This post was published originally on the old Newspaper Next site on the N2 Blog, Aug. 13, 2007. It was one of several posts in my API days dealing with the Newspaper Next project, an API partnership with Clayton Christensen. I just blogged about Christensen’s most recent insights on the news business, Breaking News, in the Nieman Reports.
I have updated or removed outdated links (or used links from the Internet Archive, where I found the post). I have not checked to see that the links that remain active still show the features I described. I have not bothered to provide updates on the people mentioned here, though I know some are in different jobs. Thanks to Elaine Clisham for reminding me of my contributions to the N2 Blog. This was the precursor to a more detailed database report I produced for N2.
Databases are an important tool for media companies to use in doing more jobs for our communities.
The primary job newspapers have done for generations has been to tell the news of the community, the nation and the world. News remains an important job, but as we seek to build larger audiences we need to do more jobs. Steve Gray, managing director of Newspaper Next, expresses one of those key jobs as “Help me get answers about this place.”
One of the most encouraging signs that media companies understand the expanded role they need to play is the growing use of databases to provide answers about communities.
The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Data Center provides a wide range of answers about the community: sex offenders, smoking complaints, odds of winning at Ohio River casinos, crime statistics, home prices. Databases also help you do better at your core job of telling the news. For instance, the featured database at the DataCenter now shows Northern Kentucky bridges with structural problems.
These databases are helping build audience. Like many newspapers, the Enquirer does investigative and enterprise reporting based on databases, such as the “Lead’s Dangerous Legacy” project published in June 2006. The Enquirer posted databases online to accompany those stories and the traffic those databases generated showed the possibilities in databases as permanent online content, answering the questions people might have about the community.
The data desk prepared and posted the first few databases, polishing the Data Center until it was ready for a full-scale launch. Earlier this year, Editor Tom Callinan said, “we opened the doors and the eyeballs rushed in.” On the first day, the Data Center got 67,751 page views, twice as much traffic as the site’s most popular photo gallery, which usually gets the most page views. And these weren’t hit-and-run visits. The average views per visit were 11.5.
Though the rush has slowed, the eyeballs continue to come: nearly 400,000 page views of data desk products in the first nine days of August, Callinan reports. Obituaries get more than half of that. The calendar had more than 75,000 page views, directories more than 50,000 and the Data Center more than 30,000. Of the Data Center offerings, smoking complaints are most popular (more than 10,000 views), followed by sex offenders (4,000-plus).
Newspaper Next is pushing not only new ways to build audience, but new ways to generate revenue. The Enquirer is thinking beyond traditional advertising. Jennifer Carroll, Gannett’s vice president/new media content, reports several ways the Enquirer is planning to generate revenue from the Data Center:
- Banner ads in targeted spots alongside content.
- Directory Listings, in which records run online and can be upsold.
- Professional services, such as analysis and interpretation of data.
- Licensing of data to third parties.
The Asbury Park Press Data Universe has generated 40 million page views since its launch Dec. 1. Some of the individual databases, such as SAT scores, conviction records or fire district taxes, would have narrow interest or onetime interest. But combined they provide a host of answers about the state and community, establishing the site as the place to look for answers, whatever your question. Investigations Editor Paul D’Ambrosio reports that the most popular has been the federal employees salary database, viewed 4 million times since its launch in late June.
Some journalists have reacted skeptically when I have mentioned public employee salaries as a database with audience-building potential. But people want to know what their professors or their children’s teachers or the cop who pulled them over last week are paid. When the Lansing State Journal posted a database of state employee salaries, traffic was so heavy the server crashed. Several newspapers are offering these databases. If yours isn’t, you should get to work on it.
Delaware Online’s property database has drawn 500,000 page views this year, New Media Editor Robert Long reports. It’s the most popular database in “Information Delaware“, a collection of databases that has attracted 800,000 page views this year. It includes lots of useful databases: school test scores, pollution, state high school champions, boating safety. A school employee salaries database drew 200,000 page views last year.
Greenville Online’s Upstate Data Library has property sales, restaurant inspections, doctors and many more. I like that several organizations are recognizing that obituaries belong in databases. You can search Greenville’s back to 1999. Or you can search weddings and engagements back to 2000. The newspaper’s archives are a really helpful database that we need to make more accessible, whether it’s a free audience-builder that we monetize with targeted advertising or whether it’s paid content that we make easily searchable and available online with a credit card.
Indy 911 is a database that shows how going beyond news in some ways means expanding our vision of what news is. We’ve always covered police news, but we haven’t always told people what every single police call was (except for some small papers, which generally report in weekly agate lists). But one of the “answers about this place” that people want to know is what’s the reason for that siren I hear. Every parent who has a young driver wonders that. Well, those parents in Indianapolis can check online and find out that it’s a domestic disturbance three blocks away or a fire a mile away (or a traffic accident and then they call their kid on her cell phone to reassure themselves). Click the main menu and you can search the archive by address or open up a crime database. The map has generated 250,000 page views and 176,000 visits in three months online, digital operations director Bob Jonason reports. I had it open at 8:33 on a Friday morning and 19 people were using it.
The Indianapolis Star saw the audience-building value of databases when local property taxes shot up 34 percent, Editor Dennis Ryerson reports. The county had outsourced its assessment database to a private company charging $3 a pop for access. The Star’s Data Central posted a property assessment database and got nearly a million page views in a week.
The Star also offers lots of sports databases, including a golf course guide. Other Indystar.com databases include recipes (an excellent example of turning the content we have compiled over the years into databases) and lowest gas prices in central Indiana (a mashup with gasbuddy.com, but you could make this a community wiki). I love this one: Is your neighborhood getting new sidewalks this year? That’s the kind of useful personal information for which people will turn to a community news source again and again if you become the place to go for all kinds of answers.
