Thursday, June 4, 2009

Really useful information packaged in a really helpful way

It ain't journalism in the sense we typically think about these things. But it's useful to readers, and might prove to be a critical piece of the puzzle if and when we hope to convince people to subscribe digitally.

Databases, that is. News orgs have access to -- and in many cases pay a lot of money to collect -- a whole bunch of information that hasn't historically made it into print or on the air. It informs our coverage and helps us get behind the surface issues, but typically remains in the background where the public can't manipulate or play with it on their own. Going forward, people will be less willing to walk that one-way street of information. (See blog entry below on the age of transparency.)

But really, I'm thinking about something simpler than making every database we use available to the public. That may be a long-term goal in itself, but the last couple of days had me thinking about a smaller-scale use of databases.

My employer debuted a site yesterday called "Your Government," which makes it a snap for people to follow their lawmakers (or anybody else's) and/or keep tabs on specific legislation. Nothing groundbreaking here except the local focus and the interface, which a single programmer/designer in our newsroom created. Today, we published our yearly guide to the valedictorians in all the Portland metro area high schools. I couldn't help but go straight to the online database of the 456 kids to get a sense of what they were doing at some of the schools I care about, and to get a sense of where they'd be going to college. It's easily searchable by any keyword you can dream up. (How many want to be engineers? How many are going to Princeton? How many wrestled in high school? Etc.)

Both pretty simple, right? But also interesting, useful and relatively easy for people to figure out. In addition to writing stories, we're making information available to people that will inform their lives. Nothing wrong with that. And The Oregonian is hardly the only one to have figured it out. Newspapers and other news orgs worldwide are doing similar things. Good for all of them.

Now let's do more. Your Government is a great place to start. What about Your School, Your Commute, Your Neighborhood, Your (fill in the blank)? We have access to a lot of information that our customers might enjoy perusing. In best-case scenarios, the databases add context and color to the stories we already write. And when they don't -- when they're stand-alone databases simply made available to the public -- they can still serve a legitimate purpose for our readers/viewers/customers.

It's possible that we might one day soon have a business model that makes some information free online, while reserving "premium" information for subscribers or visitors who pay one-time use fees. These big, standing databases could easily be part of that premium package. Or not. Experiment with the concept and try it different ways in different places. Wherever we all end up, I'm convinced databases will be an increasingly important part of our news and information packages in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment