House Democrats pass historical health-care legislation

This great sortable database makes it easy to figure out who in the House managed to take the most money from the health industry while voting against healthcare reform. As a bonus, there’s a column noting the percentage of uninsured in their district. The most obvious story I see in this data: Pete Sessions sold out TX-32.

House Democrats pass historical health-care legislation

At IdeaLab: Paul Bradshaw on crowdsourcing investigative journalism

Over at IdeaLab, I’ve been way past deadline for a post, after (again) making all sorts of promises about helping out more over there.  Until now.

After playing the modern equivalent of phone tag (Twitter DMs and e-mail across two operating systems and one ocean) for a week or so, Paul Bradshaw and I landed on Skype at the same time for 15 minutes for a quick chat about his freshly funded project, Help Me Investigate.

Here’s the post at IdeaLab, where you’ll find the full video interview.

If you want to head directly to the background on this, read Paul’s post about the funding and the next steps for the project.

Here’s why I’m so interested in this project, and in my Knight News Challenge project ReportingOn, and David Cohn’s efforts with Spot.Us, and in the Collaborative Reporting tools we launched at Publish2 recently:

I really, REALLY, REALLY want there to be easy ways to gather structured data from readers, users, journalists, and editors, and I want that data to be attached to their identity whenever possible.  I want that data to be portable and exportable, so it can be displayed in any and all useful formats. I want profiles for everyone so I can track their participation, reliability, and levels of knowledge about different topics, beats, locations, and stories.

I’m becoming more and more passionate about this, with my level of surprise that no one has built the right tools for this job yet growing by the day.  But we’re getting closer.  Platforms are emerging.  Standards will follow.  Collaboration is key.

Technology is easy; labor is hard

Aron Pilhofer of on the hardware, software, and costs associated with building the best interactive data projects in the news business:

Everything we use is free and open-source. Our platform is Ruby on Rails backed by Mysql databases running on Ubuntu servers. The cost here isn’t software, or even hardware, which is relatively cheap these days through hosting companies like Amazon EC2 (on the high end) or Slicehost (on the low end). The price most news organizations (and it’s not just small ones) seem reluctant to pay is for people — developers like the ones in my group who can build the infrastructure to support the rich, deeply engaging web features that so many people love about our site.

Read the whole thing at Old Media, New Tricks.

Sunday morning links: Data, DocumentCloud, and the Obama Bounce for news

A few things I haven’t had time yet to dig deeper on, but maybe you will:

“4. Go off the reservation: No matter how good your IT department is, their priorities are unlikely to be in sync with yours. They’re thinking big-picture product roadmaps with lots of moving pieces. Good luck fitting your database of dog names (oh yes, we did one of those) into their pipeline. Early on, database producer Ben Welsh set up a Django box at, where many of the Times’ interactive projects live. There are other great solutions besides Django, including Ruby on Rails (the framework that powers the Times’ articles and topics pages and many of the great data projects produced by The New York Times) and PHP (an inline scripting language so simple even I managed to learn it). Some people (including the L.A. Times, occasionally) are using Caspio to create and host data apps, sans programming. I am not a fan, for reasons Derek Willis sums up much better than I could, but if you have no other options, it’s better than sitting on your hands.”

“To get a sense of DocumentCloud’s potential, take a look at the database of Guantánamo Bay detainees that the Times made public on Nov. 3, when it was accompanied by a 1,500-word story. Each record is linked to relevant government documents that have been made public since ‘enemy combatants’ were first held there in 2002. Pilhofer said the database isn’t using a full-featured version of DocViewer, but it certainly demonstrates the benefit of browsing documents grouped by subject rather than, say, the order in which the Defense Department happened to release them. What’s remarkable about the Gitmo collection, aside from its massive scope, is that the Times has offered up this information at all. As Pilhofer said, ‘It’s not usually in a newsroom’s DNA to release something like that to the public — and not just the public, the competition, too.'”

The stenography ends here

A few takeaways from this morning’s presentations at the Knight Foundation meeting today in Chicago:

  1. The stenography ends here. The days of chasing cops and government down for raw data (crime blotter, etc.) to parse into 8 inch stories is coming to an end.  Everyblock and the Sunlight Foundation are a good start.  More projects that extend these efforts to get government to make raw digital data available are an essential step to newsroom reorganization.
  2. New media tools are (just?) a means to an end, but ignore the trends at your own peril. While it doesn’t matter which video platform you use to get content out into the diaspora, it matters that you understand that there are existing best practices for online video, there are independent producers of news, entertainment and information using those platforms and practices, and there are HUGE success stories already in the medium.
  3. The idea that professional journalism is the “lifeblood of democracy” could be outdated. Could be.  When the barrier to publication and communication is as low as it is today, the democratic role of things like newspapers has to evolve.  There’s a big disconnect between the necessary giant investigative award-winning reporting coming from places like the New York Times and Washington Post and the type of local investigative work that gives a community information that affects their daily lives.  They’re getting that information from many sources, and not all of them are professional capital-J Journalism.

Awesome conversations here as always. Follow some of the livetweeting if you can.

