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July 22, 2014

SacBee Shows That “Data” Counts

Important Details:  On last Friday, the budget-embattled State of California government began “Furlough Fridays,” telling some state workers to stay home to save the state money. In preparation, the Sacramento Bee readied its interactive mapped database, knowing that its audience would be online and hitting it in the early morning hours.

The furlough database joined 30 other databases that the SacBee.com has put online over the past year. Those 30 databases, found in its Investigation Center (and through a top tab on its home page), now generate about 7% of the site’s traffic, about 14 million page views so far.

The leading database has been the State Employee Database which catalogs salaries of state employees, and has generated 11 million of those page views. Other databases focus on crime and courts, consumer advocacy, schools and colleges, health and medicine and real estate and development.

SacBee.com leverages the database-building platform of Caspio (through an agreement with the Bee’s parent company, McClatchy) to build about 80% of the databases, says Phillip Reese, a reporter experienced in computer-assisted investigation.  He says if the data is fairly clean, databases can be put online with as little as an hour’s work.  Caspio also works with several dozen other media and enterprise customers to create similar content.

The Investigations page also makes good use of Google mapping, as relevant.

In addition, the page also offers tips for readers on doing their inquiries. “I wanted the page to be more than a list of databases,” says Amy Pyle, Projects and Investigations Editor at the paper, who directs the initiative.

Implications:  Outsell believes that SacBee’s harnessing of data is a good model for news sites. It combines good use of third-party functionality with a strong, local sense of what readers want. Importantly, it is leveraging OPC — Other People’s Content. While a few of its databases have been developed by its own reporting staff, most are based on existing and publicly available — but not easily accessible — information. Its one-year initiative is impressive.

That said, the Investigave Center initiative also shows the difficulty that news sites often have in connecting the dots. Context and relationship is what drives the web business, and it is insufficiently in evidence with this initiative.

For instance, we see mainly run-of-site ads adjacent to the databases. On the “See which high schools send the most students to college” page, we see ads for used cars and a casino, in addition to small ads for a local college. Better targeting of audience is key and will produce higher ad rates. Once better ad targeting is in place, good SEO and SEM makes sense; the initiative can make SacBee.com the go-to place for Sacramento-area and State of California information.

In addition, we should see better links between the evolving databases and relevant blogs and stories; cross-linking will juice traffic. There’s a dance to be learned here, among stories, blog posts, databases and multimedia.

For news publishers everywhere, providing key community data and information is one lower-cost initiative worth undertaking, even in time of cutbacks. We’ve written about EveryBlock (see Insights 12 March 2008, Block by Block, Everyblock Lowers the Bar on Local) the Knight Foundation-funded initiative to create a platform and tools to better collect and present community data. Combine savvy local editors, a Caspio-like platform and the EveryBlock push, and we see the building blocks for an ambitious new business line. For news publishers, though, it must be seized before others get to it first.