So the numbers are impressive, but the value of what’s drawing those numbers —from a journalism standpoint—is less obvious. The Tribune’s biggest magnet by far has been its more than three dozen interactive databases, which collectively have drawn three times as many page views as the site’s stories. At a recent international online journalism symposium in Austin, that statistic wowed new-media experts as validation that readers prefer data-driven projects to traditional journalism narratives. The databases, developed primarily by Matt Stiles and software engineer Niran Babalola, allow users to search public employees’ and teachers’ salaries, browse campaign contributions, peruse state-prison inmates’ offenses and sentences, and even see how many citations Texas red-light cameras have captured, complete with a Google Maps street view of each intersection. The Tribune publishes or updates at least one database per week, and readers e-mail these database links to each other or share them on Facebook, scouring their neighborhood’s school rankings or their state rep’s spending habits. Through May, the databases had generated more than 2.3 million page views since the site’s launch.
The databases have been an unexpected hit, supplying readers with access to more than a million public records they otherwise may not have known how to find. They’ve been so popular, in fact, that the site’s biggest initial splash has been not as a fountain of authoritative reporting and analysis, but as a resource for readers to do their own exploring. While that fact may be humbling for reporters, it’s part of a “data-as-journalism” mentality that has become the Tribune’s most far-reaching calling card. “Publishing data is news,” Stiles and Babalola wrote in a May 31 recap of the Tribune’s data efforts. “It aligns with our strategy of adding knowledge and context to traditional reporting, and it helps you and us hold public officials accountable.”
The Tribune’s idealistic stance toward data has the whiff of a familiar claim: if we give the public raw information, people will take the initiative to make sense of it and put it in its proper context. In effect, they will do what journalists have historically done for them. But the scale on which this in fact happens is uncertain, and the inherent journalistic value of raw data remains unclear.
Still, the Tribune clearly is on to something. An April Pew Research Center report found 40 percent of adult Web users have sought out raw data about government spending. In an increasingly clickable, on-demand world, it’s almost inevitable that more readers will prefer searchable databases as an alternative to the media’s traditional gatekeeping role. I think these databases, properly conceived, can boost government transparency and help create a better-informed public. But until a citizen watchdog or gadfly breaks news with a Texas Tribune database—spotting overspending or exposing a conflict of interest—the Tribune remains open to criticism that the information is mainly “water-cooler gossip,” as one irate reader suggested in April.
For instance, the site’s government salary database—by far its most popular data application—has sparked some strong reactions and nasty office politics. State hiring managers are irritated that employees now compare salaries with colleagues. Workers are alarmed to see their salaries pop up when they Google themselves. One state employee’s wife called Smith to complain that she considers the database not only a violation of privacy but “rape.” Smith explains it this way: “A lady is sitting in her cube at a state agency, mad that the woman in the next cube drank the milk in the refrigerator in the break room. And she’s on this site realizing that the woman in the next cube makes $100 a week more than she does. She gets pissed off and is refreshing the database over and over.” It’s provocative and good for the Tribune’s traffic. But is it a public service? The answer may depend on whether your salary is listed.
Meet the Press, Texas-style