Inventing journalism

I’ve been reading Guns, Germs & Steel for months now.

(I take these bound paper items you people call ‘books’ slowly sometimes.)

There’s a number of striking stories about technology, innovation, and invention in the chapter I’m in the middle of right now. One of those stories is about the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was actually devised to slow typists down, lest the hammers jam.

And there’s quite a bit in the book on geographical barriers to the diffusion of innovation, the sort of thing I read and wrote about (still writing about) as a grad student.

When I think about barriers to innovation in newsrooms, I’m usually picturing a variety of ‘cultural’ stoppers built up over the years by organizational hierarchy and interaction, whether we’re talking about organization within a given newspaper or the industry as a whole, or even the marketplace pressures that act as distractions and push us off course — away from our core mission.

It’s striking to me how much the re-invention of news these days is really just a move to go back to the (pre-Watergate?) basic responsibilities of journalism:

  • Serve the community.
  • Bring disparate facts together to form a larger, clearer picture.
  • Tell necessary stories that otherwise vanish into obscurity.

We gather information, see the narrative elucidated by the facts, and tell the story in the best possible way to get the thesis of the narrative across to our readers, viewers, listeners.

That’s the goal of journalism, right?

(Feel free to answer that in the comments.)

The shape and size of the community will vary, the reliability of ‘facts’ depends on much craftwork, and the clarity of our narrative depends on our artistic skill.

Keep these three variables in mind — community, facts, narrative — and you can tell your story in any medium, using the technology and tools of your choice.

Journalism can be that simple. Hemingway wrote text, Capa took pictures, others shoot video or design Web interfaces, but we all flip those three switches. Community, facts, narrative.

Howard Owens has a list up of “Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism.” Note that none of those ten things really fit into this triad of variables, but what they address are all the distractions that get in the way when we try to think about those three things.

When we worry about whether our story will make it to A1, that stops us from serving our readers. When we cover meetings, we think too much about the process and not enough about the narrative. When we ignore our readers we forget our audience, our purpose, and our community.

Keep community, facts, and narrative in mind when you read Rex Sorgatz’s interview with Adrian Holovaty about Everyblock.

Think about how the facts that Everyblock surfaces can serve your community and how they form a narrative.

So run every piece of text, image, video, data, or commentary that you produce through those three filters as you work. Let’s re-invent journalism by doing it.

This post is part of the February Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Bryan Murley at the Center for Innovation in College Media. 

If you can’t beat ’em, or buy ’em, use the API

Newspapers should produce amazing local databases with great maps, ratings and reviews.

A newspaper company should buy Yelp.

Yelp now has an open API. Newspapers should stop trying to develop something better, and use the API to provide users with Yelp’s functionality on their own sites, applied to their local businesses.

Apply that logic everywhere it makes sense. No need to re-invent the wheel if you can tap into a massive database for free using an API, a la Google Maps mashups.

Do it this week.

An informal poll on what I should learn next

To be perfectly honest, I have a lot to learn, even if my punditry gets me mentioned in Top 10 lists or gets my name breathed in the same sentence as the incredible people I’m learning from just by reading their blogs and following their careers.

And unless I’m going to move to an executive position tomorrow, where my jack-of-all-trades, master-of-few schtick goes the distance, it’s time for me to pick up another skill. (Hint: I’m not going anywhere for awhile.)

Here’s my background: Writing this blog for over two years. Four years of film school. Raised by a photographer and a data analyst (pardon the simplification, Dad) in the wild. Okay, the suburbs. Whatever. The point is, I’ve been around visual communicators, maps, and databases since I could see. I’ve been using computers since the words “Press play on tape” meant something.

Here’s what I know: How to write good clean semantic HTML, CSS, Photoshop, copy editing, WordPress (and other database-based content management systems that involve knowing how to use a search engine to find the code you need), how to use a search engine to find any code I need, how to record and edit stills/audio/video, and how to tell newspapers what they should be doing to innovate instead of stagnating while they watch a 200-year-old business model crumble around them.

Trust me, that last one has little practical value.

Here’s what I don’t know, no matter what it says on my resume: How to work in SQL and PHP from scratch, javascript, Django, Ruby, Flash, Illustrator, how to use maps APIs to code my own mashups, how to present databases online.

SO, dear readers (all three of you), I’m looking for answers here: What should I learn next?

And if your answer is database-driven, so to speak, where should I start? MySQL/PHP, or straight to PostgreSQL, Python and Django? There’s obviously demand for folks with chops like this, and I certainly like the sort of journalism it turns out, but I Am Not A Programmer.

Chime in below…

Why wouldn’t a journalist leave his job at the newspaper for the online newspaper?

Derek Willis, who blogs at The Scoop about investigative and computer-assisted reporting, announces his move from The Washington Post to…


The online operation of the paper happens across the river from the newsroom, with a different set of employees and editors, and Derek has taken the step of packing up his skills and crossing over to the Web side, where his database-driven work will be presented in its native medium.

How many journalists do you know who could pull this off? How many have a Web-native skill to leverage?  Do you?  If not, it’s a good time to ask yourself two things: Why not? and Where can I learn one?