Columbia Tribune joins digital news project

Test initiative focuses on ‘hyper-local’ data.

Published June 17, 2010 at 12:43 p.m.
Updated June 17, 2010 at 12:49 p.m.

The Tribune has been chosen as one of two newspapers in a pilot program to develop software that will deliver “hyper-local” news.

The John S. and James. L. Knight Foundation announced today a grant award of $458,625 to be shared by the Tribune, the Boston Globe and New York not-for-profit software company OpenPlans.

The funds will be used for three related projects that aim to make it easier for news organizations to present local data by neighborhood — even block by block — using web-based technology. The grant money includes $235,000 for OpenPlans, $90,500 for the Tribune and $133,125 for the Globe.

The project, called OpenBlock, stems from a previous Knight-funded project,, developed in 2008. EveryBlock is a website offering geographically relevant news feeds on public records, articles, blogs and photographs for 16 cities in the United States. Users can browse data for a specific area of their city or neighborhood.

“The digital age is turning journalism upside down and inside out,” said Eric Newton, vice president of journalism for the Knight Foundation. Civic data “is the clay from which the bricks of news are made, and software that media organizations everywhere can use to display it is the goal of the OpenBlock initiative.”

OpenBlock will use open source code, meaning anyone can download, install and customize it. EveryBlock comes as is, not allowing users to cater it to their needs.

Nick Grossman, OpenPlans director of civic works, said one reason the Tribune and the Globe are involved with the pilot project is “to make sure the tool is relevant and can be used in both large and small contexts.”

The project will begin in July, Grossman said. OpenPlans programmers will work with staff at each newspaper to install the program and, over about nine months, develop new features.

Andy Waters, Tribune vice president for interactive media, said he has been trying to figure out how to get public data online for years. When the software for EveryBlock was released last summer, he said the coding was “too huge and complex” to use.

Waters expressed his concerns to the president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, Alberto Ibargüen, when Ibargüen visited Stephens College in October. That got the ball rolling on the Tribune’s grant applications.

Waters said when complete, the OpenBlock software will be incorporated into the Tribune’s website to provide more personal news delivery. “Now we will be able to put that raw data online for people to see in a user-friendly format,” he said.

Grossman said OpenPlans will incorporate software innovations from the pilot into one core package, which it will offer free to all news organizations.

Although the software will compile and deliver data, Grossman said he doesn’t see it as being in competition with traditional newspapers.

“I believe that to make meaning out of that data, journalists will really play an important role,” he said. “I’m excited to see how news organizations can integrate automated, data-driven news into websites, then look at it, interpret it and make a deeper meaning for their readers.”

Dianne Lynch, the president of Stephens College, is a member of the Journalism Advisory Council for the Knight Foundation. “This program is what we call a game changer,” she said. “It will replace the stenographic function of the reporter” and open up their time “to do more meaningful work, more analysis of the data.”

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