Altogether the Star’s databases generated nearly 2 million views in July, Jonason reports. And that doesn’t count another 650,000 views for the calendar and site search.
The Des Moines Register has a great “Search Your Community” database page that includes a “People Finder,” which you can use to search by name for records of births, bankruptcies, property sales, marriages or high school graduation. The “People Finder” drew 40 percent of the Register’s 160,000 database hits in July, data editor James Wilkerson reports. Salaries, previously the Register’s most popular database, drew 28 percent of the hits. The Register also has an interactive swimming pool map; a biofuels plant map that shows status, capacity and violations; a database of unpaid driving fines and a calculator to figure your property tax. An Iowa caucus map shows the travels of presidential candidates across Iowa (only Bill Richardson has visited my old hometown of Shenandoah).
All these are Gannett newspapers. Databases are one of the seven primary functions of Gannett’s new information centers, so Gannett papers are pursuing databases more aggressively than most. But other newspaper companies are also showing the potential of databases:
Spokesman.com in Spokane, Wash., features a catalog of MP3’s produced by local bands and offered free (but with a promotional pitch to buy their full CD’s). An assisted-living facility database was part of a series the Spokesman-Review news department did. It’s an example of how the good journalism we’ve always done in fulfilling the news job can produce evergreen databases that, with some effort to keep updated, build our inventory of “answers about this place.” Another excellent database from Spokesman.com turns the traditional election guides that newspapers do into a useful, searchable election database that works throughout the election year. Of course, this year it’s focusing on local elections, but this is a great idea for others to emulate next year when elections will be huge news nationally and locally. Other Spokesman.com databases include births and summer camps.
The Lawrence Journal-World has a fabulous, flexible sports statistical database at its KU Sports web site. The youth-sports “Game” site at LJWorld.com features an interactive map that shows the sites of playing locations in the community, showing photos and addresses when you click on the flags for each site.
If you haven’t checked out the Washington Post’s Local Explorer, spend some time there and imagine the possibilities for your site and your community. You can enter your address (or the address of a home you’re thinking about buying) and get neighborhood information, with exact locations, on home sales, crime reports, restaurants, museums, schools, post offices, etc. Click on the school and you can get a full report (total enrollment, student-teacher ratio, special programs). You also get recent news stories about your community, a calendar for your community, basic community information. Every media company that wants to be the place to turn for information about the community needs to develop this kind of rich geocoded database that lets individual users find information about their own neighborhoods.
I really like the traffic map of the East Valley Tribune. It shows in real time the slowdowns and the causes. You can click on a traffic camera and see what the traffic looks like right now.
And if you need to gas up on the way to work in Jacksonville, Fla., you can check out the gas prices database at Jacksonville.com, a mashup with Gas Buddy. The Jacksonville Databank includes many of the same public records mentioned above from other sites, plus a rogues’ gallery of local fugitives, a map highlighting development in the community and the results of the local River Run.
Naplesnews.com has an outstanding restaurant database that lets you find not only basic restaurant information such as hours, cuisine and credit cards accepted, but customer comments about the restaurant. This is an example of how you can make a database a combination of basic data that the media company provides, combined with a wiki feature that lets users add their personal opinion or experience.
Another database with a wiki feature is the Tacoma News-Tribune’s free-wi-fi map. You can use the map to find good places to get wi-fi or you can add your own business or your favorite place to lunch with your laptop.
Spokesman.com in Spokane, Wash., used a great idea last year, showing holiday light displays, with mapping options for individual homes or neighborhoods, and, of course, an invitation to add other displays.
The Roanoke Times includes user comments in its database of golf courses, which has attracted 592 visits and 2,151 page views since launching in early July, online editor John Jackson reports.
I love the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Tornado Tracker, an interactive map showing every significant Iowa tornado since 1976. The map has the actual data such as date, time, location, Fujita scale rating, damage and casualties. But you can add your own memories, a perfect touch for Iowans, who love to tell about great tornadoes they have known.
“The tornado tracker was my first attempt at building an interactive map, where we could allow people to submit stories and/or photos,” Wilkerson said in an e-mail. “We put it up at the beginning of the summer. It has been a qualified success – we continue to get good traffic to the site, but not a lot of stories are being shared. I think that’s because I did a poor job building the submission interface, and I intend to rebuild it for next season.”
With a better interface, Tornado Tracker will become a popular place to swap stories. I worked for the Des Moines Register in two hitches that covered parts of the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and into 2000. And I married an Iowa farm girl. I’ve heard a lot of tornado stories.
Wilkerson worked the interface out right for an interactive map showing the route and telling the story of RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a state institution for more than 30 years that was joined this year by Lance Armstrong. The map chronicles Lance sightings and sightings of presidential candidates and invites readers to post their photos and stories from the ride.
“We pre-populated hundreds of points, from restrooms to restaurants, and allowed users to submit their own points, with stories and pictures,” Wilkerson said. “The idea was to provide utility during the ride (‘Where is the nearest public shower?’) and keep the audience involved after the ride by creating an area where they could share experiences.”
This is an excellent example of the Newspaper Next approach of developing valuable products by identifying jobs to be done for potential audiences: Help me find a public shower or an indoor restroom or a place where I can sit my sore butt down for lunch.
“We’ve had dozens of photos and stories submitted by users, both during the ride and since,” Wilkerson reports. “Some of the photos are hilarious: One woman was posting shots of corn and pine cones. A lot of other people used it to share photos of their families and friends. There’s a lot of fun stuff on there.”
That’s the right mix for databases – fun stuff and useful stuff. What can you do to assemble the data and invite your community to join a conversation that provides answers about your community?