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:


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.