Photo credit: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg
As a young reporter I went each week to the police station to copy the crime log. If there were patterns of burglaries or violent crimes, I did full stories. But the crime log itself was news. I carefully typed each item, no matter how small, on my manual typewriter. At 2:30 a.m. Thursday, a naked man was seen walking down Miller Avenue… The crime log was a “standing feature” in the weekly Mill Valley Record, as they are to this day in many American newspapers.
The log was public information. Police could keep investigations confidential, but the crimes themselves were public record. In the digital age, that kind of data can be released directly to everyone on the World Wide Web. Through our Tech for Engagement initiative, in fact, Knight Foundation supports governments and others that want to better inform and engage communities.
Many journalists aren’t paying attention to how governments are opening up data. Part of that is cultural. Governments do keep secrets. As the amount of information grows, so do the secrets. Good journalists, operating ethically, try to reveal the secrets that should be public. We often find ourselves, with the help of organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the National Freedom of Information Coalition, suing the government to force it to obey its own open records laws. In addition, news organizations and state freedom of information groups tenaciously demand better open government laws.
Journalists see so many efforts to hide public information that we start to think everyone in government is a scoundrel. That’s just not so. Governments are becoming big digital age publishers. Today the city of Mill Valley publishes far more civic information than its long-gone weekly newspaper ever could. Rather than slamming it as “not good enough,” or ignoring it, journalists should figure out how to become experts on emerging forms of public data. We should encourage and assist government when it does the right thing. Strong flows of data are the beginning of good journalism, and of public engagement that solves problems.
That brings us to another reason journalists don’t pay attention to data. It’s technical and we are word people. Unfortunately, a lot of us can’t pass this basic math test. Computer-assisted reporting was seen for too long as a special skill taught only by Investigative Reporters and Editors. But now all reporting is computer-assisted reporting. Newsies that embrace data, from the Texas Tribune to ProPublica to Washington Post, find rich returns in readership.
If you’re a journalist, here are some things about information flows I bet you didn’t know: