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Posts Tagged ‘database’

The goat must be fed
In the 16 months since I came to the News-Topic, I have had the basic idea rumbling around my head for a post on the disconnect I see between posts about digital storytelling tools and the reality of small-town journalism, which accounts for the great majority of news organizations in the U.S. But I never had the time to pull my thoughts together.

Now the Duke Reporters Lab has helped do a lot of the heavy lifting for me with a study showing that there is a “significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots – particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.”

I object to the word “willing” in that sentence. It may be the case in many places that there is active resistance to using data and digital tools, but I have not seen that at many of the small newsrooms I visited in my previous job or in this one. The spirit is willing at places like this, but the flesh is exhausted.

The study finds newsroom leaders citing “budget, time and people as their biggest constraints” but “also revealed deeper issues – part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.”

In the case of my organization – print circulation approximately 5,000-6,000 – I can tell you the issue is approximately 95 percent one of time and people. My news staff, including me, totals six people, one of them dedicated full-time to local sports. There is no clerk to compile our extensive events listings or obituaries. I am expected to have an all-local front page in the print product, and I have my own set of standards for what I will accept out front (and while the bar is lower than it might be at a major metro, it largely is set higher than “incremental” news). Three of my four writers have less than two years’ experience. And no matter whether I find some events very newsworthy, there are longstanding community expectations for coverage of certain things, and skipping them carries stiff costs in community relations. With all of that, I find that getting my minimum number of local stories worthy of A1 takes about all the staff time that can be managed.

I can recognize that digital storytelling is worthy in its own right, not just “bells and whistles,” and still say there is precious little room here for “difficult trade-offs” in coverage.

That’s the 95 percent obstacle. The 5 percent is primarily infrastructure and, to at least some extent, technical understanding. Simply put, our CMS seems terrible – it’s locked down, limited, balky and not at all user-friendly. But it’s possible we are wrong, since no one here has ever been able to get formal training for it. Whatever we know how to do is based on our knowledge of other CMSes each of us has used (I at other companies, and my staff at their school papers) or the bare-bones “this is how you post a story” knowledge that the existing reporting staff provided me when I arrived here.

This is not to say we don’t talk about the website, our online audience or how to engage readers online. We are active in social media, almost everyone on the staff has shot and posted video, and we have interactions with readers online. We do more online now than this newsroom ever has. We WANT to keep doing more, and I WILL keep looking for ways to do it.

But as the Duke report says: The goat must be fed. Everything else has to come later.

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(Originally posted on April 19, 2011)
Poynter.org has some interesting details about the Pulitzer Prize the L.A. Times won for its investigation of outrageous public salaries in Bell, Calif. (among the more interesting details to me, as an editor and former reporter, is that a story can’t get on A1 in L.A. if it’s not filed by 2:30 p.m., Pacific time — before most stories at almost any paper in the Eastern time zone are even filed), but one thing that stands out is a little function that the Times took on as a result of the reaction to the stories:

“Once the Bell city salaries became public, town activists began filing open records requests to learn more. The City of Bell was often slow to respond to public records requests so the Times created a tool to help citizens get the answers they deserve.

“’As part of our coverage, we created a public records request form, to help people to get information from their local governments. One of our city desk assistants still answers those calls and helps people with their public records filings,’ Gottlieb said.

“Then, the Times created a special online DocumentCloud section where readers can share public documents they discover. The section also teaches readers about their rights to read public information and explains what California law says about open records and open meetings. The special section includes public documents that Times reporters obtain on a wide range of topics.”

It’s great the the Times started doing that, but it seems like something that a major news organization — certainly one of that size and prominence — should have been doing already. Maybe every one should.

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(Originally posted Sept. 30, 2010)

Databases of all kinds are extremely popular with online audiences. One of the world leaders in accumulating databases is The Guardian in England, and the Nieman Journalism Lab recently took a look at the organization’s approach to data. Particularly notable was how data editor Simon Rogers described the evolution of how they handle data. Now, for instance, they recognize a hunger by the public for raw data, so often they will throw up the database without even having a story yet:

Sometimes readers provide additional data or important feedback, typically through the comments on each post. Rogers gives the example of a reader who wrote in to say that the Academy schools listed in his area in a Guardian data set were in wealthy neighborhoods, raising the journalistically interesting question of whether wealthier schools were more likely to take advantage of this charter school-like program. Expanding on this idea, Rogers says:

“What used to happen is that we were the kind of gatekeepers to this information. We would keep it to ourselves. So we didn’t want our rivals to get ahold of it, and give them stories. We’d be giving stories away. And we wouldn’t believe that people out there in the world would have any contribution to make towards that.

“Now, that’s all changed now. I think now we’ve realized that actually, we’re not always the experts. Be it Doctor Who or Academy schools, there’s somebody out there who knows a lot more than you do, and can thus contribute.

“So you can get stories back from them, in a way… If you put the information out there, you always get a return. You get people coming back.”

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(Originally posted on June 29, 2010)

If you have put a lot of effort into a project, especially a multimedia or other online element, be sure to point to it again or update it when the news makes it relevant again. Tampa provides a perfect example today, though the circumstances are tragic: the killing of two police officers in the line of duty. TBO.com already had done an interactive on officers killed in the line of duty, so when the news broke, it was a matter of updating the database.

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(Originally posted on May 7, 2010)

One of my least favorite parts of any local-election season was always compiling profile information, especially when there were a lot of candidates. You knew it was going to take forever to pull together, it would be largely boring stuff, it would disappear almost forgotten, and most people who needed it might never see it. The Web, of course, lets this stuff have a longer, more useful life. This year the Winston-Salem Journal made it easier for people to sift through it by compiling it into a searchable database. It might still be tedious to compile, but it’s more useful for voters.

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