Sunday, December 14, 2008

Playing a Numbers Game

click here for a flickr slideshow on CAR

Imagine an innovation that changes the way an entire profession conducts its craft while making it easier and quicker to complete a once tedious task.

For journalists, that technology exists in the form of computer assisted reporting, or CAR. This tool began to take off within the last decade and it refers to the ever growing amount of resources available to reporters via online sources, computer databases, and other electronic documents.

Using methods such as searching online databases, requesting access for government documents, and using maps and other charts to obtain information, reporters now have at their disposal a wealth of organized information and statistics on everything from health inspection reports to the status of prisoners. In short, CAR a bevy of tools for use in the development, research, and reporting of stories, many of which are investigative in nature.

I realized everything was changing,” said Brant Houston, the Knight Chair for Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in response to the first time he was introduced to databases. “The tools that we potentially had as journalists were absolutely revolutionary for our craft.”

As it turned out, databases and other forms of CAR ultimately changed the face of journalism as Houston envisioned it doing. From a sheer standpoint of time spent gathering information, CAR has made formerly painstaking tasks quick and painless. Where looking for real estate or tax records used to take a couple of days to gather, that information can no be acquired in mere minutes thanks to information available through databases and other CAR elements.

Not only have databases cut down on the amount of time it takes to acquire information for a story, but they have also allowed journalists to report on stories that could not have been done before the technology existed. For example, Walter Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter at the Boston Globe, wrote a story about a Pulitzer winner, named Joseph Ellis, who had falsified a story about serving in Vietnam and in the civil rights movement. Robinson was able to uncover this story by using information he acquired through CAR.

"Ten years ago I couldn't have done that story at all,” said Robinson. “If you read that story and look at the various elements within that story, I think you’ll see where you find the intersection between information you can get by using the computer and the mortar I was talking about that sort of connects things.”

The mortar to which Robinson refers is the belief that a database alone is often not enough to base an entire story around, although they are certainly a start. Databases allow reporters to track down different sources, discover different angles, or simply boost the amount of solid evidence for a story’s case. As Robinson put it, think of pieces of data from a database as individual bricks with the actual reporting being used as the mortar that keeps those bricks joined and ties the story together.

The difficult part of that endeavor comes with trying to make sense of the information contained within a database. Once documents are acquired, programs such as Excel allow reporters to input the information and sort it in a way that makes the most sense for a story. Many databases contain thousands of figures, so zeroing in on a particular trend or story can be a difficult task, even for reporters with a great deal of experience.

"I have a database sitting on my desk, and I keep going back to it, but there was nothing that jumped out at me [for a story],” said Mike Beaudet, an investigative reporter at Boston’s Fox affiliate, WFXT. “It’s trial and error to a certain degree.”

A good local example of what can come from acquiring databases and using them at their simplest level is the "Your Town" feature Matt Carroll puts together for the Thursday print edition of the Globe. The feature, which is also archived on the Globe’s website, gives readers a feel for how their community compares with other communities in topics ranging from the number of Dunkin’ Donuts in a town to the number to the number of residents who own cars in towns around Boston by presenting the statistics in graph and data form.

"I could see it being helpful," Northeastern journalism major Pat Quigley said of "Your Town.” "If I stayed in Boston to work after school, this would be something I would use to help me pick a town to live in."

While finding and reporting information has become easier for reporters, it’s worth noting that many public offices and individuals still try many tactics when it comes to keeping some information private. There’s still some red tape to get through (some organizations try to block out names and other pieces of information or even refuse to give up documents), but an experienced reporter generally knows how to cut through that tape and use databases in a way that makes CAR so useful to journalism in this era.

“You’ll still encounter certain agencies that resist giving you information in an electronic form, but you sort of have to push them for it and ask for it,” said Beaudet. “They know media outlets are entitled to it, [and] they give it to you, ultimately, if you push. You just have to be pretty persistent.”

Despite the many benefits of databases and CAR, many journalists refuse to use these tools because they’re thought to be too complex and take up too much time. Houston recalled that as recently as 2000 some editors were telling him that the web was nothing more than a fad that would ultimately pass. When it comes to the Globe, Carroll is one of the few reporters at the newspaper who has an extensive knowledge on the subject, thus making him the man most go to in the newsroom when a question regarding databases arises.

For older journalists (and young ones) who aren’t convinced that learning databases and CAR is worth their time and energy, it’s important to take one thing into consideration: job security.

“[Knowing databases] is definitely an asset in a world where there’s a lot fewer jobs than there were a year ago,” said Carroll. “It makes me a lot more flexible and gives me some importance within the building and within the industry, which is nice.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New and Improved

On Monday, I gave a presentation to my Reinventing the News class on a website that has hopped on the new media trend and improved itself from a bare bones operation to a comprehensive site for all the latest sports news, scores, commentaries, videos, audio clips, and analysis.

That website is, the official website of Boston's most successful sports talk radio station. WEEI is continuing a trend I've noticed among sports radio stations (and news stations) throughout the country. That trend is supplementing its over the air content with online content. Sports Radio 610 in Houston, the radio station I interned for over the summer, is doing the same thing with its website.

The first thing I noticed about was how they've assembled a talented team of columnists and writers for the site- a few of which were lured from notable newspapers in the area. Writers like Michael Felger and Rob Bradford provide excellent commentaries for the site, in addition to writers like Will Leitch (of fame) and Alex Speier.

