Saturday, November 17, 2007

Journalists as database reporters

An excellent article on Gannett today by Rich Gordon from the Readership Institute at Northwestern University. Gordon highlights the Indianapolis Star's attempts to go beyond the traditional role that Web sites play in mainstream media organisations, which is to say shoveling their journalism products out with little to no effort. The Star is forging Internet-native applications that are built less on simple prose and more on structured data. Most cuttingly, Gordon presents a hierarchy of what he calls "database journalism", culminating in level 5 where journalism which is developed in conjunction with databases, turning the raw facts into human stories.

It's no coincidence that Gannett, owner of the Star and many other regional American newspapers, is one of the purchasers of Topix.net, about which I have written often in the past. I don't know if it's a case of Gannett "getting it" and the Topix buy-out being a consequence of that, or whether the influence of Rich Skrenta, Chris Tolles and the Topix gang has percolated back through stuffy old-style institutions... probably a bit of both.

I have always been amazed, not having ever worked for a newspaper during my journalism career, at how pitifully little newspaper companies have made use of obvious strengths in their current operations which could have been used to dominate huge portions of the Web advertising pie. The "morgues" where the newspaper archives are kept are goldmines which their owners have seemed clueless about how to monetise. Put a search engine optimisation consultant in charge of the back issues of any major newspaper... well, that argument has been made over and over.

The point about how databases can be made to serve and advance journalism is not really new, either. Reports about polls, economic figures, sociological studies, sporting statistics, and many other kinds of databases fill the pages of newspapers already. The key difference in Gordon's analysis is Adrian Holovaty's motto of "everything that can be linked should be linked". It is as if most newspaper sites have a religious intolerance against linking within their stories, not to sully their professional prose with anything so tawdry and utilitarian. That attitude must change.

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