some more that I can’t remember right now. Congrats to all the winners! As they say, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

10. An emphasis on teamwork

The Chronicle is one of the ten largest newspapers in America and has drawn, over the years, some of the most talented journalists in America. I hope I contributed to that sense of teamwork — the “we” rather than the “me” — that leads to great journalism. My DC colleague Stewart Powell has been the consummate professional and a willing teammate on Houston stories. Energy expert Jennifer Dlouhy has “taken one for the team” numerous times — I’ll remember those emails at 10:30 on Sunday night as she gets a head start on the week ahead.

Special kudos to super-editor George Haj, who has the best news judgment of any editor I’ve ever worked with, Jacquee Petchel, the best investigative and projects editor in the USA, now teaching the next generation at Arizona State, Ernie Williamson, the best election night editor there ever was, Alan Bernstein, who has a deeper knowledge of Houston politics (and Chron politics) than anybody else in town, Peggy Fikac, the hardest working reporter in Texas, Dwight Silverman, the tech wizard and my favorite web consultant, and Patti Kilday Hart, my partner in journalistic crime in Dallas, Austin and Houston.