How the Web can help the WaPo (and other papers) write a new chapter about the world of books

Book lovers mourned, some angrily, the Washington Post’s decision to kill off its free-standing Book World, which, until Feb. 22, was part of the paper’s Sunday print package. But the good news was the Post’s promise that the estimable literary section would stay alive online. “We intend to develop a strong, easy-to-navigate, well indexed Book World site,” new Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli (who wielded the ax) wrote in a response to the 122 Book World contributors who protested the decision.

But just how “strong” will Book World be online?

When the Los Angeles Times eliminated its free-standing print Sunday Book Review in 2008 as part of its nonstop cost-cutting, the section was reincarnated online as Books in the Living section of the Times website. In addition to reviews, book-sale reports and a literary calendar, Books features a blog called Jacket Copy. But the blog, with its multiple authors, lacks personality. Overall, the online Books isn’t capitalizing on the strengths of the Web – particularly community building – and it doesn’t seem to have preserved the critical authority that was a hallmark of the print Book Review. Browsing through the skimpy site, you get the feeling it’s produced on a shoestring. There is no Steve Wasserman or Digby Diehl – past editors of the Book Review – setting and executing high standards.

The Washington Post is not going through the same financial duress as the LA Times, which is a helpless appendage of the fast-sinking and bankrupt Tribune Co. But the migration from print to online life, whatever the circumstances, is always tricky.

The print Book World was distinguished by both its gravitas and sprightliness. Holding it in your hands was like eavesdropping at a literary salon through which passed the likes of Morris Dickstein, Dahlia Lithwick, Laura Miller and George Packer, not to mention section regulars like critic Jonathan Yardley and essayist Michael Dirda, both Pulitzer prize winners. The only thing missing was the well-stocked bar.

Happily, Yardley and Dirda will continue to appear in the online Book World. Strangely, though, the lustrous brand name “Book World” seems to have been dropped. The departmental logo is now just “Books.”

It’s too soon to make sweeping judgments about the online Book World (or Books), especially whether it will meet the same fate as the online version of the LA Times’ Book Review. But it is dismaying to see how dull the newly unveiled site is, even in its pupae form. Yardley and Dirda are there, thank goodness, but they’re barely promoted in 8-point type.

The blog Short Stack, created back in 2007, is now daily, but, like the similar LA Times blog, has multiple authors, which impedes it from developing a personality to which readers can relate and react. The blog also seems to be limited to one entry per day. That’s way too leisurely to grab users’ attention and get them to join in what is now basically a one-way conversation. Why not at least add a paragraph or two at the end that wraps up always plentiful literary and publishing news and gossip?

The Post – and the LA Times – could learn some lessons about creating an online book section from the Guardian in the UK. Its site is big and splashy, but has enough gravitas to do a “Top 10” on books about Rome that includes Robert Graves’ “I Claudius.” The entire section draws loads of comments from users. (You have to wonder if some other newspapers that have eliminated or cut back on book coverage couldn’t learn from the Guardian too.)

For all their literary excellence, the print Book World and the Times’ Book Review weren’t suited for reader participation (beyond rationed letters to the editor). The medium was truly the message – a one-way message.

Kassia Krozser, founder and editor of the lively blog (“dissecting the book industry with love and skepticism”), said in a discussion on PBS’ News Hour last July: “What we’re getting online is, people are excited about books. They want to talk about books. And that’s really incredible….”

And how., one of the earliest reader sites, claims 500,000 users. It recently sold a 40 percent stake to AbeBooks,com, which specializes in selling used, rare and out-of-print books

Fast-growing last year completed funding whose investors included Amazon, the champion online bookseller.

Book World shouldn’t mimic sites like Librarything or Shelfari. But it now has a potential audience of 10 million unique visitors – more than 10 times the potential readership it had in the Post’s Sunday print edition.

What an exciting new chapter this could be in Book World’s life – if only the publishing and editorial bosses at the Post inspire it to be written.

Building the data desk: lessons from the L.A. Times

In early 2007, when the Los Angeles Times launched its Homicide Report blog — an effort to chronicle every homicide in Los Angeles County — it was clear that there were important geographic and demographic dimensions to the information that a blog format wouldn’t fully capture. What we needed was a map that would let users focus on areas of interest to them, with filters that would enable them to “play” with the data and explore trends and patterns for themselves. Problem was, the web staff (of which I was a part) lacked the tools and the expertise to build such a thing, so the blog launched without a map. (Sound familar?)

