In the wake of the horrific Newtown, Conn., shooting, a local newspaper in New York’s Westchester County, The Journal News, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the addresses and names of all registered weapons permit holders in the county. The paper then published an easy-to-use map that allowed anyone online to pinpoint who on their street and in their neighborhood had applied to purchase a gun.
The reaction was instantaneous. The commenting section flooded with comments for and against gun rights. Many commenters, including some who are no fans of guns, opined that the map violated privacy rights. The Journal News stood by the utility of its map and published accompanying articles that highlighted how people who should not have been allowed to buy guns had done so and had harmed innocent victims.
The newspaper also logged record page views during the period, doubling previous peaks. In other words, the map was clearly a business success as well, although the fact that the paper had to hire armed guards to protect employees after subsequent death threats may have offset any revenue gains.
For the record, I publicly and adamantly am in favor of the map and its purpose. And I am in favor of gun control. But let’s leave that aside. This is why I think the incident is so important: The map is the way forward for hyperlocal journalism. And it points out how tools that convert data into visual stories accompanied by human storytelling can drive tremendous interest and discussion. Data-driven journalism has long fueled some of the hottest exposés and most important newsbreaks.
It relies, in part, on FOIA requests and Sunshine Laws. But providing public transparency is precisely the purpose of those laws. Now, what’s really missing? The tools are missing, the skills are missing, and the price is missing. Yes, there are lots of tools out there that can do some of this work. I’ve blogged about OpenCalais, the amazing Thomson Reuters tool that The New York Times has used to parse massive sets of data. We’ve written about how an algorithm can process relatively structured data and produce Associated Press-style copy that’s not half bad. There are companies such as Palantir that can mash up widely disparate databases and help people visualize the results.
Most of these tools cost too much money either to use or to implement. And most of the people who can do this work draw high salaries out of the reach of local publications. (You might even call them data scientists if they worked at tech start-ups.)
So let me give you a novel proposal. What is required, in my mind, is a data-driven wire service. This service will not write stories. Rather, it will offer in an easy-to-use model the tools and expertise to quickly and continuously build data-driven reporting. The model, in my mind, would scale for the same reason technology scales. While there are some differences in implementation at the different state, local, and regional neighborhood layers, the ultimate mission remains the same and the technology to solve those problems could be generally applied at some level. In fact, it might be possible for the AP itself to shift its model to deliver something like what I am describing or for a very large nonprofit effort to fill this niche. Several smaller efforts like OpenSecrets provide bits and pieces of what I am talking about.
There is some risk that a data-driven wire service would hurt hyperlocal pubs more than it helps, allowing the metro dailies to publish customized content down to the neighborhood level without putting out the shoe leather. But I think that those publications will not be able to crack the small-market advertising game to the same degree. And in that same vein, in very small markets local papers have hung on pretty well and the gutting of the news-gathering infrastructure has been less pronounced.
To be clear, I am not talking about building mashups of generic data like annual crime stats and school ratings. Those already exist and are not that hard to do. Rather, we need data that will both drive daily traffic and require repeat visits — while also driving civic engagement. The map made just about everyone mad. It also sparked strong discussions about really important topics. Data made that happen and it will continue to do so because only data can tell a story in aggregate and truly inform us at a broad scope. The map also drove page views and will drive business.
Overall, the way to win in journalism, local, national, or hyperlocal, is to deliver non-commodity products that drive traffic, stickiness, and fuels conversation. Data-driven journalism does all this. A data-driven wire service would — through a cooperative model or other collaborative form of consumption — help pool the costs of complicated technology development and integration across numerous parties while yielding scalable, customizable results. Put the wired in wire service and let the database masters rule the new media universe. The results will follow in cash, traffic, and higher relevance.
Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of Businessweek.com. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every second Wednesday on Street Fight.
Image courtesy of Flickr user kevin dooley.