There are also a multitude of blogs on the website, each one tailored to a specific topic. For example, the baseball winter meetings are currently being blogged by Bradford and Speier, as they give readers up to date information on this marquee off season event for baseball. The site recently added Curt Schilling to its line up of bloggers.

Readers can subscribe to WEEI's RSS feed to get breaking information on the area's teams.

The new also goes beyond written words. After all, it is a radio station, so archives of interviews, commentaries, and important discussions are available for listeners on the site. From a video perspective, visitors can find videos on things such as Celtics post game reports.

If all that isn't enough for you, WEEI has set up a page for each local sports team that contains that team's headlines, statistics, other pertinent information, and WEEI commentaries. These pages basically eliminate the need for anyone to go to or other outlets for team news.

There are also a few other cool features on the site like being able to sign up to get updates sent to your cell phone and the ability to listen to the station via a stream. is certainly a great site for anyone looking for Boston sports news. Anything you would possibly need is right there. With a site like this, some may wonder whether or not a site like the Boston Globe's sports section is necessary, but I think other sites will remain relevant because people always like to get different perspectives when it comes to sports. What's being reported or said at the Globe or another outlet isn't necessarily the same thing being reported or said at

Friday, December 5, 2008

Adam Gaffin's Visit

Back in October, Robin Lubbock of WBUR came to my Reinventing the News Class to discuss new media initiatives within the radio industry. One of the questions that arose from Lubbock and Professor Kennedy had to do with whether or not a station like WBUR could survive with advances like satellite radio and the heavy ratings boost provided by NPR's national content.

In my blog post regarding that visit, I wrote that WBUR would be just fine in the long haul as long as it stuck with it's niche-local coverage. National programming based out of New York or Los Angeles can't provide the same kind of detail and quick response to a story taking place in Boston quite like a station like WBUR can.

The reason I bring this up is because Adam Gaffin has realized that there were always be a demand for good local coverage- something he has illustrated with his blog, Universal Hub. Interestingly enough, Gaffin started the site after he was dissatisfied with the way a major story in his neighborhood was covered.

Universal Hub is a site that aggregates thousands of Boston related blogs and news stories that Gaffin hopes will provide the most comprehensive site for anything Boston.

The great thing about the site is that it provides exactly what Gaffin hopes it will. The site makes sure that every square inch of Boston is covered by some kind of information (you can get news by T stop or neighborhood). The site also does a very good job of sectioning off information, so it isn't hard to find any local blog post regarding topics from crime to the MBTA (a favorite subject of Gaffin's) to the Red Sox.

The thing I really got out of Gaffin's presentation is that he is truly doing this as a service to news consumers from and interested in the city of Boston and the surrounding areas. He has a day job, yet he still maintains this website. Sure he makes money from the site, ($15,000 a year in net profits) but it's not enough to say he's doing it for the money.

I really like Universal Hub, and I'm glad others are taking note. Gaffin mentioned to our class that Channel 7 has recently gotten in touch with him about establishing some kind of partnership. It would be a wise move for WHDH to look into that.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Twitter is a micro blogging platform that allows users to post information online, in addition to leave comments on different "twitter feeds." The service has been around since 2006, but has recently been thrust into more prominence with the situation occurring in Mumbai

Bystanders and witnesses were able to provide first hand information from the scene of the terrorist situation, thus giving readers information before it gets to the press, in many instances. For example, eyewitness accounts, pleads for help, and rumors in the hours and days following the event. 

This is what seems to be the hope for Twitter- a platform that provides readers with quick breaking news. 

In this assignment, I went around the web to find three Tweeter accounts to scrutinize and analyze. And heeeeeeeeeere they are:

I like this because it's a quick way to get the headlines of the day, though nothing more. They also provide links to some of their radio interviews and features, so that's a nice addition. If you're looking for something in depth, this isn't your place, but if you're on the go, the Fox News Radio Twitter may be of interest to you. 

Anyone from Houston knows that up to date information is crucial during hurricane season, and this service from the Houston Chronicle provides just that. The twitter feed was frequently used during Hurricane Ike as a way to inform those involved with the storm. In addition to this, the site links back to stories the newspaper ran and it calls for interactive users to tell their hurricane tales.

Shanbhag is a Harvard Professor who was at the scene in Mumbai and provided updates to his Twitter account as events progressed. I decided to take a look at his so I could see how Twitter works in a time of crisis. Shanbhag did a good job of reporting things such as finding bullet fragments. This was a very good example of how Twitter accounts can help bridge the gap to the actual news reports. 

After looking at Twitter, I think it is a helpful service, though not a perfect service that will forever change the world of journalism. It, as mentioned earlier, can be a great way to bridge the gap from the citizen journalists to the professional journalists, as many Twitter posters are on the scene long before the pros. 

That being said, I think it is too easy for people to make things up on Twitter, and that's why I don't think its the greatest of systems. I would trust credible news organizations on Twitter long before I'd trust a normal person, though Shanbhag would have had a lot of credibility with me since he was posting up to the minute photos of events.

Twitter's neat and it provides a service that isn't perfect. Treat it nothing more than that, and I think you'll get some use out of it.