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…

…washingtonpost.com.

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?

The next step after multimedia and interactivity? Just add data.

When I find myself face to screen with an online news site that is still in the Nightly Shovelware Posting stage, I think of two things: How can I add multimedia to this, and how can I add interactivity to this.

I think a lot of us go the same route, especially those with more background in photography or Web development than straight-ahead text reporting. We think: How can I make these pictures move, and how can I get readers involved in this story.

What we might miss in our efforts is the opportunity to take advantage of one more element the Web presents better than print:

Data.

Computer-assisted reporting has been around for years, but now here we are with tools like MySQL and Django and Google Maps and more. Each one of these things can be a thousand times more effective at building a story out of information than an Excel spreadsheet.

Matt Waite, a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, posts this call for mashing up data with your multimedia and interactivity chops:

“Blogging and Flash and video skills will get you a job, no doubt, but they’re only one part of the web. Being able to present data along with your blogging, your Flash graphics, your videos, will have employers bidding for your services.”

As usual, there’s more to news on the Web than just posting pretty pictures. So the next time you wonder “What’s next?” after you add multimedia and interactive elements to a site — and if you ever think you’re finished adding those two things, congratulations — start looking for ways to integrate database work and analytical journalism. Your readers will thank you.

The fundamentals of structured data

Still wondering how to cram all these cool new Web-based tools and toys into your newspaper’s content management system? What, you mean it didn’t come with a database to manage all those user-submitted photos you’re getting through your MySpace page?

Even if you’re not quite that friendly with the social-networking set yet, chances are you’ve got some data sitting around in your stories, just waiting to be structured.

Adrian Holovaty lays out the basics for you, running down all the information you might want to build into something other than a “big blob of text,” as he calls it.

“For example, say a newspaper has written a story about a local fire. Being able to read that story on a cell phone is fine and dandy. Hooray, technology! But what I really want to be able to do is explore the raw facts of that story, one by one, with layers of attribution, and an infrastructure for comparing the details of the fire — date, time, place, victims, fire station number, distance from fire department, names and years experience of firemen on the scene, time it took for firemen to arrive — with the details of previous fires. And subsequent fires, whenever they happen.”

The problem, of course, is that you need to hire a journalistically-minded database geek or a wonky journalist skilled at coding PHP-type languages in order to pull this off.

What if there were a content management system that builds this into its DNA?

There isn’t one yet, I think, but Adrian recommends Ellington, which, to be fair, he developed. I haven’t tried it myself, and I believe it actually costs quite a bit of money for a commercial license, but like I said, using a CMS that allows you to implement new ideas can give you a respectable head start at becoming the sort of online news outlet you talk about becoming when you give speeches at industry conventions.