Here’s how another example of data collection, sorted into a fielded spreadsheet, becomes a powerful display of information. This one charts grocery prices in Chicago suburbs.
Where data can thrive: Some newspapers are making their Web sites “data destinations,” and well they should. Computer-assisted reporting has been around for decades but, restricted to the newspaper format, it can’t realize its full potential. On the Web it can sing, with depth, customization, searchability and a long shelflife. USA Today realized this years ago when it began loading the salaries of professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey players into searchable databases (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/salaries/index.htm). Other newspapers, such as the Louisville Courier-Journal, collect their databases in one area on their Web sites (http://www.courier-journal.com/section/DATA/Data-Center).
If your company doesn’t provide a slick, simple-to-use tool for capturing notes, lists and calendar items, use a free Web service like Backpack (backpackit.com). This will enable you to manage your time by adding meetings and appointments to a calendar while simultaneously managing a to-do list. You can access it from anywhere via the Web and even share it with others in your newsroom. An electronic system like this is better than paper because it’s easy to edit and modify lists, change the order or priority, and store your calendar items and lists as an archive.
If you can, use a database: At the Ventura County Star, Howard Owens built a database for news sources and set it up so that all the reporters could share it over the Web. “All source information was stored there and was accessible by the entire newsroom,” Owens said.
Many newsrooms have set up similar databases, but not enough of them. Ideally, it would store a source name and contact information, background information and the file name and location of a mug shot if one exists. It should contain personal information such as birthday (for age purposes), spouse, children, title and affiliation. Affiliations (school, business, agency) can be stored in a separate table so they could be entered once and related to a source. Then anyone in the newsroom can search by name, specialty or agency.
As more journalists go digital it will make it easier to share information. Derek Willis of The Washington Post wrote in the first of his series of essays on his blog “humbly titled Fixing Journalism”: “Can you imagine another information-based business that permitted its employees to build walls around their information? Can you imagine it succeeding today?” (Read the entire series at http://blog.thescoop.org/thefix/.)
Think of all the information that passes through a news organization every day. Now think how little of it is accessible to those who work there, or more importantly, to the public who would like to access it. This is a problem for news organizations going forward. And it needs to be fixed now. You can start by storing your information electronically and pushing for data-sharing tools like internal wikis and shared databases.
Event calendars are the obvious place to start in your newsroom. If staffers are still entering each event by typing it into a Word document, you have a problem. If you had a database, such information as venue name, address and phone number would only have to be entered once, thereby cutting the workload (and the chance for typos).
There are many other opportunities where keystroking is being repeated year after year in flat files that aren’t searchable or sortable by the audience. Here’s a few areas we’re databasing (or planning to) in Tacoma:
Each of these types of content has been entered by newsroom staff for years, if not decades. We can maximize the value of the data by providing it to our audience in a database format while streamlining our own operation and cutting down on the amount of data entry we do.
Can you database news coverage?
Yes, you can. Many newspapers have adopted the “alternate story form” for basic news coverage, where a narrative is broken apart into easily digestible chunks with labels like “what happened,” “what it means” and “what’s next.” The Oregonian in Portland has standardized its meeting and process coverage with “update boxes.” This new story form, with labels like “At Stake,” “Update,” “What’s Next,” and “Learn More,” means the data is already being published in consistent fields that could be easily converted to a database.
Think of city council or school board meeting coverage. If you had a database that stored all the pertinent data (date of the meeting, top agenda items with a quick summary for each, the votes and maybe a field for analysis) you could pull from this to populate such an alternative story form for the print edition. Online, the audience (and your reporters) would be
able to search and sort previous meetings.
As discussed in Chapter 2, the concept of Web 2.0 sees the Internet as allowing enthusiastic communities to come together and provide more value for a given Web site. Crowdsourcing focuses that community power on a specific project and demonstrates how a large group of committed individuals can outperform a small group of experienced (and paid) professionals. The online version of Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, cannot keep up with Wikipedia in terms of updating articles and information. And Microsoft, with all its resources, has struggled to keep pace with the development of the Firefox browser, a project powered by volunteers collaborating together under the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.
Crowdsourcing is a relatively new term, coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 article for Wired News.2 It is very similar to “distributed,” “collaborative” or “open-source” reporting and many people use the terms interchangeably. To distinguish between the concepts, think of crowdsourcing like outsourcing, the term from which it was born. The focus of crowdsourcing is usually ongoing production of information while distributed reporting relates more closely to a specific and fixed-time project, such as answering a specific question or reporting on a specific subject. Voting irregularities, then, would be a form of distributed reporting since the need would be reporting for a timely news story.
But don’t get frustrated by the terminology. This is all very fluid and rapidly developing. It’s the concepts that are important.
In the summer of 2006, The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., asked for readers to help in the investigation of ongoing concerns over rising utility bills. The audience responded in surprising numbers and supplied the reporting that became the story. The newspaper was caught off guard by the initial flood of calls and e-mails.
