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Archive for April 26th, 2009

This will be my column in Monday’s Gazette:

Good enterprise journalism in the digital age starts the same way it always did: with a journalist’s curiosity, initiative and persistence.

One of the end results is also the same: A page-one story.

Good enterprise journalism in the digital age also uses new tools and techniques that let us gather and analyze facts more efficiently, present them differently and to engage directly with our audience as a story unfolds.

Gazette journalist Adam Belz is using old-fashioned curiosity, initiative and persistence as well as digital and interactive skills to analyze and present information in his examination of the “hot 100” spots for Cedar Rapids police.

If you read the print edition of The Gazette, you saw Adam’s front-page story Saturday, accompanied by Liz Martin’s photo, about the only single-family home in his list of the 100 locations visited most often by Cedar Rapids police last year. The two-story white house at 1410 Bever Ave. SE is owned by Vinnie Huskey Properties LLC, a company incorporated by Kevin Bachus. City inspectors shut the houses down Feb. 27, three weeks after a man was stabbed there. Police visited the house 71 times in 2008.

Journalists have been uncovering stories like this for ages. Such work used to be more time-consuming. In 1993, I worked on a story for the Omaha World-Herald, tracking what happened to rape cases investigated by Omaha police and filed in Douglas County courts. I spent weeks combing through the records and charting the cases on legal pads, eventually documenting how few rape cases actually resulted in convictions. It was one of the best stories of my career and won a few awards. And it was an inefficient way to gather and analyze information.

A couple years later I started learning how to gather and analyze data. In my first story using a spreadsheet, I was able to document (and got state officials to concede) that the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality’s fund to clean up leaking underground gasoline tanks was broke and that work to clean up the contamination would have to stop for more than a year. That story took a couple of days, and I started to see the power of computers as a reporting tool.

I have exhorted journalists for years to develop skills in gathering, analyzing and presenting data. Spreadsheets and databases are as essential tools for a journalist today as notebooks, cameras and cell phones.

Adam is demonstrating how today’s journalist has to work.

He obtained data on police calls from the Cedar Rapids Police Department and analyzed the data to identify the city’s “Hot 100” places where police were called most often for matters other than routine checks and traffic accidents.

In addition to Saturday’s page-one story, Adam produced a series of blog posts, telling about other “Hot 100” properties (he’s profiled five so far). After Adam listed the top 25 on his blog, a reader put those properties on a Yahoo! map and posted a link in the comments on Adam’s blog. Adam then developed his own interactive map, showing all 100 hot spots, including information such as rank and number of police calls.

Other residents joined the conversation on Adam’s blog, helping him improve the map, suggesting questions to ask when he manages to reach property owners and in one case leaving a property owner’s phone number (they haven’t been returning his calls).

Interest in the hot spots was so strong that Adam’s blog reached its highest traffic level ever Friday. And the map got even more traffic than the blog.

This is the approach we will use increasingly to provide information that is important for our community: With a mix of new and old techniques, we will find the answers to important questions in the community.

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