It took several months to secure the tech resources and a couple more months to create wireframes and spec out requirements for what would become the Homicide Map, with the help of a couple of talented developers and a project manager on part-time loan from the website’s IT department. We were fortunate, of course: We actually had access to this kind of expertise, and since then we’ve hired a couple of dedicated editorial developers. I’m aware that others might not have it so good.

Last week, Robert Niles argued that news organizations should be in the business of creating “killer apps”. Put another way, there is a need to develop tools that hew to the content rather than the other way around. But creating the functionality Robert describes takes a closer connection between news thinking and tech thinking than is possible within news organizations’ traditional structures and skill sets.

In this post, I’ll try to squeeze some wisdom out of the lessons we learned in the process of assembling the Times’ Data Desk, a cross-functional team of journalists responsible for collecting, analyzing and presenting data online and in print. (Note: I left the Times earlier this month to work on some independent projects. I am writing this piece with the blessing of my former bosses there.)

Here, then, are 10 pieces of advice for those of you building or looking to build a data team in your newsroom:

  1. Find the believers: You’ll likely discover enthusiasts and experts in places you didn’t expect. In our case, teaming up with the Times’ computer-assisted reporting staff, led by Doug Smith, was a no-brainer. Doug was publishing data to the web before the website had anybody devoted to interactive projects. But besides Doug’s group, we found eager partners on the paper’s graphics staff, where, for example, GIS expert Tom Lauder had already been playing with Flash and web-based mapping tools for a while. A number of reporters were collecting data for their stories and wondering what else could be done with it. We also found people on the tech side with a good news sense who intuitively understood what we were trying to do.
  2. Get buy-in from above: For small projects, you might be able to collaborate informally with your fellow believers, but for big initiatives, you need the commitment of top editors who control the newsroom departments whose resources you’ll draw on. At the Times, a series of meetings among senior editors to chart a strategic vision for the paper gave us an opportunity to float the data desk idea. This led to plans to devote some reporting resources to gathering data and to move members of the data team into a shared space near the editorial library (see #8).
  3. Set some priorities: Your group may come from a variety of departments, but if their priorities are in alignment, disparate reporting structures might not be such a big issue. We engaged in “priority alignment” by inviting stakeholders from all the relevant departments (and their bosses) to a series of meetings with the goal of drafting a data strategy memo and setting some project priorities. (We arrived at these projects democratically by taping a big list on the wall and letting people vote by checkmark; ideas with the most checks made the cut.) Priorities will change, of course, but having some concrete goals to guide you will help.
  4. Go off the reservation: No matter how good your IT department is, their priorities are unlikely to be in sync with yours. They’re thinking big-picture product roadmaps with lots of moving pieces. Good luck fitting your database of dog names (oh yes, we did one of those) into their pipeline. Early on, database producer Ben Welsh set up a Django box at, where many of the Times’ interactive projects live. There are other great solutions besides Django, including Ruby on Rails (the framework that powers the Times’ articles and topics pages and many of the great data projects produced by The New York Times) and PHP (an inline scripting language so simple even I managed to learn it). Some people (including the L.A. Times, occasionally) are using Caspio to create and host data apps, sans programming. I am not a fan, for reasons Derek Willis sums up much better than I could, but if you have no other options, it’s better than sitting on your hands.
  5. Templatize: Don’t build it unless you can reuse it. The goal of all this is to be able to roll out projects rapidly (see #6), so you need templates, code snippets, Flash components, widgets, etc., that you can get at, customize and turn around quickly. Interactive graphics producer Sean Connelley was able to use the same county-level California map umpteen times as the basis for various election visualizations in Flash.
  6. Do breaking news: Your priority list may be full of long-term projects like school profiles and test scores, but often it’s the quick-turnaround stuff that has the biggest immediate effect. This is where a close relationship with your newsgathering staff is crucial. At the Times, assistant metro editor Megan Garvey has been overseeing the metro staff’s contributions to data projects for a few months now. When a Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight train on Sept. 12, Megan began mobilizing reporters to collect key information on the victims while Ben adapted an earlier Django project (templatizing in action!) to create a database of fatalities, complete with reader comments. Metro staffers updated the database via Django’s easy-to-use admin interface. (We’ve also used Google Spreadsheets for drama-free collaborative data entry.) … Update 11/29/2008: I was remiss in not pointing out Ben’s earlier post on this topic.
