I’m a big fan of data. My first newspaper job involved working with Paradox and Q&A for a project that analyzed municipal services in New York City. And a I applaud newspapers for attempting to empower their readers by providing them with a variety of government data. But I really wish that before they waded into the deep end of the pool that they master the basics and provide the types of information readers may need in their daily lives.
As a reader, it is great that I can go online and learn that the mayor of my town had an estimated 2006 salary of $7,000 or that an elementary school music teacher can evidently make $100,183. But the same newspaper site that can tell me all that, can’t tell me where the mayor’s office is, how to contact him or how to join the local Parent-Teacher Association (in case I wanted to find out more about that teacher’s salary).
Newspapers want people to use their sites and to keep returning to them. They discuss ways to make them “sticky,” more attractive and more fun. But I think in failing to provide readers and site visitors with this basic level of information they’re missing out on an obvious opportunity. And even worse, this forces readers to leave these sites, when more then likely they’d be content to stay.
OK, so what is this basic level of data that I am talking about? Well, I think it’s as simple as providing the who, what, where and when. And then you can layer on the additional pieces. For example tell me:
- the name of my mayor
- how long his/her term is?
- their biography and/or resume
- where is their office
- their phone/fax number
- their email address
- their web address
- How to schedule an appointment with them? For example, are they available before council meetings?
From that basic information, you can then provide links to the mayor’s salary/pension information, council meeting agendas and resolutions, meeting minutes, speeches as well as stories, photo galleries and videos that they have appeared in on your site. And you don’t have to stop with politicians and politics, this approach can be applied to every aspect of your communities, including how to libraries and even building departments — think of all the ways people interact in your coverage area. It is almost local search for civic life or Yellow Pages on steroids.
The benefits of this type of approach are multi-fold – you can bring some of that data you have already organized out of its data ghetto; you make your site the single, definitive source for local news AND information; and you can aggregate all the information that your reporters should already have and is likely scattered throughout your newsroom.
I think you’ll find that this approach will score more points with readers and help increase traffic to your site. You don’t have to do it all at once, start small, pick a few communities and/or organizations and go from there. And if you have another way of approach this, I’d love to hear about it.