“The story built itself,” News-Press editor Kate Marymont said. “The public shaped it and we had to get used to that. We had to learn that online development of a story and the development of a print story take different paths.”
Crowdsourcing harnesses the power of community on a continuing basis to improve a service or information base. When we built an online map plotting all the places in our coverage area to go for free wireless Internet access, The News Tribune then asked the public to submit locations that we missed or that have since opened. We also invited them to comment on the locations and add photos, enhancing the original service. In the first six months, dozens of readers have contributed.
The concept of crowdsourcing might seem to lend itself especially well to grassroots organizations and projects. But some of the most notable examples of crowdsourcing have come from some very big companies, including Procter & Gamble, Amazon and Google. Following are some examples:
The concept of distributed reporting is a form of transparency for a news organization. Traditionally, readers only learn about stories a news organization is working on when the articles are finished and published. While it is customary to keep a story idea secret to prevent the competition from running with the idea, the distributed reporting model requires a news organization to go public with a story idea early in the reporting process.
The reason? To allow readers to assist in the reporting of the story.
In December 2006, The Cincinnati Enquirer tapped the power of distributed reporting to gauge compliance with a new smoking ban. Here’s how the paper’s investigative and enterprise reporter, Gregory Korte, described it in his blog:
“Whether you’re a smoker or non-smoker, you probably want to know which bars, restaurants and bowling alleys are complying with Ohio’s new ban on smoking—and which are ignoring it until the state posts new regulations.
And we’d like to tell you. But with 1,488 bars and restaurants in Hamilton County alone (that’s just counting the liquor licenses), it’s hard to get around to all of them.
It’s a good example of why The Enquirer, like all Gannett newspapers, is embarking on an experiment in what we call ‘crowdsourcing.’ We’re asking you to help us report the story by telling us what’s going on in all those places we can’t get to.”
During the 2006 Elections, The Cincinnati Enquirer invited readers to report voting problems they experienced at their polling places. Dozens of readers called or e-mailed to describe the irregularities andThe Enquirer presented the problems on a Google Map on its Web site (http://www.cincinnatidatadesk.com/pages/voter.html).
While the terms used to describe it are new, the practice itself has been around for many years. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., began using distributed reporting in 2001 with a database of e-mail addresses—something it called a “reader network”—to correspond with readers while reporting stories. This model has been copied by newspapers everywhere and used effectively in many situations, especially when looking for sources to interview on a specific topic or feedback or reaction to a current issue in the news.
Most reader networks were started with e-mail addresses from readers who had contacted the newspaper, either by sending a letter to the editor or asking a reporter about a news story. Through its Web site, a news organization can also build the database by advertising the network and inviting readers to join.
Minnesota Public Radio excels at this with its Public Insight Journalism initiative (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/your_voice/). By collecting as much information as possible, the news organization can slice the network several different ways and target specific subsets of the list for certain queries. People who live in a particular ZIP code, for example, or sports fans.
Ken Sands, who pioneered the practice in Spokane, highlights two ways the use of an e-mail network differs from traditional audience feedback such as letters to the editor or person-on-the-street interviews.
“One, the interaction occurs before publication, during the information-gathering process; and, two, by actively reaching out to people, you get a different, broader reaction than you do by waiting for people who are compelled by passion to contact you,” Sands wrote for the Knight Citizen News Network (http://www.kcnn.org).
Some newspapers now have more than one reader network. It can make sense to create and manage separate contact databases for education stories (if you need direct contact to teachers) or business stories (if you need to get feedback from local business leaders only).
The concept is going national (and/or global) too. In 2006, New York University professor Jay Rosen and others launched NewAssignment.net, a sort of clearinghouse for open-source reporting projects produced by teams of volunteers. Craig Newmark (of craigslist fame) contributed $10,000 to help launch the project.
“In this sense it’s not like donating to your local NPR station, because your local NPR station says, ‘Thank you very much, our professionals will take it from here.’ And they do that very well,” Rosen wrote on his blog PressThink. “NewAssignment says: Here’s the story so far. We’ve collected a lot of good information. Add your knowledge and make it better. Add money and make it happen. Work with us if you know things we don’t.”
At a time when news organizations are looking for ways to build brand loyalty, getting readers and viewers to participate in the news process can help.
As you probably are painfully aware, very few, if any, news organizations are adding to their staffing levels these days. That doesn’t mean that journalism is any less important than it used to be. It means that journalists need to find new tools and efficiencies to continue their important work and even take it to a higher level.
“We need to get out of the keystroke business,” says Don Nelson, executive editor of the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, Wash.
You need to leverage existing resources. Storing data electronically is a good place to start. Finding ways to incorporate crowdsourcing in your reporting will help, too.
1 Philip Meyer, The New Precision Journalism, 2nd Ed., Indiana University Press, 1991. Philip Meyer is the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is an updated version of Meyer’s 1973 book, “Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods.”
2 Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired Magazine, June 2006. Jeff Howe covers the entertainment industry as a contributing editor for Wired Magazine.
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