  7. Develop new skills: Disclaimer: I know neither Django nor Flash, so I’m kind of a hypocrite here. I’m a lucky hypocrite, though, because I got to work with guys who dream in ActionScript and Python. If you don’t have access to a Sean or a Ben — and I realize few newsrooms have the budget to hire tech gurus right now — then train and nurture your enthusiasts. IRE runs occasional Django boot camps, and there are a number of good online tutorials, including Jeff Croft’s explanation of Django for non-programmers. Here’s a nice primer on data visualization with Flash.
  8. Cohabitate (but marriage is optional): This may be less of an issue in smaller newsrooms, but in large organizations, collaboration can suffer when teams are split among several floors (or cities). The constituent parts of the Times’ Data Desk — print and web graphics, the computer-assisted reporting team and the interactive projects team — have only been in the same place for a couple months, but the benefits to innovation and efficiency are already clear. For one thing, being in brainstorming distance of all the people you might want to bounce ideas off of is ideal, especially in breaking news situations. Also, once we had everybody in the same place, our onetime goal of unifying the reporting structure became less important. The interactive folks still report to managing editor Daniel Gaines, and the computer-assisted reporting people continue to report to metro editor David Lauter. The graphics folks still report to their respective bosses. Yes, there are the occasional communication breakdowns and mixed messages. But there is broad agreement on the major priorities and regular conversation on needs and goals.
  9. Integrate: Don’t let your projects dangle out there with a big ugly search box as their only point of entry. Weave them into the fabric of your site. We were inspired by the efforts of a number of newspapers — in particular the Indianapolis Star and its Gannett siblings — to make data projects a central goal of their newsgathering operations. But we wanted to do more than publish data for data’s sake. We wanted it to have context and depth, and we didn’t want to relegate data projects to a “Data Central“-type page, something Matt Waite (of Politifact fame) memorably dubbed the “data ghetto.” (I would link to Waite’s thoughtful post, but his site unfortunately reports that it “took a dirt nap recently.” Update: It’s back, and here’s the post.) I should note that the Times recently did fashion a data projects index of its own, but only as a secondary way in. The most important routes into data projects are still through related Times content and search engines.
  10. Give back: Understand that database and visualization projects demand substantial resources at a time when they’re in very short supply. Not everyone in your newsroom will see the benefit. Make clear the value your work brings to the organization by looking for ways to pipe the best parts (interesting slices of data, say, or novel visualizations) into your print or broadcast product. For example, some of the election visualizations the data team produced were adapted for print use, and another was used on the air by a partner TV station.

When I shared this post with Meredith Artley,’s executive editor and my former boss, she pointed to the formation about a year ago of the interactive projects team within the web staff (Ben, Sean and me; Meredith dubbed us the “cool kids,” a name that stuck):

“For me, the big step was creating the cool kids team — actually forming a unit with a mandate to experiment and collaborate with everyone in the building with the sole intention of creating innovative, interactive projects.”

And maybe that should have been my first piece of advice: Before you can build a data team, you need one or more techie-journalists dedicated full-time to executing online the great ideas they’ll dream up.

What else did I miss? If you’ve been through this process (or are going through it, or are about to), I hope you’ll take a minute to share your insights.

L.A. Times launches sharable electoral vote map

Which campaign will get to 270 in November, and how will they do it? The L.A. Times has built an interactive map that allows readers to create and test their own electoral vote scenarios, and then embed those scenarios in their own sites.

Sample electoral vote scenario: (not my prediction; just an uneducated guess for demonstration purposes only)

This is the creation of Sean Connelley, our Flash guru, based on our 2004 electoral vote tracker. The cool addition this time around is the sharing functionality.

We’re hoping to improve on this as the campaign heats up, perhaps adding demographic info and data on past elections by state. Would love to hear suggestions.